Below is a guest opinion article I wrote for C21 FutureMedia, released in print at MIPTV and online just now.
GAMES FOR TV: While all the talk may currently be about the ‘gamification’ of television, Ex Machina founder and CEO Jeroen Elfferich argues that the entertainment industry needs to think along rather different lines.
I get home from work, looking forward to spending the evening on the couch. I’ve always enjoyed the gameshow that’s on, so now they’ve released a new series I can play along with, it’s even better. Quite a few of my friends will be joining too. I’ll be checking in with them online. The show’s gameplay is simple enough that even my sister has gotten herself a new device to try to beat me. At 20.00, the show starts – a familiar tune, the host comes on stage and soon it’s time for the first question. The main contestant is trying to hang in there, facing a ‘mob’ of 100 opponents in the studio, and a ‘crowd’ of 100,000 more playing along from home. Will he take away the big prize, or will the mob beat him?
Sounds like a very 2012 idea, right? Take an established TV gameshow, add a big second-screen play-along experience. Except this isn’t broadcast on TV, it doesn’t have a second screen and the year is 2009. It’s a video game unlike anything before: Microsoft’s 1 vs 100 for Xbox Live.
1 vs 100 on Xbox Live didn’t just use its TV heritage to help players understand its game mechanics. Much more than any previous TV show-based digital game it embraced several TV principles and included them in its core design. You couldn’t play whenever you fancied; it was scheduled as a once-per-week, fully interactive episode and marketed as such. It was presented by a live host, represented by an avatar, as were all contestants. The ‘level’ looked like a TV studio. It was based on a format created and licensed by Endemol. Localised versions for several markets were created. Editorial teams made sure each episode had fresh, balanced content.
The game was released in the US, UK, Germany and France. It ran for two seasons, was played by millions of people and received a place in the Guinness Book of Records for ‘most contestants in a single gameshow ever’: 114,000.
Now I must admit I get a bit misty-eyed when this subject is brought up. At Ex Machina, we developed part of the back-end of the game and were fortunate enough to be working with the super-smart people at Microsoft Xbox that created the title. I truly thought that large-scale interactive entertainment like this would take the world by storm. And then Microsoft cancelled the title after its second season, much to the disappointment of many Xbox gamers and their families. To date, no other videogame has come close to this kind of experience.
Something else happened though. People started buying touchscreen devices en masse, and it’s become socially acceptable to use them in living rooms. This has led to an enormous surge in media multi-tasking, or ‘second screen’ as it’s usually called.
The first wave of second screen can be defined as enriching TV shows with a second-screen experience. TV leads, online follows. TV the first screen, online the second – the companion app. And in quite a few cases (more than I would deem healthy) ‘gamification’ is sprinkled on these second-screen experiences – points, badges, levelling up. It may jazz up the mundane act of checking in on a show or recognising an ad, but it doesn’t a game make.
Few people realise that prior to radio and TV, playing games was the number-one pastime. Broadcast media turned us into passive media consumers. So let’s consider the whole gamification thing a rediscovery of something we already knew, and never utter that horrible word again.
Fortunately there’s a new wave of interactive entertainment coming. We’re starting to see content that is designed from the ground up for multi-screen consumption and interaction. No more first- or second-screen distinction; it’s all blending together.
But we’ve only started to scratch the surface. I expect to see fresh online concepts that reach new heights when TV mechanics are applied to them. If sufficient people participate and generate enough relevant data that can, in turn, become information that can be aggregated, packaged attractively and presented on TV. Online first, TV second – a TV show as the companion experience to an online game. The ultimate media feedback loop.
1 vs 100 on Xbox Live gives us good pointers for this: artificial scarcity, episodic content, mass participation in an event – as much ‘appointment TV’ as it is a gigantic multiplayer game session. If you dislike the term gamification, brace yourself for an even more offensive one: TVification – coming to a social media conference near you soon.