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Analysis: Does Going 'Transmedia' Help Game Properties?
Analysis: Does Going 'Transmedia' Help Game Properties?
October 26, 2010 | By Chris Morris

October 26, 2010 | By Chris Morris
More: Console/PC

[Gamasutra editor-at-large Chris Morris looks at how initial releases in game franchises are extending across film, books, action figures and beyond, talking to THQ's Danny Bilson about the just-announced Homefront prequel novel and why the "fiercely competitive" market demands that extra transmedia step.]

The video game industry, if you haven’t noticed, isn’t just about games any more.

Sure they’re important, but for many publishers, they’re the hub of a broader entertainment property.

In the end, that property could be one that’s more inviting to a larger audience and one that can prove to be a lot more lucrative than a standalone franchise (even an enormous one) could ever be.

THQ is certainly taking note. The company on Monday announced it had partnered with Random House’s Del Ray label to publish a novel set in the Homefront universe early next year – a short while before the game ships to stores.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg for the company, however. Already in the works is a pilot episode for a show based in the Red Faction universe for the SyFy Channel, which will bow right as the next installment of the game hits stores.

And later this year, the company will announce a major motion picture tied into an as-yet unannounced new installment in what the company describes as one of its ‘major franchises’. (Let the guessing games begin: Saints Row? Full Spectrum Warrior? Paws & Claws?)

“This one game next year that will have the movie will also have a Facebook game, and Xbox Live game, licensed apparel, action figures and things like that,” Danny Bilson, executive vice president of core games for THQ, tells Gamasutra. “It makes [the property] more a world of the game instead of just the game. That makes the game itself more exciting.”

THQ is hardly alone in expanding its titles beyond the console and PC worlds. World of Warcraft, Halo and more are bookstore standards now. And Red Dead Redemption ran a 30-minute machinima short film on Fox shortly after its release.

The larger entertainment world, of course, has been doing the same thing for decades. Star Wars is the shining example, with over 30 years of cross-pollination among entertainment mediums – and no signs of any pending slowdown.

Do the additional marketing outlets lead to more game sales? It’s hard to quantify that. But they certainly raise awareness of the brand – especially among people who might not consider themselves gamers, but are still drawn in by the worlds developers create.

And any title that has the buzz of an entertainment “event” is more likely to stand out from the increasingly large crowd of games coming out. “People don’t buy video games because they’re video games anymore,” says Bilson. “Now it’s fiercely competitive and only the best games and most interesting games are going to succeed.”

That cuts both ways. Because the broader entertainment landscape is so competitive, studios, publishers and other content providers are more eager to tie into something that has a built in audience – especially if someone else is footing a part of the marketing bill.

“What [these companies] are afraid of is risk,” says Bilson. “They know we’re shipping a game with a certain amount of marketing and suddenly it’s branded ‘entertainment.’ … So having a game makes the property more appealing, not less appealing. It’s easier to get a movie or TV show going. It’s easier to get a book going.”

For partners, it’s a chance to ride the coattails of a major game. For THQ, at least, it’s a chance to expand income – since these partnerships cost it nothing, but give it a share of additional revenue streams.

The trick to success is two-fold, says Bilson. First, the experiences must stand-alone, so they can accommodate the different audiences.

For Homefront, the book is meant to introduce people to the game world. It's written by John Milius (screenwriter of Oscar winning film “Apocalypse Now”) and Raymond Benson (who has penned two Metal Gear Solid books and multiple James Bond novels).

But the story does not center of the game’s characters (though the book’s hero does meet them), rather on a reporter who survives the Korean invasion and eventually becomes an armed insurgent and the “Voice of Freedom”--an underground radio broadcaster.

Perhaps more importantly, there needs to be a consistency among the various entertainment properties – and not just a casual one.

“In addressing the first write of the Red Faction pilot, the author adapted it in the same way many people have adapted a property in the past,” says Bilson. “And we made it clear that adaptation is not the same as transmedia. Every single thing has to be the same. As soon as something is different, that breaks the rules – and that breaks the experience.”

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Michael Lubker
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How can indies do this? The only successful one I can think of is Ankama.

Tim Tavernier
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This transmedia stuff is actually just another signal that traditional videogame companies are trying to exploit the shrinking old hardcore market even more and fiercely wjile also diverting part of the costs to other parties. It smells of desperation really.

All of this won't work with the new core-gamer market. They're more critical thinking then that.

Jonathan Osment
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Completely Disagree with that. It is not so much about games, as it is the IP. The movie industry has done this for years and it has shown the secondary market is just as profitable as the primary. Smart business and growth of IP should never be seen as desperation unless you consider the desire for success to be the key factor in desperation.

We are also seeing novels get turned into games. The Witcher, Metro 2033, Lord of the Rings...ect This is important to note.

Not sure the new "core gamer" market is more uh... critical thinking than the previous generation btw. We seem to be going in the opposite direction... less critical thinking seems to be the direction. Anyways, thats not really important since we do not even know if gamers are their primary market for the books and movies, but it could get more interested in the games, and vice versa.

Chris Remo
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The movie can't be STALKER--it's not a THQ property. THQ just published the first game, but not either of the sequels, and the IP is owned by developer GSC Game World.

I'm interested in the notion of something like Red Faction as a TV series. For me (and, I imagine, most people who have played the games), Red Faction is entirely about its unique gameplay mechanics. I don't think I could remember one bit about the story if I tried, beyond there being mining on Mars. Of course, as noted in this piece, the fact that I'm even award of the name "Red Faction" means the series already has an advantage over some other new series with zero initial brand awareness. I wonder how far that actually goes in a world where there are so many shows to watch.

Tim Carter
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I just wanted to point out that, potentially, every IP is already transmedia.

Think of any novel that was adapted to a film. Then the film can be made into a game. Or the film becomes a TV series. Or whatever.

It's just the ordinary art and entertainment process, and having a fancy name for it like "transmedia" obscures the artistic challenges involved.

Tim Carter
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Also, I guess the writer does not know that Stalker is based on a classic Soviet-era film by Andrei Tarkovsky. It's already transmedia, in that sense: the game adapted the film.

(Stalker, by the way, isn't an ordinary film either. It's three-hours long and very "ontic". You have to go into it understanding it is extremely meditative, and not conventional in the sense of driving the plot forward quickly.)

Simon Carless
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Checking up quickly, it actually appears that the connections between film and game are 'unofficial' - or at least, unlicensed. In any case, Chris is definitely correct and we've removed that reference, appreciated.

Chris Remo
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STALKER isn't really based on the Tartovsky film in a material sense. It's (very loosely) based on the Strugatsky brothers' book Roadside Picnic, which Tartovsky's film was also based on--but even in that case, the game is more "inspired" by those works rather than actually being based on them. The STALKER games are set in the aftermath of a second Chernobyl disaster, and the extraterrestrial element that serves as the primary impetus for the book and film is effectively nonexistent in the games. The first Chernobyl disaster had not even occurred at the time the book or film were created.

In any case, I think they're only really directly related in terms of the concept of The Zone in the alien (not extraterrestrial) sense and the hypothetical roles that sprung up around it in the fiction. To me that seems more like how Tolkien and D&D have influenced fantasy works--they have codified a certain vocabulary and aesthetic, but not everything that capitalizes on those works can be considered an actual adaptation.

Quinton Klabon
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Yeah, let's be clear. It's as loose an adaptation as Stalker is of Roadside Picnic. Also, the Tarkovskii film is an all-time great work, whereas the games are...

Chris Remo
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Jason Manley
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Indies can do this by starting small and working upward. South Park started as an animated xmas card. Others start as novels, or small apps or games, or comics/graphic novels, or even toys. All are affordable ways to get IP built. The key is to build a business model that lets each piece support the next step in the game. Frank Beddor, the Producer from Something about Mary has spent the past eight years writing novels, making affordable content, and promoting and then invested in about 500 pieces of concept art that flushed out his entire universe. That is now being pitched as a major game and film product and will eventually get there. His universe is called The Looking Glass Wars. Researching that is worth your time as it is going to work for him. Look at guys like Mike Mignola, or game makers working in social games or the like. The Urban Vinyl toy makers are doing that too and building lines of characters and the like, monetizing through prints, shirts, toys, shower curtains, you name it. IP needs to be monetized every possible way. Just imagine what Zynga could do with the farmville IP...going to AAA games and even movies (even if they were bad they would make money). The first products are considered marketing budget on the table when you go to talk big games deals.

As far as indies making additional content if you want to start with games, start with small games. If it is a hit, the IP, then go up a level to downloads, and if thats a hit then go full next gen etc....and along the way use the conecpt art and storyboards to make animated comic books, if it is an rpg use the icons and art to make iphone and social games with the same content. The IP gurus in the field call it ancillary use assets. One item used for four things, like when they make a game design doc cover for the pitch that also becomes a poster, or graphic on shirts or or or or....

Hope that helps.

Jason Manley

Lars Hahus
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I agree with Stephen, this might turn out big if we let it.

The possibilities of achieving something culturally new and reaching more people than only gamers with a (in this case) story traditionally only enjoyed by gamers opens up lots of possibilities.

We have a future close at hand where every decision a cultural consumer makes comes from the consumer him/herself.

Making good use of every platform available will make a big difference for storytelling and the way art as a whole is being appreciated. I believe the gamebiz will wake up relatively late to this due to tight deadlines, old fashion values and plain narrow-mindedness, but they will wake up eventually.

Partly inspired by the TEDx conference, I touched upon this in my new blog;