Creative Voice: Scott Walker

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Today's post is an old interview I did with the awesome Scott Walker over a year ago and never posted! He has kindly done a brief edit/update to it after being away from social media for a year. This was back when my main focus was transmedia -- these days he says his new ventures won't be in the transmedia sphere either -- but his thoughts on transmedia and shared story worlds are still interesting and relevant. Enjoy!

First of all, what excites you most about transmedia storytelling?

The technique we currently call transmedia storytelling predates the term by decades, but the rise of the Internet and the Web -- coupled with changes in consumer behavior and technologies -- exponentially increased the number of ways to tell, share, and experience stories (or story worlds). As amazing as things seem today, I can't help but feel as if we're just taking a peek over the horizon. The future of transmedia storytelling certainly seems limitless, and that translates to some amazing times ahead for audiences.

What’s your background? How did you get interested and involved in transmedia storytelling?

My interest in participatory storytelling and collaborative worldbuilding put me on a collision course with transmedia storytelling.

After having my work inaccurately labelled transmedia one too many times, I decided to see what all the fuss was about, so I picked up Henry Jenkins' "Convergence Culture" in July of 2009. A few months later, Dr. Jenkins taught his first Transmedia Storytelling class at USC, and I was able to drop in on his class.

I've always gravitated to his views on transmedia, as they resonate the strongest with me. His lectures gave structure to ideas I was beginning to push around, and his guest lecturers and assigned readings provided an amazing collection of viewpoints on the topic.

I was really taken with the potential inherent in transmedia storytelling, and the integrated nature of the experience aligned with my own preferences for story worlds which were self-referential and included a deliberate degree of negative space and negative capability (terms I picked up from Geoffrey Long -- thanks, Geoff!).

Then I attended the FOE conference at MIT in November of 2009, and the next month Jay Bushman and I co-founded Transmedia L.A. I spent the next few years hanging out in the transmedia community -- it's an amazing group of folks.

You’re probably known most for your interest in value co-creation with an audience. What is the intersection between that and transmedia?

I suppose I could be known for worse!  : )

Value co-creation describes the relationship between intellectual property (IP) owners (for lack of a better term) and audiences. It acknowledges that just as the IP owner has provided something of value to the audience, the audience also responds in ways that create value for the IP owner that go way beyond box office dollars.

When audiences use social media platforms, create their own works based on an IP (fan fiction, fan art, fan vidding, etc.), or do anything that goes beyond mere consumption of content, they are co-creating value with IP owners. Usually, we think of fan fiction, but audiences can do much more than that (e.g., fan-produced ARGs and LARPs).

To date, fandom is normally locked out from the official IP for reasons ranging from legal concerns to a desire for complete creative control. In many cases, those concerns are legitimate, but this approach unfortunately marginalizes the amazing things audiences are capable of.

Value co-creation starts with the premise that audiences are perfectly capable and willing to collaborate with IP owners, and I use the concept of value co-creation as the foundation for what I call "shared story worlds" (SSW).

SSWs are IPs that invite audiences to contribute to the IP in guided ways. SSWs balance the need for centralized, internal control with the advantages of participatory storytelling and collaborative worldbuilding.

I view transmedia and value co-creation as separate practices but highly complementary approaches to storytelling and worldbuilding. I could, for example, create a shared story world based on a novel and invite fans to contribute short stories. This would absolutely qualify as a value co-creation model, but it's not transmedia storytelling at all.

Conversely, most of the transmedia projects I see are not what I would call shared story worlds. Happily, that's changed noticeably since I started poking around the media scene in 2007.

Please note that I don't view transmedia or shared story world models as one-size-fits-all solutions for every entertainment experience out there. In some cases, neither are warranted, but both are often not explored when they should be.

What was your goal in starting Runes of Gallidon? What did you learn from that experience?

We wanted to see how far you could bend a commercial entertainment model without breaking it. We wanted to minimize friction between the audience and the IP, maximize value co-creation and remixing of IP content, and retain a rigorous legal foundation to protect the necessary commercial rights for the IP. Runes of Gallidon was an SSW stress test of sorts.

As a result, Runes of Gallidon struck an incredibly generous revenue sharing deal with audience members who contributed content, and everything was published under a Creative Commons license. We also structured the Artisan Agreement (the legal contract between Brain Candy, LLC and contributing creatives) in a way that tied revenue sharing to specific works (e.g., a short story, an image, a video) but allowed ideas (e.g., characters, places, items) to be shared by all.

We worked with our lawyers by describing how we wanted the world to work, how the rights would be split and shared, etc. Then we said, "write a contract that makes this a reality." And they did - they totally got where we were going with the world, and it was (gasp!) a joy to work with them.

Having shown that you could invite an audience into a commercial IP without stripping the IP owner of critical rights, Runes of Gallidon became a marker to show how far you could go. Between traditional entertainment and Runes of Gallidon is an immense spectrum of shared story world models ranging from conservative to bleeding edge.

Of course, I learned a lot of things in the process, not all of them pleasant.

We had to fire our first legal firm and our first web design company (which caused us to miss our target launch at the 2008 Comic Con in San Diego). We found out how hard it was to market the world of Gallidon, especially since we had two demographic segments: passive consumers (the majority) and active contributors (the minority but a critical minority to Gallidon's success).

And how do you even begin to describe this animal?

"Okay, it's a fantasy world, but it's not a video game, and it's multimedia. We have games, audio stories, flash fiction, short stories, novellas, art, and a comic. Oh, and the whole thing's published under a Creative Commons license, but really, what that means is you get all of these rights not normally granted under default copyright. For example, you can copy, distribute, make derivative works, put them on your website, print them out - and it's all legal, as long as you aren't making money. But if you want to make money, submit your work to us, and if we accept it, we'll exchange mutual but non-exclusive commercial rights to the work, which means you can still sell your own work however you want, and we can, too, and we'll share the combined revenue."

Basically, I realized there wasn't a word, term, or phrase I could use that would immediately convey what Gallidon was. World of Warcraft? It's an MMO. Avatar? 3D sci-fi flick. Star Wars? Well, that doesn't even need an explanation.

But what, exactly, was Runes of Gallidon? Without a handy, commonly-recognized term or an example I could point to and say, "Gallidon is just like that!" it became harder to market the world on a small budget.

This was one of the reasons I started using the term, "shared story world," and why I launched the Shared StoryWorlds website. I wanted to identify other SSWs, reach out to the creatives designing them, and see if I could identify best practices. I'm seeing design patterns that are helping me understand the various approaches available, find the common design considerations for SSWs, and learn what does and does not work.

If I could do it over, I'd launch Runes of Gallidon with a strong story based in a single medium and build up the world around that story. We inverted that process and launched the world with a sprinkling of art, video, audio, games, and text.

But those were the painful lessons.

The joyful lessons included seeing some of our theories about collaborative world-building play out. I watched the community gradually shift from requesting permission from us to proposing ideas or requesting help from each other. I saw Artisans remixing each other's ideas. And I delighted in seeing the different directions Artisans would take works we created at Brain Candy, LLC. Many times, the new directions would not have occurred to us, and it revealed the power of improvisational storytelling and world building.

What other projects have you been a part of? What would be your dream project?

I have provided consulting advice on other shared story worlds (e.g., World of Depleted), designed and ran two LARPs at WyrdCon (one featuring some cool IR-controlled magic from Dan Novy), co-wrote another LARP for a steampunk-themed conference, co-launched Star Wars Remix with Emma Beddows and Noah Scalin, and I recently wrote a chapter for the "All Your Fates" project at Wattpad.

I took a long break in 2013 -- jumped off the social media treadmill and didn't think much about media at all. I recently started thinking about what I wanted to do next, and after a few months of throwing ideas at the wall, I think I may have found it.

If all goes well, I'l have more to share in early 2014, and that would be my dream project for the next year.

But if I could snap my fingers and have any dream project right *now*, it might be to launch a company that uses the best of transmedia and shared story worlds (something I outlined in this presentation: http://www.slideshare.net/scott_walker/from-works-to-worlds ).

What drives you as a storyteller? What are you interested in, and what do you hope to accomplish?

On one level, I'm seeking nothing more complicated than creating an enjoyable experience for the audience.

But on another level, my inspirations and objectives change dramatically between projects. Designing LARPs is very different from writing stories, which is quite different from building a new world. I use a variety of tools and techniques for each.

Over the past few years, I noticed many of my projects begin with me pushing at some perceived boundary, seeing what I can get away with. "I'll bet I could..." is how a lot of my better ideas start out.

What would be your advice for an indie transmedia writer/creator?

Here are two mantras that may be helpful and ones I wish I was better at following.

Lance Weiler pointed me to "Little Bets" (http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2011/05/23/peter-sims-little-bets/), a book by Peter Sims that proposes taking a series of small, low-risk actions to test ideas. In essence, iterate rapidly to success.

Another way of saying the same thing is Jay Bushman's contention that we need to "fail faster" if we really want to push the transmedia envelope.

We're far from having the kind of best-practice methodology for transmedia like we have for TV, film, or even video games. There's plenty of new territory to map, and every experiment opens the door to new opportunities.

The second piece of advice is not waiting for permission to try your hand at transmedia storytelling.

If you really want to dive in, find a way, even if it's on a small scale. I promise you'll learn more by putting 50 hours into a project you actually launch than by spending 500 hours reading blogs, listening to podcasts, and attending conferences. I mean, how many words could you have written for your own project if you hadn't read this interview!

And if you want to make money as an indie creative, my final piece of advice is to acknowledge that you are a startup. You are an entrepreneur as well as a creative. Be as ruthless about running your business as you are experimentally innovative about your storytelling.

Where do you want the transmedia industry to go? What would you like to see happen in this community?

Wait, transmedia is an industry? I thought we were still trying to figure out what transmedia was...  : )

As far as the community goes, there's not much more I could ask for, though I still see several tribes and sub-communities in the transmedia umbrella, each with its own agenda, goals, and personalities. So, what I want or what you want may not be what others in the community want.

Still, my humble hope is that the veteran leaders of this community (and I'm not including myself in that group) continue to serve as sherpas for the newer members and encourage a healthy but civil debate. As long as we remain open to new voices and ideas, as long as we view ourselves as still in the early, exciting stages of a wonderful journey, I'm positive the transmedia community will not just grow but thrive.

Thanks Scott!

-- Lucas