Behind the Scenes of The Doctor and the Dalek

We caught up with Mat Fidell, a Senior Producer on the Online & Learning team at BBC Cymru Wales in Cardiff to learn more about what went into creating their recent game, The Doctor and the Dalek. In the game, you play as a rogue Dalek, who The Doctor is helping navigate the world of the villainous Cybermen. Behind the game, which was created in Unity, the team at BBC wanted more than just a fun experience. Fidell explains, "When Tony Hall, the Director General of the BBC, announced that he wanted to make 2015 a year of digital creativity ('Make It Digital'), it seemed like an ideal opportunity to combine kids’ passion for Doctor Who with the desire to get them coding. It had also been a few years since we'd made a big Doctor Who game, and games are something we know our audience really want. Plus, we also had a brand new Doctor in Peter Capaldi, and we knew kids would love him, so it seemed like a perfect fit really." Although The Doctor and the Dalek is only available in the UK due to BBC's Public Service rights, it offers a great opportunity to Doctor Who fans young and old alike to play through a unique Doctor Who storyline while learning core coding concepts.

Think like a programmer by putting together a string of commands (bottom) for your Dalek.

To many, The Doctor and the Dalek is just a game, but one of the core purposes behind the game is to help kids learn coding concepts. This is done through an intelligently-designed, and extremely entertaining, drag and drop system you can see in the screenshot above.

The basic concept sees the player getting to drop the commands they want the Dalek to perform on a timeline of sorts before hitting the “Play” button to have the Dalek run the commands, much in the same way coding is done. If you’re familiar with visual scripting systems, think of it sort of like a very simplified version of that.

Although Fidell’s role at BBC involves working on all of the interactive elements for Doctor Who, including additional content such as Doctor Who Extra, it was the learning aspects of the game that made The Doctor and the Dalek more than just another project. “This was a real passion project for me as teaching kids to code is a subject very close to my heart,” Fidell says. “I wrote the original pitch for the game, and then worked with our Exec Producer, Jo Pearce, and the Producer, Richard Jenkins, to develop that into what we thought would make an addictive and fun game, but which also introduced those vital coding concepts.”

Fidell continues, “And once the game had been commissioned, I worked with Richard to help design and create the game.”

The Doctor and the Dalek uses classic characters inside a stylized Doctor Who universe.

While Fidell and Jenkins made up the core team, working within an already-established Doctor Who universe meant they needed to ensure the game fit into that world.

“Anything we make for Doctor Who has to really feel authentic and part of the universe of the show,” Fidell comments. “The TV production team for Doctor Who were heavily involved, the scriptwriter Phil Ford, the team at BBC Learning, our Coding Consultants Rik Cross and Dr. Tom Crick, myself, Jo and Richard. And then of course we have the team that actually designed and built the game at Somethin’ Else.”

Fidell worked with an outsourced team to develop the game.

Working with an outsourced developer offered its own set of challenges. “It’s always a learning curve for people who haven’t worked on Doctor Who before,” Fidell explains. “One of the fabulous things about Doctor Who is that everyone has their own favourite Doctor, and their own understanding of what makes the show great.”

Fidell continues, “But the very nature of Doctor Who is that it is constantly evolving, regenerating. So we need to work in daily contact and we ask developers to show us unfinished work, like early line drawings of an environment or a character. Designers often find this really hard – they don’t want to show us anything until they are happy with it themselves – but because we know the show so intimately we can save a lot of time and heartache by feeding back to them at a very early stage.”

The game needed to uphold high quality standards to meet Doctor Who fan expectations.

Because the game is built on an existing world, it not only needs to fit but it also needs to uphold the high quality standards that Doctor Who fans have come to expect from the show. Fidell explains how this actually helped drive the game, “The quality standard is never a hindrance – in fact it’s a massive help. Anything that doesn’t meet that standard needs to be polished or revised until it exceeds our expectations.”

“That doesn’t make it difficult – it’s a goal to meet,” Fidell continues. “We work closely with the TV production team on everything we do, so it’s actually something we’re really used to.”

A sandbox-like gameplay mode lets you issue commands to your Dalek outside of the story mode.

Even though the game’s story mode is enough to capture any Doctor Who fan’s attention, one of the most addictive aspects of the game comes with the coding system that lets you take control of the Dalek. Used for solving puzzles within the game’s story, there are some sandbox-type modes where you can just play around with controlling the Dalek while helping the player start to think like a programmer.

To develop this system, Fidell recalls his inspiration, “I think it’s important to recognise that inspiration can come from pretty much anywhere – you just have to be open to it and keep your eyes peeled!”

“As a student, I studied Seymour Papert and ended up creating a program designed to teach Turtle Logo for my dissertation,” Fidell continues to explain his inspiration for the game. “The thing I loved about it was that kids learned how to program the Turtle by mimicking its movements with their own body – turn left, move forward, etc. That’s a really natural way for a child to learn.”

“So I started thinking about how to teach kids how to code through the medium of Doctor Who. The idea was that kids could learn in a similar way but with a Dalek,” Fidell continues. “And let’s face it – who doesn’t want to control their own Dalek! That was a real light-bulb moment.”

Commanding your Dalek in story mode helps you solve puzzles in the game.

One of the biggest technical challenges Fidell and his team had to overcome was tackling the multiple camera angles for the game. “We knew that was going to be a real challenge from the outset as you’re switching between two different styles of gameplay as well as two different views,” Fidell states. “But the solution was in the narrative, in the story, which is actually the best possible solution. When we switch from 2D to isometric, we are actually switching to the Doctor’s view of events from the TARDIS. The transition then felt like a natural part of the gameplay because it was a natural part of the story.”

Another challenge for Fidell came from somewhere you probably wouldn’t expect.

“App Store submission can also be a real challenge to get right,” Fidell comments. “My advice would be to have a really detailed and thorough plan, and allow plenty of time so that you get everything lined up – especially when uploading to multiple stores. Each store has its own quirks and dealing with those can cost you a lot of precious time when you really need to be focusing on the game launch.”

Who wouldn’t want to control a Dalek?

Sometimes coming up with a good place to get started is the most difficult thing to do, especially since the way your game starts is going to be the first impression for anyone playing your game.

Fidell draws on his mixed experience working closely with both a TV production team and game developers, “I saw a great interview with John Romero a few weeks ago which basically said ‘Design your first level last’. I thought that was great advice - we do a similar thing in TV; you rarely shoot Episode One of a series first.”

“There is nothing more important than the audience’s first experience of your game,” Fidell states. “Lose them in Level One and you’ve lost them forever. And yet, Level One is always the first one you design! How much more sensible to design all the other levels first, learn what works, and then come back and make Level One totally dynamite!”

As evidenced by BBC’s success in saving their best for first across different mediums such as TV and games, the concept of waiting to design whatever comes first is applicable to just about any creative project. Whether you’re building a game, writing a narrative or building a website, you only get one chance to make a first impression. Make sure it’s a great one.