Storytelling for spin-offs

GDC Online 2010: Reps from THQ, 38 Studios, Blizzard, and more on guiding game stories that extend into multiple media and keeping the tie-ins from tanking.

Who was there: 38 Studios creative director Steve Danuser, Blizzard Entertainment senior story developer James Waugh, THQ executive vice president of core games Danny Bilson, and Smoking Gun Interactive creative director John Johnson.

THQ is diving headfirst into the trans-media approach with Red Faction.

What they talked about: Bilson started the session by talking about the upcoming Red Faction: Origins TV pilot set to air on the SyFy Channel alongside the March 2011 launch of Red Faction: Armageddon. He emphasized the need to have absolute verisimilitude in trans-media efforts because any cracks in the cannon cause everything to break down for fans. In fact, Bilson said he's about to send his script notes back to the screenwriter for Red Faction: Origins, and he's most concerned with liberties the writer took with the names of the factions and the way terraforming in the Red Faction universe works.

Johnson said trans-media efforts were one of the driving motivators for the founders of Smoking Gun. Even when taking the company's efforts into printed comics, the company still wants to make things as interactive possible. So instead of just taking place in the game universe as the game, the comic can unlock things within the game.

Waugh said he looks at Blizzard as an intellectual property incubator and said the expansions of Blizzard properties into new media have challenged the creators to think in deeper terms about how their universes work.

Danuser is working on the massively multiplayer online game codenamed Copernicus and the recently announced Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, which are being built to support trans-media efforts like books, TV shows, and so on. He talked about the approach 38 Studios takes to trans-media storytelling, saying there has to be something more to it than simply putting out a comic book or Web site to exploit the properties.

"The pieces of media really need to fit into each other to tell a bigger story…By consuming each of these individual pieces, you should be able to see how they really fit together."

Danuser said each book or movie needs to be true to its own medium and stand alone perfectly well but also inform readings of its counterparts. Johnson agreed, adding it's about creating a pervasive experience by understanding the different media types one's audience is engaged with.

Waugh talked about the negative stigma attached to licensed products and emphasized that the trans-media philosophy works only if you care as much about the spin-off material as the players do for the game.

"We will never novelize a game," Waugh said. "We'll never replicate something you've already experienced. That's not trans-media; that's just a waste of time."

Bilson said trans-media was a way to make the games more important. The most primary thing with any entertainment product is to make people care about it, Bilson said. Since THQ partners with other companies to get its properties turned into TV shows and movies, it doesn't have a ton of its own money at stake. Still, THQ has more at stake in the game than SyFy has in the TV film, so it has some added leverage when it comes to creative control.

Bilson acknowledged THQ's recently reported (but technically unannounced) deal with Guillermo del Toro and how when the pair get together, they just ask, "What would be cool?" They never ask, "What would make money?" Bilson stressed that would be the wrong way to go about making a trans-media effort.

Danuser said there's a sort of pact between the developers and the fan base. If the fans are going to buy in and care about a world, it's a violation of trust to allow shoddy cash-ins.

Waugh said that trust is even more sacred now, thanks to Wikia culture. Even if only two people read a cruddy cash-in novel, that novel will wind up preserved in the online canon and become just as baked into the mythos as the most meticulously created content.

Bilson said it was also necessary to let people finish the game at their own speed. Games need to tune the experience to the abilities of the players because players have to get to the big twist or the cliffhanger ending if they are to care about the story's extension into a different medium or even a direct sequel. When THQ green lights an original IP, Bilson said the company is looking to build a world, not just one story. The publisher needs an idea to be able to support a series of games.

At 38 Studios, the team has been building a backstory that lives within the whole and informs it, Danuser said. So when 38 Studios acquired Big Huge Games a year and a half ago, the Kingdoms of Amalur team was given the freedom to take the rough ideas that were already part of the world and flesh them out into the game they're making right now. It also helped give the team guidance on what the tone of the universe was and what would fit well in that context. As R.A. Salvatore told Danuser, "You have to have the smell of the world."

Bilson talked about a novel for the upcoming Korean invasion shooter Homefront, saying it's about a biker gang roaming the Southwest. After reading through an early draft of the novel, Bilson spotted a place to tie the novel back into the game, making a random gang into the biker gang from the book by dropping a few motorcycles around the environment.

Looking forward, Waugh said people are hungrier than ever for content, and he just wants to see Blizzard give fans the experiences they want and deserve. Bilson said he'd like to see great original fiction. He said he's seen tons of space marine and epic fantasy stuff, and now, he wants to see the next generation bring us worlds we've never been, fresh characters, and fresh stories. Danuser pointed to the proliferation of ways people connect to one another through mobile devices as holding promise for the future of trans-media efforts.

Quote: "It's not adaptation, or the stuff starts to break down."--Bilson, on insisting that film and book tie-ins play by the same rules and use the same universe as their source material games.

Takeaway: The era of phoning in multimedia adaptations is over. Developers wanting to take advantage of their brands and do right by their fans need to treat their comic, book, TV, or movie as seriously as they do their games.

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