David Wood explores how gaming extensions have become essential to many kids’ TV brands.
It’s been reported that some 125 million people worldwide play Fortnite, which has been the biggest story in online gaming this year. Many of those players are kids, spawning parenting blogs with titles like “What The Heck Is Fortnite, And Why Are My Kids Obsessed With It?” and “Why Can’t My Kids Stop Playing Fortnite?”
The Fortnite phenomenon—on the heels of the Pokémon GO craze—has underlined the importance of gaming extensions to kids’ shows as producers and broadcasters alike look for new ways to get viewers to spend more time with their properties.
“The primary reason for investing in gaming extensions is they extend the life of the property beyond the TV show,” states Pierre Sissmann, the chairman and CEO of Cyber Group Studios, which created a new interactive division this year. “They increase the engagement of the audience.”
Frank Falcone, president and executive creative director at Guru Studio, concurs, noting, “Game extensions allow us to bring a show’s core values to an interactive medium and let children build deeper connections to the characters they already love. For instance, with True and the Rainbow Kingdom, we focused on the core values of kindness, problem-solving and mindfulness, which are transferred over to our game True Wishes through task-related problem-solving for preschoolers. New platforms and devices are popping up all the time, so to stay top of mind it’s important to be where kids are and where they’ll be next.”
Brice Dubat, interactive creative director at TeamTO, the French animation studio behind the 41 Entertainment-distributed Skylanders Academy, which is based on the Activision video game, and the CAKE-represented Angelo Rules, points out that another big plus of gaming is that it can keep viewers connected with a property, particularly outside of the broadcast windows.
“A long time can go by between two seasons of a show, so by investing in video games you can continue creating content between seasons,” Dubat explains. “Gaming can also be used to promote the show along with a TV launch campaign, and is also a good way to reconnect the show with former viewers. Angelo Rules launched eight years ago, so people who started watching it then are teenagers now. They no longer watch the show but are happy to download a game and play with their old friend.”
LEARNING THROUGH PLAY
For Sesame Workshop, the producer of the world-famous preschool brand Sesame Street, the prime motivation for gaming extensions is education.
“Education is the pillar of everything we do—show or game,” says Michelle Newman-Kaplan, assistant director of learning design at the nonprofit organization. “Some use games to keep a connection with their IP, but we use them to connect to the learning experience. Sesame Street has enormous potential for direct instruction. We are able to walk kids through learning opportunities, but this is a pretty passive experience. With games, kids can learn through play, becoming active participants in their learning experience, and we can give them immediate feedback. This increases learning and mastery of skills.”
Thierry Braille, the head of Cyber Group’s interactive and video game division, emphasizes that gaming experiences have multiple benefits for the young.
“Playing a well-designed game can contribute to the development of the young players’ skills, such as decision-making, understanding choice and consequences, improving psychomotricity [the interrelationship of mental processes and motor skills], increasing agility and developing concentration and memorization. These are things that watching a linear TV show cannot do.”
Braille adds, “And if watching a TV show is a personal experience, playing a game is an experience that children love sharing with others. To this point, we will make sure our games offer multiplayer features so that the children can play with their parents, friends or siblings.”
Cyber Group Studios is taking the gaming side of its business very seriously. Braille, former VP and managing director of Disney Interactive EMEA, joined the French independent producer and distributor earlier this year to drive the development of games and interactive experiences on digital platforms (iOS, Android) as well as on consoles (PlayStation, Xbox, Nintendo Switch) and PCs. Braille will apply his know-how to Cyber Group-owned and third-party brands developed as TV series, including Gigantosaurus, Sadie Sparks, Zorro the Chronicles and Zou.
“Each gaming platform has its own audience and its own technological benefit,” Braille says. “For Gigantosaurus, we have designed a great game concept that can be played on any platform. We will be looking at making it available on as many devices as possible. Each version of the game will leverage the specificities of its platform.”
AGAIN AND AGAIN
When it comes to spinning off a game from a TV proposition, there is a lot to think about. For starters, crafting TV narratives and designing gameplay require very different skill sets, says Marc du Pontavice, the chairman and CEO of Xilam. “The scripted business is all about storytelling. But gaming is all about the gameplay. However much you know about the storytelling, it’s never going to tell you how to invent and create good gameplay that kids will want to repeat again and again.”
That’s why so many TV producers have hired gaming experts to run their interactive divisions and are outsourcing more complex extensions to specialist agencies.
Guru Studio uses both approaches in game development, Falcone says. “We have a hybrid approach and adapt it to the specific project. We have an internal games team that has built several successful games over the years, including extensions for our preschool series Justin Time. At the same time, when additional resources or skill sets are required, we seek out partners, as was the case for True and the Rainbow Kingdom.”
All independent producers of kids’ content face the challenge of how to fund gaming extensions.
“Producers should expect to budget around $200,000 for a mobile game,” says Xilam’s du Pontavice, with games for higher-end platforms likely to cost considerably more. More complex gameplay and higher-resolution graphics and video all add to the cost. The benefit is that big platforms and games publishers are more likely to pay a fee to develop a game.”
The choice is whether to license a popular kids’ brand to a third party for game development or to develop it yourself, which involves upfront investment and risk but higher potential revenues.
Braille at Cyber Group says that the most critical step is to identify the most appropriate development studio for a particular game.
“Each studio has its own gameplay expertise. Some are experts in racing games while others are the best in action-adventure games. Our vision is that our games should include gameplay values such as innovation. Innovation has been a key driver of Cyber Group’s rapid growth in TV animation—it is part of the company’s DNA and it is also a common trait of all successful games.”
Braille continues, “Also, players need to feel they are constantly making progress and have to be rewarded while they play. Our goal is to produce games that the players not only finish but also want to replay many times. In order to achieve that, the game needs to constantly introduce new challenges.”
For Sesame Workshop’s Newman-Kaplan, intuitive and straightforward gameplay is critical for younger gamers. “Make sure there is no barrier to entry to stop kids engaging,” she advises. “We make sure our instructions are clear and concise. And we always put games in front of the experts—preschoolers—so we are able to make revisions and improve them.”
Todd Slepian, a senior digital producer at Sesame Workshop, adds, “In gameplay, we design in time-outs to support the child—to prevent them from becoming discouraged. When they come up with wrong answers, we have structures to guide them through and keep them engaged.”
It’s also crucial to translate elements of a show’s DNA into the gameplay, Cyber Group’s Braille says.
“The first step is to identify the most relevant gameplay to transpose the values of the show while making sure we can deliver the best possible gaming experience. With the development studio, we produce a high-level game design highlighting the key features. We then develop the full game design as well as a playable execution of the game’s key features. It allows us to validate that the game will deliver the experience we have in mind. During the development process, we organize focus groups so that we collect feedback on the level of difficulty of the game, its perceived values and competitive advantages. We transpose the DNA of the show to the game by developing both in parallel via an iterative brainstorming process. The idea is that the show and the game generate great experiences as standalone products, but together they create an unparalleled enhanced experience.”
While thematic or creative connections between TV show and game are important, designing physical links between the two media, such as codes contained in the show that can be used to unlock gaming levels, can be tricky, argues Genevieve Dexter, the CEO of distribution outfit Serious Lunch and production company Eye Present. “Plenty of companies are looking at it,” she says. “Sometimes it works, but sometimes it’s just too complicated—particularly for a younger, less sophisticated gaming audience.”
“The main challenge is the difference of temporality,” says TeamTO’s Dubat. “Watching a TV show is like a meeting. It happens at a certain time, at a certain place. It’s also broadcast a long time after being produced. Games usually have a shorter lifetime and evolve quickly depending on how players play and react to the game. If a game needs a special code to unlock some levels that will only appear in an episode of the TV show, it could be very frustrating to be blocked in the game because the episode has not yet been broadcast. There are a lot of possibilities, but also a lot of things that could go very wrong.”
Having direct links between games and TV episodes can also make the process more expensive, says Eye Present’s Dexter. The goal for many companies is to support the development of games by persuading the end user to pay for downloads, although in the kids’ market that usually involves the complication of convincing a parental gatekeeper to purchase it.
“Besides, people generally expect kids’ games and apps linked to TV shows to be free—particularly those associated with public-service content,” says Dexter, who has been involved in the development of two games to support the CBBC show Operation Ouch!, which Serious Lunch distributes.
“People are more likely to be willing to pay for content specifically designed to educate that is not linked to a TV brand,” she declares.
The aforementioned Skylanders Academy is just one of several examples of video games being adapted into a TV series. Dexter explains that her animation studio, Eye Present, is making a 78×7-minute comedy series, Best & Bester, for 6- to 9-year-olds with the Finnish producer Gigglebug. “At the center is a simple principle—comparison and choice—with two characters who have to choose to be a new thing every day,” Dexter says. “Originally it was a game, but we are making it into a show by developing it in tandem.”
“Games can reach very large audiences globally and successful games do present opportunities to become TV shows,” Cyber Group’s Braille says. “For example, Cyber Group helped turn the Mini Ninjas adventure-action game into a TV show.”
GoldBee arrives at MIPCOM with Chop Chop Ninja, a series of 11-minute episodes and accompanying interstitials based on “ten apps that have generated over 20 million downloads,” says Christophe Goldberger, managing director. “The Chop Chop Ninja brand already has awareness in the market because of the success of its apps and because the fillers have been successful on many platforms.”
Guru’s Falcone adds, “We recently helped launch an indie game studio called 4L Games whose adventure game FRACTER has quickly risen to the top of the App Store charts. Though not strictly a kids’ property, it has a very wide appeal and is gaining incredible traction. The next IP hit could very likely come from the world of mobile gaming, and at some point maybe even FRACTER will have licensing and broadcast opportunities. We leave no stone unturned.”
The gaming space certainly holds lots of potential for kids’ producers, with high-tech areas such as augmented reality being actively explored to produce concepts that could bring TV shows and gaming together. This would undoubtedly take TV show gaming to the next level.
“I have heard there is some very heavy R&D going into enabling gameplay within a TV show,” says Dexter. “While nobody is convinced about the potential of virtual reality, with AR you could play a game within the TV show at the same time as you are watching it.”
Pictured: Eye Present & Gigglebug’s Best & Bester.