The Apprentice takes on virtual reality and it ends badly

Who was fired on The Apprentice when the candidates took on virtual reality?

There was a time when I was paying my TV licence exclusively for three things: The Apprentice, Question Time and Snog Marry Avoid? I’m pleased to say that tastes have changed (or finally developed, depending on how you look at it), and only The Apprentice clings on.

Part of the charm is seeing how the contestants and judges have handled the gradual impact of technology upon the world around them in the 11 years since Alan Sugar first told a make-believe employee he was fired. The judges have an average age of 61 (which is up almost four years from the first season, despite Karen Brady’s comparative youth pushing back against the unstoppable march of time), and Alan Sugar’s main contribution to the world of tech was Amstrad – a company he sold in 2007, long after it had ceased to be relevant. This isn’t an ageism thing: just an observation that none of their experience comes from recent tech.

The candidates are far younger, but often not as connected to the modern world of technology as you’d expect. Take a look at last year’s runner-up and her fatally flawed idea of combining dating apps with gaming, which somehow overlooked how both work in the process. At the time of writing, DatePlay has 28,872 members – that sounds impressive, until you remember that 7.39 million viewers watched the business pitch a year ago. Most startups could only dream of such amazing free advertising.alam_sugar_claude_littner_and_karen_brady

But I digress: the point is that although technology and The Apprentice don’t always gel, the word “app” has been gradually creeping into the show’s discourse over time. This season’s sole nod towards the internet was a cringeworthy attempt to raise funds on Indiegogo. It included an iPad being used to record a “viral” video and Claude Littner saying “hashtag concerned” in the manner of someone who has only read about Twitter in books. That’s really all you need to know about that adventure.

“It included Claude Littner saying “hashtag concerned” in the manner of someone who has only read about Twitter in books”

So it’s time to jump straight into virtual reality. What could possibly go wrong? Rather than going to the usual tangentially related location to see Alan Sugar in person, the candidates have eight HTC Vive headsets brought to them for a virtual boardroom experience, in what can only be described as the low point in some poor 3D artist’s career.

A virtual Alan Sugar gives them a briefing: “For the next task, you will be entering the world of virtual reality,” he tells them. “Globally, the computer games industry is worth over £70 billion,” he continues, telling the candidates they will be making their own virtual-reality game. “As important as the game is the brand you’ll create,” he says, explaining that they’ll be presenting their games at Comic Con to an audience of gamers and industry experts.

Sofiane puts himself forward as Titan’s team captain, with the kind of weak pitch that should really raise alarm bells. “The store I worked at, we had a massive launch of one of the top, top brands of virtual reality.”

”I sold one of the first headsets in the country,” he adds proudly, presumably believing that this basically means he and Palmer Luckey are interchangeable. Incredibly, this ridiculous weak explanation works, and Dylan – who actually is a designer, illustrator and gamer – is overlooked. He’s skipped over again when Sofiane picks Grainne to be his partner in branding/character creation because her “14-year-old son is studying to do computer programming”. In the kind of topsy-turvy world where branding and character creation come under the same roof, this makes about as much sense as any other reason, I guess, but it’s still a good example of shooting yourself in the foot before anyone knew there was any ammo in the gun’s chamber. They settle on a puzzle game, because people like puzzle games on smartphones, and virtual-reality headsets are a bit like smartphones, right?the_apprentice_takes_on_vr_and_its_a_disaster_-_3

The result is ultimately a cutesy underwater game, where players pop bubbles, and then try to match shells inside them. It’s hugely simplistic, but that’s Dylan’s suggestion – he correctly notes that the best puzzle games are simple, and that many games are buried by complex mechanics*. No risk of that here.

You may think this is an easy win for the Team Nebula before work has even begun, until the episode cuts to Jessica and Courtney in the car discussing characters for their game. “Spaceman Sam” and his lost “cosmic badger” are suggested, before “Galactic Gordon” is settled on. “Why is it a badger?” Trishna quite reasonably asks. No convincing answer is forthcoming.

And so “Gordon’s Lost his Badger” is here. As titles go, it’s universally hated. “If we lose this task because of that name, I’m not going anywhere,” says project manager Trishna. She tells Jessica in no uncertain terms that she hates the idea. Jessica loves it and wants to pitch it, like the captain of the Titanic continuing to enthusiastically extol the virtues of 1910s cruiseliners as the iceberg creeps into view. Trishna, seeing her choice of Courtney do his best to rapidly distance himself from the idea, reluctantly accepts.

The game involves floating through space, following clues, looking for the titular lost badger: a weird-looking mascot with a quiff. “Absolutely pathetic” is Frances’ verdict on her teammates’ idea of branding, and she’s not wrong. It’s the kind of carefully prescribed wackiness that people with limited personalities think is quirkily hilarious. The word “random” is used with reckless abandon.the_apprentice_takes_on_vr_and_its_a_disaster_-_1

Meanwhile, Alana is discovering that popping virtual bubbles to access colourful shells looks, feels and plays an awful lot like a kids’ game. “I think actually as a childs’ game, it’s very good!” she says. When the product is completely wrong, there’s not much left to do but pretend you were aiming it at someone completely different all along. It worked for corn flakes after all, so Magic Shells is reborn, and now going full-on CBeebies with a brightly coloured mascot called the Coral Kid. (It’s worth noting that the Samsung Gear VR comes with a warning saying it shouldn’t be used by children under the age of 13, but thankfully nobody has the heart to tell Alana.)

“Do you think in a year’s time, people will be dressed up as the Coral Kid?” a PlayStation executive asks, somehow managing to sound like he considers this remotely plausible.

The pitches go about as well as you could hope for two games developed by eight people who have little to no interest in gaming. People trip up, struggle with the games, and talk over each other. “Do you think in a year’s time, people will be dressed up as the Coral Kid?” a PlayStation executive asks, somehow managing to sound like he considers this remotely plausible. “Absolutely,” Alana lies.

Both teams return to the boardroom (the real one, this time), and it’s a landslide: Galactic Gordon is the clear winner by virtue of there only being two candidates. Five of the seven experts say that with (presumably quite considerable) modifications they’d consider it, compared to the zero Magic Shells got. In the public vote, Galactic Gordon won by 220 to 80, although it’s perhaps telling that “Reopen Nominations” wasn’t an option on the ballot paper, proving once and for all that democracy doesn’t work. “For at least one of you, it’s going to be game over,” Alan Sugar tells Team Titan – a joke that he may kept under his hat since 1995.the_apprentice_takes_on_vr_and_its_a_disaster_-_4

“I think the game was great, I just don’t think we sold it to the audience,” laments Dylan, echoing what John Romero probably still privately thinks about Daikatana. Alan Sugar is more cutting: “The feedback says ‘this is a kids’ game, and kids’ games are the smallest market in virtual-reality gaming,” he says, smelling the kind of blood and excitement that was completely absent from Magic Shells.

“It literally is dog eat dog in there,” she later laments, not understanding what “literally” means, what dogs are, or both.

Sofiane decides to try to throw both Dylan and Grainne under the nearest passing bus by saying that anyone should be fired except him. The other two are unanimous: Sofiane should go. Dylan is ultimately fired for being nice but useless. Sofiane is kicked out for just being useless. Grainne somehow survives to fight another day.

“It literally is dog eat dog in there,” she later laments, not understanding what “literally” means, what dogs are, or both. Six remain, but at least we don’t have to worry about them getting muddled by 21st-century technology again… not unless any of them have the phrase “Uber meets Tinder” on their business plans, anyway. If they do, rest assured I’ll be here to write it up.

* As someone who used to work as a games producer: it’s a common misconception to say that puzzle games are simple. The best ones look effortless, but they’re a lot of work to get right because there are so damned many of them, and most copy the same familiar mechanics from each other. That’s precisely for the reasons you’d imagine: they’re cheap and quick to build.

For that reason, I’d have probably gone for a simple endless runner/action game, but given the heavy lifting was being done by artists and developers anyway, suggesting the ultimate responsibility lies with the contestants is a bit of a stretch.

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