Bar Karma is not just a place where everyone knows your name, but your fate. Existing outside of time and space, it is an unexpected destination for people facing life-changing decisions to stop and consider their options with the titular bar’s enigmatic staff before resuming their lives. Premiering on Current TV this Friday February 11, 2011, Bar Karma was created by gaming legend Will Wright (SimCity, The Sims, Spore) who had an idea not just to make a television show, but to change the way television shows are made. Newsarama spoke to him recently about the challenges of bringing a game world toolset to the small screen.
Newsarama: To the uninitiated, what makes Bar Karma different from other television shows?
Will Wright: What we wanted to do is create a television show that was primarily created and driven by a community on the internet of viewers and fans. It’s kind of experimental, we started this about a year ago, when we had a closed beta of a couple of thousand people who came up with the idea for the show. They created and developed the cast of characters, the back-story, we got them involved in every creative aspect of the show that we could. Going forward, we have the community every week working on the next episode, its plotlines and storylines. The gist of it was ‘how can we build a television show that in fact is created and developed by the [online] community.’ What we ended up with was a show set in a bar that’s a fantasy/sci-fi/dark comedy about people who drop into this bar unexpectedly facing major karmic decisions. We wanted something that felt like The Twilight Zone really, telling human stories but having some fun with it.
Nrama: You touched on the genesis of the show just now, but what came first, the karmic, out-of-time bar setting or the idea of using community-generated content to create stories?
Wright: The community-generated content was at the core of the project, we had no idea what the television show was going to be. We started this community and started building tools where players could create their own storylines. Within the original community we asked, ‘ok what kind of show do you want to make?’ and we posted treatments and they came up with some of their own. We ended up with thirteen original treatments that were written and were discussed, and we eventually voted on our winning treatment, which we used to call “Pour Karma,” we renamed it later. From the very beginning, it was all the fans: the bar idea, the karma idea, the characters, et cetera.
Nrama: What degree of control does the community have over the direction of the show, now that production has begun, could they, for example, kill a character?
Wright: I felt that they understand the parameters that we are working with, they understand that we have a regular cast. There are a lot of [fixed] things, like actor contracts and set design and so on. Killing off a main character might be up for discussion as part of a long term plot arc, but not in the short term. Every week we have new characters coming into the bar, and anything goes with those people, they can become reoccurring characters, they can be historical characters. I think that there are certain parameters that we work within and have informed the community about these parameters. One of the things that are involved in is integrating the sponsors into the show. The sponsors are in some sense clients and so they have to understand that we do not want to show the sponsors in a bad light.
Nrama: Unlike the single-player experience found in simulation gaming, the decisions for Bar Karma are voted on. Is there worry about frustrating community members who can’t get their ideas implemented?
Wright: Like in any community, everyone is free to pitch ideas but it’s up to you to sell that idea. It is kind of a Darwinian process. So if we have a hundred of people submitting ideas, they are not all going to be selected. I think that’s just something that people can understand, they are used to online communities, sometimes people get excited by their ideas and sometimes they don’t, you just have to keep trying. We try to give people feedback when we have top-level ideas that we don’t select, we’ll give feedback on why we didn’t. Maybe it’s because it would be not within our budget or maybe not fit the theme of the show so that they can understand and learn from that and have a better shot next time. What we are trying to do is educate the viewing community that wants to learn how television is actually made and what the creative decision process is as we, and the community, are selecting ideas.
Nrama: Days short of the premier, how would you gauge the public’s response so far to Bar Karma? Has the community grown?
Wright: [Laughs] Well as you say, it hasn’t really aired yet and nobody’s seen it, but we just got back from an event in New York as part of a Social Media Week event where [Co-Creator and Executive Producer] Albie [Hecht] screened the pilot to a room of about fifty to a hundred people. We have several community members there and there was a good response during the Q and A afterward.
Nrama: What prompted this move into television production?
Wright: I’ve always been interested in online communities, especially creative communities, which is probably reflected in the game experiences I had with The Sims and Spore. What primed my interest is basically, ‘how do we harness these communities for different purposes?’ Television, by its nature is fairly experimental and it also is considered traditional linear storytelling. We saw with The Sims lots of people were using it as an engine to tell their own unique individual stories, and we got very interested in the idea of getting people to work together on stories and television seemed like the right medium to focus that on. For me it’s about building this community, and television is really the focal point for this project.
Nrama: Software has not been totally cut out of this project, you’ve developed an application called Storymaker to power this community, what can you tell us about that?
Wright: When I was thinking about how to get everyone collaborating on the same story opposed to everyone telling their own story, it became a structural issue. The metaphor we ended up going with is this branching tree of possibilities, what that is kind of a cross between Choose Your Own Adventure and a storyboard, so people are putting up ‘scene level’ storyboards of what might happen in an episode but they are branching off from each other. At the beginning of an episode we know it’s about a football player, for instance, and anyone can put in what the first scene should be, but someone else can go in there and write the second scene or the third scene. So we have people branching off each other’s scenes as we are doing this, the idea being that we end up with lots of people working on all the possible directions this episode might go and the end of the day we lock it down and then they vote on the plotline through this branching tree of possibilities. That’s what the Storymaker is really all about. We are also using Storymaker for other challenges regarding props, the names of drinks or something that might appear in the background of a shot. We are actually kind of generalizing it, so they can use it for all kinds of creative contributions outside of storylines as well.
Nrama: Any special challenges you’ve come across working in television that you hadn’t seen in gaming?
Wright: There are challenges that Albie faces on the production side. Typically you’d have your writers on a much longer time frame so you could plan production and figure out what actors or sets you need, but we’ve tried to compress the production schedule on this show down the absolute minimum such that when the fans create a show it’s on the air about four weeks later.
Nrama: What is your personal metric for Bar Karma’s success?
Wright: I think different people have layers of success. For TV, it’s all about ratings but for me it’s about building a thriving community. I want to have a thriving community of people investing their time and energy and getting a feeling that it’s creatively fulfilling. And that they are meeting other people that they are working with as creative partners. As a result of this there would be a high quality television show that they can say they had a part in.
Nrama: Are you hoping to start a trend of community developed television shows? The Community Show as the new Reality Show?
Wright: It remains to be seen how well this goes, but it is a new model, maybe as different as Survivor was as a different model. There are a lot of different possibilities within this new genre.
Nrama: Finally, just to allay some fears from gamers, you haven’t permanently abandoned gaming?
Wright: No not at all. I’m spending about a third of my time on game projects.
Nrama: Any hints?
Wright: There are some I’m working on but I can’t talk about them yet.
Bar Karma premiers on Current TV this Friday February 11th, fans can get in on the development of the show at Current.com/shows/bar-karma.