Games and transmedia — how we got here and where we’re going

Presented by Genvid

When you create new worlds, particularly worlds which have their own rules and concepts, fans are going to have questions about every aspect of those worlds which they’re not already familiar with. How does a lightsaber work? What the hell is an Ewok, actually? Or, more recently, who is Boba Fett and what do we know about the Mandalorians?

Satisfy this curiosity in any format other than the medium of the original and you’re making transmedia. Your existing fans are more engaged and buying more of your products, and you’re adding new fans along the way. Transmedia turns an IP into a brand. 

Like many successful concepts, transmedia has become so commonplace that we take it for granted. After all, when we look at the way in which a global IP such as Star Wars has used transmedia to add depth, breadth, and reach to its stories, the process seems like such a natural nexus between marketing, merchandising and community engagement that it’s almost impossible to imagine any property achieving that ubiquity without transmedia.

Of course, there’s debate on the exact definition — transmedia is a slippery concept and there’s plenty of academic discussion around it. But what I want to cover here is the rough path which transmedia has taken to arrive at one of the most interesting and cutting-edge examples of the concept in use today — what I’ll call ‘concurrent transmedia’: the use of different media formats to tell a story simultaneously, rather than each medium telling stories separately.

This is something we’ve been exploring to great effect in our most recent Massive Interactive Live Event (MILE) Rival Peak: an interactive livestream of a unity-powered CGI “reality show” with a live-action weekly wrap-up show filmed in a TV studio. Outcomes in the interactive stream (such as who is being voted off the show) have huge ramifications for the filmed segments, and we don’t find out what those outcomes are until just a day or so before filming. It’s ambitious and exciting, and it’s working in some very intriguing ways. We think it’s the next step in the evolution of transmedia and storytelling in interactive media.

A brief history of transmedia and gaming

Transmedia licensing has been a standard in the world of digital gaming for decades. Often, these games are simple adaptations of the plot of a film or book, essentially retelling the same story. But more complex examples have seen games extending to more advanced transmedia techniques — telling entirely new “in-universe” stories from the perspectives of characters created specifically for the game itself, adding new themes to the canon of the original.

Again, Star Wars, in many ways the ‘gold standard’ of transmedia, has also pushed forward here, with games like The Force Unleashed, Fallen Order, and the KoTOR series exploring different fragments and perspectives of that galaxy far, far away.

It makes perfect sense that games, with their uniquely interactive aspect, would thrive best when freed from the chains of rote narrative repetition. Although there’s a clear appeal to playing your favourite hero in a story which you’ve seen played out on the big screen, games shine when they’re allowed to craft experiences which allow agency for the player, rather than aping a story to which we already know the ending.

So games can be a good tool in the transmedia playbooks of IP from other sources — but we’re well beyond the days of games always having to follow in the footsteps of other media: some of the world’s biggest transmedia properties started as gaming IP.

Moving beyond licensing and the huge success of Pokémon

As gaming has grown to become the world’s most profitable medium, we’ve seen games’ IP blossoming into some truly massive transmedia brands. Pokémon — reckoned to be the highest-grossing media franchise in existence — began as a game before expanding to trading cards, animated series, books, comics, and high-budget Hollywood movies. Whilst Pokémon has made the vast majority ($61B from a total of $92B) of its revenue from straight merchandising, it is the presence of its characters across transmedia which has built it into a brand able to command those merchandising profits.

There are many reasons for Pokémon’s enormous success, and at its core it’s an almost perfect transmedia property. Because of its easily marketed characters, which are almost infinitely re-imaginable, the game’s format lends itself perfectly to the collectible card game and animated series which were the two mainstays of the non-game canon.

These two branches of the strategy also neatly demarcated different routes into the fandom — the easy-to-grasp simplicity of the cartoon and the complex, competitive nature of the card game meant that children, and adults, were brought into the IP from opposing ends of the scale of engagement. In addition, both focused their audiences on the Pokémon themselves — which became the products which were the centre of the incredible merchandising empire.

Pokémon also expanded beyond these two initial pillars — making guest spot appearances on Nintendo’s cross-franchise showcase Smash Bros. as well as shifting into the quasi-ironic movie market with Detective Pikachu, to say nothing of the massive success of the augmented reality Pokémon Go! mobile game from Niantic. By capturing the minds of a generation of children, and staying with them as they grew into adults, Pokémon has established itself as a global mega-brand which has accrued revenue three times larger than the entirety of the Marvel cinematic universe.

As well as being the pre-eminent example of game-led transmedia, one non-official Pokémon transmedia experiment was also a great source of inspiration for our MILE concept: Twitch Plays Pokémon.

It was a simple but brilliant idea — a game of Pokémon Red Vs. Blue controlled by the inputs of the viewers of the Twitch channel it was being broadcast on. When it premiered in 2014, TPP became an overnight success, with thousands of participants crowding the channel to deliver often contradictory commands. As chaotic as it was, TPP was an incredible success — over a million people interacted with the stream in the 16 days it took to finish the game. Five years later, Twitch’s head of creator development Marcus Graham hailed it as a pivotal moment in Twitch’s history, acknowledging that it changed the service forever.

“TPP not only inspired an entire generation of Pokémon fans, but it directly inspired Twitch. TPP proved that the medium of Twitch was (and still is) ripe for innovation, and that there are new and exciting ways to create interactive content that has never been done before.”

Twitch Plays Pokémon and MILEs

There is a direct line from Twitch Plays Pokémon to the development of our concurrent transmedia project Rival Peak. The idea of a stream with a single origin, using only a small amount of computing power at source, but magnified to reach a huge audience through the power of the cloud, was the founding principle behind the technology which enables us to create our own Massive Interactive Live Events. MILEs are only possible with the sort of mass-audience streaming embodied by Twitch, combined with the interactive capabilities of the majority of devices used to view it.

This new transmedia format, combining an existing text (Red Vs. Blue) and an existing distribution technique (Twitch), is not only an excellent example of the evolutionary nature of transmedia, it’s also a brilliant way of bringing together a massive audience in a collectively experienced interactive event with extremely low barriers to entry.

Our technology empowers creators to build their own MILEs, with all of the reach and jump-in appeal of TPP, but on any video streaming platform, with any source material, broadcasting to any internet and video capable device. Rival Peak is the biggest example of this concept so far, but how does it come back around to transmedia.

Evolving concurrent transmedia strategies in Rival Peak

The core Rival Peak experience is built in Unity and runs on Facebook Games, broadcast as a stream but able to be interacted with in meaningful ways by participants thanks to Genvid’s unique technology. In addition, we have a weekly “wrap-up show,” filmed in a studio and hosted by Wil Wheaton, which both summarizes the events of the week in-game, and pushes the meta-narrative for the game forward as a whole.

On top of that, Rival Peak has an elimination system which is decided by the activity of the participants, so the direction of the wrap-up show and the game itself changes drastically due to factors outside of the control of the developers and writers. The audience is absolutely directing the outcome of both livestream and studio portions of the whole — an interactive, concurrent transmedia project.

The results have been incredible. This is a brand new IP, in a totally new format, with an untested transmedia element, subject to potentially massive narrative shifts depending on the actions of participants. In total, we have had 100 million minutes of participants watching and interacting with the livestream. We’ve also had an average of over 10 million viewers for each episode of Rival Speak.

These are numbers both game makers and TV studios would be justifiably proud of. Not only has this transmedia approach allowed us to expand our audience beyond those who would be attracted to just one of the consumption methods available, it’s also provided us with the ability to summarize events for new participants, who can go back and watch the existing episodes of Rival Speak — these episodes are also accessible now the season has ended, providing legacy content.

The fact that we were able to film these segments, with a high-profile star and high-production values, in response to audience-decided factors with major ramifications for plotlines, during a pandemic which has all but suspended the production of many filmed experiences, has been incredible.

Add in the facts that Rival Peak was built from the ground up in around six months, that we’ve been able to broadcast the whole experience to Facebook’s audience of over 2B people worldwide, translated into eight languages, and Rival Peak looks like a very special project indeed. But as proud as we are, we actually think it’s just the first step in a whole new format of interactive entertainment.

MILEs and the future of transmedia

MILEs are uniquely positioned to take advantage of this new style of concurrent transmedia project. Because they are infinitely scalable and platform- and engine-agnostic, they can be broadcast on any video stream-capable platform and ported to a new or additional platform with almost no extra work at all — meaning they can live on the same platform as any additional livestreamed or broadcast transmedia video content.

This keeps your audience all in one place, allowing for maximum interactivity and retention, and gives you the perfect opportunity to advertise any other transmedia implementations to your existing audience on platform. Plus, this makes them perfect for the ambitious concurrent transmedia projects outlined above.

Because they’re available on any device which can handle streamed video, MILEs also have almost no barriers to entry, meaning adoption rates are high — offering an easy in for your brand. Finally, our running costs are low and directly linked to the number of viewers, meaning that it’s very hard to run up unsustainable overheads.

Currently, Genvid is the only company in the world to offer the software which makes this possible (our free-to-download SDK is available via our website). We also have a full suite of services and support options available, with a dedicated team of engineers on hand to guide you through every stage of the project from co-development to deployment. Get in touch with us today and find out how we can help you to run your first MILE.

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