I finally met Lucas in person at the Storyworld Conference. He is a lovely and intelligent young man with a lot of passion for his craft. Although we could tell this with his active postings at his company blog, Silverstring Media, he is even better in person. Now Lucas has generously offered to share some crucial lessons he has learned from his first major jump into creating a reactive story online here.
Before we delve into those lessons, some quick info about his background. Lucas had a job as a creative intern at an ad agency where he resides in Vancouver; he has done a bit of freelance PR writing; and was a trainee assistant director on a TV show in the summer of 2010. Some of his published short stories are “Flip City” in the Queer Wolf anthology, a more recent piece he’s “very proud of”, “Subtle Poison”, is in the anthology Speaking Out. His stageplay Life: A Play was performed as part of the Brave New Play Rites Reading Series at UBC in 2009, and his stage monologue Revelations is published at the Good Ear Review online.
Now to his lessons – I’ve included a bit of a dialogue between Lucas and I after each lesson too. Enjoy!
At the start of this year, I launched an experimental transmedia story called Azrael’s Stop. After a few months of lacklustre audience and a structure swamped in problems, I affirmed that yes, I do in fact suck at transmedia.
But as we all aspire to do, I have learned from the experience — and furthermore implemented that learning to attempt to repair Azrael’s Stop and re-launched it this November. In the spirit of You Suck At Transmedia, I’d like to share a few of the lessons I learned along the way — and hope you’ll join me in an ongoing self-evaluation of the project.
Lesson #1: Quality. Speed. Cost. Choose two.
Not a new lesson, but a problem I thought I could work around. (Spoiler: I couldn’t.) I designed Azrael’s Stop to be something I could produce quickly and cheaply and get out into the world — the story is told through daily serialized microfiction, tweet-sized bits of story that build over time. I figured I could pump out a bunch of these quickly and easily without actually losing too much quality of writing.
The quality I was losing, though, was in the overall project, not the writing — I didn’t have time to really plan, I didn’t have strong design elements, I honestly didn’t think through all the possible ways people would come at the project and problems they would face. But I thought I could work on the quality later, after I got things going.
But once I had started, I was just trying to keep up with the content along with whatever else I was working on. In the end, I did catch up on the quality side — after I had pulled the plug, gone on hiatus, and went back to the drawing board to fix it. Thus sacrificing speed. Lesson learned.
CD: “Choose two” – hehe, I like that. I’m also working on a project that can be produced cheaply and quicker than say a feature film, but I’m finding that I can’t have speed without cost. If I could pay people to do things, then production would move faster and we could do more things!
LJ: I would love to be able to pay the people who have worked with me on this — and besides just wanting to compensate them for what they’ve done, it would also help solidify the relationship and contractualize deadlines more effectively, not to mention allow them (and me) to focus on this project rather than do it in our spare time. You definitely can’t have it all.
Lesson #2: It’s never as easy as you think it will be.
Daily tweets. How hard could that be? I can write 140 characters a day, no problem. Though I also wanted to have some bonus content, monthly extras that maybe I could make money on, things like longer short stories and music and audio plays and interactive fiction games and comics. And suddenly there was a lot more work involved. Those things required a lot more time and effort, and collaboration with friends who, by the way, had their own deadlines to deal with as well. Not to mention the fact that producing a project like this isn’t just about making the content. Once you’ve made the content, you still have to promote it. Write it up. Sell it. Not to mention maintaining it, fixing problems as they come up. Plan for more work than you assume. And give yourself the time to do it right.
CD: Ooo yeah. The trailer for my project took much longer than planned, due to some
unexpected factors. But what I remind myself over and over again is that projects are
always like that. They always blow out time-wise (especially in experimental projects)
because of unforeseen events. In the end, it isn’t about knowing everything that can go
wrong, it is how you deal with the stuff that does. It is kind of a world-view that I find not
everyone shares…and so one of the things I’m working on at the moment is how to
facilitate that kind of culture. Any ideas?
LJ: I think a big part of it is having the right team — a team that is motivated and interested in the project and wants it to succeed as much as you. And then furthermore being as clear as possible in communicating expectations with the team as far as how to deal with problems and perhaps whose responsibility it may be. Not always easy conversations to have, though.
Lesson #3: Have a plan.
Nothing worse than launching without any real idea where you’re going. You’re just asking for a host of problems to crop up out of the blue. You don’t need everything fleshed out, but have an outline for the whole project — and that includes where it’s ending. Both you and your audience should know how much time they’re expecting to devote to your story. A plan lets you know when something big is coming, so you can devote enough time to it, so you can prepare properly and make sure everyone on your team is on the same page and committed. A plan will also give you a better sense of your whole project, so you can hopefully see where there are problems in your structure, or opportunities to do cooler things. I went into the project with it being very open-ended, and as a result, it quickly got away from me and was in some ways aimless. This time, I know what I’m doing and where I’m going. Not everything is written — but everything is planned.
CD: Yeah, nice. It sounds like you really jumped into the deep end! Even your experience is in the extreme in that you started without an outline, I’ve also found there are certain things that help when you’re knee-deep in the “live” madness. As a writer and designer, you have lots of information in your head and perhaps in shared documents. But some decisions just really need to happen quickly (or you at least want them to). This is where I’ve found having some basic “essence elements” on hand helps. If I know what the theme or message of my project is, that informs/constrains my decisions. If I know what
my character wants and what they need (as two competing drives), then I can usually act in their voice fairly easily. Lucas, what sort of stuff do you do for planning now?
LJ: I now have a full bible for the project, at about 13,000 words, which nails down exactly those thematic elements as well as the look and feel of the project. It also has complete character descriptions, personalities, and the arcs the characters go through, so I know where it’s all going. Separately, I’ve also created a rough outline of the entire year-long story that incorporates all those character journeys, and I have a good idea of what I want my bonus content to be each month so I can plan ahead and find collaborators where necessary.
Lesson #4: Set the stage.
Your audience has to know what they’re getting into from the very start — both from a structural point of view (How much time are you asking them to commit? What’s the duration of the experience? Are you asking for interaction? UGC? Or just passive consumption?) and a story point of view (set up the main characters, the setting, the conflict; give the audience something to care about).
Structurally, if they don’t know what they’re getting into, they won’t trust you, and they won’t be happy when you ask more of them than they assumed. Story-wise, they just won’t care and won’t give you the benefit of the doubt for long enough to pull them in. Hook them early.
CD: Yeah, totally agree. I remember one of the big lessons hypertext fiction writers learnt: that a big difference between a book and an online narrative is the reader knows how big the book is and where they are in it. Motivation to act is closely linked to urgency at times and so people need to know when to act. I recognising that with my current project being a very different way to experience the web, and with players coming with different expectations, I need to make it clear what it is about and what they will do. So my next milestone is to create a playable trailer. I also recall a quote from Andra Sheffer, when she said if you don’t hook your online audience within the first 10 seconds you’re dead. Heavy stuff, but good to keep in mind. As indies, we have to address craft, art and publicity!
LJ: Not easy at the best of times. That design of the user experience is so vital — and thus my next lesson!
Lesson #5: Everything is a barrier to entry.
There are millions of things on the internet that people will entertain themselves with. And watching a cat video is so much easier than registering for your site so they can scroll backwards through some tweets to understand what’s going on.
At some point, some barriers to entry are ok — if you’re looking for player interaction, that’s a barrier to entry, but it might be a necessary one for the structure of your project. A paywall is certainly a barrier to entry, but again could be necessary at some point! But just be aware what is a barrier and that every one will lose you some audience members.
That includes necessary site registration. It includes just moving from one medium to another. It includes forms of media people aren’t familiar with — like interactive fiction. It even includes using Twitter, as I discovered — there are still a lot of people who aren’t on Twitter, don’t understand Twitter, and frankly don’t want to understand Twitter.
Barriers to entry also include things that stop people from getting involved in the middle of a project. Make sure it’s easy for people to get caught up on the story and jump in. Make sure if people miss a week because they were on vacation, they’re going to be able to get back in.
CD: Yeah, I like the term “friction points”. They are a major design consideration in transmedia projects, or just any highly dispersed projects. Easy to enter is one thing, but also there is the power of a good content. I read a study that found people who followed a particular topic (entertainment gossip), went everywhere and anywhere to get it. People are platform-agnostic when the content leads them. They don’t think about moving across platforms or obstacles when they’re following content they want. So on
the one hand we have the need for design that recognises friction points, and on the other hand we need to remember that content is part of that design strategy.
LJ: Yes! I think there’s also a point to make though that people have an intrinsic understanding of how to get something like entertainment gossip (that it can come from TV, magazines, the internet), whereas getting them to understand that a piece of prose fiction can be delivered online via tiny pieces every day along with music and video and things may yet be something not intrinsic for a lot of people.
Lesson #6: Everything is a balance.
The more you ask from your audience, the less audience you will have. You can’t have both a huge audience that is also deeply engaged. If you give the audience control over the narrative, you’re going to lose control yourself. Everything is some kind of balancing act. In my case it was the balance between not asking a lot from my audience (I was only asking them to read a little bit of content a day) and asking enough to get them engaged (one tweet is not enough). I missed that balance. Now I have an introductory story, more content to hook them, and then the microfiction (which I present in much better ways than before as well). You can’t have everything, so pick your battles.
CD: Could you tell me more about how you’re planning on addressing different audiences now?
LJ: Part of it, which was always my plan but which I’m putting extra focus on now, is not making the bonus content — the music, the audio play, the game, and whatever else I devise — necessary to follow the story. So if you don’t know how to play an interactive fiction game and don’t care to figure it out, that’s ok.
Another big part is making sure the content is accessible in as many ways as possible — no longer just on Twitter, you can now get it on Facebook, Tumblr, or on its own dedicated website (with an RSS feed and email subscription). And if you don’t want tiny chunks every day but instead want to consume it all at once, I’m compiling each month of content into single pages on the site, as chapters on Scribd, Wattpad, and Book Country, and as downloadable PDFs.
Having a “Story So Far” page and a “Start Here” page will also hopefully make it easy for people to access the story even if they weren’t there from the start — a very clear step-by-step explanation of what this is and how best to experience it.
CD: Ooo, I should mention I cover some of the early attempts at making dispersed stories more approachable in this essay (PDF) and continue on the online augmentation to the essay.
Lesson #7: Promote yourself.
Your own networks aren’t enough. Unless you have thousands of Facebook fans and Twitter followers and blog readers, you won’t get word out far enough just by flogging your project on your own networks. (If you can, you’ve probably already done this step many many times.) What few RTs you get won’t be enough. Go where your audience is, to forums and blogs and news sites and put your stuff in front of eyeballs. Make deals with other creators. Bring in collaborators who will flog it to their own networks. Guest blog. Publicize.
CD: And here he is! hehe. Yeah, the next major stage of publicity for my project will be doing publicity outside of my networks. I’ll also share one thing I realised – that your peer network/audience is not necessarily your creative audience. It is one thing to have a network of colleagues, but that network won’t necessarily be into your creative work and your creative project will appeal to new people.
LJ: Absolutely! The trick will be finding those methods of publicity outside these channels. It will come, but it will be work ^_^
All of which is not to say I don’t still suck at transmedia. But I’m learning! Hopefully you are too. And hopefully the things I’ve learned will help make Azrael’s Stop a better and successful project. Check it out at azraelsstop.com, and let me know!
Thank you so much Lucas for sharing your lessons!
This is a special repost of Trevor Curran’s (@TrevorCurran) article from his Facebook group, reprinted here with permission. It provides a lot of juicy advice about funding and working with brands, and is a nice complement to Brian Clark’s series on transmedia business models at Henry’s blog.
Ok so in short…I’ve been asked ‘show me the money’ – where do you get it? In Ireland and EU these are good starting points: the EU MEDIA Interactive Development Fund, Northern Ireland Screen Digital Content Development, Creative Industries Innovation Fund and Invest Northern Ireland. Enterprise Ireland, RTE Storyland, Local County Council Arts Offices and IFB schemes such as Virtual Cinema. These should be enough to keep you going for a while but obviously there is as always lots of competition for limited funding so make your concept good!
Historically speaking broadcasters in Ireland and the UK have no coherent commissioning digital strategy, this is changing but very slowly with RTE Storyland, RTE YPP, BBC NI Innovation Slot, Ch4 OD. The reasons why there has been a bit of a failure to adapt stem from it being a new area for content, history and internal politics of broadcasters has a part to play with early web content being simply part of publishing in RTEs case the RTE guide and Aertel, which gave rise to an early site which effectively republished content. Change is difficult for large scale broadcasters such as RTE but their RTE player is taking hold even if they still have no way of commissioning content for digital without running fowl of internal debates on who should be commissioning for the web right now its still ad hoc at best.
The unions SPI and SIPTU in Ireland bless their cotton socks still haven’t managed work out crew rates for web content after ten years negotiations, thankfully in the uk BECTU and PACT seem more proactive as do unions in Australia and America. But on a basic what you need to know is this the normal tv and film drama production model makes digital and web content not really possible so a much lower cost base required to make it viable that may change in time but right now this is where we are at. So Top Tip use technology where ever possible to reduce cost base and keep coming up with ideas to reduce your cost base such as getting actors to record voice over and pod casts on set in-between lighting set up, you need to be much more effective in your production days then the system is used for and you need to be filming much more pages to make the whole thing work!!!!
Ok so as I said traditional drama budget rules simply cannot apply, however the broadcasters as they can’t commission this stuff make you pay for new media elements of digital media components often this must come from your existing production budgets. So you have been warned in advance!
This brings us to control and maintenance, ownership of IP and International sales, generally if a broadcaster pays for it they own it unless you can prove extensive development before commissioning so do yourself a favour and shoot a mini pilot it will give you a much better leveraging position in negotiating IP ownership and position for international sales down the line. If a single brand is paying for it then the same rules apply generally whomever pays for it is likely to want a slice of the action is international sales and distribution revenues…the question is how big of slice of the pie do you get?? If multiple brands are involved that has the many many benefits it stops one trying to dictate narrative – at the end of the day these guys make ads not entertainment that’s you job and you should know how to do it better then them. It also means you are in a very strong position when it comes to international sales and distribution revenues Woop Woop!!! Ah that so rarely happens ☺
So how do you get brands involved – well get a great idea to start with and figure out your distribution plan so that you grab your target audiences attention preferably before launch. You’ll need a pilot eps, mock up website, series bible, extensive markting and launch plan. A sample package for sponsors would often include:
1. Full integration of the brand/product within the episode/series
2. Off-line cross media activities using the brand and the show
3. Competitions using the show and requiring users to go to the sponsor website
4. Photos of main cast and logo for using in off-line materials, point of sale etc
5. Link from Series Portal page to brand page
6. Provide ‘as seen on XXyour series hereXX’ logo
7. Advance screening onsite
8. On-line casting for publicity
9. Press release with regard to innovation of brand in sponsoring online show
10. Pre roll logo – ‘Brought to you by Brand X”
Producers generally speaking should keep an open mind and always have a few suggestions regarding how best to integrate brands within your series. Ok some quick states to get your juices flowing:
1. Product Placement in US Market is worth €2.65Bn in 2009 – most current figures available.
2. The largest use of placement is in Music Videos up 8% on last year – Britney Spears, Lady Gaga – the range of products include Sony Products to Miracle Whip salad Dressing.
3. Product Placement currently accounts for 5% of US Advertising Revenue.
4. There were 400,000 Instances of Product Placement on US Television in 2009.
5. Brandchannel.com estimates that ‘Apple’ items appeared in 30% of top US box office films last year in 2010.
6. Indeed the Matrix Trilogy had the distinction of having so much Product Placement the film was actually in profit before anyone actually saw it in the cinema!!
In 2007 EU instated the Audiovisual Media Services directive, which in theory allowed broadcasters to take payment for displaying commercial products. However each country had to determine their own rules this was in large part due to the large volume of US television that was viewed in Europe which has lots of PP for revenue it was infact putting local European producers at a disadvantage in competition terms.
Due to the impact of Digital Systems – ie Sky+ which allow audiences to skip ads this had a dramatic impact hitting broadcaster revenues, and with the advertising crash IRL spend down from 350m 2007 to 200m since 2011. Irish broadcasters were in effect competing with UK broadcasters who have been allowed use PP since 2009 – and it now accounts for £ 20m + out of local ad spend in the UK. The UK first PP – was on the ‘This Morning TV Show’ in late 2009 – with a Blender being placement in the set background for a fee of £100,000. Indeed to much fan fair RTE announced their first major PP deal last week as part of Fair City the shop will be branded as a ‘Spar’ Shop – in a deal estimated to be worth €900,000 for 9 months appearing 4 times per episode of Fair City!
OK those of you from Ireland please take note of the following: (Broadcasting Authority of Ireland) BAI Product Placement has been given the go ahead from May 2nd of this year. There are conditions though its only allowed in Films, Sport, Drama and Light Entertainment. Its very much forbidden in News, Children’s TV, Chat Shows, or shows with more than 20% Current Affairs – ie Late Late Show. ‘PP’ – A Product Placement Logo must appear during the show and in the end credits listing the specific companies involved.
So what are the official views of the broadcasters well TV3 seemed mainly concerned with appealing to the BAI for a restriction on RTE PP levels, its debateable if that will ever actually happen. Both broadcasters are appealing the notion of having to inform audiences of PP at all via logo and credits. RTE argue that audiences already accept the concept of PP and given the amount of US it is prevalent in they have a valid argument. Setanta Sports on the other hand don’t see it as a viable source of income for them indeed they are not even sure its worth administrative inconvenience of including as a potential revenue model them is viewed as too small.
Ok people now go forth and make stuff!!
In response to my last post about Quality TV/Transmedia, Micheal Finberg emailed me. We chatted about a couple of points, one of which was his question about whether transmedia is disruptive. I shared the question with twitter and this was the response (in order of most recent):
Just a quick post (a habit I’ll try and get into so I post often!) to share a list of the distinguishing characteristics of “quality television”. The characteristics are developed by academic Robert J. Thompson in response to the emergence of “quality TV” is American television beginning with Hills Street Blues, and includes Twin Peaks, Moonlighting, Northern Exposure, and contemporary series such as The Sopranos. I’m just clearing out my office, and found these notes from his book Television’s Second Golden Age: From Hill Street Blues to ER (1996). Consider these in the context of transmedia and the emerging or need for quality transmedia projects. What is similar and what is different?
- ‘Quality TV is best defined by what it is not. It is not “regular” TV.’ (page. 13)
- ‘Quality TV usually has a quality pedigree. Shows made by artists whose reputations were made in other, classier media,like film, are prime candidates.’ (page 14)
- ‘Quality TV attracts an audience with blue chip demographics. The upscale, well-educated, urban-dwelling, young viewers advertisers so desire to reach tend to make up a much larger percentage of the audience of these shows than of other kinds of programs.’ (page 14)
- ‘Desirable demographics notwithstanding, quality shows must often undergo a noble struggle against profit-mongering networks and nonappreciative audiences. The hottest battles between Art and Commerce, between creative writer-producers and bottom-line-concious executives are often played out during the runs of these series. [...] When a quality show does become a hit, it is often after a long struggle and some unusual circumstances.’ (page 14)
- ‘Quality TV tends to have a large ensemble cast. The variety of characters allows for a variety of viewpoints since multiple plots must usually be employed to accommodate all of the characters.’ (page 14)
- ‘Quality TV has a memory. Though it may or may not be serialized in continuing story lines, these shows tend to refer back to previous episodes. Characters develop and change as the series goes on.’ (page 14)
- ‘Quality TV creates a new genre by mixing old ones. [...] All quality shows integrate comedy and tragedy in a way Aristotle would never have approved.’ (page 15)
- ‘Quality TV tends to be literary and writer-based. The writing is usually more complex than in other types of programming.’ (page 15)
- ‘Quality TV is self-conscious. Oblique allusions are made to both high and popular culture, but mostly of TV itself.’ (page 15)
- ‘The subject matter of quality TV tends toward the controversial. [...] The overall message almost always tends toward liberal humanism.’ (page 15)
- ‘Quality TV aspires toward “realism“.’ (page 15)
Thompson then says that “series which exhibit these eleven characteristics listed above are usually enthusiastically showered with awards and critical acclaim” (page 15). He goes on to comment on the similarity of TV shows:
As this list suggests, when looked at all together, these “quality” programs all begin to look a lot alike. What emerges by the time we get to the 1990s is that “quality TV” has become a genre in itself complete with its own set of formulaic characteristics. [...] Quality television came to refer to shows with a particular set of characteristics that we normally associate with “good,” “artsy,” and “classy.” But we can say that of other media as well. The films that play in the city art houses also have a surprisingly lot in common with each other. Serious novels, paintings, and films have distinct set of characteristics that distinguish them from bestsellers, K-Mart seascapes, and Hollywood blockbusters. (page 16)
At many times during his book, Thompson refers to the techniques creators of these shows used to help with audiences that don’t watch every episode and those that do. I learnt a few techniques from Hills Street Blues! He finishes by talking about this approach:
But it is a formula that includes thoughtful writing, innovative stories, and strong performances among its principal characteristics. By institutionalizing “quality” programming into an imitatable formula, the creators of such shows have found a way to make artistically interesting programs that are compatible with prime-time television’s demands for predictability. (page 192)
Interesting stuff. I think it will take longer for gatekeepers (commissioning agents, funding bodies, broadcasters, etc) to identify quality…but it is emerging regardless!
I recently curated a panel for the Freeplay Independent Gaming Festival: How Every Little Decision Can Bring You Closer To or Further Away from Creating Crap
A (self-described) “handsome and debonaire stranger” said to me the best way to avoid creating dull projects is “don’t work for shit companies” and “only go indie if you have a brain”. But what happens if you (think) you don’t work for a shit company and you have a brain? Are there still little things you can do that gradually and inevitably steer your project into the sea of mediocrity? This session is a discussion about how all of those little design and process decisions build to make or break your game.
And now, thanks to Stephan Schutze, I can share the audio from the panel!:
I opened with a short intro, and then moved to Floyd Mueller, who directs the Exertion Games Lab at RMIT. He spoke about how you can avoid crap game design during prototyping:
Then David May, Lead Programmer at Big Ant Studios, shared things he’s learnt from working for 12 years on mainly console games:
We then introduced Tom Killen, co-founder of The Voxel Agents, who generously replaced the flight-disrupted Luke Muscat. Tom spoke about methods his company use to prototype games:
Photo by Jason Poley, 2011
Freeplay2011-Avoiding Crap Game Design-Tom Killen by christydena
I then quickly wrapped up (we were running out of time), with some quick methods I’ve learnt regarding writing:
Freeplay2011-Avoiding Crap Game Design-Christy Dena by christydena
Let us know what you think!
Jan Libby is a respected indie alternate reality game designer, whose day job is a freelancer working with brands to create interactive experiences. (Her impressive bio is at the bottom of this post.) Jan has recently run an indie ARG called Snow Town. I unfortunately missed the participating through the whole experience, but I wanted to hear more about how she has moved from doing long complex ARGs to short ones – an approach that would benefit new ARG creators. Wired covered the beginning of Snow Town, and here Jan shares a post-mortem on how she made the “short story ARG”:
Tell us a bit about your Snow Town ARG.
Snow Town is a short story ARG that is actually part of a larger indie project I’m creating titled “The Legend of the Snow People”. Long legend short: every 100 years the Snow People come to life, wreak havoc (crazy rituals, wild parties, etc.) and eventually terrorize the people in this small Maine village. This year, 2011, with the help of an on-line community (the ARG), the Snow People’s reign comes to an end… we hope. Of course, we won’t know for sure until 2111. Most of the ARG’s story played out on the main character’s blog, and the local library’s site. Although we used the comments section for some “in-game” conversation, there were also personal emails (between characters and players), voicemail messages, a guestbook, a virtual book club and also a hidden page within the library’s site.
You’ve commented that the short length of the ARG meant you could do more of your own indie ARGs, more frequently. Could you share more about what you did with this ARG to make it more manageable?
There is an enormous difference between creating a 10 to 12 week (or longer) ARG and a 2 week ARG. Finding the time from my brand work to design, write and prep a 3 month ARG is impossible, right now. So, last summer I began to shift my thinking about the size and scope of ARGs. I knew I wasn’t interested in making something “lighter” or more “casual”. Then, while searching for something to read at my town’s library, I stopped on a short story collection and had my aha moment. I realized I could still do a story that has the details and character development that I love, but change the scope from novel to short story. Seems ridiculous that I hadn’t thought of it before that point. So, to answer your question.. the story is shorter, fewer characters (due to time constraint), story delivery is a bit more centralized and the design of the roll out must fit into 2 weeks vs. 10 plus. This means you really have to figure out how to intro your characters and get them to connect to the community/players via the unfolding story within your first week. Last part of the first week and beginning of the second week are devoted to the characters and players, together, diving into the meat of the story events (conflict). Last part of the second week takes everyone to the climax and finally the conclusion.
Tell us a bit more about keeping the story and activity constrained to two weeks. Did you have a sub-plot for instance? How many player activities did you end up doing?
So many sub-plots with so little time… ha! With every ARG or Interactive Story I’ve ever launched, there are always many sub-plots that are “available”. Which sub-plots get explored depends on the choices and or interests of the Players/Participants. ARGs are like Soaps in this way. There can be a sub-plot tied to each character. Snow Town had sub-plots revolving around Ruthie Randolph’s love life, Edward Harmon’s love of Gin and drunken late night emails, Clare Haynes Triplet’s breakdown, Natasha Triplet’s secrets, a small one that never really unfolded involving Charles Gulliffer and another involving the ghost of Louise Hoskins that will be explored in the “Legend of the Snow People”.
Activities… Of course we were set up for heavy Character Interaction via email, comments and a Voicemail System. Most of that was designed to allow Players to build a relationship to the world and characters at first and then later to enter and impact the story. Due to the secretive nature of the story, we had 9 or 10 puzzle that had to be cracked to move forward. All of these puzzles tied to the “legend”. We used the pigpen cipher for most because it tied to the history of the legend. Other puzzles came out of character’s needs. Meaning, how would that particular person hide a message. And we had a live virtual Book Club Meeting that was really due to the interest of the Players.
How did you manage updates during the two week period: ongoing characters interactions and frequent updates?
Since the story was playing out in real time, the pacing of updates had to feel like it was actually happening in Snow Town at that moment in time. But, we also wanted to accommodate Players in different parts of the world, you shift some of your Characters habits. So, we had Clare and Edward for the late night crowd. Peg was usually up early updating. The Library and Ruthie had a schedule and rarely moved beyond it. So, back to your question.. we first thought about how we could have updates at different times of day to make the world feel like it was “living” and then connected (or assigned) those times to characters. Of course, some of the updating as we built up in the second week changed due to story events. We had a few nights where everyone was up late.
You’ve also commented on the ‘community theatre’ nature of your cast and crew, could you tell us a bit about that?
I’m living part-time in a very small New England town. The town’s history and people inspired Snow Town. While I was researching and working out the story for Snow Town, it became obvious that I should definitely make this project a “community ARG”. The cast and crew are my neighbors. My local library, general store and church became important locations within the Snow Town storyworld. Everyone was involved in one way or another… acting, making the snow mounds and snow people, puzzles, props, etc. I’m incredibly lucky to have some amazing artist, musician, photographer and filmmaker neighbors that jumped onto the project and truly made it come to life with me. Making Snow Town became the buzz of our town. We were all getting a little nutty from being snowed in all winter… and Snow Town became our escape.
How long did you spend developing the project? Did you write and design it all yourself and then involve the town for the production?
I started writing out the idea last summer. Probably spent a total of 8 weeks to dev and prep. (4 part-time and 4 full-time)This town is filled with a cast of characters and I must say that they inspired a lot of my story. They aren’t these exact characters but, let’s say they have some of the same “colors”. I was also fascinated with the history of this area. My research revealed so much about the violence that the early settlers created and endured. Maine was a brutal place. One thing that I touched upon, but didn’t have time to explore with the short story ARG, was the presence of many alternative religions. My high school history classes skipped the interesting fact that not only Puritans fled England to practice their religion, but many other, more off-beat and occultish, religions came as well.
Yes, I designed it… but like all my indies, my Cast, Crew, Friends and most of all the Players add and subtract to it as we roll it out. That’s true for the story as well. Some details get fleshed out and added as the Characters develop their relationships to the Players and other Characters.
Do you have some other tips for helping indie ARG creators get their projects actually out there, and finished?
Make it doable. Take a look at your story, characters, events and players. Is this ARG something you can execute? I see so many indie (and some pro) ARGs that are developed and then never launch due to the fact that the creators aren’t being realistic. ARGs don’t have to be delivered one way. You don’t have to make a “Why So Serious?” or “i love bees”. You could make a “Must Love Robots” or “Rookery Tower” or “Snow Town” or something like the recently launched “Abandoned Windmill”. Or maybe there is no linear story. Maybe you have an amazing idea that’s more of an ARG poem. Design to your talents and capabilities… what kind of experience is it? HUGE like an epic novel or more of a short story? What can you and your team execute? how many characters, events and platforms needed? where/how does it reach your players (and vice versa)? how many players can your story and design (and team) handle? Figure it out and then just do it.
Yar! Thanks Jan!
Jan Libby Bio: She created the popular indie alternate reality games – Sammeeeees & Wrath of Johnson (Sam II). The following year she was writer and interactive designer for LG15 Studios (on the hit Lonelygirl15 Series seasons 1 & 2). While working with LG15, she began to develop and write brands (Neutrogena and 20th Century Fox) into the show’s ongoing storyline. Jan then developed a transmedia television pilot with Kiefer Sutherland’s East Side Entertainment. She also partnered on Book 3 for the horror/sci-fi ARG, Eldritch Errors, with Brian Clark & GMD Studios. Jan now works as a writer/creator & consultant for media companies and agencies. Most recently, she wrapped on the Levi’s GO IV Game/Experience, an Interactive Adventure for Toyota Scion, and the Transmedia/Interactive Ford Focus Rally (with Amazing Race Prods) to launch the new Ford Focus.
How does one direct across media? In her book on Cinematic Storytelling, Jennifer Van Sijll offers 100 ways to convey ideas in movies beyond dialogue. Jennifer talks about the overemphasis on books that cover plot, structure, and character, but not how ideas are conveyed cinematically. Screenwriters need to convey to the reader of their script what they will see and hear on screen; and importantly, they need to communicate by more than dialogue and narration. Directors need to “understand the technical properties of film and then employ them creatively to advance the story. Without the connection between content and technique, you are watching two disjointed parts; the result, more often than not, is a technical exercise” (xii).
An example Jennifer gives is from Francis Coppola’s movie The Conversation. Jennifer talks about how this film grew out of Coppola’s interest in repetition, which he symbolises with ‘the circular’. The symbol of the circular was used in the film with images such as spiral staircases. There are many director’s commentaries on DVDs that reveal how certain shots or edits or sound was structured to convey meaning, but a lengthy treatise is filmmaker Sidney Lumet’s book.
Sidney Lumet, the director of many award-winning films such as 12 Angry Men, The Serpico, and Dog Day Afternoon. In his book Making Movies, Lumet shares how makes meaning through all the stages of production, across all departments and areas — rehearsals, costume, lighting, editing and so on. When talking about his process, Lumet discusses the importance of theme:
Having decided, for whatever reason, to do a movie, I return to that all-encompassing, critical discussion: What is the movie about? Work can’t begin until its limits are defined, and this is the first step in that process. It becomes the riverbed into which all subsequent decisions will be channeled. (13-14)
Lumet then offers examples of themes, of what a movie is about:
The Pawnbroker: How and why we create our prisons
Dog Day Afternoon: Freaks are not the freaks we think they are. We are much more connected to the most outrageous behavior than we know or admit.
12 Angry Men: Listen
Running on Empty: Who pays for the passions and commitments of the parents?
Such core ideas then influence all creative decisions such as (from the writers perspective) characters, settings, plot, and (from the directors perspective) costumes, props, sets, composition, sound, editing and so on. An example, Lumet describes is his choice of camera lenses based on the theme of the movie Prince of the City:
Going back to its theme (nothing is what it appears to be), I made the decision: We would not use the midrange lenses (28 mm through 40mm). Nothing was to look normal, or anything close to what the eye would see. I took the theme literally. All space was elongated or foreshortened, depending on whether I used wide-angle or long lenses.
This process of making meaning with every element a person sees and hears in a film is not, of course, specific to film. Any medium has its technical elements that can be drawn on to communicate meaning. In interactive arts, what a player does is sometimes designed to be a significant event. For instance, game designer and theorist Ian Bogost talks about how gestures can work in persuasive games. Bogost cites designer and educator Brenda Brathwaite‘s art/persuasive game Train. Train is a game about the holocaust, that involves a point in which the player smashes glass. This gesture and the feelings it evokes in the player are meant to be part of the meaning making process. Indeed, the game is part of Brathwaite’s series called Mechanic is the Message.
Actions can also be meaningful in trans/cross-media projects. An example is the film Untraceable. If you watch the first part of the trailer, you’ll see a website and its significance mentioned.
The website featured in the film, KillwithMe.com, was actually created (as part of a marketing campaign). As you will notice on the site, visiting it and choosing to enter is implied to be an immoral act. The film audience are given the same option as the characters in the film. Although without doubt a marketing tactic, the significance of user action was not lost. In fact, a fan (?) created a page/group asking people if they visited the site after seeing the film (the group is no-longer online).
Lets look at other ways meaning can be communicated across media, between a film and its website. Take the film Stranger than Fiction: it has digital effects and narration that contribute to the story about storytelling:
The website for the film, Stranger than Fiction website (click on Enter to open it up), continues the visual and conceptual approach of the film. In the past, continuity across media was purely governed by visual concerns. Franchise bibles were style guides that ensure the ‘brand’ is depicted in the same manner. What is described as a transmedia approach, on the other hand, involves ensuring that the theme that dictates meaning in one medium, also does another. This is, to me, one of the first approaches that reflects a transmedia process. But another is to think of an overall theme, with other medium-specific iterations on that theme as well. But I digress.
Another example is Darren Aronofsky’s film Requiem for a Dream, with some excerpts here:
The website for the film draws on the TV show featured in the film, as well as explores the themes of the film – addiction and corruption…but in a manner specific to a website. In fact, the navigation (if you noticed) is structured on a z-axis (it keeps getting deeper). This is a characteristic of some websites created by HiReS!. They’re talented designers who have worked on many websites (including Aronofsky’s other film sites, and the Donnie Darko website, and the had a large role in The Lost Experience). Here is the designer talking about the Requiem website and how the theme of the film influenced its design:
In these film and website examples, the web designers were talented enough to conceive of a site that is thematically meaningful (and the producers or marketers selected the team well). These sort of designers are hard to find. This is one issue associated with transmedia. But another is the director. A transmedia director needs to know not only how to direct (in their own way), but also understand the medium (that is the point). In transmedia they need to know enough to work with more than one medium confidently.
I’m currently developing my own projects and am writing and directing (and doing the producing until I find someone suitable). I’ve also spoken with Steve Peters about his work as an experience designer and how many aspects of what he does is directing (I had the pleasure of working with Steve, Jon, Maureen, and Dee on a global ARG for Cisco). Lance Weiler also talks about what you do with social technologies in a way that is meaningful too. It is also interesting to see articles about directors such as Chris Milk, who directed the film production, post-production, and web production of Arcade Fire’s The Wilderness Downtown. Exciting times this transmediary thing. Do you have some experiences to share about directing across media, or at least directing distributed online projects?
1. THE SAVING runs on Dunkin…ok more like Krispy Kreme but you get the idea.2. Always slate every take (shot). Even if you have to dig through the back of a Hummer to find the dang clapperboard, DO SO! Your editor will love you forever. Unlike mine heehee3. Situations are only as awkward as you allow them be. After that, it just gets funny.4. I finally understand what the phrase “punch drunk” means (slaphappy with exhaustion)5. To me, when it comes to filmmaking its very hard to over-communicate. If it feels like overkill then you’re probably doing your job well.
I read an article the other day about the “National Theatre’s screw up“, and it reminded me of a time I screwed up in an ARG. I have of course screwed up more than once, but the article reminded me of a specific event. The article discusses a tweet sent out through the National Theatre twitter account, a tweet that involved pretty crass swearing about another person. The article notes how people responded with understanding to the error:
Rather than berate the theatre for such a terrible lapse of protocol or judgement, the audience acknowledged it for it was – a mistake, and an oddly funny one at that. And as we can see from the representative responses above, the theatre inadvertently presented itself as being fallible, human and honest. Whether it was a lapse in judgement, or just an errant slip of the keys – sending tweets from the wrong account – it nonetheless made the institution a little bit more likable in the eyes of its followers. Just for one brief moment, the National Theatre let a personality shine through the cracks.
And then the article continues, lamenting how the National Theatre then tried to deny the incident:
However, the theatre’s response to all of the above saw them revert swiftly, and sadly, back to type. Rather than admit that someone on staff had clearly stuffed up, or perhaps a disgruntled former employee still knew their login passwords, the theatre instead deleted the post and announced that they “believed(ed)” that they had been hacked.
The article then eloquently explains why this response was antithetical to contemporary interaction:
Two guiding principles in social media, we believe, are to Be Human and Be Honest. Had the National Theatre adopted either policy, they might have done themselves a service. To err is human, and ‘being human’ is increasingly what we respond to when bumping into organisations online. Social media differs from traditional marketing by asking us to ‘be human’, to drop our guard a little and be conversational – to get in amongst our audience and act like ‘real people’ (this shouldn’t be terribly difficult, we are ‘real people’ after all).
I completely agree. Now, what I recalled with my mistake was the time I signed off under my own name not as my character when conversing with the player. I felt terrible (and now create a signature in my character emails so I can’t make that mistake again), and wanted to do something about it. The player emailed back to me, continuing the conversation we were having, and also made a quick funny remark about my slip. The question was how to respond. I wanted to make some clever remark about the slip in-character in some way, but the team voted that I respond to the conversation, and not say anything about the slip. I did so, and the player and I continued to have some interaction in-character.
But what I feel is that there was a great opportunity for the player and I to bond at that point. By not acknowledging it in some way, I sent a message to the player that I was uncomfortable about the slip and wanted them to forget about it. I did feel terrible about the slip, but I didn’t feel uncomfortable about it. I wanted to use it. I understand that there are situations where you don’t want to move too far out from behind the curtain. You want to keep the player immersed. But I think at times an unacknowledged slip can do more harm than a slip.
I remember another ARG where I had the freaky occurrence (there are always freaky occurrences during ARGs). The name of a character I had murdered in the plot, and their profession, was exactly the same as a friend of one of the players. That friend had the same profession and had been murdered too, in real life. The player emailed me (the character) and told me about it. I thought the only ethical thing to do was to email the person directly as a game-master (not as a character), and apologise. I offered to downplay the murder victim or even change the plot if it disturbs them. I sincerely was prepared to change the plot if needed. But they emailed back that the person who died would of loved this coincidence, and so it became a kind of a homage to them. The issue was therefore resolved, the game could go ahead without any feelings of discomfort from both the player and myself, and we bonded. None of this would of happened if I hadn’t emailed directly and said the things I sincerely wanted to.
I recall people saying a couple of times during the reveal of the Rachel Webster person as a character in J.C. Hutchin’s Personal Effects ARG, that the actions of a team and the characters after a hoax are more important than the hoax (intentional or not) occurring in the first place. All of these experiences, and my previous thoughts about sucking, all show me how your response to imperfection is more important than ignoring imperfection.