Lost Humanity 11: Games TV, Again
Rob Florence on the dearth of gaming TV - and its hopes for the future.
I used to present a BBC show about video games. There were three series in total, with the last series this ridiculous sprawling thing with two TV specials and about 18 online episodes. It was hard work, often fun work, and barely anybody watched any of it. We existed in a time before the iPlayer, and the show went out on BBC Scotland in a late night slot. We were commissioned by a guy at BBC Scotland called Ewan Angus, and I remember his sole pointer being "I don't want to understand a word of it." There are very few heroes on the broadcast side of television, but Ewan Angus is often one of them. It was a brave commission, and I haven't seen anything like it since.
I can hardly believe the show existed. In one episode we had Colin Baker in character as Doctor Who, talking about Chuckie Egg, in an appearance that we considered Doctor Who canon. In another episode we had Charlie Brooker reviewing terrible games that myself and my co-host Ryan Macleod had made. In another we had Jonathan Coulton performing an acoustic version of "Still Alive" from Portal, having just been introduced by the legendary, sadly missed Frank Sidebottom. We had Dominik Diamond too, The King, spitting into a Children in Need bucket and being hauled about on a moving platform. We had Tim & Eric, from Awesome Show Great Job, as our American correspondents. It was a surreal, amazing experience, made possible by a ballsy TV commissioner who gave us something close to carte blanche. The show wasn't perfect by any means, but every mistake and misfire was ours.
It's now more than four years since the show ended, and I've been waiting for something else to come along. The situation right now, with iPlayer on every games console, is ideal. A TV show about games, even in a horrible slot somewhere in the arse end of the BBC schedules, would be pushed directly to the target audience on iPlayer. Turn off your game, take a break, turn on the iPlayer, watch the show. And so easy to promote, too. With Twitter and Facebook and so on, the members of that demographic would be reminding each other of the show's existence. Perfect! So, the show has to be coming, right? Something must be coming.
Since videoGaiden ended, the only games-related show that made any kind of impact was Charlie Brooker's Gameswipe. Charlie could make a show about coprophilia entertaining, so it was no surprise that it went over well. When I was recording my bit for the show, I remember feeling a bit sad. I remember thinking that there would probably be a rush of pitches for new games shows to the broadcasters after this show went out, just when I'd stopped doing the games stuff, and that I'd probably missed the boat somehow. And maybe those pitches did happen, but nothing emerged from them. Since that night on BBC4 there's been nothing. (And forgive me if I've forgotten something important. I'm not trying to snub anyone here - I just haven't seen it.)
If those pitches did happen, I wonder if these two questions killed them.
"Is there an appetite for a games TV show?" It's a question I'm often asked, and it's certainly one of the questions most asked by a broadcaster. I've always thought that the question was a silly one. No-one asks if there's an appetite for a panel show about music, or if there's an appetite for a drama about doctors. Good shows are good shows, whatever they're about. A good TV show with good people attached will always find an audience. Not necessarily a large audience, but an audience none the less. Audience talk is a distraction. You can make a great show about nothing, and grow it into a success. You can create an appetite by showing people something tasty.
"But won't the people you're making it for be playing games and not watching TV?" This is the other big question. This one suggests that gamers are weird oddballs who only play games. You're either a geeky shut-in gamer or you're a functioning member of society who partakes in many different pastimes. What is true, I think, is that people who play games are the ones most likely to not be watching TV traditionally. This goes back to what I said earlier. The iPlayer and 4OD let you deliver TV to games consoles. Why is no-one taking advantage of that?
I really, really love TV about games. It always feels a little bit... punk. Let me try to explain what I mean.
There's a strange attitude within certain areas of the games industry towards gaming TV. You would think that games publishers and console manufacturers would be supportive of shows that highlight their products, right? That isn't really the case, in my experience. When we did the BBC show, there was very little good communication from the industry. We were constantly asking for previews of games and being ignored, or asked to do unacceptable things. (I remember that we were invited to try out a game inside something called The Nintendo House with a PR person in attendance. I think we were supposed to cover the game while that PR person stood over us, which is a frankly ridiculous situation that we would never agree to. I think that kind of thing still goes on.) It was common for us to be asked "What are you going to say?" before we were sent stuff to review. Which is, y'know, a sickening madness.
It's about control, of course. The games industry is pretty hardcore with that stuff. For games publishers and their PR teams, it's all about controlling the flow of information about their games. It's about making sure that the advance word is as good as it could possibly be, that the exclusives roll out at the right moment, that the embargoes are respected, and that the Metacritic average is as high as possible - by any means necessary.
And a TV show, certainly one on the BBC, can't possibly play that game. The industry doesn't like that. Mavericks with a wide reach? Unacceptable. (Just take a look, for example, at how the Inside Xbox guys were treated on Xbox Live. From nothing, and with next to no money, they created a fun, regular stream of gaming TV content. It was content that grew an identity and spoke with its own voice. It was often off-message and honest. It was no surprise to me that Microsoft killed it.)
Yeah, so games TV, when it works, should feel like it's making trouble. I think that's the main reason why people loved GamesMaster so much. The format itself is a poor one. It was something that really shouldn't have worked. But the sheer force of Dominik Diamond's personality made the show a winner. He always seemed like a bit of a bad boy, sneaking rude language onto teatime TV. He was one of us.
So here I am again, desperate to watch a TV show about games. I want to be able to turn off Dark Souls, calm myself down, make a cup of tea, and then watch a show about games on my console. It can be iPlayer, it can be 4OD, I don't care. I just want to be able to find that show and watch it whenever it's convenient for me. A new episode every week. Something with a super-low budget. No big trips to Japan for games shows. No interviews with boring developers. Something punter-level. Something that feels like a chat with your pals. Something funny.
The last time I felt like this, I started an online show called Consolevania. A thing I loved with people I love. It remains one of the things I'm most proud of, and it's a really hard thing to let go of. I think when you choose to be involved in Gaming TV, you're in there forever. You feel like you should always be involved somehow, particularly when the field is barren. Particularly when, god help us, there is nothing on for us to watch.
About ten years ago, when I was first trying to get a gaming TV show off the ground, I would hear this a lot:
"Just you wait until all the people with the power at these TV channels are people who grew up playing games. Then it'll be easy."
Well, I know a lot of the current crop of powerful people in telly. And I know for a fact that they did grow up playing games. So it'll be easy now?
I suppose I'm about to find out.