This Stuff Is Awesome: Andrea Phillips at Transmedia Vancouver

Way back at the start of December, the Transmedia Vancouver Meetup used our digital magic to bring a signal carrying the wisdom of Andrea Phillips all the way from Long Island to our little group. Andrea talked us through a number of the projects she’s worked on, and 15 lessons she learned from them. You can check out a full recording of the event at http://livestream.com/silverstring, and her slides below, but I’ll take you through some of the larger themes discussed.

Awesomeness

Andrea got into transmedia as a player and moderator of the Cloudmakers in the Beast, commonly hailed as the first real Alternate Reality Game, and it was mind-blowing. She stumbled on a fictional website that “was part of this... thing that we didn’t know what it was, there were people that we knew weren’t real, but if you emailed them then they emailed you back...”

Her first lesson? This stuff is totally awesome. Then when she actually worked on one, with Perplex City, she refined that lesson: it’s not as awesome as you think to make this stuff -- it’s way more awesome. She called creating an interactive transmedia experience the best way to write fiction possible, that while writing usually involves sitting alone at a keyboard for hours at a time, with this you get immediate feedback from the audience, a dialogue that never stops, the feeling that you’re not alone at your keyboard anymore. It’s addictive.

Better as a Result

One of the things Andrea said regarding the Beast was that the movie AI was better for those who had played the game. That you had already established relationships with the characters, and an understanding of some of the backstory. That the movie, which didn’t do so well at the box office, was stronger as a result of that relationship to the story.

I think this is so key to a good transmedia experience. The pieces should not be isolated from each other. Consuming all the pieces shouldn’t just make for a larger experience that’s better as a result of it being bigger, of there being more pieces to the puzzle; it should make each one of those pieces better for having experienced the others. That’s one of the things that makes transmedia special.

More Emotions

Another one of Andrea’s broad points that started with the Beast was that interactive storytelling in particular can elicit a broader range of emotions than ‘flat’ media like a single novel or movie. A television show can make you laugh or cry; an interactive story can make you feel complicit, responsible, even guilty.

Furthermore, relationships with characters can feel that much stronger. Two-way communication with them can make them feel alive, feel like friends. When something tragic happens to them, you feel like you have to do something about it.

Getting into the Story

Perplex City taught her something I too have talked about before: that the longer a story goes, the harder it is for new audience members to come into it. It can’t feel like the audience has to do homework to figure out what’s going on, or they won’t even bother.

“Story So Far” rolling recaps are certainly one way around this. In general, you want to make it as easy as possible to figure out what’s going on.

Reacting to an Audience

It seemed that the most rewarding projects and moments were those in which the creators could react most to the actions of the audience, where what the audience did had an impact on how the story unfolded.

Andrea noted that this was far easier to do the fewer lawyers were involved, when not every little detail and communication need be vetted before it can be released -- and is thus easier with more indie projects, or those given freer reign.

She also noted that it’s possible to have a blend of highly reactive content and pre-made content, allowing you to have most of your content ready ahead of time but still feel highly reactive to the audience.

At the same time, something that is responsive doesn’t have to die forever once it’s done -- the story could be replayed or replayable, even if it becomes a bit less reactive as a result.

And finally, the audience won’t care nearly as much as you do how realistic something is. They are willing to suspend disbelief for, for example, who is filming something and why.

Business Lessons

Andrea also shared some good basic business nuts-and-bolts lessons.

If you’re a freelancer, be warned: you can’t get unemployment benefits. And make sure the scope of the contract is clear, and you know what happens in it takes longer than you expected.

There are ethical considerations in transmedia storytelling -- what happens in someone stumbled on an in-fiction website and assumes it’s real? (For a longer discussion on this point from Andrea, see here, here, and a comprehensive Wired article about her SXSW talk, here.)

As mentioned regarding lawyers, the more money is involved with a project, the more limitations there are. On the other hand, budget doesn’t matter nearly as much as the passion of the creators in making something truly awesome -- or the passion of the audience.

And launching a project can be tricky. An email blast saying “check out this link” is not the way to do it, but what is the way depends on the project. Maybe a press release, maybe a beautiful package sent to 100 key influencers, maybe both, maybe neither.

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Overall, Andrea was delightful as always and full of great insights.

You can pre-order her upcoming book, A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling, at Amazon. I’ve read it, it’s fantastic, and well worth the time and money of anyone interested in transmedia storytelling. Find her on twitter at @andrhia, and at her blog, deusexmachinatio.com.