Coefficient of Fiction

A Transmedia Travelogue

Archive for the month “October, 2012”

StoryWorld 2012 Part 2: The Future of ARGs

Welcome to part 2 of my StoryWorld 2012 recap.  From here on out, instead of doing this one panel at a time, I’ll be focusing on themes that ran throughout the conference.  This week, we’ll be talking about the future of Alternate Reality Games.

On the Way Forward panel at this year’s StoryWorld conference, some of the biggest names in transmedia storytelling addressed an important question: Has the Alternate Reality Game run is course?  Interestingly enough, the man who was most outspoken in his belief that we’ve reached the twilight of the ARG also happens to be a man who has been intimately involved in the creation of some of the earliest, largest and best-known examples of the form: Fourth Wall Studios’ Elan Lee.  So what soured Lee on the ARG experience?

For one thing, Lee has seen more than his share of players intent on breaking the games he and his team have poured blood, sweat and tears into creating.  As part of the Halo 2 “I Love Bees” experience, players were given clues that turned out to be locations of pay phones all around the world, and times that said phones were going to ring.  Many players were merely treated to automated messages, but a lucky few had the opportunity to speak to real-live actors portraying some of the ARG’s characters.  This proved to be an immensely engaging experience for the thousands of fans who participated, but one thing Lee and his fellow “I Love Bees” developers failed to anticipate was that during one fateful phone call, one of the players would cave and reveal the location of the sleeping princess to the menacing Melissa A.I. that was pursuing her.  This required Lee and his team to jettison several chapters of their planned storyline and engage in draining, last-minute rewrites.  To the players, this development was riveting; to the creators, it was nothing short of a nightmare.  And while, in this case, the player who was the architect of Lee’s woes may not have consciously set out to break the game, time and again Lee has found himself in the unenviable position of having to deal with players trying to do exactly that.  Of course, this begs the question: Why would someone go to such length to derail a game?

On the Painting in the Dark panel, GR Experiential Learning Founder Carl Heath likened gamers to toddlers who don’t know their boundaries.  Indeed, many modern-day video gamers’ natural inclination is to push against a game’s boundaries at the outset, to find out exactly what the game mechanics allow them to do.  And when a game is set in the real world, the line between in-game and out-of-game elements can become blurred so completely as to be almost indistinguishable.  As Sony Computer Entertainment’s Amy Henning keenly observed during the Game Vs. Story panel, “There’s a razor thin line between preserving player agency, thus risking that disruption of the narrative flow, or telling a more linear story that risks showing the puppet strings.”

Lee has walked that line time and again on increasingly ambitious ARG projects, so much so that he seems to think his brand of ARG storytelling has hit a glass ceiling.  That, coupled with a reportedly plummeting ARG audience and the creative frustration that comes from the proliferation of gamers who push the games’ boundaries to the breaking point, has caused Lee to shift gears.  His company Fourth Wall studios has set its sights on telling smaller, more instanced interactive experiences, like their Emmy award winning series “Dirty Work.”

But that kind of instanced interactive storytelling does come with its share of potential pitfalls.  During the Writing Open Story Worlds panel, Blizzard’s James Waugh shared an anecdote that got to the heart of the matter.  There is a playable mission in Blizzard’s flagship Massively Multiplayer Online RPG “World of Warcraft” which calls for the players to slay a dragon called Onyxia.  But when Blizzard established that the character Varian Wrynn struck the killing blow in a storyline in the canonical WoW comics, fans were outraged; Blizzard had inadvertently robbed their players of the roles they’d carved out for themselves in the world of the game.  And as I mentioned in an earlier post, I’d take it one step further to say that during my MMORPG days, the knowledge that thousands of other players were playing through the exact same instanced dungeons that I was playing through created a cognitive dissonance which, for my money, diminished the overall experience.  I don’t want to feel like I’m just a cog in a narrative machine; if I’m taking the time to actively interact with a story, I want to feel like my adventures are my own, and that my actions are imbued with story-world significance, or at least the illusion of it.

Of course, I understand how impractical and fiscally irresponsible it would be to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on game experiences that only happen once and are tailored to just a few people.  In the case of my transmedia web series “Fury of Solace,” most of the ARGs played out entirely in the digital space, they didn’t cost anything to produce outside of the sweat equity spent drawing them up, so the fact that they were one-off events is a little easier to swallow.  But while I like to think our games were highly engaging for our small but loyal fanbase who experienced them, that is far from a viable model for larger gaming enterprises.

So where does this leave us?  Does increased fan apathy signal that the massively multiplayer ARG is well and truly dead?  Not all of the speakers on the Way Forward panel seemed to think so.  As far as Lucasfilm’s Ivan Askwith is concerned, the audience isn’t burnt out on ARGs in general, they’re simply tired of “engaging in things that have no value to them.”  And Starlight Runner’s Jeff Gomez, for his part, said that taking on a role within the context of a story world is something nearly all of us do in childhood, and he contends that that kind of role playing is something that people want to hold onto.

Part of the reason ARG participation has always catered to a seemingly small percentage of any given franchise’s audience probably has something to do with the fact that this kind of play is actively discouraged in adults, they lack what psychologist Denise Weston on the “Psychology of Games and Gamers” panel referred to as “play permission.”  On the same panel, psychologist and Founder of Transmedia Associates Pamela Rutledge said that the best way to counter these barriers to entry is to make an environment that is rich with safe points of entry.

Which is exactly what Imagineers are currently experimenting with within the confines of Walt Disney theme parks.   Certain park-going families have been given the opportunity to play-test new experiences like “Legend of the Fortuna” and “The Starlite Detective Agency.”  These ARG experiences play out over the course of the family’s visit to the park, and see each of them taking on a role in the story and interacting with actors seeded throughout the park.  During his keynote, Walt Disney Imagineering’s Scott Towbridge related the story of a pair of 7-year-old participants who were astonished that by the end of the day, their initially-skeptical mother had thrown herself completely into her role.  “That’s the first time we’ve ever seen our mom play,” the boys said, when all was said and done.

Does this mean the future of ARGs is in smaller, less expensive interactive experiences in more controlled environments?  That’s certainly a possibility.  But when it comes to corporate, massively multiplayer ARGs, Lee ultimately agreed with his fellow panelists that that kind of storytelling isn’t necessarily dead, so long as it continues to evolve.  In that regard, maybe we’re just waiting for the right creator to take the next giant leap forward.

That’s it for this week! Stay tuned for at least one more StoryWorld recap, and possibly some commentary on Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm.

StoryWorld 2012 Part 1: Phenomenal Work

So last week I attended the second annual StoryWorld Conference.  I was unable to attend the inaugural event in San Francisco the year before, but I heard so many glowing reviews that attending the followup was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.  And I could not have asked for a better experience.  Held at the Loews Hotel here in Hollywood, CA, StoryWorld 2012 was a 3-day romp of invaluable presentations & panel discussions, and elbow-rubbing with some of the brightest minds in the transmedia space from a myriad of disciplines.

I can’t possibly cover StoryWorld 2012 in a single post, so this will be the first of a multi-part series recapping the conference.  And I’ve decided to start my recap with one of the final presentations, by GMD Studios’ Brian Clark.  Clark called his keynote “Phenomenal Work” (as in the phenomenology) and stood on the shoulders of “dead German philosophers” like Immanual Kant, Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger to propose that now is the time for enthusiasts of immersive storytelling to spearhead a global design art movement.  Clark suggested that by focusing on the totality of the entertainment experience, transmedia storytellers are venturing into the territory of Husserl’s phenomenology, acknowledging that there is a difference between the story itself and the way fans experience it.

The central narrative of any story only touches on what keynote speaker Damon Lindelof refers to as the “tip of the iceberg” of the story world, everything below the surface is intuited by the audience.  Clark invoked the philosophical term “intentionality” to describe the audience’s ability to project story into the negative space implied by the creators of these immersive story worlds, a capacity that Microsoft Studio’s Lead Narrative Producer Geoffrey Long described in another panel as “negative capability.”  “Our work doesn’t provide the meaning,” Clark said, “it provides a context for it.  The audience provides the rest.”

Clark singled out Shepard Fairey as one of the most successful transmedia creators in the world today.  Fairey’s famous Obey Giant campaign was a self-described experiment in phenomenology.  His stated goal in the Obey Giant manifesto was to “reawaken a sense of wonder” in the world, a basic tenet of phenomenology, and one which Clark argues should be an underlying goal for all transmedia creators.

Clark cited “Mr. Sardonicus,” the world’s first choose-your-own adventure film, as one of the earliest examples of another important tenant of the transmedia movement: Sometimes, interactivity just means providing the illusion of choice.  The director of “Mr. Sardonicus,” William Castle – who by all accounts was a far better marketer than he was a filmmaker – claimed to have shot two endings to the picture, allegedly leaving it to the viewing public to decide to dole out punishment or mercy.  But Castle was such an adept puppet master that not a single audience ever chose to be merciful, and in fact, we now know that that alternate ending was never actually put to film.  Indeed, many ARGs (including those in my transmedia series “Fury of Solace”) are heavily rooted in this idea of the illusion of choice; the outcome of the games are never in question, but the players of an ARG well-told feel as if they are having a direct and measurable impact on the unfolding story.

Next, Clark praised George Lucas, not, in this case, for his success as a world builder but for pushing the film industry forward by championing the THX sound system.  Since transmedia storytelling is about the overall experience, Clark reminded us that “media happens somewhere, and that somewhere can be designed too.”

Because what we do as transmedia storytellers is so rooted in phenomenology, Clark proposed that instead of coining new terms to define our disparate disciplines, we simply preface our existing titles with “phenomenal.”  A phenomenal writer, for instance, is a writer who writes with the totality of the audience experience in mind.

Carrie Cutforth-Young, who I was also fortunate enough to meet at StoryWorld this year, responded to Clark’s keynote on Twitter, suggesting that perhaps the transmedia art movement that Clark proposed had already begun.  Cutforth-Young is one of the organizers of Transmedia101 (formerly Transmedia Toronto), and indeed, there is perhaps no more convincing argument for the existence of this emerging movement than the proliferation of transmedia groups all around the globe.

StoryWorld 2011 featured an unofficial meetup of transmedia meetup groups, and this year the organizers decided to officially incorporate that concept into the program.  Hosted by Transmedia L.A., this year’s Meetup of Meetups boasted representatives from StoryCode, Transmedia101, Transmedia Vancouver, Transmedia SF, Transmedia Europe & Alliance, T Storyteller and the EraTransmedia.  And I’m certain (as Damon Lindelof is so fond of saying) that those are only the tip of the iceberg.  Hal Hefner hosted this year’s meetup, and publicly announced something that I’ve been hinting at on the blog for several weeks: he’s stepping up as new managing director of Transmedia L.A.  And I’m proud to announce that I’ll be playing an important role in the future of the group (more on that in upcoming posts).

Jump on over to Clark’s blog to check out the slide presentation from his keynote, and to keep up with his in-depth exploration of his proposed global design movement.  And stay tuned here for more coverage of this year’s StoryWorld conference!

Push

Recently, some internet marketer friends of mine who also happen to be big fans of my web series “Fury of Solace” came to me with an interesting marketing idea for the series.  They’d had a great deal of experience using e-mail autoresponders for  traditional marketing, selling products, and they thought “Fury of Solace” lent itself to using autoresponders to simply tell a story.  This actually ties in to my last post on instancing, because, in effect, this approach would create a semi-instanced version of our show.  For a more in depth discussion on instancing go ahead and click back to the previous post, but in general terms, in an instanced transmedia experience, even though each user is experiencing the same narrative content, that content is being delivered in a self-contained bubble, a unique user-experience which begins when the user signs up.

I was not surprised to learn that other transmedia projects have already been dabbling in this particular content delivery system.  I haven’t had a chance to check out the project yet, but I learned via an episode of the Story Forward podcast that this autoresponder approach is currently being utilized by a project called “Guidestones.”  Jay Ferguson, the project’s creator, refers to this content-delivery method at the Push system, and since “push” is a lot more accessible than “autoresponder,” that’s how I’ll be referring to it from now on as well.

For our most recent cycle of “Fury of Solace,” we released four new videos a week for four weeks.  As I’ve mentioned before, since so much of our story is told through social-media interactions and Alternate Reality Games, it was always my goal to make that transmedia content accessible to people who stumbled upon our series after everything was said and done, and the Push system sounds like a great way to help people those people navigate through our ever-expanding web of content.  Using the Push system, new viewers would sign up at our site, and from that point forward they’d receive four e-mails a week until the story was completed.  Each e-mail would include not just a link to the next episode, but also links to Storify recaps of relevant character social media interactions, character blogs, ARG recaps, etc.  It would be almost as if our new viewers were experiencing the series the same way it was experienced by people who were watching it day-to-day as the content was originally released.  The reason I call it semi-instanced is because, unlike our viewers who were there from the beginning, these new viewers would not be able to interact with the characters in real-time because the story events our new viewers are only now discovering happened for the characters some time ago.

All of our content is currently available for free at furyofsolace.com, so the question then becomes, why would we offer our viewers an alternative way to experience the show via the Push system when they could just as easily go to the site and moderate their own experience?  Well, there’s a couple of reasons for that.  First off, I’ll be the first to admit that navigating furyofsolace.com is potentially overwhelming for your average viewer.  For one thing, because “Fury of Solace” was an indie, low-to-no budget series, our site isn’t a custom-built delivery mechanism for our particular brand of transmedia storytelling, it’s a WordPress theme that we’ve jury-rigged to deliver our content as best as we’ve been able.  So using the Push system is a good way to hand-hold new fans through the experience who are intimated by the prospect of digging through all of that content on their own.

Beyond that, I have a feeling that when the next live-action episode is only a mouse-click away, many viewers will have a tendency to skim over (if not skip entirely) the more text-based transmedia content.  But I think your average viewer will be a lot more likely to delve into that added transmedia content if the content is being sent to them in daily doses.

And, of course, from a marketing standpoint, there’s nothing more valuable than having direct access to your fans’ inboxes.  If they “like” you on Facebook or follow your Twitter feed, it’s still crapshoot whether or not any given fan will see your social media announcements in their streams.  If you’re sending them direct e-mails, you know they’re receiving your messages, and you have direct access to each and every one of your fans, not just for delivering content but also for fundraising initiatives, series announcements, the sky’s the limit, really.

As far as “Fury of Solace” goes, I think the ideal user experience is to watch it as the content is being released, thereby having the opportunity to interact with the characters in real-time as the story unfolds.  But the Push system may just be the best way for viewers to jump into our story world after the fact.

And speaking of, the second annual StoryWorld conference starts today here in L.A.  I’ll be attending all three days and will report back on the entire experience in an upcoming post.

Instancing

I started dabbling in Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games as far back as Ultima Online in 1997, but no MMORPG captured my imagination like “Star Wars: Galaxies.”  Admittedly, it was less the gameplay and more the story world that drew me in: I’d been a dyed-in-the-wool Star Wars fan since my parents took me to see “Return of the Jedi” in theaters when I was 3.  I found “Galaxies” so engaging, in fact, that it took me moving to Los Angeles in 2008 to wrest me from the game’s grip, and I have subsequently sworn off MMORPGs altogether, in the name of productivity.  Exactly what kept me coming back hour after hour, day after day, will likely be the subject of a future blog post, but today I’m going to focus on one particular aspect of MMORPGs called “instancing,” because I believe the concept is just as germane to Alternate Reality Games as it is to Online Role-Playing Games.

Periodically, MMORPG designers introduce new play areas, which, due to the proliferation of sword & sorcery games in the genre, are generally referred to as “dungeons.”  These dungeons offer new challenges, new enemies, and generally, new coveted loot drops which players stand to gain by exploring them.  Needless to say, after a new dungeon drops, die-hard and casual gamers alike flock to it in droves, underlining the “massive” in “massively multiplayer.”  This overcrowding can potentially cause any number of problems, from the technical to the practical.  On the technical side, too many players in one place is taxing on the server, and the system you’re playing it on.  On the practical side, forcing all of the players to explore a single dungeon means the new loot drops are likely to be scarce, and die-hard players will tend to have a leg up on casual players when it comes to acquiring them (though this could also be seen as a benefit, if you’re looking for a gaming experience that promotes competition and a player-driven economy motivated by scarcity of resources).  To combat these problems, certain MMORPG developers introduced the concept of an “instanced” dungeon: When a player and his or her party enter the dungeon, they are transported to a newly created instance of the dungeon, identical to the dungeon each of the other players experience, but separate from the virtual world they all share.  In this way, every player is able to experience the content without interference from the rest of the teeming masses, and players of every skill level have the same opportunity to obtain the sought-after loot contained therein.

And many Alternate Reality Game designers have essentially implemented instancing for their gaming experience for similar reasons.  It allows for the highest number of participants, and for players to experience the ARG at their own pace in their own time.  Generally speaking, a fully instanced ARG has to be completely automated and exist only in the virtual space.  You e-mail a character, for example, and receive a canned, pre-scripted, automated response which leads you to the next part of the story, you solve various online puzzles and play through the game to its conclusion.

And while this approach makes a lot of sense from a game-management perspective, I have to admit, canned dungeon content, instanced or otherwise, was my least favorite part of the “Star Wars: Galaxies” experience.  The knowledge that hundreds of thousands of other players completed the exact same missions I did pulled me out of the otherwise dynamic, open world that the designers had created.  Similarly, I tend not to find myself fully engaged in instanced ARGs because, though they may provide the illusion of interactivity, I’m all too aware that ultimately, my actions don’t have any direct, observable impact on the story.

That was our goal for each of the ARGs we staged for the web series “Fury of Solace,” to make fans feel like their actions mattered.  Of course, following this model, our ARGs generally had only one “winner”: however collaborative the process may have been up to that point, it was only one person who would ultimately crack the code, after which further exploration of that particular game became redundant.  So the fact that the ARGs were designed for a small number of players and a short time-span meant that we had to find a way to engage people after the fact, for the benefit of those who were unable to participate at the time, or who hadn’t yet stumbled upon our series.  A way to convey not just the important plot information that came out during the game, but to also immortalize the contributions of the players who did participate (both as a reward to them and as a demonstration that future players, too, could secure themselves an enduring place in the “Fury of Solace” canon).

So when it comes to ARGs, the question becomes: to instance or not to instance?  And ultimately, I tend to think, as with all things, a little instancing is fine in moderation.  (I should point out, it’s been quite difficult to resist the urge to use the phrase “for instance” in this particular post.)  For example (ahem)… When “The Miracle Mile Paradox’s” Rex Higgs went into hiding, and seeded his business cards at local businesses on the strip of L.A.’s Wilshire blvd known as the Miracle Mile, the creative team was able to instance a portion of the game without violating the integrity of the story.  Higgs was trying to recruit as many allies as possible in his struggle against the evil AIC corporation, so it made perfect sense that each player would jump through the same series of automated hoops to get onboard, without the reality-breaking mechanic of having multiple players fill the same role in the same story.  Players were playing themselves, their actions mattered, and because finding the clues actually did require human interaction with employees at the various participating businesses, each player’s individual experience varied.  Obviously, this is an evolving form, and I feel like we’re only just scratching the surface of how engaging ARGs can be.  I, for one, am excited to see where we, as transmedia producers, and the fans who complete the equation, take this form in the days to come.

That’s it for this week, but I hope to see many of you in person at next week’s StoryWorld conference!

What’s in the Bxx?

This week, I’m going to talk about another transmedia property I had the privilege to take part in, an experimental web series called “Bxx: Haunted,” helmed by Daniel Knauf, creator of HBO’s “Carnivale.”  For a time, after “Carnivale’s” untimely cancellation, Dan and his son Charlie wrote the “Iron Man” comic for Marvel.  It was because of that (and my three-year stint as a staff writer for Comic Book Resources) that I first became passingly acquainted with the Knaufs.  So when I read about Dan Knauf’s groundbreaking idea for a transmedia web series, I did not hesitate to reach out and offer my services.

In “Bxx: Haunted,” Dan Knauf and his loyal crew set out to tell the story of a paranormal investigation gone wrong.  But their goal was to tell the ENTIRE story.  So they set up 16 cameras in a house in Pasadena, rolled for 32 hours straight, and let their actors eat, breathe and sleep their characters until the story had played out.  There wasn’t a script per se so much as a series of primers, tailored to each character, instructing the actors about their backstory, personalities, and certain key emotional beats they had to hit at specific times, etc. (not unlike what I’m told was provided to the actors in “The Blair Witch Project”).  “Bxx: Haunted” was originally slated to take place over 48 hours, but my understanding is the entire experience became too taxing on the actors involved, so they were forced to move up their timetable on the fly.  Unfortunately, I didn’t become involved with the project until after this insane 32-hour odyssey had already been shot.  I would love to have been present for that part of the undertaking.  Ultimately, all of these hundreds of hours of footage were presented, unedited, on the show’s website in 6 minute intervals.  Viewers could watch as much of the story as they wanted, in whatever order they wanted.  There’s also a way to synch up multiple cameras so you can watch different rooms at once.

My chief task on the project turned out to be working with Dan’s son Charlie to create what Dan affectionately refers to as “ephemera.”  The supposedly haunted house where the story took place had a long fictional history, as did the primary characters in the story, so Charlie and I were tasked to write old newspaper and magazine articles about some of the house’s sordid former occupants, paranormal research papers supposedly written by cast members, police reports, and all manner of supplementary, world-building material.

And while we were in the midst of producing this material, I came up with what I thought was a novel way of presenting the material to the fans.  I’d recently been playing through the Xbox game “Arkham City,” in which fulfilling certain achievements unlocked piece of narrative back story.  It occurred to me that, to encourage exploration through the countless hours of material, this ephemera that Charlie and I were producing might best be made “unlockable,” i.e. watching a particular 6-minute segment of the show from a particular angle would allow a viewer to access a particular piece of supplementary content that was germane to what was happening in that clip.  I figured that would foster fan discussion, and appeal to the completionist tendencies of the video game generation, who would want to unlock all of the supplementary material just to say they did it.  So I was excited when Dan and his team took my advice and implemented that evidence-gathering approach to the supplementary material Charlie and I created.

And for those of you who are a little overwhelmed by the prospect of sifting through hundreds of hours of content, Dan and Co. have edited together a traditional, found-footage feature film out of the project, which is actually a good entre to the world of the series.  You may think that by watching the movie first, knowing the end will spoil the journey, but I would beg to differ.  The film actually works as something of a framing device, and watching the film makes you wonder what happened in the footage the film didn’t show you.  Not only that, the cast is so entrenched in their roles that you almost can’t even call it acting, and watching the way they unravel over 32 hours is a fascinating experience in and of  itself.

I had a blast working with Dan, Charlie and the rest of the cast and crew on “Bxx: Haunted,” and I encourage each and every one of you to head over to their site and check out the project.  I know Dan loves the possibilities that this format presents, and wants to use it to tell other stories.  “Bxx: Haunted” is kind of a dry run for this new type of narrative storytelling, and it’s being shaped by fans like you and me who provide feedback as we delve into this nigh bottomless well of material that Dan and Co. have produced.  Working on the project was a great experience, and I hope I get to work with those folks again in the future.

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