16 July 2011

It's Called Transmedia?

About 4 years ago, our creative team built a pretty fantastic little experience for potential gamers at a local gaming cafe. We created a story about a rogue agent and the ‘agency’ sought the help of new agents to locate his whereabouts. The new agents were recruited through social media (which was still somewhat new to many) and as they uncovered bits of clues and solved various challenges, which culminated with finding the GPS coordinates and timing of a live drop. Two weeks into this adventure, we learned that there was a name for our creation - we had created an ARG (alternate reality game).

As a creative firm that has always focused on creating 'experiences' for customers, we approached the task of promoting the opening of this LAN gaming center with an interactive and engaging game that the audience could immerse themselves in, get to know each other through helping one another solve challenges and ultimately lead them to the grand opening of this new gaming center. This just seemed to make sense for the audience we were trying to attract and engage with, so we did it. It was all very organic how it fell into place.

When it was all said and done, our local 'game' or ARG as we came to call it, garnered more of an international crowd, we had participation from the four corners of our planet. And, any hardcore ARG player can tell you where those corners are. We had a few local players though which became the establishments' first 'regulars'. Even though this was done years ago, it still gives this gaming facility street cred with new gamers - at the end of the day, it was the perfect launch for this company, they have built a foundation for their business designed specifically for gamers.

As I said, creating experiences is where our strengths lie. Previous to this small ARG, we developed the packaging for VoodooPC, a luxury computer company that has since been acquired by Hewlett Packard. We created an experience for their extremely loyal following of A list clients that centered around the opening their very expensive and sought after custom built computer - this included sight, sound, touch, smell and taste... all five senses. About a year after producing these, someone, somewhere coined the term 'Out Of Box Experience' or OOBE, which we were delighted to learn as we didn't know what to call it, we just create immersive experiences. We continue to push the envelope with OOBE design for others.

Last year, I co-founded a new publishing company called Enthrill Entertainment, our mission; to engage, to enlighten and to entertain. We all saw digital publishing as having enormous potential for taking a written narrative to new levels of engagement and immersion. We began planning an ARG for Jeff Buick's latest thriller novel called One Child. The deeper we got into the planning the more evident it was that an ARG wasn't right for the audience of thriller novels. We still wanted to immerse the audience in the narrative of the story and give them something more than 400 printed pages of text. We set out to engage the reader in new ways and hoped to capitalize on the advancements that new e-readers could offer.

While planning the immersive experience for the book, news of Apple's new device, the iPad, was making headlines so we began looking at it from a completely different perspective. What if every reader had an iPad? How would we engage them? Looking at all that the iPad could offer we started planning our story. So, we created an immersive reading experience or story world, complete with a cast of 'real-life' characters and lots of online content.

Trying to describe what we were doing before it hit the streets was difficult, we didn't have anything to go by, there was nothing to compare it to. After about a week into our launch we learned that the word transmedia applied to what we had created - cool, we had something to call it!

Just because we had a name didn't help us communicate what we'd done any better to people who didn't the know the genré. Most people, unless they experienced it firsthand had difficulty in understanding what it was about. Of course, a lot of people, after seeing it firsthand became immediate fans or were excited by what now could be done with a narrative.

Some of the interesting elements from One Child:

  • Released in real time over 30 days, live as the story unfolded on a fully customized browser based e-reader, making it available on any device with a browser.
  • Readers who pre-subscribed to the story were sent postcards from characters in the story, some of these made their way online in discussion groups and forums.
  • Characters in the story 'lived' online, with facebook profiles, tweeting, blogging and networking on Linkedin - 27 social media profiles were managed 24/7 over the course of the 30 day release... you could 'friend' a character on Facebook and gain access to their vacation photos and more. Many of the characters were managed by Kristin Reilly, AKA Batgirl, a professional gamer and social media maven.
  • The companies that the characters worked at had web sites with some interesting abilities, you could phone and leave messages for one character and get a returned call.
  • Each new day of the story began with morning news being broadcast from a fictitious radio station merging actual news of the day with pieces from the story. Radio broadcasts written, voiced and produced hours before release for 3o days.
  • Songs from the books soundtrack were released in the browser based reader as they fell inline with the content, in context and helping to set the mood for the story as it unfolded - songs were written by Rick Plester of Black Symphony.
  • Four scenes from the book were filmed by an award winning production company with the video content embedded in the enhanced iPad version of the story as well as reside in other versions of the book.
  • Facebook was used as a discussion platform for the readers, most of which were women and over 40 years old (a good call on not pursuing the ARG, eh?).
  • Nearly 100 people worked on the project.

Even today, it’s hard to describe exactly what we've done without the aid of a white board. Diagrams help, they really do. A video presentation is in the works. We used transmedia to tell the story and to provide additional depth to characters and plot. Some in the transmedia space get it and know what we’ve done, which is really cool. I've always approached my work on this project with an open attitude and will share nearly everything I’ve learned along the way in hopes that these types of storytelling techniques get tried more and refined as the industry progresses. It’s my firm belief that all of us in this industry need to work just as hard at creating awareness of the genré or transmedia category as we do on our own projects. Creating compelling and entertaining content ain’t worth shit if there isn’t an audience. If they don’t know it’s available, how can they ask for it?

It's been a full year since releasing One Child live followed by printed book and ebook and we're still getting comments from people just discovering the property - luckily, we had the foresight that the content would have to live forever and have set up all external elements of the story in such a way so that we have control of the content always. Keeping in mind that for someone to enjoy the full experience five years from now, the content must be time-appropriate so a reader can go through and get the same experience as if it were happening, we’ve set up as much as we could to unfold chronologically for the reader. Now, nothing beat the live roll out, but future readers will also be treated to a near full experience, and with the time frame of the narrative set in the past, it helps puts the additional content in perspective... making it even more believable.

The mixing of fact and fiction in our radio broadcasts combined with the realism of the characters and storyworld had many people wondering what was real and what was made up. Reactions from readers was overwhelmingly positive, as were the reviews from professional reviewers and the media - we achieved our goal of creating an immersive experience for readers. At the heart of all the transmedia was a great story, which always helps.

To be transmedia or not to be transmedia - the discussion around the naming of this genre we’ve found space in is confusing. There’s arguments over different delivery methods and how it should be labeled, the ambiguity of the term itself begs for some whittling before we have anything the public is going to ask for, by name anyways. Quite frankly, I'm not too hung up on it, I think it's kind of funny - I mean, we all know what a story is whether it gets told on TV, in a book or in a movie. It's still a story. Someday maybe the word transmedia will have that same luxury.

For me, well I’m just going to keep creating immersive experiences for brands, for products and for books. Call it whatever you like but me and my team will continue to follow our hearts, tell stories and create things we don't know the names of yet.

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