July 11th, 2012

Books!

The Transmedia Process ...

This is another book that came to my attention via an event put on by the folks at BIGfrontier (who had previously brought in Mark W. Schaefer to talk about his Return On Influence). In this case, I thought ahead to contact the publisher in time to get a review copy, read it, and get the review out before going to the talk (just barely, it's tomorrow morning!). Anyway, that's how I ended up reading Andrea Phillips' A Creator's Guide to Transmedia Storytelling: How to Captivate and Engage Audiences across Multiple Platforms.

Frankly, I wasn't too sure what to expect with this. My own experience is tied into the publishing world, and very much colored by my previous work with a Second Life developer, and a long-term project involving WireWax interactive video. While I'd been aware of “external bits” of some TV shows and movies (like the web site for the paper company where the bad guy in Heroes worked, or the S.H.I.E.L.D. “recruiting site” that accompanied one of the Marvel movies), I'd never been enough of a fan to spend a lot of time chasing after these leads. I've also never been a “gamer” (although I have become a bit more familiar with the genre via my elder daughter's enthusiasm for the assorted “Arkham” Batman games), and this seems to be the main background of Ms. Phillips … so there was something of a disconnect for me there.

However, A Creator's Guide to Transmedia Storytelling does make an effort to be an encompassing over-view of what's come to be called “Transmedia” (a term that I can't quite disassociate with Genesis P-Orridge's mid-'90s project). The book, which is laid out in a landscape orientation, is divided in five fairly even sections, “Introduction to Transmedia”, “Storytelling”, “Structure”, “Production”, and “The Big Picture” which walk the reader through the process, touching on many media and scales.

Much of the take-away (for me, at least) here is that the “industry” of Transmedia Storytelling is only in its infancy, because it still is unable to get a substantial audience. This creates a dual threat to its viability, the big well-funded programs for movies and such are tied to beancounters' determination of ROI, and boot-strapped small productions are having to fight for every set of eyes. One point came up here which I've seen time and again in books on “new marketing” and Social Media – that the currency of today's (and certainly tomorrow's) market is attention … people only have so many hours to dole out across an ever-increasing universe of information and entertainment entities that need attention to survive. Phillips has an interesting graphic illustrating the challenge here, based on the classic 80/20 rule (that 80% of whatever you're measuring comes from 20% of the things measured), and in this case 80% of “your audience” is passive, and might only be peripherally aware of what you're doing, 15% are “engaged” with your project (to whatever extent) and only 5% are “super fans” who really care what you're doing. All through the book are cautionary tales of top-tier producers who still have to keep their day jobs, and corporate projects that unceremoniously get cut, leaving their Transmedia talent pool suddenly on the street (this was an all-too-common happening in Second Life, where massively popular builds were suddenly closed because of some line-item decision on a marketing budget at a sponsoring corporation!).

Despite this, Phillips goes back to basics, theater, fiction, the roots of storytelling, even using Romeo & Juliet as a case study for what might be possible in various types of Transmedia narratives. She looks at how different media use different methods for pointing out what is important or not important for the continuing story, and shows how not conforming to certain patterns is likely to confuse the audience, leading to a loss of interest. Of course, in games and other open-ended digital forms, the possibility for “clues” is nearly endless:

This is a form that delights in hiding information in the subtlest, tiniest ways: Mysterious film credits and Morse code in the background of an audio file. Hidden links in source code. Significant clues left out of focus in the background of a photograph, which is only one of many photographs in a Flickr stream.
Unless you're doing a game where the “coded stuff” lights up to show you to interact with it, what can you do to keep the story going? I know that I've been very frustrated by video games (one of the main reasons I'm not tempted to play them) because all the stuff I want to check out is either a place the character can't get to, or isn't coded to be interactive (what is in those file drawers???).

One of the advantages, however, with only having 5% of your audience hyper-involved in your project, is that it makes it, assuming you can identify those users, much more efficient for getting out “special” materials. One item pictured in the book is a “scent chest” that was developed for the Game of Thrones show (that had to be painfully expensive to produce), which was distributed to key bloggers in that fan universe, including materials that would prove to be key bits of information in the Transmedia aspects of that program. Obviously, the major studios can afford this, or major Facebook ad campaigns (for the Marvel projects), but the small guys have to try harder with low-cost or free vehicles. One thing that's mentioned here, in various permutations, are a series of Twitter projects. I was surprised to read this, as I've spent a vast amount of time on Twitter over the past five years, and these never came to my attention … clearly illustrating the difficulty in reaching outside of that 20% that's engaged, or perhaps even the 5% that's enthusiastic!

Over-all A Creator's Guide to Transmedia Storytelling was a very informative read, and if one was a web developer/designer, a writer, a film buff, or a gamer, this would be an excellent guide to what Transmedia production is about, and what's promising and worrisome in the field. This has only been out a month or so at this point, so should be available at the larger brick-and-mortar book vendors. However, the on-line big boys have it at about a third off of cover.

I enjoyed reading this, and, obviously, was fascinated by how different my experiences had been from the other side of the field (I can think of several book projects that could easily fit into the author's definition of “Transmedia” productions … including one I recently reviewed here: A Continual Feast which is an “artifact” from Jan Karon's “Father Tim” books). If you have any interest in working on the cutting edge of media storytelling, you might find this book of great use.


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