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Welcome! This is a talk Zak Kadison and I presented at MIGS 2012, where the theme was The Future. There was a heavy Transmedia focus, and my goal with this talk was to try to demystify the concepts around transmedia for the game development community, and also to bring someone respectable from the film industry who could speak to that “side” of the equation. These speaker notes are for readers more than speakers – we didn’t actually use any notes during the talk, relying instead on the slides to prompt our points, and being talktative bastards to take care of the rest.
This is where we outline the flow of topics to give a general overview of the talk. A great chance for anyone to leave if they thought they were attending something else!
We introduced ourselves, talking about our respective backgrounds, some of the projects we’ve worked on at the studios we’ve worked for, what we’re focused on right now (HELM for me, Blacklight for Zak). We talked about how we’ve been working together for a year on several projects, and were brought together by a shared love of storytelling.
Here we elaborate on the roots of why we love storytelling. I talked about my childhood, reading Hardy Boys books in Grade 2, reading the Hobbit as a gateway drug to LOTR in grade 4, storytelling through LEGO, my fascination with recreating Star Wars with action figures (and how it fueled my ability to tell my own stories in the Star Wars universe), my time with pen-and-paper RPGs and how they opened my mind to the possibilities of storytelling through games, and then eventually, really getting into PC gaming hardcore with games like Wasteland, which had an awesome “real world” fiction component in the form of a printed book that, in addition to telling story, had codes you needed to play the game!
Zak talked about how his dad used to tell him bedtime stories, his love of G.I. Joe figures, and how Top Gun was such a major influence on him. Interestingly, he talked about how when he played the Top Gun game, he was disappointed at how disconnected it felt from the film he loved.
For anyone who has attended pretty much any of my talks on IP or storytelling, I always manage to (somehow) work in a reference to Joseph Campbell. Here I reviewed why storytelling should matter to you, even if you make games (where stories traditionally haven’t mattered as much). I end with the notion that we should reframe the dialogue around stories and games, to instead ask how we can use games to advance the art of storytelling. A great opportunity, and a responsibility we have as game developers.
We review the ways in which modern technology has evolved the nature of storytelling. Anyone can now publish anything on their own, anywhere, at any time, and share it with whoever they like. The barriers have come down. They can also create an audience for themselves, which gives their work real value.
Here we talk about transmedia and why you should give a shit. Basically, there’s a whole generation of people growing up with the expectation that their stories don’t start and end in one place, but continue to exist across multiple media. They also expect to be a part of that story, and be able to contribute to it themselves. And that participation creates a high degree of engagement, which is good for us!
In this section I do a quick overview of the notion of IP (intellectual property) to make sure we’re all on the same page about terminology.
Slide speaks for itself here. IP is creative DNA.
I outline how I think IP creation is not just a “touchy feely” pursuit. It is heavily writing/storytelling focused, but there is a method and process to follow if you want to do it intentionally. In this case I make a comparison to architecture.
Here I talk about archeology, and how creating an IP is often like discovering a part of something and then having to extrapolate a whole from it. Smart, huh?
Here’s where we make sure nobody expected us to tell them how to make an IP in 45 minutes. But, we hit on some high-level concepts (yet again).
I took the Wikipedia definition but we actually didn’t review it in the talk because it seemed redundant, because on the next slide…
We have Henry Jenkins, the man himself, presenting his own definition at some conference that looks like it could have been MIGS but it wasn’t. How post-modern of us!
Here we take all Henry’s words and break them down for you. Yeah.
I use an example from Henry Rose’s excellent book, “The Art of Immersion” (which I reference and recommend at the end of the talk). Dickens gives us an early example of how audience participation was used to (a) increase audience engagement and (b) make something more profitable. Dickens listened to how his readers responded to his plotlines in The Pickwick Papers, and used that feedback to guide what he’d write for the next installment. He found this so interesting, he wanted to shorten the feedback loop and so for The Old Curiosity shop he want from monthly to weekly installments. Rigorous writing schedule but apparently it turned out to be pretty lucrative, and the fans loved it!
The we switch gears to talk about some present-day examples.
Marvel – a great example of how an IP company (comic book creator) has embraced digital media much to its success. Each of the films leading up to the Avengers plants “hooks” for that film, creating an inter-related whole.
Star Wars, probably the grandfather of moderntransmedia properties. Interesting that a lot of this wasn’t planned from the outset, but Lucas had to react to the film’s success. There are examples of that in games too (Halo, League of Legends, etc.) – a good problem to have (sudden massive unexpected success), but you don’t want to be caught off guard. Investing early in a transmedia bible can really help you with this stuff.
I used LOST as an example of a TV show that was sustained thanks to (a) deep mythology with mystery and (b) a highly engaged audience that wanted to solve the mystery and was really invested in the fiction. This audience engagement is what kept the show alive, far beyond what the plot and writing itself could have done (in my opinion).
I wanted to include an example from games, and while there are others to choose from, HALO 4 felt like a great one to highlight since it’s new/fresh, something I’m pretty familiar with, and the game has a massive transmedia presence. The game lies at the heart of the overall experience, but it’s supported by many other complimentary elements that create a robust IP ecosystem.
Just in case it wasn’t clear before, this is why you should care about transmedia if you’re a game developer.
People really want to be part of the thing you’re creating, and here are some reasons why.
Probably the highest/purest form of engagement with your IP – cosplay! People have gone beyond simply liking your IP, and actually want to be associated as existing within it. Wow!
Here are some creative and business reasons why taking a transmedia approach to your IP development, might not be a bad idea! The idea that unlike films, games don’t have any kind of ancillary revenue (like DVD rentals for film), is a strong argument in favour of taking a transmedia approach. With the game, you are creating value in the IP itself, which can be extended and amplified across the ecosystem. You also end up with “library value” in the end, not just a one-off game title.
Here’s where we touch on some of the business realities in games and film that can sometimes complicate things for us.
2-minute crash course on the main entities involved with the games business, in case you didn’t already know this. I skipped retailers because hey. The point here is that if IP is where the real value resides, the games business is not really well structured to ensure developers can hold on to their original creations.
Same thing for the movie business. A lot of similarities here, with the exception of the second-last point – the majority of revenue generated by a film is not from the box office, but by all the ancillary stuff. We don’t have much of that ancillary stuff in games, currently.
Just in case it wasn’t clear. Let’s get into the why, now.
Just a reminder the following numbers are only domestic and retail (no worldwide or digital), but the points are still valid.
So much of the movie (and games) business is run on the licensing model. Let’s dig into the results.
The point here is that blockbuster films can make a hell of a lot of money!
And guess what, blockbuster games can also make a hell of a lot of money! (Sidenote: Note the variance between average metacritic for movies on the slide before this, and average game metacritic; shocking how differently games and films are rated.)
Here we have the average revenue for movies that were based on video game IPs, but without the pressure to launch with a game title. We leave that Blockbuster number in there for the sake of comparison. So, game-based movies make less than 10%, on average, of the big blockbuster films.
Here it gets even worse – games based on movies, and these ones are released day-and-date with their associated films. Really low metacritics and terrible sales. Could it be possible this games shipped too early, and were developed under sub-optimal conditions with regards to timing windows and development resources?
Interestingly, license-based games (whether that license be a film, toy, or otherwise) do a lot better when they aren’t shoe-horned into a film’s development timelines. Much higher metacritic and about 5x the revenue.
If we assume that blockbuster movies based on game IP have the potential, under the correct circumstances, to be every bit as good as blockbuster films based on original properties, then we could argue around $325M is being left on the table because of the flawed licensing model.
Looking at it from the other side, we can see that games based on films that have to ship day-and-date with their counterpart films do much worse than those that are able to launch independently, to a nearly $60M loss.
Adding that up, we’re sacrificing a lot of money!
Look at those quality differences as evidenced by metacritic scores. Scary. Hard to believe that film-makers working with video game properties have it worse even than the game developers working with movie properties!
The reasons are pretty obvious, but worth reviewing. Why does the current licensing model not work? Well, stories are always an afterthought for the game created to launch with the film. Licensees don’t really have a vested interest in attaching the best possible talent to these projects because ultimately they won’t reap the entirety of the benefits. The development timelines for games and films just don’t line up well, and finally, communication between game and film creatives just sucks!
If you develop your content using the transmedia approach, you are building an IP at the core of all the other works. You’re building it intentionally with the other mediums in mind, and injecting hooks and opportunities within your IP for it to be enjoyed and appreciated across various mediums and to each of their strengths. In the end, for the ones that are created well, this will mean highly engaged audiences, more coherent and better quality experiences for your fans, and ultimately, more revenue!
The main issue with stories in the licensing model, is the game (or film) usually tries to simply retell the events of the film (or game), or the two have nothing to do with each other in a painfully obvious way that’s disrespectful to the fans.
If you create your IP with a transmedia approach in mind, the IP becomes the heart of the experience and each individual work is a different expression of that core IP. A bible is a great tool to ensure that when you expand across multiple mediums, you’ve identified the common creative pillars that unify the experience into a coherent whole, and everything fits nicely together. Your fans will appreciate that, because it shows you care about your work, and their care in your work will be rewarded.
No big surprise that the best blockbuster games are developed by the best blockbuster game teams.
Sadly, the licensed titles don’t typically attract the same calibre of talent for obvious reasions: why would a great developer agree to work under the conditions imposed on them by working on a film licensed title? Short deadlines? Less creative control? Being considered a “second class citizen” when compared to the film? No thanks!
Unsurprisingly, the best blockbuster films are also directed by the best blockbuster film directors who can command the best resources and attract the best talent to their films.
Just like with games, “licensed” films don’t tend to attract the leading directing talent, nevermind the actors.
This is hard, but really the only way we’ll overcome this is when people start looking at the game and the film as equally important and vital to their mutual success. Nobody’s really done this yet, though, so for the time being it’s an argument to be made on faith. It makes sense though, doesn’t it?
We talk a lot about the short deadlines associated with movie tie-in games. There are some other reasons why game and film production timelines are pretty much incompatible. Original games (new IP) with original gameplay can take 3-4 years (or more) to develop. And unlike a film, a game is not simply “proven” on paper – it needs prototypes and visual targets realized in-engine to prove it can work, and that takes money. It’s “easier” to prove a film has potential, simply based on the quality of script, the actors attached to it, and inexpensive visuals like concept art. A good producer can take a script and come up with a pretty accurate budget and plan just based on words on a page. It’s much harder to do with for a game – there are many more moving parts. Both are hard, but making a game is a lot less predictable. That said, once a game is in pre-production, there’s a much higher likelihood that it’ll actually be finished (believe it or not), than a film in “development”, where most film projects remain never to see the light of day.
A handy visual to show you how poorly the game and movie timelines actually line up. Ouch.
The best way to address this is to start the game first. Begin with a common sense of what is being created between the various pieces, and go through the pre-production process the game needs to prove “fun”, before embarking on a more rigorous exploration and pre-production phase on the film.
Communication between game teams and external “Hollywood” talent is kind of a joke. It doesn’t really happen, and when it does, it’s through middle-men.
A true creative collaboration requires that the partners meet and discuss things as equals, each lending their expertise to the conversation. Until we get there, a transmedia production studio that has resources and contacts both in games and film might be the best way to broker this kind of communication. Hmmm…
This is where Zak talks about the typical IP deal in Hollywood, except that there isn’t really a “typical” deal. It involves selling off rights – like for foreign distribution – to raise money. You typically retain the rights to anything you’re already working on. So, if you’re making an IP and already have a game and graphic novel in the works, a film studio will want to buy the rights to everything else but you’ll retain the interactive and graphic novel rights, for example. This is a lot like in the games industry where the people with the money end up owning everything, so this is another place where proving your IP and building an audience in less expensive mediums, like novels and web series for example, is a great way to go. By the time you talk to the film studios, you have something of value that they can measure.
I know we said this wouldn’t be a talk on IP creation, but we wanted to leave you with some ideas for what you could to make your current IP (game or film) more suitable to transmedia adaptation. There’s a ton to say on this subject, but we leave you with some fortune-cookie-like thoughts to pique your curiousity. If you want to know more, feel free to approach us because we love chatting about this stuff. Incidentally, this is pretty much where we ran out of time during the MIGS talk, and I called out people like Emily Claire Afan(tastic) and Jason Della Rocca to be my “broadcasters” for when these slides went live, to make sure everyone in the audience had a chance to see the content they missed during the presentation. Sorry we ran out of time! We were having too much fun and just lost track.
Every IP is basically constructed of the same raw materials. For transmedia, it’s important to recognize that different aspects translate better or worse depending on the medium.
Obviously since games, film, graphic novels, television, etc. are all visual mediums, the visual direction of your IP is going to be highly translatable and become a strong element of your IP and brand. Try to ensure you have some iconic elements that translate well, such as colour palettes, material properties (ex. shiny glasses), industrial design elements, etc.
Iconic characters can represent a ton of value to you if you do them right and get lucky with your audience. Characters are one of the most highly transferable elements between IPs, so don’t skimp on these. Do your best to make them stand out, and giving them unique visual signatures that can be easily replicated across the gamut of entertainment types.
Setting is so important, as it really serves as the core foundation of your IP and gives you the canvas upon which to explain the reason for your world and stories to exist. It also becomes a really useful tool for calibrating “fit” and “taste” – you can ask yourself, “does this character” or “does this plotline” really feel like it belongs in this world I’ve created? The important thing is to remain consistent across all the works set within this universe. Consistency is so important, otherwise fans will lose trust in you. Remember that an IP is a promise!
Having special rules that explain how your world works is just a good thing to have in that it adds depth to your setting and also gives you some great tools to generate conflict with. Of course these rules should “fit” with your world, and for games it’s critical that the gameplay experience is well served, above all. Again, consistency is so important.
An example of a rule is how in Left 4 Dead, zombies react to noise. This is something you can build interesting micro gameplay (think of car alarms), characters (the Witch), story moments, or entire scenarios around.
The Force is a power for good or evil. The evil side is quicker, easier, more seductive. The good side is more measured, more thoughtful. This plays into aspects of gameplay, action, character, and plot.
Magic exists and the muggles don’t know about it. But some special kids know about it. Yeah, those lucky special kids.
Just one more example to beat you over the heat with. Die in the Matrix, die in real life. This is a core part of the whole Matrix mythology and drives a lot of conflict and storytelling.
Having a rich history for your world, and backstories for your major characters and events, is a relatively inexpensive way to build out your IP so that it can be fully transmedia friendly. N example of this from games is where the original Mass Effect team spent the entire first year of development on world-building: creating the technology, factions, storylines, heroes and villains, races, etc. that would populate their sci-fi setting. This early investment paid dividends over three major games, supporting releases, transmedia content, cosplay, fanfic, and a new trilogy is underway. The fans knew BioWare had invested in the setting, and it showed, so they invested in it too. They knew it was going somewhere, and they believed in the promise of the IP enough to follow along over many years. Even if only a small fraction of the background fiction has ever surfaced to players, the fact that the team was able to draw on this material is a huge part of why the IP feels coherent and resonant. Remember the iceberg principle of fiction-building: the audience only sees what’s at the top, but underneath is a wealth of other content that supports and strengthens what is visible on the surface.
A game like Shadow of the Colossus is a good example of a setting that suggests a rich background, but never really gets into it. I suspect the fans could really tell there had been an investment in deep mythology development which informed the look of the characters, the world, the giants, and of course, the storyline. Because people have an innate understanding of storytelling and are always looking for its patterns, they can usually tell when something has been created intentionally and with coherence, even if they can only see the very surface of it. And creating a sense of mystery is a good thing!
Factions are also so important, as they can be the core driver of conflict in your IP. They are also something that can sustain ongoing storylines. Don’t be afraid to rely on iconic representations and archetypes. They work for a reason.
Invest in your villains, because a hero is really only equal to the villains they overcome. In a game, they make a great tool for motivating the player to do stuff. Just try to think of them as a character and not just a mechanic or tool to contextualize a boss fight.
The holy grail here is a really deep mythology that can support multiple storylines over the course of many works. I like to think about Metal Gear Solid as a franchise that has existed over 25 years. Think of how you’re going to make your IP last for 25 years, and ensure you have the depth and hooks in place to make that a possibility. That doesn’t mean you have to map out 25 years of content, it just means you need to build a core foundation – an architecture if you will – that can support future expansion in stories, characters, and events.
Just a quick recap on all that stuff I just talked about.
And, as a quick take-away, if you’re going to create a transmedia IP bible, make sure it has the following stuff in it (at least). If you don’t know what a logline is, search online – this is a fundamental tool for film storytelling and it’s useful for pitching as well, so become familiar with it. The rest of the material should be pretty familiar to anyone who works in worldbuilding, writing, creative direction, etc.
Smaller than a bible, you may want to develop some pitch materials so that you can communicate, quickly and effectively, why your IP is exciting, and that you’ve built it in such a way that it can be expanded into various mediums, as well as into the future depending on success. Practice presenting it to people, so that you’re ready for when it really matters.
I was going to include a section that analyzed the complexities of adapting an existing work from one medium to another, but this seemed like a huge topic on its own and the presentation was already super long so I just hid these slides during the presentation. Well, actually, we didn’t even make it this far before we ran out of time. But, I think I’ll dig into this subject in another talk because it’s pretty interesting.
This would have been a chart that analyzes various media and highilights the pros/cons of each. Like it says.
Here’s the kernel of my thoughts regarding the complexities of adaptation, and why you should create original IP as games first. But, that’s for another talk.
Frank Rose’s book “The Art of Immersion” is really interesting, full of amazing anecdotes, and is a must-read for anyone interested in game and/or IP development.
Henry Jenkins’ “Convergence Culture” is the defacto standard guide to transmedia. It’s pretty academic, but very interesting nonetheless.
Special thanks to Bey Hoyt for scraping all the data, the MIGS advisory board for inviting us, and all of you for participating in this dialogue, asking interesting questions, and being so damn good looking.
Hey, we hope you enjoyed these slides and found them interesting. If you want to contact either of us, you can use the info above. Thanks for reading!