Mudlark are a production company that perfectly illustrate how much has changed in the production company landscape. Initially born to create a TV pilot, they now sit at the vanguard of production, combing data, storytelling and play to create hi-tech but very intimate feeling pieces.
Lawrence Weber- on behalf of FWA- caught up with Toby Barnes from Mudlark to say hello.
For those FWA visitors that don’t know can you tell us about Mudlark and how it began?
Mudlark started as a joint venture of sorts. Back in 2009, Channel 4 commissioned what was then just Charles and I to develop a pilot for a new style comedy game show- part virtual world, part I’m A Celebrity, part Big Brother.
Charles was running Rock Hammer TV doing alternative documentary work and I was creating small game projects. It worked so well we decided to take things further, so we roped in Matt and Active Ingredient who had 14 years of mobile games experience in the arts sector and the rest is history.
It's a history that includes Such Tweet Sorrow (Romeo and Juliet live on Twitter with the RSC), Chromaroma (the locative travel game you play with your Oystercard and the London transport network) and the Birmingham Civic Dashboard (England’s biggest council’s contacts with its residents, mapped and defined in a daily web visualisation).
Your work is really diverse, from really quite academic pieces like MemCode to simpler more, immediate experiences like Running Rings. Is that deliberate?
It’s not so much deliberate as inevitable. Along with playing with data, we have abiding interests in storytelling on new platforms, locative games and, always, interfacing with the “real” world. Combining all these preoccupations seems to take our projects far and wide - from a purely business point of view, this range sometimes makes it difficult to define ourselves to people but we see the overlaps and the common themes.
We’re always thinking about new things to do. We keep our eyes wide open and keep track of the things that excite us. We also talk and draw a lot. Sometimes tiny, seemingly throwaway, ideas can become lodged in your brain and won’t go away. We think it’s important to entertain these ideas and build them up into prototypes to see what happens. Some of them work, some don’t - but that process lends itself to all our work. Whether for a client or ourselves, chasing small inspirations can often be what makes all the different to the final product.
What affect does that diversity have on the type of people you have inside Mudlark? Do you still have a core design/development studio or do you build bespoke teams for projects?
None of us is an out-and-out techie - we come from digital art, games, writing, TV and media, music... We have core graphic and game design and coding skills inside the team, as well as an associate group of developers and programmers we work with regularly. But you are right: every project means building a different team and brings in another specialism or three.
Ultimately, we are very passionate about being craftspeople. Really understanding the materials we work with, understanding the social aspects and the extent to which we can push our concepts and ideas. This extends beyond our core team to the people we bring in.
A lot of your work deals with interesting and thought provoking uses of data, for example Chromaroma and the Civic Dashboard. Is data something you are especially interested in?
Two of Mudlark’s most important tenets are playablity and the Post-digital world: data is frequently our raw material . If you add time and location, an app can track and visualise data into stories and games, making it not just available but entertaining and interesting for users.
Since the days of Love City- created in 2007- we have had an interest in putting big data to work in the interests of play.
Pre-smart phone Love City was a locative game where we had to manually collect cell locations in the East Midlands area to make it happen. Endless journeys by car, bike and on foot was the only way to harvest this data, the hard work paid off, because then anyone with SMS on their phone could locate other players in their immediate area. From the slog came a fascination with building games from large data sets.
Getting people to claim back their own travel data is at the heart of the Chromaroma project and we believe the Civic Dashboard is just scratching the surface of government and local government data-sharing possibilities
It’s a terribly overused term, but what do you think Play or Gamification can do for brands and organisations and the way they communicate with consumers?
We chose “making life playable” the Mudlark tagline from the beginning, before the coining of that terrible word “Gamification” - so we felt the curve caught up with us a year or so back when you couldn’t avoid the Play argument. But of course the move towards the mainstream doesn’t make the belief that play and games engages people with the source and the fabric of those games - as long as it makes sense within the terms of those games.
There are some brilliant examples of brands making this work - and many really crass examples . We often call the latter “badgification”.
The new paradigm around brands seems to be that the customer is no longer a passive receptacle for information. Brands know that they have to encourage their customers to actively interact with their brand. Loyalty through a person actively “liking” a brand is the essential currency. So experiences that give brands value in the digital space, like sponsored in game purchases for instance, can really connect an online activity to a real world product.
How do you approach defining success metrics for the type of work you do? Do clients expect or want you to quantify return on investment or is your work viewed as experimental and/or brand led?
Oh, the metrics discussion. We look at analytics as closely as the next man or woman, and every project produces a different set.
Such Tweet Sorrow, for example, had a core daily audience in the thousands over its five-week performance but reached hundreds of thousands through their followers and more through the amount of media attention it generated worldwide. Mould-breaking projects like that have a life longer than any campaign - they go on past the metric-providing period too.
I’m very intrigued by MemCode, can you tell us a bit more about it?
This is a concept we've been mucking about with a bit at Mudlark. In the late summer, Richard, Greg and I started this light-touch thing called "MemCode". It is playing about with the idea of memory harvesting, sharing and distribution, but it's essentially a little publishing project. How much - and what level of intimacy - are you willing to surrender to a faceless organisation?
The idea behind MemCode is essentially to collect memories, real or imagined, from people as well as create a few of our own, before sharing them in different ways further down the line. We've posted one so far, and the next might be in three weeks, six months, a year. Hopefully, they will come out of the blue and nudge people into some form of memory. It's supposed to inspire real memories in the user, not foist them on them. Again, it's important that there is ambiguity and slippiness in the memories, so that they're loose enough to be anyone's.
Greg talks about the practice of cold reading a lot, and is something I am sure he would like us to play about with. Companies don't need our actual memories to fuck with them, not whilst there is a consensus on what 'our' collective past is as told through I heart 19** clipshows and the never ending retro-revisionism.
What other project are you most proud of?
Chromaroma has been our flag ship project and has certainly attracted considerable attention over the last year. We are particularly proud of it’s groundbreaking fusion of real infrastructure (the London Transport Network) and an online world. It has been enormously challenging and rewarding in equal measure. We are continually surprised by the loyalty and commitment of our players, who are literally playing London on a daily basis. Much of the game mechanics and some of the missions in the game were developed as a direct result of feedback from the players. To have this virtuous circle of development has been a real pleasure.
We get regular requests from abroad to create a Chromaroma version in their city - Chicago, New York, Amsterdam and Sao Paulo. Proof we feel that we have hit a nerve with the game. Our pride is in the knowledge that there is still so much more we can do with the concept, in fact we have new version of the Chromaroma in development for the new year. It takes Chromaroma to a whole new audience.
What piece of work do you wish you had made?
‘Close To The Edge’ by Yes.
What other creative company do you most admire?
ROCKSTAR Games, Jason Bruges, UVA, Universal Everything, Nordkapp, Courdal Partners (Draplin Design Company), Touch and Go Records, R&S, Erased Tapes, Bleep, Nike, Path.inc, Yorkshire Tea, and the BBC.
It's been a pleasure talking to you Toby, thanks for your time
About the Author:
Lawrence Weber- is Head of Digital Production at The Brooklyn Brothers London