The lead detective on the hit CBS series “CSI: NY,” Mac Taylor, is a pretty conventional television hero: like his colleagues on the two other “CSI” franchises, he uses science to follow the evidence and catch the bad guys.
But in the episode for Oct. 24, Taylor, played by Gary Sinise, finds himself entering the computer-based virtual world known as Second Life, walking (and sometimes flying) around three-dimensional, animated Manhattan landmarks, recreated by a technique called machinima, and pursuing not a suspect but an avatar.
Avatars and machinima? Virtual worlds? Is this really going to be on CBS, the network with a reputation as the somewhat stodgy older sibling of the broadcast-television family?
It is. CBS executives, aware of their need to attract a younger generation of viewers interested in interacting with television rather than just watching it, hatched the notion of a story line that involves Second Life, the virtual world in which members create fantasy characters for themselves – known as avatars – and engage in simulated adventures in a highly stylized animated environment populated by other enthusiasts.
It was an amorphous notion at best, but they knew exactly whom to call to execute it.
At CBS Anthony Zuiker is the house savant of cool. The creator of the “CSI” franchises, which have generated billions of dollars for CBS, Mr. Zuiker is in day-to-day charge of “CSI: NY,” but his portfolio is much broader. As Quincy Smith, the president of CBS Interactive put it, “Anthony is a free ion.”
Mr. Zuiker accepts that designation with relish. “My job is to bring as many people to television as possible, but also to do things that are promotable and young,” he said. “That's where my bones are.”
When Mr. Smith and several other CBS executives brought up the concept of working Second Life into “CSI: NY,” Mr. Zuiker said he leapt at the chance, even though, at that point, all he knew about Second Life was what he had read about it in an article in Spirit, the in-flight magazine of Southwest Airlines, aboard a flight from his home in Las Vegas to his working base in Los Angeles. But he quickly got an introduction to Second Life from some technicians at Electric Sheep, the company that builds the fantasy worlds that the Second Life avatars inhabit.
“It was visually marvelous,” Mr. Zuiker said. But he had some advice for the computer animators who would create the machinima (as in, cinema from a machine) to be used on his show. “My mantra was: Make sure it's 'Sgt. Pepper.' Make sure the level of detail is such that when a viewer sees it, it will look like a whole other world. 'Willy Wonka' with a 'CSI: NY' vibe.”
Second Life, which claims almost 10 million members, but rarely has more than 40,000 present in the computer world at any one time, defines itself as “a 3D virtual world entirely built and owned by its residents,” according to its Web site. It encourages members to explore, to meet others and then build a business or residence. The world has its own exchanges of business and even currency, which is “an in-world unit of trade, the linden dollar.” Second Life has dabbled just slightly in television, with only the Showtime series “The L Word” having previously set up shop there with its characters.
The basic story for the “CSI: NY” episode was the easy part. Mr. Zuiker asked his writers to create a plot in which a young woman who looks like an avatar brought to life (as Mr. Zuiker put it: “Green hair, garish outfits, she looks kind of odd”) becomes the target of a jealous competitor. The victim is the most popular character in the virtual world – “the Paris Hilton of Second Life” as Mr. Zuiker described her – and her killer sets out to assume her faux identity.
Mr. Zuiker said the plot would have Mac Taylor introduced to this new world by the younger members of his crime team. But then Taylor, using electronic clues to track the killer, would enter Second Life to chase the avatar. The tougher part was finding a way to extend the experience for the many viewers who, Mr. Zuiker knew from his work on several previous episodes, would be willing to follow the episode with some kind of interactivity online.
That challenge amounted to the briar patch for Mr. Zuiker, who spent his youth making up games of every description.
“Because I grew up in Las Vegas, because I'm an only child, because I've been creating board games since I was 7 years old, I have gaming savvy,” he said. He acknowledged that most of the more than 500 board games he had invented by the age of 14 were “pretty awful games, though they were great at the time.”
With all that gaming experience, Mr. Zuiker found the ideas flowing for how to inject some game-play into the Web site follow-up of the Second Life episode. He devised three levels of additional experiences for viewers of the episode to try, depending on how serious they want to be.
If all goes well, Mr. Zuiker said, the episode will contain two 30-second promotional messages directing viewers to CBS.com, promising a “live simulation” letting them experience Second Life for themselves. “You can pick one of 12 avatars,” Mr. Zuiker said. “It will download in five to nine minutes. My own avatar will be there to greet you.”
Mr. Zuiker said the first level of participation, the simplest, will allow viewers to walk around the representations of New York buildings and then visit a CSI lab, where they can play basic forensic games, like facial recognition.
The second level is much more elaborate. It consists of a game called “Murder by Zuiker,” based on a murder plot that Mr. Zuiker created and the Electric Sheep engineers have transformed into a scene in Second Life. Mr. Zuiker will leave clues around the murder scene. He will post and rank the 100 people who come closest to his explanation of the murder, and, he said, the winner will “get a virtual gift for his or her avatar.”
The final stage of game play will allow “CSI” fans to become CSI investigators. They will receive a field kit and tools, get a chance to interview suspects and be given the opportunity to solve the murder featured in the episode. The final gimmick of that episode is that it will end in a cliffhanger: it will not be resolved until an episode in February.
But that doesn't mean the avatar sleuths will get ahead of the story. Mr. Zuiker said no one would be able to solve the case early. It was vital, he said, that viewers who participate in the postepisode simulation not move ahead of viewers who just want to watch the television show. “If I did that,” Mr. Zuiker said, “I'd be punishing my viewers for no reason. What I want to do is keep the spirit of the brand and the story line alive in Second Life.”
Contact Greater Talent Network, America's Leading Celebrity Speakers Bureau.