56 Sage Street: the story behind the game
13th August 10
Author: Ali Merry, Creative, BBH London
The first release of 56 Sage Street – BBH London & B-Reel’s game for Barclays – went live last month and, we´re happy to say, has just received NMA’s Campaign of the Month. Ali, one of the creatives behind the project agreed to tell us the story behind the game’s inception, how it got made and what the team learned along the way.
A bit of background first
Barclays are trying to improve teenagers’ understanding of banking. They want to educate them about direct debits, loans, statements, fraud avoidance and general money management. They’d had some success with an educational board game but needed to reach a wider audience.
We liked the idea of a game. Sim City was about money management and teenagers loved it. We could take those principles and make something a bit more Grand Theft Auto. If we put it online and made it free, we’d be laughing. We put together a mood film to show off our thinking.
It opened with the cinematic intro sequence from Halo 2 followed by a motorbike scene from Grand Theft Auto. We segued into a clip from Celebrity Deathmatch and finished with Sim City. The theme tune from Lock Stock gave it a UK flavour. The Client seemed impressed and our producers gave us a look that said “what the faaaahh …?”
The game had to be produced in six months, and a few days with a panel of game experts set us straight. They thought a predominantly text based, point and click strategy game might be do-able, built in flash and written in xml. We nodded. It could look good and would rely on gameplay to get the financial lessons across.
We put down Grand Theft Auto and re-acquainted ourselves with Druglord, Leisure Suite Larry and Skool Daze. In the absence of a better plan we started writing stories. After about thirty they all started to sound the same so we stopped.
In the end a simple rags to riches tale felt right. A teenager comes to the city to try and make it big. We couldn’t shake the thought of something written by Jeffrey Archer, directed by Shane Meadows.
We wrote in characters – landlords, fraudsters, nice old ladies and business partners. The player was given a guardian angel called Mr. C (a working title that stuck). He would help them initially and then set a series of tests (flash games). If they passed the tests and proved they could make money, he’d help them to better parts of town and eventually give them his business to run. The player was free to make money and spend it how they wanted. If they managed it well they’d end up at 56 Sage Street, the home of Mr C’s empire.
The build (part 1)
Once the story felt like it made sense we gave it to B-Reel who were dying to get on with it. They had a city to build and we’d been faffing about wondering whether teenagers would prefer Detectives or Private Investigators (the answer was neither).
Time was too tight to storyboard the 300 or so buildings that made up the map. We didn’t want the city to look like a Richard Curtis film so we sent B-Reel Nil by Mouth and Red Road to set the tone. After seeing how good they were, we made mood boards and let them get on with it.
We knew James Sheahan (@metagames) from the panel experts and a stint he’d done at BBH. He was a proper gamer (he once moved house when it could no longer hold his board game collection) a coder and fortunately for us, worked like a maniac.
He sat in BBH for about 3 months and amongst many other things acted as the techie link between us and B-Reel. They built everything in flash and James inputted the xml code, worked out the game logic and made sure it played well.
The code contained every possible scenario that might happen in the game. Players would start and end at the same place but no one would take the same journey to the end.
We tried to visually plot scenarios with post it notes but once you have 300 of them on a wall you just get the fear.
We talked about the story and considered what jobs you might do if you were that teenager. Where would you stay, who would you run into, what food would you eat?
In the end there was about 500 ideas (spots), many of which linked together as the player moved through the city.
We tried to write them with a tone that seemed right for the area they were in. As the player moved up through the world they would sound more confident in their exchanges. Different versions were written depending on whether you were playing as the boy or the girl.
Stories and scenarios were researched continuously with the same group of teenagers. Initially we wanted to write for them but it’s too hard so we studied the research and then just wrote things we thought were interesting and funny.
A telling research exchange:
Teenager – Can you make it so you can join a crew or a gang?
Researcher – Perhaps. Would your reputation level decrease?
Teenager – Decrease? Nah, it would rise. Yeah definitely rise!
We didn’t include the gang but took the point. There was a healthy tension between what teenagers wanted to do and what Barclays were happy to put their name to.
Mark, the client
Our account man Fergus was the most confident member of our team (and possibly Agency). Unfortunately he left but by the time he did, he’d gee’d everyone up to the point we genuinely believed we were making something groundbreaking (or better).
It was important that Mark believed this as he set the game tone – would Barclays be ok with the selling of inflatable England players at a market stall? Yes. Was it ok to have a dance club with a red light above the door? No. Could you sleep in a skip? Yes. A bin? No.
Nightclubs were a no no, so was car jacking, guns and anything clearly on the wrong side of the law. In were night shipments, a mugging, sketchy market traders and nights spent wandering the streets. Unsurprisingly, the restrictions made us more creative that we might have otherwise been.
Around 90% of the ideas were approved immediately and if the game’s any good it’s got a lot to do with Mark’s judgement.
The build (part 2)
Once approved, we spaced the spots over four areas of the city, in equalish fashion. The city changed as the player moved through it and the spots had to reflect that.
James translated the approved spots into xml game logic. We’d then look at it and see roughly how the dialogue would flow. If it felt like it worked we wrote the exact copy and if it didn’t, we came up with another spot.
The intro and final film sequences were storyboarded but we didn’t spend enough time casting Mr C. Watching the initial render and seeing him in the car, our v/o producer piped up with, “Who’s the pimp?” She had a point and it could have been a big deal but B-Reel quickly gave him a wife and a friendly looking haircut. He looked good and we changed into clean pairs of pants.
The immovable deadline (that kept getting moved)
The deadline was set for May 21st, June 1st, then July 1st. The problem was the map kept filling up with buildings and we kept filling the buildings with things to do, and things that linked.
The more ideas we had, the bigger the game became. By mid June the copy was running into 25,000 words and we were having second thoughts about one of the mini games. B-Reel were going spare, James Computer MaSheahan was sleeping for about half an hour a night and no-one dared ask Mark how he felt about mid-July.
Facebook and beyond
We knew we had to get this on Facebook but didn’t want it to be the only platform. We included the facebook connect share and save functionality. With direct links in and out of the game it feels pretty integrated.
The game did go live on July 1st and we’ve had over 55,000 players in the first 4 weeks. We’re changing and tweaking it based on their comments. The balance between entertainment and learning seems about right and Barclays have been roundly praised for doing something different.
We’ve got a marketing strategy to keep the game fresh and get more teenagers playing and learning. The first of these ‘content bombs’ will be deployed over the next few weeks. Run for cover…
The game continues to evolve and we’d like to adapt it for teenagers with different degrees of financial knowledge. There’s talk of 56 Sage Street The Movie and a TV series (sounds like another mood film’s on the cards…). Whatever happens, hopefully this version is just the start.
Some things we’ll take with us
1. Work with people you want to show off to.
We were in a team where everyone thought everyone else was great at their job, and wanted to show each other how good they were, the whole time. Everyone believed in what we were doing and wanted everything to be good, not just their bits. I showed this piece to Sukhi yesterday and her response was, “Duuude it’s way too long [she was right - Ed.]. It takes ages to get to the good bits and you don’t know what you’re talking about when it comes to Facebook. Do you want me to send it to Mark?”
2. If it doesn’t work, do something else (quickly).
We once spent a day and night putting together an eighty frame comic book to illustrate a story route we were really keen on. We presented and it got kyboshed on frame two because it had Police in it. We could’ve asked about Police before and saved some time but then again Barclays might have loved it so much they’d try to make it happen. We wrote the next route in a three line email and they were happy.
3. The answer’s not always a game.
We wanted to give the audience something they’d like enough to spend time with (who doesn’t?) and it just made sense to do the game. Could’ve been a film, though I can’t imagine the direct debit scene. 56 Sage Street is a relatively small and simple project, produced on a fraction of a ‘real game’ budget. Even so it ate all our time, nerves and patience. Next time everything will be different, but the way we’ll go about it will probably be the same.
Names in bold denote those that pulled all nighters, cried and neglected their real life in order to get this game out on time.
Client – Mark Brayton
Creative Director – Johan Baettig
Creative and Game Writer – Ali Merry
Engagement Planners – Ben Shaw, Emma Caldwell, Daniele Orner-Ginor
Account Team – Fergus Hay, Tim Houghton George Scotland, Gemma Sandland, Carl Mueller, Keir Mather
Production Company – B-Reel (New York)
Game consultant & programmer – James Sheahan, Metagames
Digital Producers – Sukhi Kaur, Tessa Christou, Danna Koonce
V/O Producers – Lucy Powell, Sam Brock
Media Company – Walker
Research Company – Firefish
Hosting Company – Cantos & Barclays IT
Thanks also go to David Millard (Games Design Consultant, Wonder Arcade) for his early design input, Johan Tesch (initial Creative Director), Matthew Kershaw, Caio Giannella, Diego Oliveria and Kim Murray.