Image: BBC

Video games and TV have always had a bit of a difficult relationship. For every success like GamesMaster, there have been countless failures that have struggled to capture what people love most about the popular pastime. So, when the BBC spent an estimated £3-4 million on a new video game TV show, called FightBox in the early 2000s, fans were inevitably a bit skeptical about its odds of success.

The show, which aired on BBC Three and BBC Two in 2003 (initially as a replacement for Robot Wars) featured an innovative premise where contestants designed and battled digital avatars in front of a live studio audience. Competitors would face off in a variety of events against other players, with the show's mascots, a group of warriors called The Sentients, also getting in on the action. The BBC had hoped that FightBox would capture the interest of gamers and families and become a regular part of its programming, but production issues, low ratings, and a negative response from the media meant that it only lasted for a single season. We wanted to find out more about what went wrong with this ambitious-yet-flawed TV show, so earlier this year we tracked down its executive producer Finbar Hawkins, and producer Tobias Sturt to hear all about its troubled development.

The story of Fightbox doesn't begin at the BBC however, as you might expect, but at a London-based digital web agency called Bomb Productions.

FightBox Is Born

Hawkins had founded Bomb Productions in 1998 and acted day-to-day as the company’s creative director. Sturt, meanwhile, was Hawkins' best friend from university and was employed at the web agency as a producer — or as he now jokes “an untethered and insufficiently supervised creative". Together they had worked with clients such as, for whom they'd developed an interactive murder mystery drama called Two Minutes. What they really wanted to do, however, was move into producing cross-media projects for TV.

Finbar Hawkins
Finbar Hawkins today — Image: Finbar Hawkins

The agency formed a close relationship with another producer named Nick Southgate and the production company, Ricochet, which specialized at the time in documentaries and what it called "fact-based entertainment". Then, one day in 1999, while out drinking in the New Inn Pub on Old Street, members of the two companies started discussing potential ideas for TV shows when they hit upon the concept that eventually became FightBox.

"The sort of short answer [of how FightBox came to be] is in the pub," says Sturt, "Because we were all in our twenties and there was a pub directly opposite [our offices]. At some point, we had a Dreamcast that a lot of designers played Soul Calibur on and the whole agency would sort of gather around and watch people battle and you would have these sort of informal tournaments where people would drop in and out. That and then everybody playing Quake became this thing where people in the office were treating it almost as a spectator sport, and that then fed into some pub conversation about ‘Could you actually do it? Could you present it as a sport on television?’, which is where FightBox came from."

Hawkins adds, "We were throwing stuff around and FightBox came out of that basically and we started working on it in the kind of white heat of the next day and, 'Wouldn’t it be amazing to do something like that?' So, [something], I guess, inspired by things like Robot Wars but in a virtual way. You’d have all the apparatus to build your own robot, and build your own warrior, but wouldn’t it be great to use all the interactive stuff around that? So, you could build it at home, train it at home, and then there was an element — I think Popstars was around at that time — where you’d get selected and to get onto the show would be a competition itself, and then there would be a live final."

In the aftermath of that meeting in the London pub, the two companies got to work on developing the idea. What they came up with was a gladiatorial-style event, where contestants could compete in various trials with their own digital creations inside a studio. How this would work is that players would be able to access a version of the game at home via a website, where they could design avatars, train, and then face off for a spot on the leaderboard. The producers would then select from the best of the best to come into the studio, where they would go head-to-head live on air.

While searching for funding for a pilot, the creators wrote a story bible for the world, coming up with an original plot about six powerful warriors named The Sentients, and a fictional tournament to find their latest recruit. A small team at Bomb, comprised of Sturt, a producer and editor named Kain Tietzel, and the art director Will Richards also got to work on putting together a "mood video" to try and decide what this show would actually look like on television. This involved cutting together a bunch of clips from a range of different media to find the tone and the kinds of moments that they wanted to replicate onscreen.

"[That was probably] the most enjoyable part of the process," Sturt tells us. "Kain, Will, and I just sat in an editing suite cutting together fight scenes from movies, to create the ultimate fight scene and talked about the rhythm of fight scenes and how we would try to capture that as a sport. So it was like the Subway battle in the Matrix, for example, and Toshio Mifune in Yojimbo. We were putting together lots of things and lots of periods to try and get a sense of this is going to work televisually."

"There was a mood video created to get the tone of the show across," says Hawkins. "Wow, I've not thought of that for a long time. It featured a bunch of epic, thrilling, and funny fight moments: the Neo and Morpheus kung-fu fight, Takeshi's Castle, Tex Avery slapstick, Muhammed Ali knocking out Sonny Liston, etc. Kain worked at Bomb, so he edited it, and Will was our art director, so he oversaw the look of it."

Of course, in addition to coming up with a look and a story, both Bomb and Ricochet also needed to find out whether a "video game TV show" was something they could actually pull off for real. Neither company had any prior experience in creating gaming engines or knew whether the technology even existed to present a show like this. So, they began searching for a camera rig that was capable of real-time compositing. This was a lengthy process, which involved speaking to a bunch of different companies including one entity whose camera technology was apparently used in Israeli missiles, according to Hawkins. Eventually, though, they stumbled across the BBC's 'FreeD' Virtual Camera System.

The BBC Gets Involved

FreeD was a special camera system that the BBC had set up in several of its studios in order to create real-time virtual sets. Each camera had a small box on top of it that contained another miniature camera and LEDs to triangulate its position inside a 3D space using tiny markers attached to the ceiling. This made it possible to composite digital elements directly into an image as it was being filmed, rather than doing everything in post.

BBC Television Centre
BBC Television Centre where FightBox was filmed — Image: Des Blenkinsopp/Creative Commons

As Hawkins tells us, the system was exactly what they were looking for, and after a few more years of internal development, a meeting with the BBC's production staff was set up in early 2002. Richochet and Bomb hired a small studio at the BBC to put together a pilot for the idea, and also enlisted the help of the Yorkshire-based developer named Runecraft to design a quick fighting rig. This was a developer who at the time was mostly known for creating ports and licensed games based on Barbie, Jim Henson's The Hoobs, and Butt-Ugly Martians.

"We created a pilot out of the BBC," says Hawkins, "It was like a five-minute pilot using this setup. We’d found somebody who could help us and they set up a little kind of fighting rig with the characters, and we got a live audience and a presenter and slapped some Fat Boy Slim on it — “Right Here, Right Now”. Stuart Murphy, who was the controller of BBC Three, saw that and that’s how the ball started rolling."

BBC Three and BBC Two commissioned FightBox in November 2002, with BBC Worldwide contributing to the show’s budget and BBC Online (then BBCi) agreeing to liaison with Bomb Productions on the creation of its website. The idea was to launch the website aspect of the cross-media project in March 2003, with the show to debut in the Autumn of the same year on BBC Three, followed by BBC Two.

With the clock now ticking, BBC Worldwide encouraged Bomb and Ricochet to solicit pitches from potential development partners. Those who competed for the contract included Runecraft who had helped out on the pilot, in addition to other UK studios like Kuju and Warthog. Kuju and Warthog, however, had some concerns.

Edge 124
Gaming magazine Edge dedicated some pages to FightBox in Issue 124 — Image: Edge

"[Kuju] told us, 'This is reality. We can build this for you and we can do this, but you need to move your broadcast date and your TX date to this,'" says Hawkins. "[We] were aghast: 'We can't possibly do that. Don't you understand television?' But they were quite right: they gave us reality. Then [Warthog], another studio, gave us their version of reality, and this is also a good one. They said, ‘Well, why are you building it? Just do it in post [production]'. But we were trying to do everything really purist, like, ‘No, we need to build this system to function live, and we need to tie our game engine in.’ That was our vision."

In the end, Bomb and Ricochet stuck with Runecraft, as the studio was the only one that would assure them that it could deliver the engine and assets in time for broadcast. Hawkins and Sturt believe now, though, that they were probably just telling them what they wanted to hear.

Sturt recalls, "The people we ended up working with were — and again, this is slight naivety — very adamant that they could build a [full] fighting engine and have it ready for TV and interfaced with the BBC’s technology in time. [In hindsight], we probably should have questioned that a little bit more."

Following the show’s commissioning, life became somewhat chaotic for its producers. While Ricochet went through the arduous process of hiring the crew and the presenters, as well as planning out the sets and the structure of the program, Bomb worked on the website and travelled up to Yorkshire to meet with the developers and design the individual events. This meant countless face-face meetings and constantly trying to get across how the show would work in a real 3D space.

"There was no easy way [to do it remotely back then]," says Hawkins. "It was basically you and a group of game designers and developers and we’d do a lot of it in the car park actually because it was about the mapping of physical space. You had to be thinking about this in TV terms, it had to be a visual thing, right? So that was all part of it, and then I would liaise closely with Nick. [...] I was repeating myself a lot because you’d be in these meetings and constantly drawing it — ‘This is where this goes’ — so people could get their heads around it. It was hard to get people to understand really."

Sturt recalls, "I remember staying in this house [near the studio in Dewsbury] and I just remember sitting in the living room of that beating our heads against the wall. You’d come up with five stupid ideas and then one is like, ‘Oh, that’s right!’ And then the development guy would be like, ‘No, in this time frame? No, no, no!’”

Fightbox website
The FightBox website circa 2003 — Image: BBC

The final design of the show was put together under a tremendous time crunch but somehow the people involved managed to pull it off. They ended up coming up with six possible events, which contained the following games:

  • Conquest - Players must walk over tiles to claim as much land as possible within a time limit while also avoiding various traps.
  • Demolition - Played one at a time. Contestants must smash blocks to earn points. The blocks may also contain unexpected surprises such as enemy Sentients and Zombie Warriors.
  • Duel - Contestants battle against The Sentients with special pick-ups that are scattered around the arena. Players must keep landing attacks to rack up more points.
  • Helix - A spiral-shaped obstacle course that is played one at a time. Points are awarded based on how quickly players can reach the top.
  • Panic - A versus-style game where players must keep smashing blocks to score as many points as possible. Two Sentients' are gradually lowered into the arena as the game is underway.
  • And Revolution - A head-to-head game where players must collect cubes in order to score points. The most valuable cube spawns in the center of a revolving platform that is patrolled by the Sentients.

The show would film on an amphitheater-style set in Studio One, with the audience facing a screen that was positioned above the pit to show them what was being captured on camera. Contestants, meanwhile, would sit inside different-coloured pods located on the arena floor, where they would be able to control their avatars via a desktop computer synced up to the BBC's technology. There were also some game show trappings too, such as live play-by-play commentary from The World's Strongest Man's Paul Dickenson, the appearance of presenters Trevor Nelson and Lisa Snowden, and special FightBox cheerleaders who would taunt the losers as they left the arena. It was all beginning to like a real show but as final preparations got underway for filming, pretty much everything that could go wrong did.

A Disappointing End

To start, the studio Runecraft, which was struggling financially, went bust during production, and as a result, BBC Worldwide had to swoop in and save the developer to keep the show and its video game tie-ins from being put into jeopardy The BBC acquired the company and ended up renaming it Gamezlab, where it became part of BBC Multimedia, operating with a reduced headcount.

As if that wasn't bad enough, on the first day of filming in July 2003, as Bomb and Ricochet were ready to shoot, the BBC's production crew turned on its cameras to see black blobs running around in place of any characters. Production stalled for two more weeks, with BBC Worldwide having to pay to keep Studio 1 and the production crew locked down until the issue was fixed. It wasn’t the greatest of omens, but the show did manage to overcome the problem and film all 20 episodes of its first season.

The first episode was broadcast on BBC Three on the 13th of October, but it quickly became apparent, after just a few shows had been aired, that it was struggling to find an audience on TV, despite the spectacular success of its website.

On November 5th, 2003, The Guardian wrote the following about the show in an article titled "BBC3's Fightbox on the ropes":

"FightBox has been broadcast each weekday evening at 7.30pm since Monday October 13, hitting a high of 56,000 viewers last Thursday, followed by a low of just 6,000 the following night, a figure that it perilously close to a zero rating in the BARB audience measurement system."

The hope was that the show might pick up some more viewers when it aired on BBC Two later in the year, but after a short stint in Robot Wars' old slot on a Friday evening, the show was moved to a Sunday morning instead. That meant that the show that was primarily created with a family audience in mind was now being broadcast solely to children. The writing was on the wall.

"[The controller of BBC 2] Jane Root hated it," says Sturt. "The time slot move was the sign of ‘Oh okay, you’re not even going to try and get an audience for this? You’re just going to dump it.’"

"I remember the call," says Hawkins. "Nick called me, and I just felt sick, because that killed us. It’s great if you’re a young kid watching that, but in terms of targeting the people they wanted to target, it's obvious we weren't hitting the numbers or [Jane Root] didn’t like the look of it. I managed to grab her — not literally — but I managed to get to see her and say, ‘Did you see it?’ [...] It was all a bit Alan Partridge. Like looking for a second commission."

It was clear from this decision that the FightBox experiment had failed. There wasn't going to be a second season, and the BBC was already ready to admit defeat. For its creators, it was heartbreaking. The show had been plagued with issues and bad luck and had cost BBC Worldwide much more than it had initially anticipated, but the belief was that they could gradually smooth off its rough edges over time. Unfortunately, Bomb and Ricochet never got the chance.

In early 2004, BBC Multimedia announced three video games based on FightBox, for the PC, PS2, and Game Boy Advance — all of which had been in development before the BBC had shut down hopes of a second season — but without new episodes to generate interest they were mostly ignored.

It was a sad ending for a project that the BBC had once had such high hopes for. And to rub salt in the wound, not long after, another BBC show came along called Bamzooki, which seemed to do the same thing, albeit for a younger audience. That show also used the BBC's 'FreeD' technology and focused on creating and battling small virtual robots called 'Zooks'. It was a huge success, eventually lasting four seasons and a total of 56 episodes. Fightbox, on the other hand, was mostly forgotten except by those who worked on it and those who took part.

"It didn’t quite work as a game show," says Sturt, reflecting on the show today. "It didn’t get the structure right, it didn’t quite get the rhythm right. Which is the thing we could have improved on. I think we didn’t quite nail the tone. There was quite a big battle behind the scenes between us and the TV people, where the TV people wanted something a lot more game show understandably because they knew the audience they were trying to reach and we were kind of being super serious and po-faced about it. And actually, that meant that it didn’t quite find its tone. We needed to have all aligned in one direction and really gone for it."

"It got covered in the politics," Hawkins says. "And it had a lot of bad luck with it in terms of the studio going bust. But that’s what I mean about fighting for it because I could see it. There is something here and if we could break through with this it will evolve the way we experience entertainment."

Today, some of the old episodes have been uploaded to YouTube. So, if you fancy seeing the show for yourself, you can view most of it online and form your own opinion.