YSA Azrael’s Stop – by Lucas JW Johnson

Posted by admin on November 30, 2011 in Design, Development, Interaction Design, Marketing, Participation, User Experience, Writing |

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!

Seven Lessons
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!


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