Steve Peters

Experience Design | AR/VR | Geolocation Games

Helping agencies, theme parks, studios and brands develop engaging, immersive experiences.

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Why Hollywood Needs Experience Designers – Part II

(Originally posted at transmediacoalition.com) In our last episode, I talked about how transmedia storytelling projects and technologies (such as second screen apps) seem to be getting traction in Hollywood, and the need for Experience Designers to effectively build the stuff that actually goes into the Transmedia (unless we’re going to be satisfied with just polls, quizzes and ads). Here, I’ll talk about what an Experience Designer actually does.

So, we’ve determined (or at least I’ve asserted) that we’ve got all this great digital transmedia techo-goodness at our fingertips, yet everyone’s struggling with what the content using this technology will actually be. The path of least resistance seems to be “extras” or “bonus content” right now, which often takes the form of microsites, games, polls, trivia, advertisements, behind-the-scenes stuff, links to actors’ IMDB pages, etc. If you’ve been following me on twitter, you’ve probably recently seen me link out to press releases about new apps and projects, and lamenting that they seem to be delivering everything but one crucial and obvious thing:

Story.

The thing you’re actually consuming, the entertainment, the movie, the TV show, the STORY. Why isn’t there more story on these second screens (and by second screens I mean not only apps, but all transmedia channels)?

It’s because you need an Experience Designer to craft it, that’s why.

So, what does an Experience Designer do? Well, we’re the ones who take the raw ingredients and craft how they’re broken down, combined, produced and delivered in a way that surrounds the audience with the story in an organic and effective way. We’re sort of like a chef or an architect or a film director*.  We take a story (usually in the form of a script or outline), break it down into ingredients/materials/scenes and then rebuild it using current digital technologies and channels at our disposal to create a unique and effective story experience.

This is not marketing. This is not brand management or story-world expansion or adaptation of the same material over different channels. It’s weaving all the elements of a story into a tapestry that transcends a single medium.

Sometimes the audience has to seek it out, following a trail like breadcrumbs through a forest, but sometimes it’s just given to them right where they are, using what they already have. No download required.

So, enough theory. What does this look like in practical terms? What does an Experience Designer do??

He or she begins by working closely with a writer or writers to develop a script or story outline that has transmedia elements or interaction design baked in from the very beginning. Stuff that makes sense to the overall project, and isn’t just a gimmick.  Ideally, each piece of content should take advantage of the uniqueness of the medium it lives on, and only be put there if it more effectively serves the story than if it had been told in a more traditional way. How should each piece be delivered? Video? Text? Audio? Images? Email? How much is too much? How dense or sparse should it be? How does it all affect pacing? In essence, what will work best to serve the story?

Most importantly, the Experience Designer crafts the experience flow from one element to the next. Very similar to how an app or website designer is concerned about user flow, the Experience Designer strives to create something that mitigates friction points, confusion, or opportunities for the audience to abandon the experience. Too many transitions between platforms or channels, not being clear about what you want the user to do, or doing something just because you can are the kiss of death.

To put it simply, the Experience Designer takes something that usually looks like this…

TransmediaWrong_300_303

…and turns it into something that looks more like this:

TransmediaRightHoriz_624_125

You’ll probably notice something right away: It’s pretty linear, which is almost counter-intuitive to everything we think about transmedia. It’s not all endless possibilities or choose-your-own-adventure; it actually has a beginning, middle and an end. A good Experience Designer doesn’t build an array of content, but instead assembles a flow of experiences that makes sense, feels organic, and doesn’t set up needless barriers to get through.

Almost as important as the actual story elements themselves, the Experience Designer also makes sure that the bridges of connective tissue between them (the arrows in the diagram) are well thought out. What these bridges are can vary greatly, depending on the type of project (see below), but they are critical in that every one of them represents a huge gaping chasm into which you can lose your audience. Think of them as hyperlinks, and they’re a mandatory, if not overlooked, element that makes transmedia storytelling different than the other types of transmedia applications.

pit_300_161

Sometimes these links take the form of just that: a click/hyperlink from place to place. Sometimes they’re totally passive, whisking the audience from place to place without them having to lift a finger. Sometimes they’re a puzzle. Sometimes they’re triggered via a timeline. But they’re always there. Let’s dive into this a little deeper:

In a free-form project like an Alternate Reality Game (in which audience plays a pretty active role in moving things along), the unseen hand of the Experience Designer invisibly guides the audience from place to place via these overt or covert bridges. Remember, this isn’t an accident. It’s by design. If done right, it’s always apparent where the next destination is…or at least how to get there. It’s sort of like what the folks at Valve do in Half-Life 2, when they build an environmental path that you follow and then end up looking in exactly the direction they want you to in order to see the next bit of action or destination.

You can see an example of this freeform-yet-linear transmedia storytelling in a little single-player 10-minute experience we built to quickly and simply demonstrate just this very thing. It’s a little more puzzly than is typical, but you should still get the idea. Story content is revealed in a relatively linear way (although it still leaves room for a little exploration), from beginning to end, even though it may feel a little like a totally open sandbox. That’s the Experience Designer at work.

Conversely, the experience can be relatively passive and contained, but still paint on these additional transmedia canvases. Some interesting examples of Experience Design can be seen at Rides.tv, a transmedia platform I had the pleasure of helping develop and produce content for. There are a couple examples there that I think work very well, and they also show that you don’t necessarily need a huge amount of transmedia content to be effective.

In horror short 6:14, director Toby Wilkins worked with an Experience Designer from the inception of the script to craft an experience where the transmedia elements (phone calls in this case) told the story in a unique and creepy way.

Another interesting example can be found in murder-mystery Redrum. In this case, you get a text message that in effect puts you in the shoes of the very character you’re watching on screen. Without giving anything away here, you realize that if you don’t delete the message, you may have some ‘splainin’ to do.

For other recent examples, check out things like The FollowingThe Lizzie Bennet DiariesClockwork Watch,DefianceSlide or Cathy’s Book.

Effective transmedia storytelling means that you craft a journey that will use the technology and multiple screens/channels to pull the audience deeper into the story, not distract them out of it. Too often, these pieces are not only inaccessible, unorganized or seemingly random, but they pull the user out of the very experience they’re a part of.  Flow, momentum and focus are paramount.  The Experience Designer’s job is to take the potentially cacophonous and introduce order and just enough focus to make it all work as one whole.

e pluribus, unum…narratio.  It’s not just for pennies any more.

*I base this on my own personal history, building transmedia projects with awesome folks like No Mimes Media and Fourth Wall Studios. Your mileage may vary.

 

Why Hollywood Needs More Experience Designers

(Originally posted at Transmedia Coalition) screensIt’s 2013, and Second Screen is all around us, touted as the Next Big Thing. All of the major broadcast networks seem to have some sort of second screen sync app now, by which you can get “extra” content on your smartphone or tablet while you’re watching your favorite shows. CBSFoxABCNBCSyFyAMC… Sounds pretty cool, right?

But try out one of these apps, and it becomes apparent that they’re a solution in search of a problem. It seems like the main uses seem to be leveraging social media (JOIN THE CONVERSATION!), polls, trivia, links to actors’ IMDB pages, and, puzzlingly, behind-the-scenes videos (am I supposed to pause the main screen while I watch these?)

IntoNow's Iron Chef Sync App

Who actually uses these apps once they’ve tried them out? Nobody is revealing actual numbers, although the metrics that do leak out aren’t all that great. A recent second screen initiative for The Next Iron Chef: Redemption was only used by a maximum of 3,000 people each week for eight weeks, according to Channing Dawson, a senior advisor of Scripps Networks Interactive.

Could this be because the content is…just not that fun? At present, there’s plenty of awesome syncing and transmedia technology out there, providing fresh, pristine canvases on which to paint, but everybody’s struggling with not only what to paint on them, but how to effectively go about developing the paint itself. According to Sherry Brennan, senior vice president of sales strategy and development for Fox Networks, “We’re all convinced that second screen is here to stay…The question is, what do you do on second screens? What do consumers want there? That’s what’s evolving.”

Whether it’s a sync’d second screen, character twitter accounts, or phone numbers that show up on screen, these transmedia channels and all their narrative opportunities often seem to be squandered on delivering extraneous (boring) content at best, and marketing hooks at worst. If a viewer has taken the extra steps to find this transmedia content, give them something great. They’re in the palm of your hand…don’t lose them.

This is where an Experience Designer can help.

Transmedia Website For The BBC's Sherlock

What if, instead of trivia or polls or “crummy commercials,” the current digital landscape was used to actually deliver story content? A character on the “main” screen sends a text message…you get that message on your phone. A website or blog is mentioned…you enter the URL and it actually exists. A phone number appears on onscreen caller ID, and you call it…a character actually answers and talks to you. A character makes a phone call…you see and hear the other end of the conversation in sync on your second screen.

Cool? You bet. Gimmicky? Maybe…at first. But the vocabulary of effectively using these transmedia channels for storytelling is still nascent, and it’s up to an Experience Designer working with a writer and/or showrunner (as early in the development process as possible) to take a look at the story and current technology, and then bake in the transmedia elements in an accessible and organic way that builds a truly unique and effective connected experience…

…an experience that draws the audience deeper into the story, as opposed to distracting them out of it.

Granted, it’s a challenging transitional time, in that you can’t count on your audience having an app or finding this additional content. As a result, there’s a reasonable resistance to putting “mission critical” content anywhere but the main screen. But that shouldn’t stop us from using these new channels to provide a richer, deeper, better experience for those that use them.

Flow

Additionally, the Experience Designer and a Transmedia Producer can coordinate with all different stakeholder departments (who many times have never even met each other) to make sure it all gets built correctly and effectively.

But, it’s not just TV that can benefit. Films, events, and even live theater can create truly engaging ways to tell stories beyond just the “main” stage. Why can’t the story begin with an email the moment you buy your ticket online? Why can’t the film’s sequel begin with a text message on the drive home from the theater?

My prediction is that soon, a mainstream property is going to get it right in a game-changing way. A story is going to emerge that actually requires the transmedia content, and their audience is going to get used to having the story that way. Once that happens, programming will evolve, and fast.

At that point, those who aren’t working with Experience Designers to utilize these new technologies may find themselves like those who continued to make buggy whips while the Model T Fords were rolling off the assembly lines: Left in the dust.

The Transmedia Hijack (or How Transmedia is the New Dihydrogen Monoxide)

I can't believe I'm going here, as this whole topic must seem so lame to so many people, but here goes... So it seems that my recent trip to SXSW in Austin and my subsequent outburst of frustration on Twitter about the misuse of the term Transmedia has caused a little bit of a stir.

I came back and, well, vented on Twitter about how everyone there seemed to bandy about the term when they were talking about not storytelling, but some form of franchising or media extension of an existing or new property, or narrative world, whatever the heck that means.

"Franchising isn't transmedia, it's FRANCHISING!!" I screamed. And it turns out I wasn't the only one having trouble with the term and how it's being used. Plenty of folks have been seeming to jump onto the anti-transmedia bandwagon (and I'm fine with that).

Even Felicia Day got into the fray during one of her SXSW panels, and in a way, she nailed what many of us in Transmedia Storytelling have been struggling to express for years. Here's what she had to say about the term (emphases mine):

It's just a really stupid word, and people use it because they don't know…they just want to like…I just hate it! Because what does it mean? It means nothing!!

I mean, listen: "Transmedia" is any comic book that ever became a movie, before the internet. I mean it's just (any novelization of a movie), yes! That's "Transmedia!" I mean, it doesn't mean anything, I don't think that….they're just throwing it around 'cause it's a catch-phrase, and it's like "yes, let's create a webseries that could potentially be a TV show that could potentially become a movie." That's not Transmedia.

I mean, I think what people are aspiring to, and what people are maybe, you know, could use better words or just articulate better, is that there is an opportunity to reinvent storytelling. So that, if I sat down and I created an app, let's just say, and every day I would tell the story in a different way.

So I would release a comic panel, then I'd release a piece of video, and then I would release a set of pictures, and then I would tell a story in so many different ways that would accumulate in a way that essentially would be like a movie from beginning to end.

And you could use a different media device, because we are in a world where all of that is amalgamated in a way that is unique to what we're living in and the tools we're using.

So maybe that's what we might do? But sometimes people just use it like "We're just gonna do a TV show that's gonna be a webseries and then a TV show."

So look, it seems like things have reached a boiling point. I mean, c'mon, if Felicia Day herself rolls her eyes at the term, it's time to do something about it. Well, or try to figure out if anything can be done.

And so here's what I think. Some of you aren't going to like this. Ready?

There's nothing to be done.

Pandora's Box is open, the cat's out of the bag, the horses have been stolen, (insert cliché here). The term is pretty useless (as are clichés), as it's popularly being used to describe something that's been around for a long, long time. It reminds me of the prank that Penn & Teller pulled on folks asking them to sign a petition against the use of dihydrogen monoxide in all our food. It's just a new buzz-term for something there are already plenty of perfectly good  words for (none of which I'll list here, thank you).

Now, let me be clear: I'm not bashing anyone or their work. It's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow, and there are only so many words to go around to describe new things. I just think it's time I abandon the use of transmedia to describe the work that I do. This doesn't mean that I forsake or forbid its use, I just won't be describing my own stuff as such, even though others may continue to for a while.

So......what will I call what I do? Well, I'm not sure what will stick, but I'm going to go with what we're calling it around the office: Alternate Reality Entertainment.

I'm not suggesting we change the term. All I know is that "Transmedia" no longer describes what I do, so everyone else can have it. :)

So, please excuse me as I prepare my submission for next year's SXSW: Can Dihydrogen Monoxide Save Hollywood?

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ETA: Revised some wording for clarity and to fix the emphasis of the post.

Rabbit Holes to Crummy Commercials: Hollywood's Missed Opportunities

Jack Bauer is driving across the African plain when his phone rings. He picks it up, and the camera gets a purposeful shot of its screen, complete with a non-555 phone number! Jack Bauer's phoneCalling it, it's an actual number! It rings......then an answer. "Thank you for calling the Sprint/24 interactive experience!..." Hmm. The CSI crew is tracking down evidence. They find out that a suspect has a website: LadyHeather.com. Firing up your browser, you enter the URL and.....get redirected to CBS.com.

Something's wrong here.

As a consumer of entertainment, when I'm watching a TV show or film and something pulls me in deeper, I want to be rewarded with more story, more universe, more about what I'm experiencing. If I make the effort to go deeper, I don't want to be rewarded with what amounts to a crummy commercial instead of content.

Over the past decade, the digital space has generally been seen as a promotional space when it comes to entertainment properties. From the very first official movie website (for the film Stargate) to today's Facebook and iPhone apps, studios and networks have been using the Internet to promote their products, which has all been well and good, I suppose.

But in 2010, it's time to go beyond this. It's time for Hollywood to realize that the digital space can and should be a place where content itself can live, where the art is, where the story is. It doesn't have to just promote the story, it can extend the story, be an integral part of it. Not a mission-critical part, necessarily, but a place where, if the audience digs deeper, they are rewarded with content that enriches the experience, not some ad that pulls them out of it.

Additionally, it doesn't need to be branded with the network or studio all over the place. The viewer who got there knows how he or she got there, so why the need to advertise something they already have? They want more of the rich universe, or more about the character they love so much. They want to continue experiencing what they were experiencing, not get yanked out of the story to be hit over the head with marketing.

I wish I had numerous examples of instances where Hollywood has gotten it right, but alas, they're few and far between. Heroes had a good thing going for a while (note the lack of any overt links back to NBC there). How I Met Your Mother gave it a shot. The Office is coming real close. These are the exceptions right now, although I give NBC credit for being the only US network that's even trying to get it right!

So, do you want to stand out with your stuff, Hollywood? Then stop rewarding your audience (who loves your stuff so much that they want more of it) by bombarding them with even more ads, or sending them to your site to promote other programming, or making them bear partner promotions. Give them what they want: Ways to enrich their experience and explore your fictional world.

To drive the point home, I leave you with this. :) (or jump to 2:20 for the climax)

My Top 25 Movies

For no particular reason, only because someone asked me recently what my favorite movies are. Here are my Top 25 Movies, in random order:

  1. Immortal Beloved
  2. The Abyss
  3. A Fish Called Wanda
  4. Blade Runner
  5. Best in Show
  6. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
  7. Amelie
  8. The Prestige
  9. The Matrix
  10. Lost in Translation
  11. Raiders of the Lost Ark
  12. The Dark Knight
  13. Star Wars
  14. The Usual Suspects
  15. Casablanca
  16. Forbidden Planet
  17. Punchdrunk Love
  18. Wall-E
  19. Up
  20. Back to the Future
  21. Jaws
  22. The Big Lebowski
  23. Star Trek
  24. The Princess Bride
  25. The Godfather

ETA: Got to add Young Frankenstein in there, somehow....:)