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Justin Webb: “Ultimate” Transmedia

Column By Justin Webb on May 11, 2010

In this article I'm going to talk about the emergence of transmedia in popular culture. After some basic definitions, I'll lead into Iron Man 2 as a continuing example of the trend, and then go on to mention the Matrix, Dead Space, The Agency, and then speculate about 38 Studio's "Mercury" and "Copernicus". "Converging Media" will be referenced throughout; McLuhan and Jenkins will again be invoked; and predictions regarding the future of MMOs will be made. Samuel L. Jackson will be referred to as "glue".

If you were one of the $130 million worth of punters that saw Iron Man 2 this weekend, you were also inadvertently part of a massive piece of transmedia. In this case, part of a long-term marketing plan by Marvel for the launch the Avengers (in 2012). Transmedia storytelling, a term coined by the always excellent Professor Henry Jenkins, takes place across multiple parallel media (movies, comics, games, websites, books, etc.), each with their own unique “entry points”, and each supplying their own distinct narratives that, when taken as a whole, provide a comprehensive understanding of the story’s universe. In the case of Iron Man and its sequel (and the last Hulk movie), these movies supply entry points into the world of the (Ultimate) Avengers, detailing how Nick Fury gradually puts together the team that will feature in the 2012 blockbuster. As that date approaches, in addition to the Thor and Captain America movies, I bet we’ll start seeing Facebook and iPad apps, Twitter feeds, new comics, video games, some kind of game from Gazillion, themed TCGs, and other cool stuff, that all have their own unique narratives but provide additional consumer entry points into the world of the Avengers.

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Games used to stand on their own with little additional media “backup”. With the proliferation of new media (mobile platforms, eReaders, social networking, Twitter, etc.), the mainstreaming of niche media (comics, anime, video games, etc.), and the convergence of media overall, the practice of transmedia storytelling has begun to blossom in the video-game industry. The Matrix is a great example of this. On the same day as the launch of the second movie (The Matrix Reloaded), Atari/WB released Enter the Matrix, a video game that focused on what two of the supporting characters were up to while not on screen during the movie. The game’s narrative weaved in and out of the movie’s main storyline and included two hours of footage that got unlocked as the player progressed through the game. As such, Matrix fans who played the game were able to have a much richer understanding of the movie’s story, due to the extra information that was supplied while playing the game.

EA also recently dabbled with transmedia storytelling on their Dead Space franchise. In addition to the launch of the base game, EA also produced an animated prequel movie and a six-issue comic book, no doubt in an attempt to get anime fans and comic fans invested in the IP’s story, hoping that that interest would translate into additional sales of the video game (and vice versa). These additional products covered events before those that happened in the game and gave much deeper explanations into what had happened on the USG Ishimura. These complementary media weren’t just pushed out the door either. They were high-quality products aimed at creating a transmedia canvas onto which EA could craft the Dead Space franchise. Although ultimately not the megahit that EA had hoped for, the game (and story) were critically well received, and a hint at the kind of money and resources that companies are prepared to spend when developing IP in a world of converging media.

Transmedia storytelling is beginning to dribble into the MMO world too. While essentially a Mafia Wars clone (but with a gorgeous interface), The Agency: Covert Ops Facebook Application introduces players to the world of SOE’s upcoming MMO shooter. Missions in the app take place in Amsterdam, which also serves as a hub in the main game. Clearly, the aim is to get Facebook gamers intrigued enough to try the MMO when it releases by removing some of the barriers to entry. Using the same currency in both games (SOE’s ubiquitous Station Cash) doesn’t hurt either. Getting non-MMO players to try an MMO for the first time can be really hard, and Sony is betting that this kind of parallel storytelling will result in an influx of new MMO gamers/subscribers.

What’s even better is when a transmedia opportunity falls in your lap. 38 Studio’s next-up RPG (codenamed “Mercury”), which they got as a gimmee during the buy-out of Big Huge Games, is an opportunity to familiarize gamers with their world ahead of their MMO (codenamed “Copernicus”). While set in an earlier time than Copernicus, Mercury will enable non-MMO gamers to get a taste of Salvatore’s world and will no doubt contain settings and narrative threads common to both games. If you like the console game, then try the MMO.

As the industry’s Third Age continues, and media converges, transmedia storytelling will become increasingly important. (In this respect, using McLuhan’s hot and cold nomenclature, we are in an Ice Age.) However, you are still going to be invested in loads of different platforms to take advantage of it all. In Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, Jenkins talks about the “black box fallacy” and how we will never see a “magic box” that controls and manages all of a household’s media. Consumers “want the media they want where they want it when they want it and in the format they want”. This results in us having a myriad of different devices that all serve hyper-specialized roles instead of a single “iBox”. How many entertainment gadgets do you have? Count ‘em up. Instead, media is converging (not the technology), in that players take their inputs simultaneously from multiple different sources (for example, taking a call on your smart phone; while juggling windows between WoW, Facebook, AIM, and your homework on a laptop; while listening to music from an MP3 player) to form the pop culture landscape. It is this setting that has birthed transmedia storytelling … as a way of breaking through the “noise”.

What transmedia storytelling does is make portions of an overall story available through a multitude of different “channels”. These entry points prod and poke users toward the core experience (usually the one that the developers “really” want you to “consume”), along the way enriching your understanding of the story and hopefully making you a fan too. When done in an engaging way, this is a fantastic experience – early adopters and fans become subject-matter experts and feel smug and clever, while noobs get exposed to cool stuff they might never otherwise have tried. When done poorly, it feels like double dipping. What is important is to make each piece of transmedia compelling and interesting in its own right.

So while Nick Fury is the transmedia “glue” that connects all the pre-Avenger movies together, what’s really happening is that all the exposition that would normally bog down a superhero-team movie (for example, the first half of X-Men) has been cut into palatable pieces and inserted “into” the earlier movies, allowing (hopefully) the Avengers movie to get straight to the action. Expect a whole lot of other behind-the-scenes S.H.I.E.L.D. storylines to be covered (in small chunks) in all the other transmedia that will surround the Avengers IP over the next couple of years. It will all be revealed. You just might have to buy a bunch of different stuff to get all the details – something that comic-book fans are very familiar with already.

But what does all this mean for MMOs?

The bottom line is that we will begin to see snippets of a game’s setting and story featured in other complementary media, on a wider variety of formats and platforms. These snippets will all be stand-alone products covering as many niches and demographics as possible. One aspect of MMOs that is particularly prone to this type of storytelling is “lore”. In the near future, all the information about a game’s history and back-stories will have to be scavenged from multiple sources on multiple platforms. Since EA has already taken the plunge with transmedia storytelling before, and, with Bioware’s excellence at dealing with story, I would expect their upcoming epic MMO to launch simultaneously with accompanying media on just about every conceivable platform.

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Justin Webb
Justin Webb is a veteran MMO designer and curmudgeon who has worked for Hasbro, EA, and Tencent.

Justin's column will appear every Tuesday here at MMORPG.com.
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