Battle for your pockets

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It’s the mobile phone’s turn to have a technological growth-spurt. Cameras, sat-navs, web browsers – you can even call and text your friends if you have time. But perhaps most intriguing are the developments in gaming: it’s been a while since countless millions sat huddled over Snake on their Nokia 5110s. Could this ultra-personal, omnipresent device become games developers’ Holy Grail?

“Niche?” – Scott Foe, who heads up Nokia Game Publishing’s production offices in San Francisco, is incredulous at my suggestion that the mobile games market is still small. “It is without argument now that mobile devices are personal computers – the most personal computers available, and they’re available everywhere.”

Scott’s ten-year trail though the handheld games industry has included massively multiplayer N-Gage title Pocket Kingdom: Own The World during his stint at Sega, and Nokia’s recent cross-platform hit Reset Generation. “The battle for the living room was nothing compared to the coming war for the pocket,” is his rousing cry, and such a cracking way to kick off a feature that we raided it for the title too.

So without further ado, what is it that makes that multi-talented device that we can no longer live without so unique in the gaming space? Could the presence of features like a camera, touch-screen, microphone, GPS, accelerometer (the thing that knows when you tilt your phone), web access and all your social contacts in one place make for an entirely different gaming experience, that has yet to be tapped fully?

“Great question: I don’t think anybody’s asked me that before,” muses Scott. “I think it comes down to the fact that mobile phones are more personal than any other computing device. Having location-based services and so on is nice, but that personal nature makes mobile gaming special. I for one can’t wait to see games take full advantage of that.”

From a development point of view, three undisputed heavyweights dominate the mobile games market: EA Mobile, Glu and Gameloft. In a relatively fledgling market that’s still fighting for consumer attention, this is largely down to their wealth of development and marketing resources, links to big brands and franchises, and strong relationships with distribution networks.

But bridging the gap is a challenge even for the big guns. “We have tons of games that would be bought and enjoyed by many, many more people if only they knew how to get them,” argues Chris Gibbs, who heads up EA Mobile’s European Studios. “Discovery is still the biggest problem: how you find out that you can play games on your device, how you find the games that suit you, and how you actually buy them.”

But as Scott has already emphasised, mobiles are literally everywhere: it’s like an ocean of potential consumers just out of reach. And with the mobile industry still taking vast technological leaps at the rate the Internet was a decade ago, it’s surely only a matter of time before mindsets change.

“I always have my phone, wallet and keys in my pocket,” reflects Chris White, Glu’s Head of Studios for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, echoing that pocket-patting ritual familiar to many men as they tick off their mental checklist before leaving the house. “But I don’t necessarily carry my DS everywhere I go. There’s a definite market for mobile games,” he concludes, fortunately for his platform-exclusive employers.

So what will spark the revolution that propels these portable treats into the mainstream? According to Patrick Mork, Marketing Director at Glu, the release of a specific phenomenon like the iPhone has the potential to galvanise the entire developing community.

“The iPhone has revolutionised content discovery, purchase and usage,” he argues. “By linking it to iTunes, Apple have created a platform that makes content discovery and purchase easy. They provide content directly to consumers in a way that completely bypasses mobile operators.”

“That release really shook things up,” agrees Howard Tomlinson, Director of Game Development at Astraware, a considerably smaller outfit than Glu. Based in Keele University’s Science Park, they’re perhaps best known for adapting PopCap’s classic puzzler Bejewelled to a Smartphone audience – a market-savvy move that scooped the developer a Golden Joystick Award in 2008.

“iPhone opened up access to developers and publishers who’ve struggled to reach customers directly,” Howard goes on. “I don’t see either devices or individual games making the biggest difference to the industry, but rather the improved and slicker ways for users to browse and receive the content, and to pay for it seamlessly.”

Apple’s Application Store is matched for impact only by Nokia’s new N-Gage platform, which has evolved from the much-maligned piece of taco-shaped hardware of the same name – which targeted the handheld games market, but was unceremoniously blown out of hostile waters by the Game Boy Advance, and later the PSP and DS – into an innovative handset-agnostic distribution system.

“The N-Gage platform is a good step in the right direction,” argues EA’s Chris Gibbs. “Everyone knows how to use the iPhone Store. It’s so simple: browse, click and buy. N-Gage allows you to do this across all handsets, which should prompt a significant increase in mobile gaming.”

The cautionary tale of the original N-Gage device also holds a valuable lesson. Mobile phones challenging dedicated gaming devices head-on may not be the answer – partly because of the functional limitations, but mostly because of the way people choose to play on them.

“Mobile games are aimed at filling the ‘downtime’ in people’s lives, especially when they’re out and about,” asserts Chris, cementing an obvious difference with console games, which vie for people’s attention during their valuable leisure time, rather than while they’re otherwise at a loss for something to do with their hands. “This forces game design in a unique direction where consoles and other traditional platforms don’t usually go.”

“Great mobile games are the ones that make the most out of the limitations, not the ones that are made as compromises because there’s not enough computing power,” agrees Jef Valadares, Creative Director of EA Mobile. “But I do believe that mobile is destined to play a more relevant role in the lives of hardcore gamers, by offering ways to move their console game forward while away from their living room. The real trick will be linking the console and the mobile so they are extensions of each other.”

Howard agrees, predicting that mobiles could transcend their status as yet another self-contained platform. “You can take different-sized windows on your play experience,” he proposes. “For a football game, you could play on your console, manage your team on your PC and play fantasy league on your mobile, receiving updates as you go. All part of the same game world, but different views suited to the device you’re using at the time.”

Creative solutions are often born from tight constraints that force lateral thinking, and this is certainly true in the mobile space. “It’s a misconception that technical constraints get in the way of innovation: nine times out of ten the reverse is true,” confirms Chris Gibbs. “Handset differences have pushed developers into making the most of single button presses, display-agnostic interfaces and communication without reliance on audio.”

“High-end features like GPS, motion-sensors and cameras inspire cool game ideas that aren’t yet commercially viable, having a small user-base of suitable phones,” he goes on, but adds that “this is a rapidly moving target, and every six months using these features in gaming gets closer to reality.”

Howard at Astraware is quick to point out that if a developer feels restricted by the mobile platform, they’re probably trying to cram too much in at the expense of the user experience. “Many popular franchises have been let down by this, but then anyone buying from the title alone won’t know what to expect,” he reasons. “The challenge isn’t how much you can load in, but choosing what’s best to keep. This is a very frustrating experience for a designer coming from the console world.”

Chris White at Glu hails the ever-addictive Tetris as a triumph of gameplay over techno-wizardry – a game that rivals EA have successfully reinvigorated on mobile. “Many designers enjoy the challenge of tailoring a game to new hardware,” he asserts. “It forces developers to be imaginative to ensure the game is engaging across touch-screen, a traditional keypad, or even with an accelerometer. Some of our recent titles – like Get Cookin’ – support all three mechanisms, although not necessarily at the same time!”

As Patrick is keen to point out, this was one of the first games to take advantage of the accelerometer on Sony Ericsson’s gaming-focussed handset, the F305. Although of course where that particular brand is concerned, all speculation concerns their much-anticipated PSP phone, about which the press were excited and frustrated in equal measure in August ’08 with reports that it would hit the market by Christmas – just not necessarily this Christmas.

Patrick returns to the case at hand: “Not only was Get Cookin’ a fun game where you learned recipes, flipped pizzas and grilled burgers, but you actually flipped your phone and moved it from side-to-side in the process,” he enthuses. “No other mobile platform has leveraged this kind of functionality so far, and with Bluetooth and GPS we’ll see other innovations very shortly.”

But besides a few notable platform-specific successes, mobile games have largely comprised reversions of existing franchises – partly owing to the fact that consumers have to-date based purchasing decisions on little more than a title. Free demo downloads are a key feature of the N-Gage platform, and one solution to coax wary users into experimenting with unknown brands.

Flying the flag for the smaller studios, Howard concedes that although the Glus and EAs of this world will likely skim off the lion’s share of a burgeoning market, things will also level out at the bottom. “Far from being locked out, smaller players find it easier to get the tools, start developing, and actually reach customers,” he insists. “Indie developers can hit all kinds of game genres, and can class a game successful at much lower revenues than would even be a footnote on a large company’s balance sheet.”

Clearly a burger-flipping, handset-twirling extravaganza and a 2D gem-swapping puzzler have little in common beyond the size of the screen, but taking the limitations into account, are there common factors that can contribute to a mobile game’s success?

“There are some common factors,” acknowledges Patrick. “The game has to be attractive, well-presented and easy to get into. Controls need to be intuitive and not overly complex. And games should be designed so they can be played in short bursts of five to ten minutes, while not being so short that the value of the purchase is questioned.”

Another major difference between mobile and any more advanced platform is the length of the development cycle. Chatting to Jef Valadares at the Golden Joystick Awards, it becomes clear that one of the most rewarding elements for him is the variety. EA Mobile’s team will work on around four titles per year, while a console team could be dedicated to one game cycle for years at a time.

Chris White outlines the team behind Glu’s recent title Transformers G1: Awakening. “We had a producer, who essentially project managed the game, working closely with Hasbro; a designer, responsible for creating levels, scripting and design documentation; a 2D pixel artist, responsible for in-game artwork; a 3D artist, responsible for character modelling and animation; two programmers, and a dedicated QA tester, responsible for play testing throughout the duration of the project,” he reels off.

“On average, the first version of a game will take about six months to develop, depending on its complexity,” Chris goes on. “But this doesn’t include the porting phase, where the game is converted to the hundreds of handsets available worldwide. Deploying a mobile game is a complex business, requiring knowledge of unique devices available in each territory.”

Another reason why global impact requires global investment, and Howard advocates specialisation on particular platforms for smaller-scale outfits such as Astraware. This policy is illustrated clearly by their website, tellingly split into categories by platform – iPhone, Palm OS, Blackberry – rather than by gaming genre.

“For us, team sizes depend on the size of a project, how many platforms, and whether it’s a license or an original game,” explains Howard. Astraware games take between six months and a year to develop on average, including artwork, development and in-house quality testing. “Costs of $100k are a reasonable estimate – yes, I work in dollars,” he chuckles. “For the console industry you’re looking at one to two orders of magnitude bigger.”

Clearly it’s not all about the development process however: as all the interviewees have agreed, it’s getting the games into the hands of players that’s the toughest hurdle at the moment. Buy-in from handset manufacturers and service providers can prove crucial.

Many networks are waking up to games as a potentially lucrative way to up their ‘revenue per user’ index, and Patrick highlights recent Glu-Vodafone collaborative triumph Brain Genius as an example of best practice. But Howard laments that gaming execs at carriers often come from console backgrounds: “They want the ‘bigger, brighter, shinier’ approach, whereas the average user wants games that are easier, more fun, and aren’t a complete let down.”

But if, as Glu, EA and Astraware agree, distribution is the next big hurdle to leap, perhaps carriers will necessarily be cut from the loop altogether. To conclude, as we began, with Nokia’s Scott Foe: “N-Gage aims to eliminate not only handset fragmentation, but carrier fragmentation – in short, to eliminate the incremental costs of mobile game development.”

“I hope Nokia will continue to create original content too, otherwise I’m out of a job. Have you seen Reset Generation, the highest-production-value, most critically-acclaimed mobile title ever created?” he asks, seasoning his question with Silicon Valley modesty. “When you know recipes like that, you don’t close the restaurant. You keep cooking.”

© Nick Carson 2008. First published in Issue 10 of 4Talent magazine

Viral is a Verb

A man puffs into a rubber dinghy on the beach. A boy patters toward him and flings himself onto it. The man’s head explodes. Seven years ago, Head Rush – a simple 10-second clip, carefully honed to 790k to punch through Hotmail’s attachment filters – launched Ed Robinson’s company, The Viral Factory. It’s since been viewed 100 million times. “It feels incredibly crass now,” he’s prepared to admit, “but that’s how it was then.”

Of course, in the Web 2.0 world the huge advertising potential in peer-to-peer networks is clear to a growing number of brands – but agencies exploiting the system are still shaking off those past associations. Ed for one is clearly weary of justifying himself to people who still think ‘viral’ just means a bedroom-produced funny.

“Viral is a terrible buzzword,” he concedes. “It’s a mechanism; it’ll probably disappear from our company name within a year. It’s been misconstrued. A viral isn’t a short, rude 30-second TV spot you couldn’t get past the BACC – it’s a mysterious peer-to-peer network. Viral is something that happens when a piece of content wins its own audience in an exponential way, and we use the term as a verb. It’s ‘gone’ viral.”

Head Rush unquestionably went viral, and it persuaded Ed to reach beyond his job as a TV ads producer in favour of something edgier. “I didn’t want to make ads. I wanted to make films. As a punter I resent advertising – I want an honest exchange. Either give me hard facts, or engage me; give me something. I resent people just selling eyeball space.”

Ironically, the original proposal was not too far removed from that of a traditional broadcaster – selling space either side of great content. “I had this image of not having a relationship with clients. I’d just make stuff, put it out there in a locked environment and then advertisers would buy a placement; their name at the end of it. Effectively I’d be a programme maker, making small bits of communication.”

In principle, it made sense – clients would buy media space in return for the content winning viewers. It works on TV. But perhaps it was a paradigm shift too far – part of the appeal of online content, after all, is stripping off the ads. “They didn’t buy it,” Ed recalls. So, with reluctance, he began to explore winning an audience with an integral advertising message. In other words, ads that people want to watch. And share.

Evil Twin Ka came a couple of years later: a deliciously sinister decapitation episode in which a black Ford Ka tempts an unsuspecting feline into its open sunroof, and then slides it back in place with a sickening clunk. In another version, a pigeon is splatted flat in the road by a timely flick of its bonnet. “That was back in the day when email peer-to-peer – ‘have you seen this’ – was key,” adds Ed, acknowledging Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point as a useful reference on this kind of exponential growth.

“When people pull your content to them instead of having it pushed at them, you get a buzz,” he smiles. “But at the time it was an add-on thing. It’s only in the last two years that we’ve realised virals can be part of the bigger picture.”

And without the need to deal with media buyers, campaign budgets can be significantly lower. “The ad process can be quite stifling. You may have a million quid to make the ad, but they’ve got 10 million quid to buy the media for a couple of nights on Channel 4 – which is why everyone’s so anxious and sits around debating what colour a certain guy’s shirt should be. We have a much more fluid process – come up with an idea; make it for £50-100k; come back and hopefully they like it. We’re called a factory for a reason.”

Ed goes on to discuss their 2003 Trojan Games campaign for the UK launch of the condom brand, whose quirky notion of a sex Olympics persuaded 55 million visitors to spend an average of five minutes on the website, enjoying and recommending short videos of lycra-clad athletes engaging in acrobatic penetration. This equates to an army of excitable brand advocates roughly the size of the country’s population. Not bad, especially considering the clips contained no explicit sexual content whatsoever.

Sex, violence and slapstick humour – check, check, check. But within the viral space there remains infinite scope for creativity, depending entirely on who you’re targeting to disseminate your message, and why they’d be motivated to pass it on.

Web audiences are notoriously fickle with short attention spans, flitting from clip to clip on giant rambling sites like YouTube and MySpace, and are accordingly much more empowered than their passive TV counterparts. But with the growing interconnectivity between social networking sites, finding what you want (and dumping what you don’t) is only going to get easier. “Above all the advertising industry has to re-learn that they have to give something back,” is Ed’s take on it. “It’s an exchange.”

Perhaps their most innovative work to date was for Levi’s in 2006, ostensibly involving a gigantic jeans-wearing marionette being manoeuvred through the streets of Reykjavik by a trio of helicopters. Such a stunt would cost millions to stage for real, and it was considerably cheaper and savvier to mock the whole thing up in post-production, project it in cinematic glory onto a giant plasma screen – and film it on mobiles. The resulting clips, scattered over YouTube to give the illusion that random Icelandic passers-by had witnessed something wondrous, have garnered hundreds of thousands of views.

There’s an inherent talkability about a giant airborne puppet – even if people decide it’s a hoax, they’ve spread the clip, thought about it and engaged with other users about it on comment threads. That’s what a modern viral campaign needs to be about, and Ed is regularly frustrated by clients who want ‘something on YouTube’ – a request that, as he points out, is pretty meaningless. He turns 70 percent of potential work down, partly as a reality check for clients whose campaigns simply would never go viral.

“You can stick anything on YouTube – a picture of your product with you sticking your thumbs up in front of it. It doesn’t mean people will see it, and it doesn’t make it a viral. It only becomes a viral if you’ve specifically set out to generate an audience.”

Most important of all is to be straight with them once you have them. “They’ll turn against you if you try to ram a message down their throats, and that’s a massive turn-off to some clients,” he warns. “But if you do it right, you have free media, and an audience that voluntarily spreads your message.”

Ed took part in 4Talent‘s Inspiration Session on Advertising in Birmingham, May 2007

© Nick Carson 2007. First published in Issue 7 of TEN4 magazine

All in the Detail

A handful of brands have dominated the upper echelons of creative, memorable advertising over the last decade. Advertising for which people sit through the dross in the hope of catching again, and seek out on YouTube months after the TV run ceased – Abbott Mead Vickers for Guinness, HHCL for Tango, Fallon for Sony Bravia. But perhaps one of the most enduring, varied and consistently innovative campaigns of the past few years has been Wieden+Kennedy’s treatment of Honda UK.

A creative behind several of the most memorable of these – not least Cog, better known as the mesmerising two-minute chain reaction made from parts of a Honda Accord – is copywriter Ben Walker. And while he tips a nod to the surreal pin-striped, blender-headed mannequin and attention-grabbing staff self-portraits that adorn the entrance to W+K, much of his inspiration comes from a razor-sharp attention to everyday detail.

The Accord was one of the first briefs on the new account, and the initial feeling was that there was space to talk about ‘warm engineering’ – a satisfying, affable, gentle type of technology to contrast the cold, teutonic efficiency marketed by Germanic counterparts Mercedes, Audi and BMW, or as Ben’s art director Matt Gooden put it at the time, “like the way all the bits in Mousetrap fit together.”

This in turn sparked a recollection of an experimental chain reaction film by Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss, and before they knew if they were dismantling a hatchback – then stringing the components back together like automotive dominos. ‘Isn’t it nice when things just work?’ was Ben’s beautifully simple tagline, and after more than 600 takes, it did – although they had to film it in two halves, simply because there wasn’t a warehouse long enough to cram it all in.

Incredible patience, precision and hours in the pursuit of that flawless take – it’s no surprise that Ben cites Michel Gondry and Stanley Kubrick as creative influences for their sharp attention to detail. But another of his ads, this time for the Honda Civic, drew inspiration from a less lofty source.

“There’s a Dorling Kindersley book in our office called The Way Things Work – which shows the actual way things work,” he grins. “They talk about something mundane like a stapler or a zip, and you think fuck me; that’s amazing. No-one ever points those things out to you.” A Civic, Ben reasons, is practical but not particularly cool – so they sprinkled this wonderment in the small unnoticed things in life onto a fast-cut editing technique inspired by Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream.

In the film the technique snapshots the pill-popping, tea-drinking, remote-clicking lifestyle of a desperately lonely menopausal woman on speed, and her deteriorating junkie son – unsurprisingly the ad brings a more wholesome Dorling Kindersley edge, integrating macro shots of certain life-enhancing features on a Civic with everyday items that make life easier, but tend to go forgotten. Again the tagline makes it all relevant, as a tagline should: ‘Why is it, the better something does its job, the more we take it for granted?’

Although fewer people are interested in the craft of advertising copy – and award-winning ads seem to be increasingly about effects and glamorous art direction – Ben insists that it’s still absolutely integral to brand communication. “It took me ages to write that line,” he grins.

And Grrr! – Honda’s rainbow-coloured award-magnet, which sees chugging diesel engines knocked out of the sky to the cheerful tune of ‘hate something, change something, make something better’ – is, he points out, built around a song. “There are optimistic visuals and the colour palette is good, but it’s all about the language. Copy makes it relevant to the brand. It’s still hugely important, but people don’t realise it.”

Ben took part in 4Talent‘s Inspiration Session on Advertising in Birmingham, May 2007

© Nick Carson 2007. First published in Issue 7 of TEN4 magazine

A Remit to Provoke

“You shouldn’t be in it unless you love ads,” declares 4Creative’s Richard Burdett. “If you’re lucky, once in your life you’ll be part of something great. I’ve been lucky enough to see that twice.” Interestingly, his examples flank a period of disillusionment and frustration with a stagnating industry that’s only recently shaking itself into shape.

First is a seminal moment in the history of advertising. The colossal smiling, winking face, splashed across a rich human canvas in vivid red, white and blue, that helped turn British Airways around while he was at Saatchi’s in 1989. The very picture of optimism: diverse cultures connected across an ever-shrinking globe.

Seventeen years later, visages of an altogether grittier nature: coalition soldiers, contorted in panic and despair beneath ghostly clown makeup as hollow Iraqi gunfire echoes around them. A trail for Iraq: the Bloody Circus – More4’s season of programming on the controversial conflict – while at 4Creative.
Fortunately for a man who grew bored with mainstream advertising over a decade ago, the environment in which he now finds himself at the head of Channel 4’s in-house agency – a role for which he was headhunted at Cannes to cover maternity leave, and has commanded ever since – is an “incredibly benign” incubator for great work.

“I have as my client possibly the only advertiser in the country with the guts to provoke every single time, and a remit to provoke,” he declares, citing a recent campaign that sat the cast of Shameless around the Last Supper table as a concept the BBC would have “stabbed to death hideously” after a string of committee meetings. “We know they’ll buy challenging work, so we’re not mitigating ideas before we even present them. And we’ve produced some pretty visceral images – but never gratuitous.”

One of Richard’s personal favourites is a Shameless poster where Frank Gallagher has ripped the ‘4’ logo off the wall and carried it off, leaving screw holes in the plaster. “It tells you nothing about Shameless and everything about Shameless; nothing about Channel 4 and everything about Channel 4,” he enthuses. “What other company would agree to have a space where their logo should be, and have it tucked under the arm of a villain?”

Likewise, you won’t find a morbidly obese Jamie Oliver wobbling after a bus, or Gordon Ramsey smashing junk food into mush with a baseball bat, in their respective shows. “Not one of our ads tells you the story of the show, but every one of them captures the spirit of the show,” reflects Richard. “I think that applies to any brand; that’s what advertising’s going to become. British Airways is a precursor of those; the first ad that didn’t say ‘our seat is bigger than their seat’ or some quantifiable element. It just owned an absolute generic of flying. You get to the other end, you meet people.”

It’s benign, but not too comfortable – Channel 4 can choose whether their in-house agency is best for the job, and 4Creative must pitch for work alongside rivals such as DDB, who handled the launch of More4. “There’s no coercion to use us, and they’re not cutting costs – we have incredibly healthy budgets.”

“Getting David LaChappelle to do Lost, we spent all the money you’d expect a big agency to spend. But we’re tiny: 18 people, split thirds between account handlers, production people and creatives. Then there’s massive use of freelancers, which means 35 people sitting in the office at any one time.”

Besides greater creative freedom from clients, Richard feels that a more democratic creative process all round can help ensure genuinely groundbreaking work. “The ad industry has an incredible division of labour,” he reflects. “Only an account man can do this, only a planner can do this, only a TV producer can do that. And I didn’t realise how debilitating that was until I came to a place where creativity is the job of everybody.”

Having worked on the other side of the divide, both at media agency CIA and selling airtime as Head of Sales at Discovery, Richard has seen plenty of noisy battles for the strategic high ground – and the resulting appreciation of what all parties want and need has helped build a culture of joined-up thinking.

“Direct marketing, ad agency, media agency, communications planning – everyone wants to boss the strategy,” he laments. “It’s like herding cats. As an industry we should never have allowed media to slip out of ad agencies. When I was there, the agencies could talk to the guys booking the space for a clear idea of what could and couldn’t be done. Now knowledge is fractured and fragmented.”

And in an increasingly multiplatform environment, so is the audience. Richard flags up the fact that Bullseye used to draw an audience of 23 million as something of an absurdity in the modern era – anything pulling in that many eyeballs on terrestrial television nowadays would be nothing short of a phenomenon. But while they may be carved into a greater number of niches, the numbers are still there.

“The television advertising industry has been useless at defending television,” he argues. “You’d think that nobody watches TV anymore, and everyone spends their life on the Internet. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are still fantastically robust, big numbers. But the sad truth is that most clients don’t want fantastic work. They want safe, box-ticking exercises. If you find someone that does, stick to them like glue.”

Richard took part in 4Talent‘s Inspiration Session on Advertising in Birmingham, May 2007

© Nick Carson 2007. First published in Issue 7 of TEN4 magazine

When Harry met William

Animation as an art-form covers a vast spectrum, and if you have the skills to enhance footage with effects and 3D models then there’s scope to enter a thriving commercial industry. William Bartlett represents Framestore CFC, one of Soho’s foremost post-production houses.

Split into four divisions, the company handles effects for blockbusters such as X-Men, Harry Potter and Superman; feature-length animation, with upcoming mouse-flick The Tales of Despero in production; and long-form effects for TV series, including Walking with Dinosaurs. Finally, there’s the commercial division – for which William heads up the 2D effects and compositing departments.

“Directors come to us with an idea of what they want to see at the end, and we discuss what we can shoot, where we should use models, and what could be computer-generated,” he explains. “In other words, we tell them how to get the best from their money.” Clearly from this angle animation is less a creative hobby than a service industry, with rigid budgets, targets and timeframes.

Part of his job is to think outside the box for maximum effect, such as pouring weed-killer on plants, speeding up the footage and running it backwards to replicate super-fast growth in Guinness’ acclaimed devolution ad, noitulovE. Another quick-fix trick in the same ad involved shooting rising dough on a hot-plate, treated to resemble a rock formation – freeing up the 3D animation team to focus on dinosaurs and flying squirrels.

“I wanted to be an animator really, but didn’t realise that until rather too late,” laments William who, despite an interest in art at school, found himself studying Pure Maths. Experimenting with photography as a creative outlet, he took a Super-8 camera and some blobs of Plasticine and started animating dinosaurs: “I thought I’d become the next Ray Harryhousen.” It’s tempting to wonder whether Harryhousen, creator of wobbly stop-motion monster-flicks One Million Years BC and Sinbad the Sailor, would be correspondingly impressed by Walking with Dinosaurs.

Maintaining this interest in film and photography, after graduating he got a job as a runner in a motion control studio. Gradually, he began to drift down to the post-production department – fascinated by an enigmatic new editing machine called Harry. “It was this huge computer like a load of fridges,” he reminisces. “When I saw what it was doing, that mixture of technical and artistic, I knew that was what I wanted to do.”

“I could create things without having to be especially creative myself; help people solve problems,” enthuses William – and here his mathematical background was perhaps influential. “My wife did the same job as me but studied Fine Art, and she always moaned about how restrictive it was using these things. I thought it was great.”


One of Framestore’s most memorable ads is Adidas’ Impossible Field, where a handful of international football legends – including Beckham, Ballack and Raúl – take on contenders along the lines of a pitch, suspended in mid-air on metal bars.

“We were filming fast action on a number of cameras at once, cutting from one angle to another,” explains William. “That’s a problem for two reasons – you’re suspended in the air, which is complicated, and footballers didn’t have much time. There were also lots of problems with insurance, so we couldn’t do anything too dangerous.”

All of the actions were predetermined in a number of self-contained sequences – Beckham receives ball, flicks it over one contender, who falls off; kicks it into the chest of someone else, who also falls off; then jumps in the air and passes it.

These sequences were roughly animated first to determine the camera angles required. “The editor took these renders and edited a final sequence together, which was hugely helpful for planning the live-action blue-screen shoot. Time spent with real footballers was minimal.”

Back at Framestore, the overall geography of the match was pieced together – 3D pitch, ball and all.


Essentially a public safety campaign, Esuvee was funded by the Ford Motor Company in the wake of a successful law suit against them by a woman who’d been seriously injured in an SUV accident. “Their advert said she could drive it like a sports car, she did, and it turned over,” is William’s summation. Ford’s advertising was deemed negligent, and part of their penance was to spend thousands of dollars encouraging safer driving.

The ads depict SUVs as powerful and dangerous creatures – part-car, part-beast – at a rodeo. “The idea was that if you’re good enough you can handle the power. It was an odd job,” he smiles. “Our clients were lawyers with very specific things to communicate.”

The first challenge at Framestore’s end was building the creature; a cross between a prehistoric mammoth and a modern day car, with headlight eyes and brake-lights in its ankles. The second was getting a rider to sit convincingly on top. “We did lots of tests with different strides – walking, running, trotting – and sat the person on a horse, a bull and a buffalo. We used a mechanical bull in the end; it was easier to control.”

William took part in 4Talent‘s Inspiration Session on Animation in Birmingham, May 2007 

© Nick Carson 2007. First published in Issue 7 of TEN4 magazine

Different and Relevant

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Swimming upstream may get you noticed, but it doesn’t get much more extreme than reversing evolution. Fresh from scooping just about every accolade going, Ian Heartfield and Matt Doman argue that it’s not enough to do the best ad on television. You should aim to do the best thing on television.

A successful advert, proposes Ian, must be both different and relevant. Clearly, to stand out from the endless formulaic dross splashed across screens, spreads and billboards – and to stop us switching off, flipping over or walking by – there has to be that spark to jolt us out of our blissful numbness.

But peacocking and shock-and-awe tactics alone won’t sell products, and eventually we’ll become ever more desensitised – hence the need for relevance. Simple when you put it in black and white, but doing it well is a different story. And with portfolio highlights already including The Economist and The Samaritans, it was a brief for a certain black and white brand that really pushed this creative pair up to the next level.

Understandably, they’re a bit tired of talking about it. “A creative brain needs to do new stuff,” as Matt puts it: “Once it’s done it’s done, and you’re onto the next thing.” So I’ll tip it a cursory mention and move on. But ignore it I can’t: settling into a glittering legacy that includes the spot widely acknowledged as the Greatest of All Time – Surfer – their work for Guinness picked up more awards than any of its predecessors. And despite being a UK campaign, it spread virally and got the international community pretty excited.

Matt and Ian are a rare example of a traditional Art Director and Copywriter team that have stayed together since college, the product of a matter-of-fact ‘ain’t broke don’t fix it’ philosophy. “If we weren’t doing anything good, we’d be mad and foolish to carry on with it,” reasons Matt. “If it runs out of energy, we’ll do something else. A lot of people work on their own now – there are no rules anymore.”

Straight after the highlight of their career, it’s fair to say it wasn’t broke. But when the praises for noitulovE had finished raining in, they decided to refresh things and left Abbott Mead Vickers for Fallon – the people behind the year’s other award-magnet, the stunning coloured balls idea for Sony Bravia directed by Nicolai Fuglsig.

Such is the nature of the industry; an ongoing cycle of talent to avoid stagnation. McCann Erickson, Ogilvy & Mather and Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy have all enjoyed their creative input – AMV the biggest by a stretch, with three times as many teams as Fallon. “The time was right for us to leave,” reflects Ian. “The industry average is three years. Clients do stuff on a yearly basis; by the third year you’re ready to move on.”

At its best, British advertising leads the world. You’d be hard pushed to find such subtle humour, surrealism and cinematic vision elsewhere. But then, we would say that – it’s aimed at us. “I’m going to prefer British advertising because it talks to me in a way that wouldn’t be relevant in America,” reasons Matt. “Likewise, their stuff is less relevant to me.”

Still, we must be doing something right. In an international judging panel’s pick of the best advertising last year, the top five were from London. “We started doing advertising before a lot of countries,” is his theory. “We have to be more advanced because we’re more ad-literate. People expect more.”

Boundaries can help: without a box it’s hard to think outside of it, and the BACC keeps them on their toes. “When there’s something in your way you have to get around it, which leads to more creative thinking,” Ian suggests. “Maybe it is easy to chuck a granny out of a car, but if you can’t do that you have to think of more sophisticated ways to make people laugh.”

Let’s not forget what the industry’s all about, though – as a creative it’s all too easy to applaud an ad that ticks the same boxes that an experimental short or cult comedy might. Top up their production budget with a spot of blatant product placement and, for a discerning British audience at least, both of those would sacrifice kudos. But no amount of sweeping camera shots, razor-sharp wit and glittering post-production will appease the client if their ad doesn’t also build the brand and shift the merchandise.

“We are glorified door-to-door salesmen, and our job is to flog stuff,” is Matt’s simple summation. “If an ad is good and well-liked, and sells a lot of things, then industry awards should follow that. Not the other way around. Someone’s not going to afford you a reasonably healthy budget and put faith in you if you’re not giving them results.”

“The only reason we can make the films we love is because some client somewhere is putting a lot of money down in order to sell a product. That’s the whole reason we exist,” agrees Ian. Of course, some ads serve another purpose – and one that stands out from his childhood planted a picture of a ‘natural-born smoker’ with tiny nostrils and shrunken fingers into his subconscious. “I was absolutely terrified and never smoked,” he reveals. “I’d like to think that stopped some thirteen-year-old lad from picking up a cigarette.”

Years later, as it happened, he was to work on an anti-smoking brief of his own. “It was in a child’s handwriting: ‘If you smoke, I smoke,’” describes Matt. “And hearing people recite that in the supermarket, and knowing that it may have made someone stop and think twice, is a really good thing.”

While many aspiring directors or scriptwriters slip into advertising to make a few bucks before moving on, both stress that this is the medium that inspires them – a sense of belief and belonging that could explain why these creative pioneers, both still in their early thirties, have already enjoyed so much success. Whilst studying Graphic Design and Advertising at Buckinghamshire College, one particular tutor advised all his students not to go into an industry where 250 applicants fight for each place. But as Matt puts it, that was like telling a kid not to stick his finger in a plug socket.

“We just really like doing ads,” he shrugs. “That’s the reason we give over most of our lives to things that interrupt good programmes on telly, or good articles in magazines. You’ve got a TV or cinema screen, a website, a magazine or a building – a means of communicating with what could be millions of people – and you’re given this opportunity to tell them something. You’re competing with the best of everything, and you’re trying to steer people away from the story. You’ve got to stop them making the tea.”

That’s exactly what Surfer did to Ian – little did he know he’d be tasked with carrying on its legacy a few years down the line. “I was walking from the lounge to the kitchen, and the soundtrack started,” he recalls. “I stopped and stared.” Music is enormously important: try listening to the delicate beauty of Heartbeats by José González without avalanches of colour filling your mind, or Sammy Davis Jr’s Rhythm of Life without the world devolving before your eyes.

Back to those two key principles. If you’re shuffling towards the kettle, both songs are vibrant, exciting and poles apart from what usually fills the ad break. Turn round and the stunning visuals hit you – for the former an extravagant and ambitious one-take gamble, for the latter an extraordinary amount of post-production by anyone’s standards. It’s fair to say you have the viewers’ attention, and all it takes are the now legendary taglines to bring relevance – ‘Colour. Like no other’ and ‘Good things come to those who wait.’

Part of the unique appeal of the medium is the challenge of doing all that in an extremely tight timeframe. “I’m a big fan of the climate of discipline,” says Ian. “Telling a story in thirty seconds is an artform in itself.” And depending on the brief, you could be talking to anyone from a disgruntled teen to a discerning trendsetter – and you need to know your audience. “Most of my inspiration comes from sitting outside a coffee shop and listening to people’s conversations,” he confesses: “Just being a nosy bastard, really.”

Whether or not an ad literally tells a story, it needs to have a kernel that remains effective when all else is stripped away – which more often than not becomes its tagline. It has to pitch convincingly in a sentence: post-production and technology can add sheen, but at its core a great advert needs a great idea.

“Have an idea, then make it ten, twenty, thirty times better before you make it happen,” is Ian’s advice. “Don’t just see a technique and try to shoe-horn it into a product. You can get seduced into things looking really good, but not using them for the right reason.”

Similarly with new technology: to be effective, a medium should channel an idea; a means to an end, not the end itself. “The danger is that colleges tell students that people aren’t interested in big Press or TV ads. They want virals; web stuff; stunts; ambient things – if that’s what they get as feedback, then everyone does that by default. We’ve had students showing us stuff where there isn’t really an idea to start with. You can’t miss the idea out because the other stuff is easy.”

In fact, for new entrants scratching at the door of the industry, live by the principles of a successful advert: be different, so long as you can make it relevant. “A team a year above us at college spotted that no-one wanted to do radio advertising,” recalls Ian by way of example. “It was seen as a poor relation; no-one in London was working in radio.”

“They had no intention of doing it long-term but they did loads and loads of scripts, and sure enough got a job in a top London agency as the radio team. They got hired, half the other students didn’t, and when they were there they could move into other areas. They’ve done very well.” Surprisingly few creative people, he observes, apply the same lateral thought process to their career as they do to their work.

One of a shrinking number of creative teams still split into Art Director and Copywriter, they’re taking their own advice and swimming upstream – and with most colleges advising students to call themselves ‘concept teams’ they urge anyone coming up from underneath to maintain a point of difference wherever possible. “Think about selling yourself,” is Ian’s advice. “Obviously you need the work to back it up, but you can’t do anything in advertising unless you’ve got a job.”

© Nick Carson 2006. First published in Issue 5 of TEN4 magazine

Jonathan Ive

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Perhaps the most influential product designer of his generation, the soft-spoken Brit that steered Apple from failure to phenomenon discusses form, function and how brushes and plaster dust helped shape the man he is today.

“The design we practice isn’t about self expression. I don’t want to see a designer wagging his tail in my face. I want to see a problem solved, and in a way that acknowledges its context,” states the man behind some of the most understated yet revered designs of the last decade – from iMac to iPod, his mass-market consumer products are as sculptural as they are purposeful.

Gentle curves and translucent fruity shades may have made his name, but it’s the technical minutiae that really animate Jonathan Ive. Hours of sweat and head-scratching are channelled into the finest of functional details – innovations that could set the tail of the most reserved designer flapping furiously. But instead they’re carefully smoothed over in soothing white for that cool and effortless je ne sais quoi.

Reaching for one of any number of examples at his fingertips, Apple’s Senior Vice President of Design turns to the latest iMac. “The stand is a simple piece of aluminium which has been stamped and then rolled,” he begins, allowing himself a chuckle that – refreshingly – his British pronunciation of ‘aluminum’ isn’t met by raised eyebrows. “One of the problems we encountered was that you could adjust it, but the screen would wobble slightly. It was really frustrating.”

“We architected an entire system to iron this wobble out.” Ive’s notoriously self-effacing nature allows a flicker of pride to shine through. “A horseshoe foot that went below the stand. In between that and the stand was a cunning material designed to absorb the energy of the wobble.”

“We try to solve very complicated problems without letting people know how complicated the problem was,” he shrugs. “That’s the appropriate thing.” And this deep-rooted – and very British – notion of what is right and proper carries through into his resolute refusal to bask in individual glory. Rather like that horseshoe foot, he sees himself as one of many essential components meshed together beneath a polished and professional exterior.

“Teamwork is the only way – not out of principle, but out of necessity,” he reasons. “You can’t develop these ideas and take them to market by yourself.” Several members of the team that he praises as “ridiculously smart” have been together for over twelve years, resulting in intuitive, almost pre-verbal communication over the smallest of details.

But despite such close-knit familiarity, they’ve never worried about stagnation. Every time a fresh product is released under the Apple banner, for all the frenzied public adulation their core market is notoriously hard to please – for which he’s genuinely grateful for keeping standards high and avoiding complacency.

“Half of our customers are creatives; people who are incredibly tenacious and forever criticising what we’re doing. So that’s wonderful,” he enthuses. But your own criticism is easier to take, and Ive has always been keen to disconnect any sense of ego from the task at hand, in favour of rigorous self-analysis – a goal that he admits has taken many years to achieve.

Considering his first major gig out of college was co-founding an independent consultancy, Tangerine – developing everything from power tools to televisions – he’s settled pretty comfortably into the mould of a dedicated in-house team. But then he never took too well to the business side of things, and relishes the opportunity to plough all of his resources into the creative side, a luxury that most freelance designers simply can’t afford. Although it’s fair to say he’s earned it.

“There’s tremendous pressure on designers to do anything except focus on the path of design,” he observes. “One of the dangers is that there’s a focus on trying to be professional, rather than being a good designer. But I’ve learned that if I focus on design, somehow the other things will happen if the ideas are good. You can circumnavigate all kinds of different stuff with a good idea, and that’s tremendously powerful.”

Famously media-shy and cocooned within a utopian design environment that he’s described as “heavenly”, Ive’s is an existence so exhaustively concerned with the pure nature of design that for his counterparts on the ground it seems almost like an ivory tower – or rather one made from twin-shot white composite polymer and laser-welded aluminium. After all, it’s talk of innovative processes, precise tolerances and advanced materials that extorts glimmers of excitement from this calm, shaven-headed pioneer.

“I think as a design team we’re beginning to get the hang of this,” Ive allows himself. “My drawing’s got worse and worse and it just doesn’t matter.” Ever since his college days – studying Art & Design in the mid ‘80s at what was then Newcastle Polytechnic – actual sketching has been a self-confessed weakness. “I was at college for four years, just at the point when computers were getting important,” he recalls.

“I started hand-drawing and had a horrible time. I was frustrated because conceptually, I couldn’t do something that I wanted to do.” For three of the four years computers were more hindrance than help, and it wasn’t until his final year that he had his first bite of an Apple Mac. He wasn’t to know it was the start of a long and monogamous relationship.

“I remember coming across this remarkable product. It was easy to use, and you could do little things like change the noise when you made a mistake,” he grins. “It sounds small, but at the time that was remarkable. I went from feeling stupid to feeling empowered – I somehow connected to the people that made it. The object testified to the care that went into it.”

Soon after graduating, Ive was to make ever closer contact with Apple and his mentor Steve Jobs through Tangerine. They were clearly impressed, and by 1992 he’d moved in with them in San Francisco. Six years later he was turning their fortunes around with the first iMac. Then the well-trodden tale begins: not only did it shift two million units in its first year, it made its beige boxy rivals look moribund and so last millennium.

It’s no coincidence that it was tender loving care and attention to detail that first attracted Ive to the brand that’s now synonymous with his career – the difference between superficial differentiation for its own sake and genuine investment in a better and more innovative product. From hidden horseshoe feet to the celebrated iPod one-touch navigation, his design team pours time and resources into getting it right.

By way of example, he draws attention to the new iPod shuffle – which ships for $79 in the US. Its extruded aluminium body clips together with a tolerance of 0.03 – a precision that, for those that need to look it up, is remarkable. “The way the parts fit together is extraordinarily tight,” he insists. “I don’t think there’s ever been a product produced in such volume at that price, which has been given so much time and care. I’m really excited by that, and even if you can’t articulate its value, at some level I hope that integrity is obvious.”

That inbuilt sense of intangible value has served him well through the years, and had a somewhat unusual genesis. Casting his mind back to his days at Newcastle Polytechnic – “in some ways I had a pretty miserable time; I did nothing other than work” – Ive picks out a personal inspiration figure faceless to the rest of the world. “In my first year, we had a class that was pure sculpture; an exercise in the translation from vocabulary to physical object,” he recounts.

“We had to make moulds, and sculpt the object from plaster. It was such an interesting exercise; so pure and so terribly focussed. What really struck me was that the chap who taught the class had a terrible allergy to plaster dust. But he thought it was so important that he’d wear these ridiculous gloves and mask, and spend whole mornings in the plaster room.”

“And he had these fantastic big brushes in his pocket. When he came round, he wouldn’t just stop and talk to us; he would make us brush off what we were working on and clear a little space. Even if it was terrible, and in our minds didn’t deserve any clearing of space, there was something about respecting the work; the idea that actually it was important – and if you didn’t take the time to do it, why should anybody else?”

Jonathan Ive was in conversation with Dylan Jones, editor of British GQ, following his award of Honorary Doctor at the University of the Arts London, 16 November 2006

© Nick Carson 2006. First published in Issue 5 of TEN4 magazine

On the Cutting Edge

A virtual operating theatre could train hundreds of surgeons at once for every possible eventuality, in any operation. “There’s no point building anything where you presume there are limits,” argues David Broadbent, whose firm Cyberjenn are working with the NHS to develop just that. Nick Carson dissects their proposal.

“A mate of mine is an eye surgeon; he says surgery is a bit like plumbing – physical dexterity can be as important as intelligence,” suggests David Proud, who has since left Cyberjenn. To cut waiting lists, the NHS may try moving minor operations down the chain to allow nurses to conduct them, calling for highly-effective task-specific training.

“The government are trying to reduce cataract queues, for example, by setting up mobile surgeries. But perhaps the solution is to train more people on the NHS. Rather than having one person watch a trained surgeon perform the operation, have five hundred people performing a virtual operation.”

Operating system

“We were asked to create characters to demonstrate the human body functionally, that could literally be dissected on-screen,” reveals Broadbent. “Characters that are one-hundred-percent correct in all of their bodily functions and totally interactive, so you can use a mouse and keyboard to conduct a full operation.”

“Take something simple like a cataract operation – what can go wrong? Let’s have all the scenarios, map them out; have a go,” Proud continues. “Before you actually get live on a body you’ve run it through, and can revisit it as many times as you need. In a live operating theatre you can hardly say, ‘I didn’t catch that. Can you do it again?'”

Training is not only quicker; it’s also more clearly defined. “You know exactly what they’ve all gone through,” he reasons. “Instead of an individual surgeon teaching it their way, you can have the approved way of doing it – best practice. And the graphics, the what-if scenarios, they can all be updated. You don’t just do it and leave it; it’s not like making a film – you know, tick – and then having to go back and do the whole thing again in two months’ time, when there’s something else. Maintenance is critical to make it valuable.”

If the glove fits

Dissecting a kidney with a keyboard is all very well, but in a profession where the dexterity of the surgeon can make the difference between life and death, does knowing what will happen if the scalpel slips really stop you doing it?

“The actual art of cutting, they can all do,” reasons Proud. “Sewing, fine work, that’s all there; you couldn’t simulate that properly, but initially you wouldn’t have to. This is a quick way of simulating a particular operation; it’s about exploring. What if I did this; what if I did that; what happens if bleeding starts there; or bruising occurs there; one of the stitches leaks.”

Nevertheless with human interface devices progressing at a rate of knots, a pin-point accurate simulation needn’t be out of reach if demand is there. “Virtual glove systems can easily be built into the software,” Broadbent points out. “With the technology growing side-by-side, you would be able to bring in smaller modules within a classroom environment, and then use it again in a larger training environment using virtual gloves.”

“That’s the key factor: There’s no point building anything where you presume there are limits. A client gives me the basics that they want, and then I add something. I think that’s necessary; longevity is crucial. In [military training package] America’s Army, shooting ranges are calculated using data sets collected over the last forty-odd years. When you introduce accurate data sets into surgery, the tool becomes even more invaluable – and it’ll only extend.”

Have patience

Anything that uses technology for technology’s sake is purely self-serving, and Cyberjenn are not oblivious to the arguments against using CGI to train high-level professionals. “In most situations, if you put a virtual character trying to explain something in front of a bloke in his thirties with a modicum of intelligence he’ll think you’re taking the piss, to be honest,” admits Proud. “In the right place it’s a really powerful addition, but it’s foolish to say that we’ll use this technology in every possible application. It’s about finding that hotspot.”

Patronising is the last thing you can afford to be when training a future practitioner, so don’t expect a Mickey Mouse spin-off. “A little squeaky character talking to the surgeon? Forget it. Obviously it has to be someone credible describing the operation.” He stresses the importance of keeping the end-user in mind. “Why would you want a virtual character if you could have a real person? Well, one of the problems in colleges of further education is that they can’t get the resources; they can’t all go and dissect a body. There’s your application.”

Unlimited variables also allows for unlimited trial and error, and there’s no ‘undo’ option when you have a real patient under the knife. “It’s not a straightforward ‘let’s dissect a body’ scenario; the model reacts to the way you do the operation,” explains Broadbent. “If they cut in the wrong place it bleeds, or haemorrhages; they have to deal with that. What makes this technology so rich is the AI being developed alongside it.”

Strength in numbers

With high-end software so easily available, small companies and innovative individuals are raising the bar for industry heavyweights, which Broadbent argues can only be a positive thing. “Because of the widespread availability of software like 3D Max, Lightwave and Maya you can now produce broadcast-quality material yourself. You don’t need to be Pixar studios to output a half-hour film, or even a thirty-second animation, at the standard that would win you an Oscar.”

“Because small firms are constantly pushing the boundaries, it forces people like Pixar to keep bringing in new innovations,” he goes on. “I guarantee you that the techniques used in The Incredibles, you will be able to do at home by Christmas. The industry is constantly driving that way – attempting to be cutting-edge by making the technology available to smaller, up-and-coming studios and individual artists experimenting.”

“Pixar released RenderMan deliberately for that purpose. They realise that eventually their work will become stale, and they need to inject new innovation. So they make certain tools available to the general public and small businesses to develop new innovations, which they can then take up. Many businesses no longer innovate, and instead farm out to small units like Cyberjenn.”

“Bigger companies are exploiting that R&D opportunity,” concludes Proud. “If there are five companies offering a solution, they don’t care which one they take so long as it suits them, and then they make the money. They’ve got the infrastructure, the clients and the contacts – a network of people who can deliver, knitted together to suit their client base. If we can portray that we have enough people on our network to deliver what they want, then of course we’ll get a slice of the action.”

© Nick Carson 2005. First published on Channel 4’s IDEASFACTORY West Midlands

Live the Inconceivable

“It’s a time compression process,” asserts Zsuzsi Pek, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Warwick. “Serious games can deliver two lifetimes of experience to one person.” Nick Carson opens his mind to a rapidly evolving field that can be overlooked by games developers.

“The marketplace is a rollercoaster for a young games company; real feast and famine stuff with no stability,” Zsuzsi warns. “But serious games have a mission other than entertainment: They encourage you to learn new skills, and offer solutions to real world problems. AI technology can make things complex and random – a chaotic environment where people can get valuable experience.”

“Virtual simulations promised so much early on but never delivered, and they’ve had a stigma ever since,” observes David Broadbent of Birmingham-based developer Cyberjenn, who have recently begun to forge links with the US military. “It always aimed to immerse you fully in an environment. The concept was good but the technology wasn’t up to it: Films like Lawnmower Man suggested the end result long before it was possible.”

Cynically speaking, virtual training is an immense cost-cutting exercise. To simulate a combat scenario with any degree of accuracy can cost upwards of £250m; even the most advanced computer game will only cost a tenth of that. But, David insists, money is only one factor. “The true power of virtual simulation is that it can account for the inconceivable,” he declares. “That’s the difference. Standard training can only ever go so far; virtual training can cover every potential scenario.”

A taste of military might

March 2004 saw the first Serious Games summit at the Games Developers Conference in San Jose, and it’s clear that the industry’s biggest players have already pricked up their ears to the field’s potential. According to one speaker, it represents a form of learning “so drastically superior to every conventional educational method that it could foment a revolution in how human beings gather and interpret knowledge.”

Such enthusiasm can prove infectious. Already blossoming in the States, serious gaming looks set to throw the potential client base wide open for small developers in the UK. “The US military currently supply most of the money,” admits Zsuszi. “They’re pumping funding into traditional combat games like America’s Army, building a virtual community to teach ‘hard skills’ as part of their recruitment programme.”

Actions speak louder

Originally a small, one-off game to spark interest in a career in the armed forces, America’s Army online now includes modules in medical and peacekeeping training. And non-combat scenarios can analyse subtle behavioural signals, teaching ‘soft skills’ by demonstrating the consequences of inappropriate conduct in a given cultural environment. It’s a far cry from a gung-ho first-person shoot-em-up many might expect from an army simulation package.

Gaming software is already proving instrumental in this field. A major issue in the current climate, observes David, is educating troops in Iraq so that they don’t inadvertantly offend with gestures or inappropriate eye contact. “Certain situations can be avoided simply by knowing and respecting local customs,” he points out.

“I designed a plug-in back in 2001 based on standard text-speech technology, which recognises emotion in your voice so that your avatar will look and sound like you in the game,” he goes on. “Accordingly, other characters will react to your tone, gestures and facial expressions as well as what you say.”

Emotional content: the Holy Grail

One criticism of this form of training is the absence of sensations that can severely impair performance, such as physical exhaustion, extremes of temperature or paralysing fear. Elements of the first two could be built into the gameplaying environment, but can the comparatively detached nature of a computer game truly represent how the mind operates in a highly stressful situation?

David looks thoughtful. “The ultimate dream for any artist or photographer is to transfer emotional content into their work,” he muses. “It’s the same for game developers: the Holy Grail is to make a scenario genuinely emotional, integrating your body’s responses with the game through stress meters, heart-rate monitors and so on. It’s totally practical with development; I think we’ll see it in games soon.”

A crop of young talent

It’s not all talk: Cyberjenn are directly involved in pushing serious gaming from an early age. Challenged by Birmingham & Solihull Connexions to forge better links between education and business, they established a temporary company to be staffed by students. Hiring a studio in the Big Peg for a fortnight, they whittled the hopefuls down to twenty and set them the task of developing a demo around a set framework.

“It’s not just a standard employment scheme; it has physical outputs,” David explains. “We’re giving people practical pieces of work to promote themselves.” Rather than attempting to introduce complex industry-standard packages in two weeks, students designed characters using the user-friendly Poser for the professionals to rig properly in 3D Studio Max. Ultimately, he points out, the core modelling skills should be transferable between packages.

The project certainly paid off for 17-year-old Craig Knight. Having created an ultra-realistic army officer for the game, he was chosen by the University of Birmingham’s Prof. Bob Stone – the “Bill Gates of virtual simulation”, according to David – to be the first UK & Europe representative at the I/ITSEC training, simulation and education conference in Florida. Retaining the original student team, Cyberjenn are now looking to develop the demo into a full-scale anti-terrorism simulation.

Life’s not just a battlefield

Of course, the benefits of virtual training spread far beyond military operations. Across the pond, Bronchi the Brachiosaurus is an adventure game designed to help children cope with asthma. “Kids must help keep two dinosaurs – Bronchi and Trachi – in top form by giving them inhalers and medication as they move through the game,” says Zsuzsi. “Apparently it reduced dramatic asthma attacks by forty percent.”

Moving from healthcare to civil responsibility, the US Government developed MassBalance, in which gamers come together and make budget choices for the State of Massachusetts – facing the consequences if things go wrong. New York City also has Breakdown, where you play with services and repair the city’s infrastructure.

Ripe for the picking

This is a new marketplace, and the first evolutionary step must be to change the mindset of certain organisations. “There’s a poor perception of the industry: Games are dismissed as kids’ stuff, as well as being costly and time-consuming,” observes Zsuzsi. “The industry just isn’t moving into this space fast enough.”

Indeed statistics show that potential funding is abundant. “Currently the US invests $3bn in textbooks; $66bn in corporate training; $40bn in government training and $10bn in e-learning,” she reveals. “Unfortunately there’s no standard practice for serious gaming yet, and developers are continually re-inventing the wheel.”

Bridging a cultural void

Massive administrative bodies like the NHS will clearly speak a different cultural language from a small games developer, and it may take a while before the cogs mesh completely. “These clients aren’t interested in the entertainment value of the game; they want to talk about learning objectives and sustainability,” Zsuzsi points out. “They want a guarantee that users will retain the knowledge. This is where academics can come in: As a bridge between the games industry and the ultimate user.”

Guidance as to which organisations require assistance isn’t exactly floating around, but the regional Education & Business Partnership from Connexions may be able to help pinpoint companies with appropriate satellite departments. And it pays to keep up with specialist magazines like CGI, 3D World and online community The Edge. “Big NGOs like the UN are setting up their own serious gaming departments right now, and they need a skilled workforce,” insists Zsuzsi. “The demand is here to stay; the question is how you can tap into it.”

© Nick Carson 2004. First published on Channel 4’s IDEASFACTORY West Midlands

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