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Monday, 1 July 2013

Mean genes - part 1

“It’s harnessing nerd power to create television content!” said the guy at the BBC.

Inward sigh of relief. At last, I thought. Pitching anything to the BBC can involve so many meetings you feel like you’re trapped in the afterlife arrivals hall from A Matter of Life and Death. That’s what the first BBC exec I encountered had told me: “You’ll go to a lot of meetings.” He said it like his spirit was broken. More than a dozen meetings later, I was getting to know how he felt. I’d tried explaining this particular concept (Conquerors, by the way – be patient, we’re coming to it) two or three times to an assistant producer. But this new guy was the Big Swinger, just back from his hols with a tan and a breezy attitude, and he got it right out of the gate.

“This is so refreshing,” I may have said. At which point the soundtrack would have carried a portentous note, the kind of musical sting Hans Zimmer loves to write.

Conquerors was the main reason I’d drifted across from games into television. I had the idea originally about five years earlier, while working at Eidos on Warrior Kings. After reading Richard Dawkins’s book Climbing Mount Improbable, I told Ian Livingstone my idea: “You create a stable of gladiatorial monsters. You have to breed, feed and train them, then you pick teams to go up against other players’ teams. What we’ll do, we’ll put the monster creation part free on all Eidos game disks – ”

Ah, you spotted the blunder. It was 1996 and I said “free”. Short of matching wits with a Sicilian, what could be worse?

As I thought about Conquerors, I realized it was more than a game. See, in order to render the battles nicely (quite an issue on mid-nineties PCs) I planned it that you wouldn’t control your team online. The training part was like a regular hands-on game, but once you herded your team off to fight some monsters from Argentina you just had to sit back and wait – and hope they’d learned the tactical lessons you’d taught them. Yes, they only had simple AI and would sometimes do some dumb things, but so would the other guy’s monsters.

Then it struck me. You didn’t have to have a monster in the fight to enjoy this game. It was also a spectator sport. And, because the battles were run on our servers and rendered out in rich 3D, we could edit that into broadcast-quality TV minutes.

It had to be teams, of course. If you pitted single monsters against each other it just became virtual Robot Wars. The qualities required for victory would then become trivial. Kind of like modern heavyweight boxing. The tactical element is needed because physical attributes plus behaviour is what makes for interesting outcomes.

I don’t think I ever got around to explaining that part. If you’re familiar with BBC pitching, you’ll know that the pattern is, first, those endless meetings I mentioned, the long hell of trying to break through indifference, incomprehension and bureaucracy. Then the moment it catches – the guy in the room who gets it, who likes it, who asks you to send over all the details of design, development and costs.

And it's about this time they lose your phone number...

Oh well, Conquerors is still there waiting. Not only could I do it better now, I could bypass the broadcasters and games publishers and BBC Worldwide and just take the whole thing to market via the App Store.

Tomorrow we’ll take a look at the design document. It’s over fifteen years old, remember, so I’d make some changes if I did it now. Still looks pretty innovative, though, if I do say so myself.


  1. So basically... Pokemon TV

  2. Still "pokemon" sounds better than "virtual badger baiting", or "fantasy dog fighting"(TM). Sounds a lot like someone went through your concept when CBBC created Bamzooki - although they swapped out violence for competitive sport and teams of creatures for DIY low-polygon cgi critters. Looking forward to seeing the design notes.

    1. "...a lot like someone went through your concept when CBBC created Bamzooki." The BBC, steal a freelance creator's ideas? Surely that never happens?