Behind the scenes of BBC Famous People….

0 24 Apr 12

Hot on the heels of one big BBC games project, we have another one to tell you about! This time it was for BBC Schools and was a series of games based around 21 different famous people – ranging from the very well known such as Shakespeare, Dickens and Henry VIII right the way through to lesser-known unsung heroes of the past such as Mary Anning, and Mary Seacole! This is the project that has kept us locked away for the past 6 months, so I thought now was a good time to give you all the run-down as the games have just launched on the BBC Famous People site – accessed via the thumbnails on each famous person’s page.

This project was bigger in scale than the Bitesize project, and had a shorter timescale, so we needed to expand our team a bit…

The team sheet

As always, our core game-design team of myself, Steve, Adam and Chris were on board, but into the mix we added Claire, Marie, Zotos, Jacqui and The Boy Fitz Hammond.

Divvying it up

One of the requirements for this job was to have two separate distinct styles of illustration, to avoid repetition, and to then divide up the famous people into these two styles.

So on one team we had Steve and The Boy Fitz Hammond tackling a cute vector, scenario-based style:

And on the other team we had Claire and Marie tackling a hand-drawn quiz show style:

Get a mechanic!

On paper, when you realise that there are 21 characters, each with 3 mini-games, that makes 63 mini-games that needed creating within 6 months – which seems unfeasible. But the way we got around that was by building game mechanic templates which could be reused multiple times. So whilst all the visual and audio work was going along, Adam, Zotos and myself were busy building these game frameworks which could be re-skinned and re-used across all the different characters. In total there were 6 completely distinct game mechanics, which got mixed and matched depending on the story we were trying to tell for each character. We’re really happy with how flexible they became and how different all the games still feel from each other. For example, here’s 3 different versions of just one of the game mechanics:

Knocking heads together

For each batch of characters (6-8 characters in each batch), we’d start by getting the whole team together, including the folks at the BBC, and doing a whole day of brainstorming, matching visual styles (eg. vector VS hand-drawn) and game mechanics with characters, piecing together a story at the same time. They were always exhausting days but with coffee and cookies as fuel, we always managed to get through all the games!

Now visualise!

On this project, to make sure we kept within the timescales, we skipped the step of sketching out each individual scene. Instead, we started each batch of game by doing four fully worked up visuals for each character, consisting of the main scene and three embedded mini-games. So across the 21 characters that was a whopping 84 different environments that we visualised, ranging from Seb Coe’s Olympic stadium through to a Shakespeare-themed quiz show!

How many storyboards did you say??

The four visuals per character were then enough to allow our storyboard artist Tony to sketch out a full run-through of each character’s game. It was a mammoth task for him, as each character’s storyboard ran to 20 pages, with 3 panels per page. Resulting in an immense 1,260 storyboard panels! Suffice to say he went through an awful lot of blue pencils, and Tony had to bring in his special industrial-grade pencil sharpener!

Once all the sketching had been done, Jacqui and Chris could then get to work researching and writing all the educational content for the games, and mould it in to a cohesive script.

Hearing voices

As with the Bitesize games, we brought the very talented Beth Chalmers on board to tackle voiceover work. This time though she was just responsible for the female voices, whilst the male voices were done by the equally talented David Holt (famous for his Dale Winton impressions!).

We’re still amazed how those guys can switch from Florence Nightingale to Mary Queen of Scots, and Seb Coe to John Logie Baird in the blink of an eye! Across all the games there were probably in excess of 200 different voices and accents needed.

Lots of character!

That leads on nicely to the character design work on the project as well. There was such a vast selection of characters created for all the games, along with associated movable body parts and facial expressions that we can’t show the full extent of it here, but we thought we’d show you a selection of some of our favourites:

Suffice to say that Claire & Marie were rarely seen without a pencil in their hand, whilst Steve and The Boy Fitz Hammond were busy breaking each other’s records for the number of vector points and layers in their Illustrator files, and in Steve’s case he was exploring the possibility of perhaps being able to exceed the maximum possible artboard size in Illustrator – something he never quite succeeded with, but which we’re all sure he’ll one day manage to do.

Now work that magic!

Once we had all the game mechanics done, and all the visuals had been sorted, all that was left was to bring it all together and make them move! Zotos managed to do a time-lapse recording of one of the games being created:

All together now

After a few very hectic months the games had all come together, and all we then had to do was some final polishing. Since there’s so many games to check out, we thought we’d put together a little showreel for you showing some of our favourite bits from across all the games. Enjoy:

On the subs bench

In this project there were a huge number of characters who only popped up for the briefest of appearances, so we thought we’d throw a few of them together here for you all to cast your looking-eyes on:

All wrapped up

And that about covers the last 6 months of our lives! We’ve learnt endless random historical facts… like the origins of the phrase “box office” and the fact that John Logie Baird invented ballon-filled shoes to make it easier to walk! And we’ve hugely enjoyed visualising such a huge variety of places and people. The only question now is… How well do you know your history?

Try the games now online at

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