Zooks! How interactivity came to play on CBBC

PROJECT TITLE: BAMZOOKI

SHORT STORY SYNOPSIS: Children’s studio gameshow in which viewers build and play with virtual creatures – or zooks. The Bamzooki toolkit for series 1 was available on CD-ROM, but from series 2 onwards was made available for free download from the CBBC website.

FORMAT: Four series – initially 20 x 14’ episodes, later extended to 30’ episodes, for TV plus CD-ROM for series 1 and website and online design elements from series 2 onwards

PRODUCTION COMPANIES: BBC in-house production; software development by Gameware

STATUS: Completed

RELEASE DATES: Series 1 – 2004; series 2 – 2005; series 3 – 2006; hiatus before programme’s return for series 4 in 2009

THE PROJECT

Bamzooki was devised, developed and first directed and produced for the BBC by Paul Tyler. In 1999 the BBC was eager to develop its potential to produce cross-platform projects incorporating what was then frequently termed new media. Tyler, working for the BBC’s Children’s department, attended a course in Holland where he became influenced by the work of the American computer graphics artist Karl Sims, who since the early nineties had been creating computer-simulated artificial life with algorithms. “It was one of the first times I’d seen something that was computer-orientated but was also entertaining,” Tyler remembers. Looking at Sims’ work, Tyler became conscious that in order to fuse the experiences of television and computer games, an entertaining formula was crucial – something which could bring the engagement audiences seek in TV shows to the more solitary experience of gaming. His solution was to develop an idea which allowed viewers to influence the content of the show and bring them into competition with other viewers.

Over the years, the Bamzooki pages on the CBBC website have become an interactive hub and virtual meeting place for fans of the show

Tyler’s idea was enthusiastically received by the Head of Children’s programmes and subsequently the Head of BBC1, who was keen to commission it as a Saturday night entertainment series. He secured £1 million from the BBC’s internal Imagineering department, and began working towards a prototype and pilot for a primetime series, in the Robot Wars mould, to be called Evo Warriors, or Evo, in which viewer-designed creatures would compete against one another. Hewlett Packard and Creature Labs, a small Cambridge-based computing company, were brought on board to work on software design. But the new media bubble burst, and enthusiasm for this big budget, cross-platform series waned – particularly after another interactive show, Fightbox, had a lacklustre outing on BBC3.

Tyler returned to work as a CBBC studio director, but remained committed to his idea and the successful work on software development which had gone into it. In 2003, he presented an idea for a smaller-scale children’s studio show which would again involve creatures designed by the viewers competing against each other. His head of department was impressed, and Bamzooki was born.

Viewers compare zooks in online leagues

The show ran for three series, with software based on artificial life programming techniques designed by Gameware, a company which emerged from Creature Labs. Tyler, who now teaches interaction design in Copenhagen, directed and produced the early series, but left the BBC in 2005. After a break of several years Bamzooki returned to screens in 2009.

AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT

Before the launch, Tyler explains, the Bamzooki team followed a standard gameshow strategy for recruiting participants and specifically, in this case, finding interesting creatures to design and create. CBBC viewers were invited to send in pictures of their zooks, and the first Bamzooki competitors were selected from these. During series 1, viewers were sent 8MB CD-ROM software in the post on which to design zooks; from series 2 onwards the Bamzooki toolkit was launched online for free download.

Viewing figures and downloads were both strong: during Tyler’s involvement with the show over 100,000 zooks were uploaded, and software downloads exceeded 1 million. And yet, he says, among BBC commissioning heads, “it was a bit like Marmite. Either people really loved the show or they didn’t get it.” So while the series had a “very very strong following” at the time of Tyler’s departure in 2005, it wasn’t commissioned again until 2009. Bamzooki’s hosts were CBBC favourites – Jake Humphreys for the early series, and Barney Harwood for the more recent run.

When he was working on the show, Tyler was keen to ensure that quality control was built into the submission process – the software was deliberately kept “quite difficult”, he says, “so that we wouldn’t be swamped with content that wasn’t useful to us.” Now, he says, he might take a different approach. “If I ever did the project again I would probably spend a certain amount on usability and really focus on that. I think I would still maintain certain barriers to entry to make sure there were certain filters, but I would focus on trying to make the content a lot more user-friendly than at the time.”

“I could have been inspired by usability issues that children had,” he continues, “and then produced something that was even more attractive.” Despite the initial work towards Evo, Tyler feels he didn’t come all that close to developing this idea to engage an adult audience. With Bamzooki, he wanted to offer his young audience something new. “I didn’t want to just produce the thing that people thought that children wanted.”

LINKS

Bamzooki’s CBBC homepage

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