In just a few weeks, we'll be launching an ambitious new project with the BBC called The Code. The Code is a 3-part TV show presented by Prof. Marcus du Sautoy about how we can explain the world through numbers, shapes and equations - but it's also a next-generation treasure hunt with a very real and very cool treasure.
But what we're doing is new in a few ways...
TV and online, side-by-side
Long before The Code was commissioned, the producers at the BBC were thinking about how to reach out and engage a broader audience in a deeper way. "Doesn't everyone do this?" you might wonder.
The answer is: not really. In our experience, it usually boils down to, "Let's do something on Twitter and Facebook." If broadcasters are feeling particularly flush or reckless, you might even get a Flash game or a dedicated microsite that solicits audience photos and videos. But very little of this online activity 'touches' the TV show, mainly because TV workflows are completely different to online workflows - everything is produced in one go, scripts can change day-by-day, and the edit might see entire sections chopped out.
So it's easy to understand why many TV producers are reluctant to delve deeply into any online integration when they themselves aren't sure what will be in the show - you need a lot of trust and very good communication right from the start to make it work. To help establish this, Six to Start's producer for The Code, Matt Wieteska, is embedded with the BBC production team for part of every week - and not just with our Julian Phillips (our exec producer there), Jo Witt, and (previously) Morwenna Gordon, but with the TV people as well.
Finally, it really helps that not only is Marcus du Sautoy well-versed with the web and Twitter, a designer of maths games, but he's also a big fan of treasure hunts. What more could you want for a project like this?
The right kind of games
Our four Flash games strike the right balance between fun and educational - which is to say, first they are really fun, and second they are educational. Let's face it - it doesn't matter how educational a game is unless people want to play it, so that's what we focused on. Some of the games are much more on the fun side, but one, about mosaics and symmetry, is just about perfect in how the gameplay is inherently educational. I should also thank the super-smart guys at Devilish Games for their work here!
It helps that we've focused on just four games. It might sound like a lot, but we were thinking of doing even more during the design phases. However, in our experience in other games like Smokescreen, the vast majority of traffic flows to only a few missions or minigames - and that you can normally identify what those might be in advance. We took a long, hard look at our game designs and picked the four best. But even then, I'm pretty sure I know which of those four will be most popular...
Not a Pyramid
Seen this before? It's our old friend, the 'inverted pyramid' model of engagement for ARGs and transmedia! But I don't like it so much. It feels like a post-facto justification of why only a few people get really engaged in most projects by suggesting that what you're making is just way too awesome/hard for the public, who'll have to make do with lightweight stuff (yes, like Flash games).
The fact is, most people are smarter and more engaged than you might think. Masquerade - an incredibly challenging treasure hunt book - sold millions not just because it had a pretty cover and pictures (although that helped). It was because it had a beautifully-judged difficulty curve and contained all sorts of tricks and ways to draw even the most novice or hesitant reader in. Also, it was just a book - everything you needed was contained in it, rather than scattered across multiple places.
We've tried to do the same with The Code. Without giving anything anyway, while there are plenty of clues and ways in to the treasure hunt on TV and online, we are going to make it very easy for people to understand what they need to do, even if the puzzles within that are more challenging. That's something we're sticking to throughout the design.
To repeat: It's really easy to play The Code. Most people should get most of the way through it. But even when it gets really difficult, you'll still think you could solve it...
We (Six to Start and the BBC) realised we had an opportunity to do something really wonderful with The Code. We could get thousands of people to think about maths in a new, exuberant way, and not just by creating a treasure hunt, but through everything in that treasure hunt: from the design of the treasure, to the clues in the show, to the 'ultimate challenge'.
I think everyone will be really delighted by some of things we're doing. You'll find out some of them very soon, and others won't be revealed until everything is over. I hope you'll join us when The Code airs!