Recently, Latitude launched an innovation study on The Future of Storytelling. Why? So we can uncover the questions, challenges, and aspirations of tomorrow’s storytellers and identify how they can better align with audience’s changing expectations. Every week for the next several weeks, Latitude will share its conversation with a different influential individual. We’ll follow the series with a summary of best practices and insights for content creators and businesses from Latitude’s former SVP, Neela Sakaria.
This week’s spotlight on Andrea Phillips:
Andrea Phillips is a transmedia writer and game designer and author. Her work includes a variety of educational and commercial projects, including America 2049, The Maester’s Path for HBO’s Game of Thrones, Routes Game, Perplex City, The 2012 Experience for Sony Pictures, Cathy’s Key, and True Blood. Her book, A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling, will be published by McGraw-Hill in spring 2012.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with us, Andrea. You have a very impressive resume. Can you tell us a little about what you do?
I’ve been calling myself a transmedia creator lately, but what I call myself depends on who’s asking and what day it is. Sometimes I call myself a game designer; sometimes I call myself a writer. None of it really quite hits the mark. There just isn’t really a very good title for the specific set of things that I bring to a project.
How did you break into the “transmedia” space in the first place?
I came into the space originally long, long ago just as a writer, and then I moved into game design while working on an alternate reality game called Perplex City, which ended about four years ago.
Recently, I also did a really interesting game called America 2049. It’s primarily a Facebook game with a transmedia component to pull out that world—to extend it a bit and make it feel a little richer.
We’ve been detecting some confusion in the popular press and even amongst industry folks about what the term “transmedia” actually means.
There’s been this whole long, long debate about “what is transmedia?”. There are a lot of fringe cases. If something is highly fragmented like, for example, those Twitter Dramas—if something is highly fragmented but it takes place only on Twitter, does that count as transmedia or not? Or, if it takes place on five different Web sites but they’re all Web sites, does that count as different media even though it’s just different streams on the same basic platform? It’s kind of a losing game to try to come up with a consensus definition.
Any chance you could offer a good, one-sentence working definition?
A transmedia project is one in which the audience has to seek out, find, and consume different pieces of narrative in order to figure out what the full story is.
How have you noticed the field of transmedia growing recently?
It is tremendously different. I’ve been talking to my colleagues and, last October, things suddenly exploded for everybody. Things had been chugging along at a pretty decent clip—consistent, if not record-breaking. And then, all of a sudden, last fall, everybody had more projects than they could shake a stick at.
That’s interesting to hear. We’ve definitely sensed a new kind of energy around the topic, in general. Why do you think this is happening now?
I think it’s because we’ve suddenly reached a critical mass in the marketing and Hollywood communities, where a lot of the things that we had been doing—say for 7 or 8 years—suddenly weren’t gimmicky anymore. Now the masses actually are on Facebook and they’re actually text messaging, and they are willing to put in the little bit of effort to go from watching the TV show to seeing the Twitter feed of the character. The tools are a lot more effective than they used to be, and we’re seeing a cultural shift where traditional marketing isn’t working quite as well as it used to.
What do you think is the same or different about the content that people really enjoy nowadays, compared to several years ago or even further back?
As a society, we’re really hung up on series now: books that go for 1,000 pages each, and there are 10 of them. From Hollywood, we complain about it, but people are still going to see them—people want to see the 20th James Bond movie. And a lot of that drive in people is exactly why serial entertainment ever worked in the first place. Once people find a story world that they really like, they want to stay there for as long as they can, and transmedia is just an incredibly efficient way of catering to that desire.
I really like the analogy you’re making between classic serial entertainment, and extending narratives in other, often more immersive, ways. I suppose that also begs the question: are franchises transmedia?
The mere existence of a film and a cartoon and a line of lunchboxes doesn’t inherently mean that it’s transmedia storytelling. It’s using the same stock of characters, but the pieces don’t relate to each other. The key bit is intertextuality; they have to all be related to each other to become transmedia. The whole needs to be much greater than the sum of its parts.
So what goes into designing a great transmedia experience? How do creators think ahead about the different mediums and platforms available, including the audience’s role and other unknown factors?
I am a big advocate of what I call the “illusion of interactivity.” It’s possible—it’s not even that difficult to write something so that, no matter what the audience does or says, the outcome is eventually the same. If you do it too shallowly and too obviously, then they’re onto you, and it sort of spoils the magic trick. But if you do it really well, and you have a kind of flowchart where the “yes” and the “no” have one step that’s different but they both lead back to the same thing, then production costs really aren’t that high because you can still count on a few basic milestones no matter what direction the story takes in the interim.
But I’m not sure that audiences want stories to be quite as interactive as the transmedia people like to make them, and it’s incredibly demanding as a writer to do something that is completely on the fly. I’m actually in favor of managing your audience’s expectations right off the bat so that they know what level of interaction they’re going to get, and it’s something that you can live with, so you can maybe even go on vacation sometime.
I like your phrase the “illusion of interactivity” because I think you’re right: audiences don’t necessarily want to work too hard.
Yes, and underneath all of these very deep, rich, immersive narratives, there’s the 80-20 rule. In interactive storytelling, it means 80% of your audience doesn’t actively do anything; they watch the other 20%. It almost rises to the level of a spectator sport where some of your audience becomes a part of the entertainment, but that’s not the bulk of your audience. It’s a very, very small fraction.
That’s a great point. Do you think the audience for transmedia is likely to grow or change as time goes on?
For a long time, the transmedia space has seemed to be really big on comic book characters and science fiction and spies and conspiracies and cults, and I think that that has more to do with the fact that those kinds of stories generally appeal to the audience that’s already there, and less to do with anything inherent in the form itself. I think we could just as easily have a blockbuster romance transmedia narrative, and it hasn’t happened because the people creating these projects are the early adopter geek community; it’s less because audiences today wouldn’t do it.
Now we have these tropes that we’re trying to break free of—these limitations that we’ve created for ourselves. Dan Hon gave a talk where he pointed out that the film A.I. was released at the same time as the film Amélie; and, if that first alternate reality game had been for Amélie rather than for A.I… how would the landscape be different now?
This interview was conducted by Neela Sakaria, former SVP at Latitude.