What are the challenges and opportunities for transmedia creatives? One of the tracks at the most recent Beyond Games conference was Transmedia Trends. Our five experts explored the stories and experiences that are breaking the boundaries between traditional media formats – and looked at what this means for the business of storytelling.
In a panel conducted over Zoom with speakers from both sides of the Atlantic, we asked what the future holds for transmedia storytelling. Our leading transmedia experts were Houston Howard, founder and super story architect at One 3 Creative; Rosemary Lokhorst, founder and CEO at Storybyte Studio; Helen Quigley, head of production at B7 Media; Alexander Atkinson, director of transmedia at Video Romantic; and Hailey Austin, fellow in transnational creative industries at Abertay University. The panel was hosted by our own Dave Bradley.
The future of storytelling
You can watch that panel at the YouTube link at the foot of this page. But at the conference, we didn’t have time to discuss this huge topic to its full. We could have talked for hours but only had 40 minutes! So, prompted by questions from our readers and conference attendees, we followed up with our panellists in an offline discussion. Their answers are now available here exclusively for you to read.
In addition to the questions about transmedia storytelling on the day – particularly focussing on whether expanding intellectual property into new media is for commercial reasons or creative ones – we asked about diversity, networking, the challenge of adapting comic books, and more.
BeyondGames.biz: As we push for diversity in the gaming world, do you think more diverse creative teams will make characters, that fans can relate to more deeply?
Houston Howard: Absolutely. In the film industry, studies have shown that movies without authentic representation underperform at the box office and large-budget movies that rank below average in inclusive representation underperform by around 20% of their budget at opening box office weekend.
In video games, audiences tend to skew younger and, thus, diversity holds an even more important place in their hearts. The financial incentives and cultural disincentives will be too powerful to ignore. Plus, given the now-known and studied fact that audiences naturally create a closer connection to characters who reflect them, diversity has become a “no-brainer” from every angle.
Rosemary Lokhorst: I am a firm believer that you can’t be what you can’t see, And the best way to build character profiles that resonate with audiences is to put in the work to create them.
Of course, the first step to that is to talk to people. For example, for my TV pilot draft with a strong transgender female lead, I enlisted the help of people from that community.
It can be so much better, however, if we get diverse teams involved in creating the characters that we long to get to know. Characters that represent viewpoints and idiosyncrasies, but also situations and experiences in an authentic way. I can’t wait to see more of those characters on screen. Any screen from mobile to console to movies.
Helen Quigley: Absolutely – and this applies to any storytelling. Part of the challenge is finding talent whose experience and background isn’t necessarily geared towards these industries. Don’t just create a story – find the people who live those stories every day and find ways to let them tell them.
Hailey Austin: Yes! More diversity in hiring and the workplace will have a huge effect on the kinds of stories being told, allowing for greater representation across the board.
Alex Atkinson: This is a given, but is going to be down to both the teams and the passion to ensure that characters outside of the modern zeitgeist of mass-marketed characterisation, diluted in order to sell a product, are leveraged against excellent writing, branding and world-building. This should and will happen. It’s a case of the involved persons and teams having that passion. It has already happened in the past, so it’s safe to assume it will happen again.
How can game developers approach other sectors and mediums successfully? The screen sector, for example, is a difficult industry to penetrate.
Atkinson: As a game developer first with a focus in transmedia, I feel I can offer some good advice: a good rule of thumb is simply to network. With shared technology between industries becoming more and more of a reality, we’re entering a more interconnected world; as documentation and best practice become more commonly seen and available, we’ll see the barrier lower and the transmedia sector become more accessible and easy to break into. Simply put, you need to network! Attend events in the sectors you want to break into.
Lokhorst: Network, network, network. There are many platforms, events and ways to connect nowadays. It may be scary, but the only way to get traction is to put your business, and yourself out there.
Howard: Create ideas that don’t just work as video games, but ideas that can sing as a video game, and a comic, and a film, and a tabletop RPG. It’s always going to be easier to penetrate another sector when your IP intrinsically has the DNA needed for success in the other sectors. Then, once you have a great idea look for collaboration! There are so many creatives in different sectors who would love to break into the video game space and are looking for opportunities to do so. How can developers bring value to them? Then, in return, those people can send the value the other way.
Quigley: At B7 Media, as well as working on our own IP, we’re always interested in talking to creators and game developers who can imagine their games finding a home outside of the game itself. Games by default have to have fully developed worlds and so are rich in story potential. And the beauty of audio storytelling is you don’t have to spend time and money rendering the visuals!
Austin: I think it’s about finding a balance between transferable skills and honing a craft. Unfortunately, making it big usually comes down to luck, money and who you know.
Inside the creative process
How transferable are storytelling skills from one medium to another? Writing a game – which has to take into account player agency – must be different from writing a comic, which itself has far fewer words than a novel… Are there writers/artists/creatives who excel at telling stories across all their forms, or do people need to specialise?
Quigley: A story is a story and it’s the specialists that make it viable across the various media. I certainly wouldn’t presume that my background in audio drama would automatically make me a good comic book artist, for a number of reasons!
That said, there’s crossover. Novel writers whose expertise is in words can be playwrights and dramatists, visual artists can be TV directors or comic book creators.
It would be a fascinating exercise to take an original story without any bias towards a particular medium and have the specialists in each area individually produce their interpretation of it.
Atkinson: There’s some level of transferable skill when it comes to mediums, but that’s purely because of storytelling and the knowledge which comes with that vocation. Everyone is going to have their own preferred mediums, and the difference between mediums can be extreme. It can be made even more extreme in some contexts. Me, for instance: I am a great supporter of shared authoring, emergent narratives and player authorship in context to video games. But this is near enough completely unique to this medium outside of tabletop Role Playing Games. It’s nuanced and certainly affects the way you write. But that skill does not transfer to film or comics. It’s not possible to do so, as it’s a fixture of game design. I would describe this as an extreme example, but the truth is, you should specialise. Your voice needs to be unique as a storyteller, otherwise you’re unlikely to succeed.
Lokhorst: I believe that the skills for different mediums can, to a point, be acquired if you invest the time to research and learn. It can be tremendously rewarding to be able to bring your story across in different mediums and styles and can teach you a lot about your world, your characters, and your story.
However, there are many positives to being a specialist as well. Speed is one of them. If you do something a lot, you just become better, and faster at it. For me, what works is having the idea, picking what I want to write and then collaborating with specialists on other formats.
Howard: There are core fundamentals of storytelling that are transferable to any medium — stakes, character relatability, tension, subversion of expectations, and so on.
Every medium has a different way to express those fundamentals, however, which require storytellers to learn the idiosyncrasies of each medium so they can speak the language. All people have a need to feel and express love. It’s fundamental to the human condition. However, different cultures have different languages and different ways to express that fundamental emotion. It’s the same thing with different mediums and platforms. They’re like different languages that exist in different cultures. If we, as creators, want to play in those sandboxes, we need to assimilate the culture and learn how to speak the language.
Sometimes that’s not always practical to do. I would love to speak 17 languages, but I don’t practically have the time to learn them all. That’s where collaborators come in. While it’s good to know enough about a medium and platform to have a good conversation with someone who does, you don’t always have to know it all. Know enough, so to speak, to be able to ask the waiter where the bathroom is, to ask the cab to take you to your hotel or to get a police officer to help. Beyond that, find collaborators who are content experts in both the language and culture of a medium and trust them to show you around the city.
Austin: I think storytelling skills are transferable, but it is important to specialise in the medium you work best in.
Have you experienced moments where you have to step back and start from scratch because you’ve got too lost in the story? Or, conversely, because the business side of things have made you lack faith in the story?
Quigley: Constantly! It’s so easy to disappear down a rabbit hole with a brilliant idea and then hit a wall. Trying to fix it makes it worse and you end up with a convoluted mess and bigger problems than you started with! Breathe, admit it’s not working, write off the time you knew you shouldn’t have spent trying to fix it, back up and start again.
Lokhorst: Yes! I believe that everyone that produces content has doubts at some point. It’s always a good idea to let stories sit for a while if you feel like you are getting too close. If you are open to outside feedback, that can be a wonderful way to get on track again. As for the business side… You have to believe in your own stories. If you don’t, how can you expect someone else to believe in them?
Atkinson: Most definitely, I’m something of a perfectionist when it comes to IP. Tone and storytelling methods are always at the top of my list, and that’s going to be dictated by technology, emerging industries as well as the success of the brand. USP, timing and the mediums used are always going to dictate success. It’s a case of ensuring you’re doing the best for the project. What will deliver the most interest from a prospective audience? Get their attention and success will follow. Story doesn’t always have to be dictated by these points, but it’s part of my process. I have rebooted my current project twice, with the intention of ensuring success. With each of these reboots, the story has near enough been refocused, rewritten and revitalised, all with the intention of preserving the best parts of the IP whilst also ensuring a high-quality standard in order to guarantee success.
Austin: Personally, no I haven’t. I’m very story-driven rather than story world driven. And I tend to work collaboratively so I leave a lot up to what the artist can bring to the table.
Howard: Not very often. I’m a heavy outliner for this very reason. The outline, to me, gives me a lifeline to hold onto. In scuba-diving, it’s called the downline — the line that allows the diverse to better descend or ascend. They can swim off and explore, but the downline is always there to help them back not their way. Many sculptors call the armature the most important part of the sculpture itself. It’s rough and vague in places, but it allows you to execute on top of it in wonderfully creative ways. If you mess up, you can rip away the clay, but the armature is still there. This is what prepping a story — just like prepping production — does for me. So, when I find myself getting lost in the story, I rarely start from scratch. Rather, I revert back to my outline.
That said, sometimes if the story isn’t breaking properly, I may have to start from scratch, but not because I got too lost in the story. Rather, sometimes I realize there’s something wrong with my fundamental concept and my initial ideation and I have to re-engineer that.
There are times, however, when I realize that a story (or its beats therein) aren’t very commercial, which could ultimately make the story difficult to sell or make it not as well-received by audiences. If I have commercial ambitions for the story, I don’t “lack faith” in it necessarily. Rather, I understand that rewriting is writing and that I’ll just keep punching it up as needed. To me, “losing faith” seems too much of an “either/or” calculation. I don’t swing from “extreme faith” to “no faith.” My faith in a story is in gradations, understanding that it’s not a zero-sum game and that it’s up to me to continually improve to where it needs to be.
Which way round do things work best – does a successful comic book result in a more successful big-screen project? Or does an initial big-screen success deliver successful books and comics adaptations?
Howard: Neither works best as an overall rule. Just because there’s a great story in a comic that results in success, doesn’t mean that it will necessarily make a great film. The comic medium has its own particular DNA and its idiosyncrasies, as does film. Sometimes a story shares the DNA of both. Sometimes (I dare say most times) they don’t. Even if they do share the same DNA, it still doesn’t mean you’re going to have a great film or television series because it takes a huge team of film professionals to effectively execute that idea. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen. You can have a great comic, but if the film script is trash, it won’t work. You can have a great comic, but if the director is terrible, it won’t work. And visa versa. You can have a great film that shares comic DNA, but if you don’t have a great artist or a great writer, the ball will most likely be fumbled after the hand-off.
That being said, having a great comic is going to benefit a film because it will help establish a community of fans who love the brand. That pre-awareness always gives the film an advantage in the market. Inversely, having a great film first can great cultural awareness that will help the eventual comic cut through the commoditized clutter. So, it can work either way or be a disaster either way. In the end it’s all about DNA and execution.
Atkinson: This is going to depend on the team and project. What’s right for the team? What’s right for the project?
This is going to include those variables more than anything else, but you can use other mediums as a testing ground for IP with lower costs and overheads, such as comic books, (some) video game projects, novels, audio dramas, web cartoons and so on. This is probably a better choice if the IP is particularly experimental, as there’s no guarantee of success; having a stronger base to build on is always helpful when working in the transmedia sector.
And of course, your choices for your project need to factor in your team. Do the best for them, you’ll likely see more success in your endeavours.
Austin: I think it goes both ways. Personally, I come from the comics side of things. So I will see a name or title I recognise and know it was from a comics series, and I am more likely to watch it if I knew it was a comic. I think the big screen lends itself to smaller stories than comics or novels, so it’s easier to build a world in literature and then feature a small part of it on the screen to garner more attention to the franchise as a whole.
Quigley: Personally, I would lean towards a story with more modest origins that can grow with your ambitions and plans, and can be tailored to each of your chosen platforms. Something that starts on the big screen might be harder to back engineer; but equally, you’d be starting with a larger brand awareness and fanbase, so the potential for success may well be higher. Pick your poison!
What are the methods by which we can make an adaptation as successful as the original? For example: maintaining a similar artistic style, colour palette, composition…
Atkinson: I believe in a consistent aesthetic for transmedia, whether that be art style, palette, composition, cinematography, tone, consistent canon or otherwise. If something succeeded before, it’s best not to change the things which made it successful, especially if it’s mentioned by a focus group. It can backfire quite spectacularly.
Howard: I think it’s less style, composition and palette and more about maintaining the ethos of the source material. What does it say? What does it stand for? How does it make people feel? For me, keeping those answers consistent is the most important ingredient for a successful adaption.
Quigley: I don’t think it’s a visual decision. It’s more in the “rules” of the story. However or wherever the story is told, continuity and consistency are key. If Character 1 loves cheeseburgers in the game, don’t accidentally make them vegan in the comic! Communication, good knowledge of the story (a “bible”) and a clear vision should prevent those kinds of errors. But you can guarantee the fans will spot something you don’t!
Lokhorst: It depends on the story and the medium. Many times staying “on brand” can be helpful, especially if you are launching the different versions together, or banking on a sequel. Sometimes it can be great to have an adaptation that feels entirely different to the original. I would say that your tone, the story idea and the characters and world have to shine. I would say, trust your instincts. You are the creator. And then get feedback from people who really know the medium you are developing or adapting for.
Austin: This is a really tough question! I think a lot of it comes down to feeling. Does it feel like a fresh take on the original? And feelings are very objective and made up of multiple points: composition, relevance, colour, style, and fan base. A lot of fan bases are toxic and won’t like anything you put out anyway! So I would suggest finding the essence of the original and playing with it.
The battle of art and commerce
There’s a joke in Into The Spider-Verse that Spider-Man has become a comic book, a Christmas album, and a so-so popsicle. Is it possible to overexploit a character or property? What are the red flags?
Lokhorst: Many of the larger franchises are going in that direction and I am not sure it always matters. If the audience buys it, then they are obviously on to something. I think that at some point the audience will let them know enough is enough. I can’t speak for all readers or viewers, but for me, it’s about quality and saturation.
Howard: For me, you can spot what I call an “empty” license — likening it to food with “empty calories” — when it doesn’t add anything meaningful to the story. That’s the essence of transmedia. So, a popsicle isn’t intrinsically bad or good. It can be good if you can use the popsicle to allow fans to learn more about Miles Morales or Peter Parker. Maybe the popsicle sticks have an interesting insight into the character? Like a piece of fortune cookie wisdom that reveals more about the character’s worldview or psyche. And then, in a line of the popsicles, you sneak in a big reveal, such as Peter Parker actually has stronger feelings for Ghost Spider than for MJ! All of a sudden, the popsicle isn’t just an “empty” license — it’s a puzzle piece to the IP, a part of the narrative tapestry that can actually bring value to the audience — while being a delicious treat.
Quigley: As long as any merchandise is relevant to the world from which it came (and is of a reasonable production quality) then the only constraint is imagination. Did Spider-Man listen to a Christmas album? Fine. Do you see him eat a popsicle? Knock yourself out. Poor quality is a definite turn off as is anything where the link is so tenuous it becomes laughable. Spider-Man’s favourite toilet paper? Er, no. How does he in that suit… anyway?
Harry Potter merchandise for the most part is well-pitched and consistent. Wands, robes, school bags, house colours and so on are relevant to fans, connect appropriately to the books and films, and immerse you in the Potterverse.
Cynicism kicks in when the need to sell a product becomes more important than its story.
Austin: Spider-Verse is amazing! It’s both a love letter to comics and animation and so important as a transmedia artefact. But to answer the question – yes! You can overexploit, and some fans will drop off because of it. However, with properties like Star Wars, the expansion works. It brings in enough new fans to not need to cater to old fans. If there is a hunger for content, then there is room to exploit properties. Most companies do this very well.
One that I see all the time in the UK, but that has made its way to the USA and even China, is Peppa Pig. She is so huge that she is causing American kids to have UK accents. Her merch is everywhere and she has a terrifying and haunted popsicle.
Atkinson: I consider there to be two ways to utilise IP, one is enrichment, the other is leveraging.
Enriching an IP through transmedia is effectively creating something through adding content, deepening existing culture within the community, telling new stories, and changing the context and enriching old stories. It’s simply put, something which adds value to an IP.
Leveraging on the other hand is milking the IP for all it’s worth, without adding value to the IP outside of revenue generated from brand momentum. This is creating cheap collectables which sell at a premium, this is repackaging existing items from the portfolio of the IP, then attempting to sell them again (this time in 3D!), trend-chasing and over-saturating the IP in the marketplace.
These actions devalue IP, even if the results aren’t immediately obvious. Both leveraging and enrichment are necessary for any IP, obviously because you need to turn a profit and ensure the IP is being monetised in a sustainable way. Think of it as spinning two plates at once, if one falls, you have a serious issue.
Where do we think the market is going with this? What’s next for transmedia and cross-media entertainment?
Howard: In an age of commoditized entertainment, transmedia is going to continue to thrive because a tried-and-true way for a consumer brand to compete in a commoditized market is to create “branded ecosystems.” The same is true for entertainment brands, though we don’t call them “branded ecosystems.” We call them transmediated entertainment brands. Brands that have multiple stories in multiple mediums that not only create can compound revenue and create entry points for new demographics, but that also all work together for a greater narrative whole.
Connection between stories is going to be key and, if you disagree, watch what is happening with Spiderman: No Way Home, Dr Strange And The Multiverse Of Madness and the new Flash film. Story worlds are going to be key, not only to coordinate and house the traditional narratives, but also to optimize the IP for things like the metaverse. Engaged audience communities will become more and more critical to help fuel the migration between stories and making things like NFTs available to them will take that to the next level.
Lokhorst: I am certain we will see tremendous growth. Big screen companies are looking more and more to diversify their portfolio, audiences are looking to find their favourites in other platforms, and creatives are looking for new and interesting ways to tell their stories. It’s exciting to see what will happen in the coming years as our audiences also become more creative and interactive.
Quigley: This is where owning your own IP is particularly beneficial, and the reason why companies like Netflix and Amazon are racing to create their own in-house brands. Being able to pick and choose where you think it plays best and to literally control the narrative is a hugely valuable asset. Plus knowing that – as the licence owner – no one can pull the rug from beneath you by withdrawing a licence or it running out, and thereby cutting off an income stream gives you and the brand some security, especially if it’s successful.
That’s the business line. As a creative, it opens up whole worlds of storytelling and as we discussed in the conference session, advances in tech are helping build those bridges. Gaming in particular features character building and world building on a par with any major movie franchise. And once you have a world, the stories (wherever you put them) inevitably follow. The lines are also becoming increasingly blurred. If your IP is spread across multiple platforms, your customers should still be able to get as much from the TV series as someone who only prefers to play the video game and vice versa. The ongoing challenge is managing the overlap and keeping up with it.
Atkinson: Web 3.0. I see the market moving towards a transmedia precursor to the metaverse, which I believe is a lot further away than many of the big tech galaxy brains would have us believe. I see “product as platform” (PaP) becoming the foundation that the metaverse is built on.
It will not come out fully formed, and video games will create the language and architecture that is intended to replace things like the humble internet browser and the world wide web. How does this relate to transmedia? I believe transmedia will lay the foundation for the metaverse, with no degree of hesitation. Integrating this into live service allows for new pipelines to be experimented with, new methods of storytelling, richer narratives, and deeper connections with your audience. We’ve already seen sparks from IPs such as Fortnite, and it’s a case of building new platforms to turn those sparks into a small flame, and then an inferno.
Austin: There are going to be more transmedia and cross-media creators and I hope there will be more and more comics!
A big thanks to all our transmedia experts for taking the time to share these additional thoughts, following the video panel which you can watch above. This took place during Beyond Games #2 in November 2021. The next opportunity to see more panellists and speakers like this will be in February 2022 at Pocket Gamer Connects London.