Jan 112009
 
Life III Box

Life III Box

So been having a nice break here in Bondi, doing all sorts of cool commercial and/or creative non-LAMP projects plus playing some great new games (Fallout 3, Mirror’s Edge, Elder Scrolls/Oblivion etc:) mostly on the PS3 and PC/Mac. Hunting around the non-mall games stores in Bondi Junction I came across a dusty old cross-platform game called Life III: Escape from Reality in the $10 bargain bin. The system specs said it runs on all platforms, consoles & even has some locative real world elements, but is ideally meant to be played as a 24/7 casual game – which struck me as a bit of an oxymoron 🙂

OK so I got stuck into this old game and it became apparent that it had a very intricate and sophisticated engine and was in fact the most detailed MMRWRPG (tm!) (massively multiplayer real world role playing game) I have ever seen. So for those who haven’t played this cool game, what follows is a run down of the game play, various quests/levels and the rewards at various stages.

TRAINING & TUTORIALS 1-7

Gary Hazlitt Level 1-8

Gary Hazlitt Level 1-7

After you log in and give yourself a name and password (that you will of course forget at the next login) you appear in an upper bedroom of a typical suburban house. You have the choice of gender but whatever I choose it still gave me ‘male’ – the first major bug I spotted. At the start of the game you are supposed to receive clear game instructions, but much of what was said was pretty indecipherable across these early level orientation/control levels. A good point, I was surprised from the outset at the quality of the graphics for such an old game – but don’t want to focus too much on that!

Basically what happens at the start is two mentor characters (a man and woman) follow you around and tell you the way the game works. They chastise you if you make mistakes (or what ‘they’ think a mistake is) and encourage you if you do what they consider beneficial to your progression through levels 1-8. There are some funny moments too here as the controls don’t seem to really do what they are supposed too and you end up crashing into walls, speaking at inappropriate moments or dropping items that you need for good health and karma.

Most disconcerting is that you often find yourself randomly projectile poo or vomit which causes you to drop 1 or 2 levels – pretty bad game design here as there doesn’t seem to be a real reason for this. A final point about this level is that there is no obvious button to quit that game, so you have to grind on.

GAME CHEATING Levels 8-13

Gary Hazlit Levels 8-13

Gary Hazlitt Levels 8-13

The game box had no manual (beyond the simple how to start leaflet) so as you progress into more complex areas of the game you are really in a fail forward mode (although I did find a few hints using Google ‘game cheat sites’ and Self-Help section in Borders).

There is a little too much emphasis on giving out information (across levels 8-18) with the Non Player Character ( NPC) ‘info’ bots endlessly delivering in chat (or text items for inventory) historical background, do’s and dont’s and communication and number skills. This was particularly boring especially as the two mentors from earlier levels appear every now and then and keep pushing you into these information areas. Only very occasionally the NPC info hubs inspire you with poetry or music – but most mentors said that wasn’t much use in the game, so you can ignore those bots.

I actually found through these levels I was constantly trying to cheat, choosing the break things options, putting them back together or fiddling with my avatar to make it more attractive. This was useful because as soon as you hit level 14 the online MMRWRPG features kick in and you become aware of other players in the 2-3 environments you are hanging around.

ONLINE CREATING YOUR OWN RULES Levels 13-18

Gary Hazlitt Levels 13-18

Gary Hazlitt Levels 13-18

After a few years playing these levels you realise that the mentors have mostly been mis-leading you and you start to only trust other players who are around the same level as you – and so you join guilds and clubs with your new found friends. There becomes a kind of comaraderie as you try to level up together and this leads you off on some cool adventures, exploring nearby buildings, parks, towns and even self-guided trips to the city or guild trips to countries. The game HUD (Heads up display) here is useful as you monitor your various status’s as you play:

  1. The levels of attractiveness to opposite sex
  2. Coolness quotient from your peers/friends
  3. Amount of risk taken
  4. Body Odor (best to keep this low)
  5. Stimulant balance (you have to take as much as possible without going into the red)

One thing I noticed about some of the other players who had been through their tutorial in small country towns and outback areas and as their connection (& transport system) was quite laggy, they were unable to do any of the more sophisticated quests other players were doing. I was surprised this bug made it through q&a as it really needed to be fixed.

Also at this point in the game I found most players had already teamed up in guilds but the players that didn’t were mostly trapped with the information bots who had convinced them to do more text based quests, and they were almost playing a different game at this point (should have really been an expansion pack).

MAKING FRIENDS, LEAVING THE NEST Levels 18-20

Gary Hazlitt Levels 18-20

Gary Hazlitt Levels 18-20

Although the game had its interesting moments, I was still not clear of the goals and at these levels many players found that taking some of the pills and potions lying around on sleeping fellow guild members made everything a little more fantastical and fun – but after a while that didn’t really help with the game goals either. As you level up to 20 things really started to change. Suddenly you are teleported to a unknown city location, wandering streets and without mentors or friends you really start to create the micro game rules yourself (within certain limits set by the community now).

I expect the game designers were not quite sure on the transition here and thought it best to consider anything up to level 20 as training – but I found the earlier levels come across as pretty heavy game play – especially the dating scenarios where you have to constantly deal with other psychotic players of the opposite sex who just don’t want to help you achieve the ‘getting-it-on’ challenge.

But being dropped into what is essentially a different game altogether with new rules and without the ability to save should have been thought through a little more.

BUILDING AND WORKING WITH OTHERS Levels 21-35

Gary Hazlitt Levels 21-35

Gary Hazlitt Levels 21-35

Now this middle part of the game is kind of grindy. Long boring sections where all you seem to be doing is accruing ‘credits’. The game has an economy, and unless you’re one of the players that managed somehow to hack in credits from previous older family players, you really had to struggle to build up enough ‘credits’ to level up particularly quickly or just buy cool things for your inventory. The addition of an online leaderboard certainly helped motivate you as did the many NPC quest givers that you met at parties, subways, taxis, buses etc:

The most powerful quest giver and one that often gave you red herring challenges to accrue credits quickly was the inworld ‘media boards’. These were large TV-style screens placed at seemingly endless locations that showed you how well other players were doing and suggested how you could try some of their quests – which seemed to be focused on how skinny the avatar can be, the best personal transport units or how many players were ‘following’ you (called the ‘fame status’).

The only route that seemed to pay off in this game though was the ‘work’ quest. This involved rather tiresome, mundane activities (reading messages from people, sending messages back, walking around office floors and generally trying to be nice to everyone you met). As soon as you tried to do something adventurous or break the now, quite rigid game rules here your credits fell and you found yourself dropping back between 5 and 10 levels to begin it all over again. The key skill here it seemed was to be friendly and helpful to other players and regardless of any other skills you may have, your credit balance would slowly but surely accrue. One player (who had played this game a few times) told me that having a variety of skills really helps at the higher levels so I spent my non-grind time, building up skill levels in other areas. Some players though were just spending their credits on fast cars, bling and fancy clothes for their inventory and a game place to put all this stuff.

CREATING FACTIONS Levels 35-40

Gary Hazlitt Levels 35-40

Gary Hazlitt Levels 35-40

At level 35 there is a global quest given to all players, and this comes as a bit of a shock – “make a version/clone of you for future challenges”. This had to be taken on, all players at whatever credit or skill level you were at. It seemed you had to find a player of the opposite sex and form a small guild with the sole intention of creating a faction. The small creatures that you make together have similar skill and health traits to you and you have to train them for a particular role – to help you in later quests.

It suddenly becomes obvious that you are now one of the mentors from an earlier level and this is pretty good games design, getting you a lot more deeply involved in the game play. Several players for whatever reason do not complete this challenge, even though they attempt the ‘making’ bit a few times.

But unless you have enough credits, a place to grow the small creatures and a strong ‘credit’ flow in, you cannot complete this. Even so it didn’t seem to affect my game status much as I was a member of several in-game guilds with a variety of interesting quests. But the game writers could have been much clearer in how important or not this particular game quest was.

SAVING AND THE GAME LOOP Levels 40-50

Gary Hazlitt Levels 40-50

Gary Hazlitt Levels 40-50

OK the game had been pretty stable and bug free up to this point. But as soon as I levelled to 40 some strange things started to happen. Firstly my avatar became pretty distorted (it grew fatter). Regardless of what activities I was doing or how much energy I absorbed, my character just got larger and larger, and slower. Another thing which must have been a serious bug with the questing engine, as many of the new quests were ones I had missed at earlier levels (they seemed pretty boring at the time). Most of these news ones were about teleporting to some distant land and not really doing any game play at all? What’s the point of playing a game if there is no goal? Others involved hanging around chatting with friends and creating new guilds. These had to be comprised of players at the same level as you but even more challenging, with similar status’s – and often those who completed the ‘cloning’ challenge would not be able to team up with those that didn’t.

Other challenges involved tweaking your avatar to convince others around you that you were a level 20-30. This proved harder than it seemed as fiddling with the shape of your nose or the size of your breasts cost a lot of credits with little reward – as after repeating this quest a number of times the avatar would start to fall apart. The game programmers must have had a ball creating this quest.

A key problem through these levels though was the fact that as at the start of the game the controls occasionally didn’t do what you told them and in some social situations rather embarrasing body noises were emitted, or on one occasion I completely lost it in a driving quest at the local shopping mall car park, crashing into several other players. Although these were kind of fun in retrospect, they seemed a quite frustrating at the time.

GAME FINALE AND EXPANSION PACKS Levels 50-70 (+15)

Gary Hazlitt Levels 50-85

Gary Hazlitt Levels 50-85

Getting through levels 40-50 was very frustrating and lots of earlier game elements started to come into play. The final higher levels involved less adventure and more about tidying your inventory, looking back at machinima re-runs of some of your earlier quests and contacting old guild members to sit and chat in team-speak about those earlier quests. Around level 55 things start to get a bit weird again. The control mechanism all but breaks down and you almost become a noob again as your character starts to emit body waste missiles at various players from several orifices. It is kind of funny at times and others just downright messy. This all changes as you approach level 70 and the game world becomes more and more fantastical.

What you thought was a pretty static city or home environment suddenly becomes ‘elastic’. By that I mean the graphics become almost translucent and everything you see is earlier game elements and lots of glowing light. This makes the rather simple challenges at these higher levels much harder – trying to walk to the shops in a glowing pink hurricane of childhood memories is pretty hard, but you get used to it. As you level up to 70 the final quest is a simple task of ‘letting go’. It wasn’t clear in the game cheats on the web what this was, but it kind of meant, you did nothing for a while and you levelled automatically. A nice touch I thought. So the final element of the game was the game graphics/world dissolving into white and rainbow coloured lights…great music here too btw!

EXPANSION PACK

I forgot to mention that when I was at the store they gave me another box for free the Life III expansion pack called “AfterLife III”. – no one had apparently bought this extension to the game as it got bad reviews from religious groups. I told the store I probably wouldn’t get that far, but here I was anyhow. I installed it and low and behold it gave me an extra 15 levels. Now much of this was the same as 50-70, kind of spiritual quests, asking questions about what kind of character you were, analysing the way you did things, how it could be improved and all that stuff. But the interesting thing was at level 84, as you travelled around this ‘celestial’ environment (with wonderful particle effects) you kept getting flashes of another bedroom in suburbia. Yes, incredibly as you hit level 85 you became a noob again, you began the game again, with two different mentors hovering over you. I didn’t really have time to play the whole thing again, and I managed to find the quit option at this point. I did save it for another time though.

I am not sure what happened to the company that created this game, I suspect they fell out of favour with most Life I and II players who found the whole thing rather grindy, difficult and certainly were unable to commit more than 70 or 80 years to it – given there are plenty other games to play which are far more exciting and have much more interesting rewards.

Postscript: SilkCharm just read this and in-between fits of violent giggles pointed me to a cool book (that I haven’t read) called God Game byAndrew M. Greeley Some similarities?

Also if there are any parts of the game I may have missed or have cheats for please comment below! If you have played this game and you want to write a review I will add it to the bottom of the post – please include your player character name so we can hook up in game 🙂 !

Finally, finally – an obvious prototype for the immersive version above discovered on YouTube 🙂 – I can see why they left out the ‘revenge’ bit !

Jan 072009
 

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Reflections by me? Been a bit slow off the mark blog wise this year as endless layers of projects overlap and blogging has fallen off the list. But there are some goodies about to be blogged here, just simmering, almost ready for serving. Smell that goodness.

For the moment though two of my ‘thinks’ that others published for me. The first from Bettina TIzzy’s great (‘What the World Needs Now is‘) Not Possible in Real Life (NPIRL) blog who posted a selection of my slightly half-baked thoughts re: virtual worlds. Following that, also featuring SL & Telstra, a rather positive retrospective from ITWire extensively quoting me, about how companies can engage properly, The Pond is a build I created back in early 2007.

OK to the post. I know, a lazy re-posting but there are a few nuggets in here…over to NPIRL.

Gary Hazlitt turns the page on 2008 – What happened and what’s coming in virtual worlds

Sydney-based Brit and marketing wiz, musician, composer and rich content creator in virtual worlds Gary Hazlitt (aka Gary Hayes), is already done celebrating the incoming year, while we wait for a few more hours in the Western Hemisphere for 2009 to arrive.

Gary, who studied physics, is the director of the Australian Laboratory for Advanced Media Production (LAMP), and also heads up Virtual Worlds for the UK-based The Project Factory, for which he produced the highly successful and eminently revistable (as the traffic numbers indicate) Australian Telstra and ABC Second Life presences.

I welcome Gary’s guest blogpost and knowledgeable take on the recent past and the coming adventures of virtual worlds. Happy New Year, everyone! – Bettina Tizzy

In the social Virtual Worlds context, 2006 was about hype… another new frontier ‘kid-on-the-block,’ but became about fast bucks and cheap and cheerful PR. We saw that bubble gently burst in 2007 as the realisation that one world in particular, Second Life – (which is still the leading example of culturally created virtual content), was really about creative communication and artistic expression versus the local shopping mall or a crude business tool.

Last year, 2008, we witnessed a distillation in what Second Life (and by implication other customisable worlds) is really about, leading to a proliferation of new, niche virtual worlds meeting the cultural and entertainment needs of much broader demographics. We effectively saw the ‘fat’ surgically removed from Second Life and an acceptance that this new medium and form is still in its very early days, but in 2008 there are clearer reasons for being a part of the social web mix:

1. An immersive expression of community – Facebook and MySpace-meets-World of Warcraft. This community can create their own environments or swarm around trusted film, TV or lifestyle brands, too.

2. For business, it is more about a place to meet, present and recruit and far less about brand awareness, product sales or vacuous hype. The business model in 2008 clearly came into focus: the community selling to itself – brands needed to court existing inhabitants very carefully.

3. For education, Second Life is one of the most efficient tools in the learning process. Education becomes democratised, everyone can contribute and learn equally, remote learning is far more compelling, fun and immersive.

4 A creative tool. Second Life, in particular, showed significant maturity as we saw a higher number of serious live performance (CARP Cybernetic Art Research Project, NMC, DanCoyote Antonelli, for example), a record number of in-world ‘machinima & TV-like programs’ and by far the largest array of creative statements from virtual environment artists, many members of the NPIRL group. The quality of ‘experience’ creation from talented musicians, designers, photographers, artists, etc., reached new heights.

GROWTH OF WORLDS

Investment across the board – more than $900 million US invested since Oct 2007 – has moved away from generalist worlds like Second Life to more focused niche or user base environments with many starting to exhibit core game elements. These include those with renewed investment after new’ish launches: vSide, Football Superstars, Stardoll, Home, IMVU, Metaplace, Multiverse Places, and Music Mogul.

Towards the end of the year, console social worlds came onto the scene. XBox360 and Wii are very similar in ‘cartoon’ aesthetic, whereas Sony is far more game focused. All have very similar business models – create a space to hang out and be ‘tempted’ by games/film/merchandise. Although these are not yet places for community creation, they will soon learn that to keep inhabitants they will need to be or, like Google Lively, have to pull the plug. Embeddable or layered worlds began in 2008 and are likely to be significant in getting people used to real time communication through ‘representational’ avatars – vs text based ‘social network’ profiles. Also, Facebook worlds like YoVille or Vivaty, or layered worlds like Rocketon or Weblin that are embedded on the existing 2D web. The dominance of the likes of Club Penguin and Webkinz at the tweens end of the spectrum will be duplicated through teens and gen y’s as a series of new, highly focused and targeted social worlds launch next year. This has already begun with Football Superstars and Music Mogul but expect to see many more – including several with user created content as a feature alongside the virtual economy.

HIGHLIGHTS OF 2008

– Graphics in Second Life become teenagers. Still some way from the likes of Crysis, Second Life Windlight turned the world into something far more fantastical for many. It added layers of light, glow and control to a previously very ‘flatly lit’ world. We still wait for dynamic shadows, better environmental sound and an even more useful scripting language (post Mono), but this was a paradigm shift for environmental artists.

– Some companies got it! There was not a plethora of companies or brands entering Second Life but those that did had continued success as they concentrated on the social (people) rather than ‘product’ aspects of their business. Although the Pond leads in dwell terms, new entrants like Warner’s Gossip Girl have done exceedingly well. Car companies still do well even though Pontiac walked away from Second Life, and Toyota, Fiat and Nissan are always in the top 10 brands.

– The quality of machinima across all social and game worlds increased exponentially this year and a growth in communities watching ‘documents’ of the worlds they spend most of their time in. In addition to some machinima appearing in heritage media (“Molotov Alva and his Search for the Creator” and HBO/Cinemax, for example) there has been a growth in long form game-engine films and notably many more serious issues tackled.

– The New Worlds. A fracturing, as it became obvious that Second Life cannot be all things to all avatars – so nearly 70 other worlds all showed up on the radar. Many are focusing on niche interest or are highly branded. Several of the new ‘jack-of-all-trades’ entrants will learn that enabling community creativity and an economy is absolutely necessary. There were several walled garden/locked content mirror worlds and builds in 2008, which will learn to be not about ‘broadcast’ spaces, and realise that their worlds are far more significant than modelling what is around us – “In augmented and online virtual worlds, humanity will exponentially evolve, free from the limiting ghosts of that other virtual world we called reality”.

The second item appeared following my presentation at the Online Distribution and Business Collaboration conference from November 2008 in which I hurriedly went through some good inworld and game marketing case studies. Kathryn Small here picked up on why Australia’s BigPond is working really well – and no, it is not all about the broadband capping situation in Australia. Most of the regular inhabitants are on other ISP’s – anyway the article covers my thoughts on this and I have a much longer analysis with stats for the nearly 2 years it has been active, in the pipeline. (Also worth mentioning something about the item at the start of this one – Tourism Victoria didn’t withdraw its funding, Multimedia Victoria requested I take down a temporary ‘trial’ build of Melbourne Laneways – which had an original 3 month ‘learn as we go’ tenure on ABC Island. Otherwise a good item below.

Despite reports, Telstra and Second Life remain inseparable
By Kathryn Small 28 November 2008 02:20PM

It’s a match made in heaven: Telstra is Australia’s biggest telco and ISP, while Second Life is one of the world’s hottest social networking tools. So when the media reported that “the game was almost over” for Second Life, Telstra was quick to defend its investment.

Recently, Tourism Victoria withdrew its advertising funding from Second Life’s ABC Island. This prompted Deacons technology and media partner Nick Abrahams to comment to The Australian that “the drop in commercial interest in Second Life had been noticeable over the past nine months”.

Abrahams said that at any given time, fewer than a couple of hundred Australians might be in Second Life.

But virtual worlds expert Gary Hayes said that virtual world ratings should be measured in engagement and user hours, not just hits.

“Immersive online experiences need new metrics, and marketeers and academics are realising that social worlds do provide the potential for very high dwell figures,” said Hayes.

“Facebook has 65 million users on for just four hours per month. 132 Americans watch YouTube but they watch only about five minutes per day or 2.5 hours per month,” said Hayes.

“Second Life (and other social virtual worlds) has the highest rates of loyalty and stickiness of any social network generation, more than 50 hours per month per user.”

Hayes said that Telstra’s islands, known as The Pond, had a steady stream of around 50-100 users at any given time.

Telstra spokesperson Peter Habib quoted figures compiled by The Project Factory which said that BigPond’s islands were the most popular in Second Life.

The Ponds were founded in March 2007 with 11 islands (now 16) which have hosted virtual concerts, ANZAC Day commemorations and even New Year and Australia Day events.

BigPond recently hosted an AUSTAFE event which involved live streaming of the event from Adelaide into Second Life.

The Ponds also contains five residential islands for users to build themselves virtual real estate to live in, at near 100 per cent occupancy.

Telstra spokesperson Peter Habib told iTnews, “BigPond’s commitment to innovation, interactivity and entertainment in Second Life is a key part of our success.”

Habib said that BigPond has opened a virtual in-world service kiosk that allows Second Life users to interact with BigPond customer service staff in a virtual way.

Hayes said that The Pond’s approach to customers differentiated it from many other brands.

“The real success of The Pond is more about the regular events, the creativity of the builders who often come from the community, elements of nationalism, and many of the organic spaces that promote stickiness by their ‘ambience’ rather than superficial interactivity. This has been a real differentiator.”

Habib dismissed the concerns of other providers with success on Second Life.

“While other companies may not share BigPond’s successes, we are more than pleased with the popularity of our Second Life islands”

Hayes said that companies might not succeed in Second Life for two reasons. First, that many brands were brought into Second Life for the wrong reasons, and with misunderstandings about the social network. “You cannot build into a social network and not be social,” said Hayes. “Early entrants simply did not act human; they acted like a corporation, and built clones of the real world, and didn’t think experientally.”

Second, Hayes said that companies needed to change their offering to virtual customers.

“We are seeing the natural exodus of ‘showroom, build-it-big-and-boring’ brands and the settling of second generation ‘social’ and ‘purposeful’  brands. So The Pond, Accenture, Playboy, The L Word, and about five other key brands are really getting to grips with setting up a virtual base in a social world.”

John Brand, research director at Hydrasight, agreed.

“Only organisations who want to be perceived as ‘bleeding edge’ should ever have been involved in Second Life in the first place,” said Brand.

“Now that Second Life is entering its relative teenage years (measured in Internet years at least), the early adopter bandwagon has well and truly been jumped on.”

But Brand (edit: Hayes) noted that Second Life is not the only virtual world.

“There are at least 50 other mainstream entities and the total audience (according to a trusted site on this topic, KZero) is well over 300 million. In the second quarter of 2008, $161 million was invested in 14 virtual worlds, in the first quarter $184 million put into 23 virtual worlds, so the total this year alone is $345 million across 37 new worlds.

“Australia is a tiny market compared with Europe, Asia, South America and the USA, so fluctuations are highly likely. The fact that the user base of one virtual world fell by 23 per cent in a year is common with any service coming out of a hype phase into a stable mature phase.”

Dec 212008
 

“It’s tempting to shout – Stop It! The truth is that television in Britain is commissioned by middle-aged people who rarely watch the box, attempting to reach young people who look at it even less, when it’s actually watched by old people. Twenty to twenty five year olds aren’t sitting goggle-eyed for one very good reason: they’ve got better things to do.” – Jeremy Paxman, 2007 (more at bottom of post)

At home in Bondi doing a bit of pre XMas spring (?) cleaning in-between playing PS3 games (Mirror’s Edge & Fallout) and present wrapping then came across two very old books on a ‘media’ shelf. I remember picking these two Yearbooks up in a dusty basement of one of the many book shops in Hay-on-wye, near to my uncles (Hereford in the UK). Some years later I used an excerpt of text from one of them in a presentation I gave in 1997 to stick-in-the-mud TV producers, when I was at the BBC to illustrate the parallels between the birth of TV from it’s radio womb and the ‘connected’ web from it’s computer womb.

(Hilarious video from Ephemeral Media – “Magic In The Air – New Horizons 1941”)

But I just re-read them and noticed many new analogies (games, virtual worlds, social media, mobile) and it got me thinking. After a new media form is born, it evolves & grows with more and more elements added. Many layers are superficial but most are purely there to capitalise on its success and sell – how will social media evolve into ‘sales space’?.

What follows below are two excerpts I dug out from BBC Yearbooks 1946 and 1949 – significant because they immediately follow the worlds biggest conflict but also document the global introduction of public broadcast television – effectively the dawn of ‘live’, visual mass media.These extended excerpts are (as far as I can google) unavailable anywhere, so please re-use, they have lessons for us all 60 years on – and please switch into analogy mode, now!

1946 BBC Yearbook (incidentally they finished these yearbooks in 1952)

In the summer Of 1939, some 23,000 people in the south of England had their own television sets. They saw the Derby, the Theatrical Garden Paro, the return of the King and Queen from Canada, Peggy Ashcroft in ‘The Tempest’, ‘Me and My Girl’ from the Victoria Palace, visiting celebrities in ‘Picture Page’. Now . . .

TELEVISION IS COMING BACK

By MAURICE GORHAM, who has been appointed to take charge of the BBC Television Service

From 1936 to 1939 the BBC ran a television service-the first public service of television programmes to be given anywhere in the world. The BBC itself had been experimenting with television transmission for some years before 1936, but from that time onwards the ordinary citizen living in the London area could buy a television set, have it installed in his home, and see, every afternoon and evening, programmes that had real entertainment value: everything from ceremonial processions and top-line sport to studio plays, cabaret, discussions, and films.

I love it that there were such a small number of privileged TV viewers in 1939 and they had a staple diet of theatre and live events – which justified this whole move to have live, talking pictures. The thing that strikes me also is the clear focus on what TV actually brought to its audience – sport, events and re-distribution of theatre and film. Sound familiar?

This service closed down on 1 September, 1939, at the coming of war. Since then there has been no television in Britain, and more fortunate countries have had a tempting opportunity to catch up. In September, 1943, the Government appointed a committee to prepare plans for the reinstatement and development of the television service after the war. This involved special consideration of extending the service to ‘at any rate the larger centres of population within a reasonable period after the war’; of research and development, and of the question of export trade in television equipment…The committee held thirty-one meetings, in the course of which it heard witnesses from the electrical, radio, and telephone industries, the film producers, the Ministry of Education and Board of Trade, and the British inventor, Mr. J. L. Baird. The committee presented its report to the Lord President of the Council on 29 December, 1944 ; the Government indicated agreement with its main recommendations on 9 October, 1945 this gave the BBC its signal to go ahead, and preparations for re-starting the television service were put in hand at once. Before the end of the year intensive work was being done at the old television headquarters at Alexandra Palace ; the complex engineering equipment was being tested down to the last detail, studio circuits and lighting were being re-installed, scenery and wardrobe were being sorted, overhauled, and renovated. Much of this work was being done by former television staff who had earned their release from the Services in which they had spent some six years. By the beginning Of 1946, the return of the television service was within sight.

It is incredible that the world, or at least the decision makers here, had 6 years to ponder the value of this new medium while the bombs dropped around them. Also Mr Gorham suggested other countries were catching up, a typical sentiment when your on the cusp of something new – once the idea is out there, you have to act and develop it quickly. As all new forms, often a mammoth technological effort is always required, we can only admire those here who turned live radio into live TV.

Although the BBC has been charged with the task of operating the television service, this task involves co-operation with many other bodies, from the radio manufacturers, who will provide the sets, to the various Government departments who can supply facilities and also priorities in manpower and materials that are essential before television can resume and expand. And there is the same need in television as in sound broadcasting for friendly co-operation with private interests and professional organizations in the worlds of entertainment and sport, if television is to bring to the viewer the full range of broadcasts in which sight can usefully be added to sound. Granted that co-operation in all these directions is successful, what sort of television service can the BBC provide in 1946? The range of the service will be a radius of about forty miles from Alexandra Palace, on Muswell Hill, the site of the London television transmitter, the top of the mast being 606 feet above sea-level. This forty miles is no rigid limit. Before the war, many people living at a greater distance from London had television sets and became regular viewers. There were frequent reports of reception well outside the estimated range, and occasional reports of freak reception over unexpected distances ; for instance, the television picture from Alexandra Palace was once received in. New York. But hopes that radar research would turn such exceptions into the rule have proved premature, and in 1946 the range of television, as a service to give regular entertainment to the ordinary home, is not likely to extend much beyond the forty miles.

It is ironic that it was the medium of radio, those who probably considered TV a nice add-on service who openly helped television in the ‘maternity ward’ – TV was something that was ‘added to sound’ – ring any bells yet? With a range of 40 miles, TV was indeed a minority medium when it was a child.

The technical standards used will be those used in 1939: 405 lines, fifty frames interlaced, giving twenty-five complete picture frames per second. This means a picture technically considerably below the definition standards of the cinema, but whereas the cinema picture is viewed on a large screen in a theatre the television picture is viewed on a comparatively small screen in the home, and this difference in conditions of viewing makes the straightforward technical comparison rather misleading. With good lighting at the transmission end and the right adjustments at the listener’s end, the television picture becomes more than a picture-you know that you are watching real people doing real things. The same applies to the size of the screen, whatever it may be. A badly-produced programme may make you feel that the screen is small and cramped, but if the programme is good enough you will look at the screen not as a picture within a frame but as ‘a view seen through a window-and the view may comprise anything from a Boat Race or a shot up into the Big Top at the circus to a vivid bit of acting in the studio, or even a close-up of a conjurer producing a rabbit from a hat.

Ah now we are getting to the meat. Even the person in charge of TV in those days was not ignorant to that old chesnut – comparison. How does TV compare to cinema or theatre? So he is fast to pick up on its USP “you are watching real people doing real things” and a window to the world. This was and will become again what TV is really about. Not the abomination it has become in many parts of the world today. Onwards…

Hours of transmission before the war covered an afternoon session up to an hour and a half in length and an evening session up to two hours, plus a morning demonstration intended mainly for dealers who want to show customers their sets in action. (Though, it may be said in passing, nobody can expect maximum television sales from this sort of demonstration, still less from casual viewing at exhibitions ; the sure way of getting new devotees for television is to install the set for a trial period in their homes and let them enjoy it in the conditions in which they will be using it.)

Excellent, the freemium model, get them hooked in a trial still persists today of course – in fact reading Mr Wired’s ‘Freesis’ one would think it is the only model left today? I like the fact that Mr Gorham understands the power of this new medium in it’s natural surroundings (the home) vs the TV showroom.

Viewing television is a very different activity from listening to sound broadcasts. The radio set can remain on for hours at a time ; you can enjoy it as background to reading, writing, homework, housework (some people can even enjoy it as background to conversation, darts, or bridge). The television set demands your attention ; you cannot enjoy television from the next room. You must sit facing the set, with the lights down or shaded, and if you are a normal viewer you will find yourself very reluctant to be disturbed during a programme that you enjoy. This puts a limit on the hours that the ordinary viewer can give to his viewing. Broadcasting must go on from morning till midnight, but television is quite another matter, as most viewers will soon find.

And so we get to some key definitions and these are typical of what defines new form. Just to reiterate these quotes are from 1946, 63 years ago and to me that last paragraph could have been used to describe the conditions of how to enjoy the latest 3D cinema or PS3 game or social virtual world – it is a lot more immersive than the previous media and therefore you must ‘temper’ your indulgences of it! All things in moderation. Just to bring us full circle, it has not been until the last two years or so that TV viewing is seeing dramatic declines, and so ends its 60 year dominance of our attention – my TV viewing is mostly as ambient background, I know all the formulas, there is very little that is new or innovative.

As for programmes, there is no limit to what viewers can hope to see. judging from previous experience, the most popular items will probably be television ‘outside broadcasts’ of sporting events Cup Finals, the Derby, big boxing, tennis, cricket, seen whilst they are actually taking place-and from theatres, with of course big public events such as the opening of Parliament and the Lord Mayor’s Show. These outside shows will always appeal particularly to the new viewer. The old hand may in time come to earmark his evenings primarily for full-length television plays, which were the other great attraction in pre-war days. And then of course there will be variety, cabaret, ballet, fashion shows, demonstrations of everything from cooking to carpentry, talks, discussions, and quiz programmes, art shows, personality interviews, visits to the Zoo, street interviews with ordinary Londoners, jazz sessions, recitals, and films. Briefly, it might be said that television can do many things that sound broadcasting cannot do and can improve on almost everything that sound broadcasting can do. Almost everything ; for there are still one or two categories of sound broadcasting to which sight could add little and from which the exigencies of television production might even detract.

What goes around comes around and as I said at the beginning of this ‘diatribe’ the first uses of a major media form (not something like SMS for example) are the ones that will be the ones it returns to as it declines. They are strongest ideas. Look at pay-TV at the moment and compare it with the above paragraph from 1946!

When the pre-war staff are back, when Alexandra Palace is all cleaned up and on the air again, when television is again a household word in the London area ; what is the next move ? When will standards be improved so as to give a clearer picture with greater detail, and when will television spread out of London and into the other great population centres of Great Britain ? The answers to these questions are not likely to come in 1946. Nor will they come from the BBC alone. The Hankey Report made certain recommendations as to what the answers should be, but it also recommended the setting up of an Advisory Committee such as had done valuable work in the development of television before the war. The appointment of this Advisory Committee was announced on 27 November, 1945, and its chairman is Mr. G. M. Garro-Jones. Representing as it does the public bodies on whom the development of television into a national service depends, it will be concerned with all these problems of the future. Under its guidance, television has the chance to go forward fast to the stage when it is no longer a comparative luxury for people who live in one part of the country, but an -amenity that can be enjoyed by the bulk of the population, bringing to broadcasting the one element that it has always lacked.

And so began six decades of the opium of the masses. A new medium, TV broadcasting is defined, tested and slowly begins. Another key point about the “television is coming back’ excerpts is the amount of effort and consultancy it took to bring it to life – replace TV with ‘internet’ or ‘social media’ in any of the above segments and you will begin to understand how history does indeed repeat itself. In relation to social media I finish on some excerpts from the 1949 Yearbook that begins to address both media form comparisons & the sense of media by the people presented by ‘representatives’

1949 BBC Yearbook. Public Service Broadcasting by Francis Williams

…The extent of the listening. public and the fact that the BBC as a public service monopoly has the sole broadcasting access to it provides a dazzling opportunity to undertake the responsibility of informing the public on great issues. But with the opportunity goes the limitation imposed by all systems of mass communication the limitation of non-selectivity. Even the most popular newspaper may well be satisfied if an article it publishes will hold the attention of a million readers. But a million listeners to a BBC talk means that radio sets have been switched off wholesale over the country. A serious analysis of current affairs published in a serious weekly review will have had a most notable and worth while success if it is read by 50,000 readers. But a mere 50,000 listeners to a radio programme in a good listening hour means a colossal flop.

Wow. I like the numbers comparison here and how radio dominated the landscape in the forties and fifties. A million radio listeners regarded as a big problem?!

This problem of non-selectivity has to some extent, of course, been met by the three alternative national programmes and the regional programmes; but even on the Third Programme the size of the audience whose interest must be held by a serious talk if it is to be successful is colossal by any non-broadcasting standard. One further difficulty, moreover, arises out of the nature of the listening audience. This is the problem of the half-attentive listener. The vast majority of radio listening, certainly to the Light and Home Programmes although probably not to the Third, is family or group listening. In a vast number of cases the radio is turned on as a companionable accompaniment to other activities of a more or less distracting character. Now this may fit in admirably with a background of light music, with a group programme such as ‘Have a Go’ or a ‘Quiz’ in which the listening group can feel that it is participating with another group, or with a popular variety show or play; but it does not provide anything like so satisfactory a frame-work for a serious talk which requires a fair amount of concentration on the part of the listener.

Even Francis Williams has indentified the issues we still face today. That of a fragmenting and more localised (or niche) audiences & the wonders of multi-tasking. Radio was always a success because it could always be part of another activity – especially driving the car or house chores or reading etc: Interesting that different programmes though had to be promoted differently because of the ‘expectation’ of how an audience were expected to respond to it. Reminds me forcibly of how we are still expected to act in a cinema, even though the film may not hold our attention. This next section is contains the jewels.

And finally there is the problem which faces all those who would communicate ideas or information to the public. This is the problem not only of holding attention but of attracting it in the first place. Here the newspaper has two inherent advantages over the BBC, and one which, while not inherent, tends to exist because broadcasting is a monopoly public service. The first two arise from the fact that a newspaper is making a specific appeal to a particular audience and from the attention it can secure from typographical display. The third advantage arises from a freedom which is, in part at any rate, denied to the BBC, or which it has denied itself out of a sense of responsibility to its monopoly position, and the freedom to build up stars who can attract an audience on their own account on whatever subject, within at any rate a certain range, they are writing or speaking. By trial and error newspapers have discovered that with rare exceptions the expert in a particular subject is not necessarily or indeed usually the person most likely to possess those gifts of lucid and pleasing exposition which will attract and hold the public interest. They have found that skill in communication-what we call style and presentation-are of paramount importance, and that readers can be persuaded to read what would otherwise appear to them a dull or difficult subject if it is handled by a professional writer whose previous writings on other subjects they know, and whose personality and style they find attractive. The American radio companies have made great use of this same fact in building up star commentators. The BBC to a very large extent denies itself this means of attracting listeners in the field of public service broadcasting, although it has employed it, of course, very successfully in the realm of entertainment and in that field has established many commentators with a large personal following. But in public service broadcasting it has been shy, perhaps too shy although one sees the hazards of doing so because of the fear on the one hand that a regular professional commentator on public affairs may come to be regarded as expressing the views of the BBC itself and thus as an infringement of its obligation not to hold or express a view of its own or that alternatively he may by the accident of being a good broadcaster be built up into a political and public figure to an extent that would justify criticism.

I am impressed by the way Francis here uses the incumbant, or previous layered media, newspapers, to draw comparisons again. That they can have personality and PS Broadcasters cannot. This basic stance permeated TV, including commercial offerings, and as twitter, blogs, ustream, YouTube, mogulus, podcasts, flickr, vodcasts and all other forms of online self-publishing have taken over TV is now seen as lacking personality. It now represents corporation and impartiality to such an extent that is has been in grave danger of turning only into a distribution channel – and there are plenty of alternatives to that now. But I digress and finish on Francis’s last paragraph which was the dream of TV but which is now being squarely delivered by social media in connected platforms…

I have set out the limits within which, as it seems to me, the BBC has to function in its public service broadcasting because it is only against such a background that one can either properly assess what is already being done or consider what might be done. Of course not all the disadvantages are on the BBC’s side. It has the immense advantage that comes from being an instrument of the spoken word which very many people find much easier and more attractive than the written word, and the advantage also that it can present the actual living clash of ideas in debate and bring, when need be, greater actuality to the spoken word by a dramatic illustration. Yet the limitations remain. They are important. They provide the framework within which public service broadcasting must operate, and the BBC is not justly to be criticized, as it sometimes is, for failing to do things which such a framework does not allow. But has it carried out its responsibilities within the realm of public service broadcasting as efficiently and imaginatively as this framework allows? I think that a year or two ago the answer would have been’no’. Now I think it ‘yes’ though with some qualifications.

Again the new kid compared with the adult (newspapers) – sound vs written word. Both started with high ideals, grew an audience and so began the bandwagon – a million commercial entities flogging their wares off the back of the altruistic beginnings.

I wonder what will happen to the democratised social media form or console games or mobile entertainment or social virtual worlds as they become more dominant – in terms of where we spend most time. Most of those are still tweens compared with TV or radio who have to return to their roots to survive. Will these youngster learn from and respect their elders or carry on throwing stones at the windows of the ‘media form’ retirement home? The excerpts above show that TV was once a kid too, full of ideals, full or promise and had the potential to be a voice. We all have a choice to reflect on the lessons of the past or to mock with closed ears. Which path will you choose?

As a closing thought I would like to throw to one of UK’s most respected broadcasting journalists Jeremy Paxman who in a post entitled How can we trust TV fights for the return of trust in what TV should have become.

“There is a fight going on for the survival of quality television right across this industry. The recent skirmishes and scandals have not gone our way. As an industry we need to lay out much more clearly what we’re doing and why. Let’s spend less time measuring audiences and more time enlightening them.

Despite the last few months, I do not believe that this uniquely powerful medium has been taken over by charlatans. But we ought to acknowledge that parts of it are in danger of losing their redeeming virtues. We need to be open. We need to admit when we make mistakes. We need treat our viewers with respect, to be frank with them about how and why programmes were made, to be transparent.

We need, in short, to rediscover a sense of purpose.”

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