4D Fiction

Exploring the many dimensions of creative storytelling...

Browsing Posts published by Geoff May

From “rabbithole” to “bobblehead”, here’s my attempt at a sample construction of an experience through a full blown transmedia production, composed of multiple products and campaigns, numerous entry points and levels of engagement, and many platforms of delivery. Of course, in no way is this a complete or definitive experience, but simply a generic example among a gamut of possibilities – one hypothetical engagement, presented without labels or buzzwords, from beginning to …end?  Take from it what you will!

One day, you sit down to watch TV, and catch a teaser trailer for a movie not scheduled for release for another year. It catches your eye, but you inevitably move on.

The next week, you receive a bulky piece of mail containing a hardcover book… you don’t initially recognize the author, or the company that sent it, but the topic interests you. As you open it, a piece of paper drops from its folds on which is written an email and phone number with a note asking you to contact the author by either method.

You’re curious, so you call the phone number and hear a recorded message from this person, who outlines their desperate situation and asks for help.

At this point you wonder where it came from. Out of curiosity, you start checking around. A quick google shows that the author doesn’t seem to exist, nor does the company. But you do find that the book and author are related to an upcoming movie, and you remember the teaser that caught your attention last week – the author’s name is familiar now, and you recognize their face.  Now you’re excited. For whatever reason, the lead character in the movie just contacted you, personally, and they need your help – a series of events are unfolding, right now, today, this week.

Enticed, you dig a little deeper… in doing so, you discover websites that reveal more about this character, this company, and the recent events that prompted them to contact you, and why. You find other people online who’ve been contacted as well, so you chat with them to find out what they know, and team up with them moving forward.

Over time, there are puzzling situations that you have to resolve, other characters you need to talk to, interact with and influence in your strive towards various accomplishments and resolutions, discovering more and more of the story as it plays out.

You’re taken places – nearby locations for secret exchanges of information, or for real-world tasks to be carried out. You watch videos, find clues in commercials, record and share videos denouncing an antagonist’s propaganda, even crowd-source a solution to a problem on your cell phone, with a bit of augmented reality thrown in… Your ongoing curiosity in this amazing story drives your enthusiasm. Your interaction and teamwork with others doing the same forms bonds and friendships, and a community of fans.

You become immersed in the story so much that when it ends and you’ve saved the day, you cheer and celebrate with your community and your friends!

Oh yeah, and there was that movie you wanted to see too… You wonder if or how your actions helping this author and the company had an influence in that story. Now you have to see the movie (and with friends, especially other people with whom you’ve shared the experience)!

You go and see the film. On screen you spot the actual location you visited to receive top secret information from the company that sent you the package. Then the person who asked you for help, the lead character in the movie, references the mystery that you just helped solve!

Your experience, the story you helped to complete over the course of a few months, connected you with a grander set of events – you became a part of the movie.

Shortly after the movie airs, Amazon shoots you an email recommending a novel that’s soon to be released – an autobiography written by the fictional author as their followup to their other book, the one you received in the mail.  You want it.

Being a comic book fan, you’re excited to hear about a series soon to be released centered on the company that sent you the package; about its rich history, chronicling many of its past …’mishaps’. You want it.

You’re at the local toy store one day, and you see a bobblehead – of the author. It makes you chuckle. You want it.

A year down the line, with this property still going strong (it’s now a thriving universe with a history, many developed characters, events, and stories you’ve come to follow and enjoy), a sequel to the film is announced… along with a video game spin-off on the gaming console you own. You want to immerse yourself in them, and discover what other exciting experiences the universe has to offer. You note their release dates.

Then, as you sit down for dinner, tuning into the latest episode of the TV series continuation that launched a few months ago, you get a phone call.

You recognize the voice.

It’s the author… the real person is talking to you. They’re called you because they remember how you helped them last time.  Your help is needed again.

They ask you, and you say yes.


(img based on Chaotic Fiction diagram by Sean Stacey)

(followup articles, links, and commentaries appended)

Can someone tell me what on earth “transmedia” means these days?  As an ARG enthusiast, traditionalist, and one who’s previously done some developing behind the scenes, I’m here adding my voice to the antitransmedia chorus.

Back in “the day” (mere years ago), there were these things called “Alternate Reality Games”. I remember them – potentially amazing experiences that involved their audience, told engaging stories, presented puzzles and games that were fun and actually made sense within their contexts, and allowed players to search and discover. These things were also somewhat subversive – they never actually said they were fictional, but we all knew they were anyway.

Sometimes they’d tie in to a movie, and we ended up choosing to see it; or a video game, and we ended up choosing to play it.  Or maybe they were just for fun, and we ended up making friends, forming communities.

Then word got out.  Slowly, more people heard about them, and more and more people wanted to make them, to try new things, provide unique experiences. Then we saw variations that focused more on one thing than another, like the puzzles, or the narrative, or interaction, or centered on a specific platform. They came up with variations on names that would better describe those experiences.

As Jeff Watson stated recently in an article reflecting on ARGs and the issue of accurately labeling the entertainment genre:

The boundaries between gameplay and storytelling, single-platform and multi-platform, real and virtual, author and audience, are all disappearing as we speak. It’s all fiction. Someday we’ll just leave it at that.

But soon these things really started to go mainstream… discovered by the kind of people who wanted to ‘embrace and extend’, as it were.  Some wanted to claim a label for what they produced, some simply wanted to help define the genre by providing a more descriptive and accurate label. It came to the point that ARGs in the traditional sense were now a sort of sub-set of a quickly widening and muddying genre of storytelling and/or gaming and/or marketing. We now had what Sean Stacey termed “Chaotic Fiction” – chaos, indeed.

Here are a few sample terms adopted over recent years by creatives in this media space:

Alternate Reality Game, Reality Game, Alternate Reality Events, Chaotic Fiction, Connected Entertainment Product, Cross-Media Promotions and Distributed Narratives, Cross-platform Experiences, Entertainment Experience, Experience Design, Extended Reality, Full-Media Entertainment Experience, Immersive Brand Marketing, Innovative and Immersive Social Entertainment, Interactive Marketing Solutions, Media Integrated Gameplay, Participation Drama, Pervasive Media, Search Opera, Story Game…

…or even, as jested by Steve Peters – a “Pervasive Entertainment Experience” (PEE)

But the term that ultimately caught on was “transmedia storytelling”. Short and sweet, to the point. It took the experience that Alternate Reality Games had come to represent, and provided a name which was more flexible and wide reaching; more simplistic, and generally a friendlier term to throw around for new cross-platform media experiences. Henry Jenkins, author of Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, defined it in his article Transmedia 101:

Transmedia storytelling represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience.

Well, what we’re discovering now is the effect that this definition has had by excluding a limited scope for an “experience”. What was once a single story told or game played out across multiple media platforms has mutated into this (now shortened) buzzword “transmedia” (which is an adjective, by the way – not a noun) wherein a storyworld containing many stories can be told or experienced across multiple platforms.

It seems like these days a lot of the “transmedia” attention is given to projects that really take place only on the web, as classic multimedia (audio, video, graphics, perhaps some social networking), and are generally promotional material for some new product within an existing IP, or franchise – thus, a component or extension of the greater experience that is the transmedia franchise. They may or may not tell a story. They may or may not be interactive. They may or may not even be fun.

Where’d the ARG go?

In 2010, the Producers Guild of America adopted the position “Transmedia Producer” into its vocabulary. Here, the PGA explicitly states:

A Transmedia Narrative project or franchise must consist of three (or more) narrative storylines existing within the same fictional universe on [multiple] platforms

A “Transmedia Narrative” now seems to support any experience – as long as it consists of multiple connected stories, and utilizing multiple media.  …But is this not simply the making of a franchise?

The growing backlash at this diminishing of actual story-telling in lieu of franchise-developing is becoming apparent.  In a random tweet that began a slew of responses in what could be called an anti-transmedia movement, Steve Peters of No Mimes Media demonstrated that there’s a quiet subset of people who really don’t prefer ‘transmedia’ as the defining term for what they do on the smaller, story-sized scale.

Gawd I’m learning to hate the term transmedia more and more. Pretentious, pompous, not fun or entertaining. There, I said it. :P
~Steve Peters

Even Felicia Day, an actress and the creator of the web series The Guild, which now spans and incorporates multiple media, had this to say on “transmedia” at a SXSW 2011 panel (or listen, in answer to a question at ~51mins: mp3/src):

It’s just a really stupid word, and people use it because they don’t know. I just hate it. What does it mean? It means nothing! Listen, transmedia is any comic book that ever became a movie before the internet. [...] Anything is transmedia.

Dee Cook at Workbook Project even described the “transmedia” content at SXSW 2011 (where it was a boiling hot topic) in this way:

…the most overused and under-understood [term] of the conference… Most of the “Transmedia” panels just didn’t seem to get it – there was no takeaway, there was a lot of gobbeldygook, and in one bizarre case, there was a futurist who seemed to be discussing how in 6-10 years we will all be watching programmed television.

After SXSW, Steve went on in another series of ranting tweets (read the full exchange here):

Telling ONE story on multiple platforms is NOT the same as telling many stories in the same universe on multiple platforms…  By that definition, the earliest example of Transmedia is the Bible: stories, live events, plays, meetups, music, swag….  and if that’s the case, Transmedia is NOT SOMETHING NEW at all!

Transmedia SHOULD mean ONE SINGLE story on multiple platforms, not MANY stories in the same story world on many platforms

Franchising is NOT Transmedia. It’s FRANCHISING

Indeed, ‘transmedia’ by its current definition is not providing anything new – or original. It’s been around, really, since the beginning of human history, both intentionally and unintentionally!

Let’s start with some comments on current entertainment, such as Mythbusters…

I’d argue that MYTHBUSTERS is a very successful non-fiction #transmedia property: tv, web, books, science kits…
~@fossen

We certainly can’t forget Star Wars! Or Indiana Jones!

So far, the most successful transmedia franchises have emerged when a single creator or creative unit maintains control over the franchise. Hollywood might well study the ways that Lucasfilm has managed and cultivated its Indiana Jones and Star Wars franchises.
~Henry Jenkins, MIT Technology Review, 2003

And He-Man! (Or any property with action figures!)

From the beginning they thought of stories as resources out of which they could create their own fantasies, as something which shifted into the hands of the audience once they had been produced and in turn as something which was expanded and remixed on the grassroots level.  In that sense, the action figure is very much the harbinger of the transmedia movement.
~Henry Jenkins, He-Man and the Masters of Transmedia

Religion!

Rachel Wagner highlights several significant similarities between religion and transmedia, which are “complex, multimedia streaming worlds,” where, “a story is spread across multiple media platforms.” The central story-world is a key component of both transmedia and religion.
~drmeinstein.com, on Rachel Wagner’s “Making Belief: Transmedia and The Hunger For The Real”

The Bible!

For me, transmedia is more the choice of the author(s) for how his/her vision is experienced: it’s a means.  Stories have been transmedia forever. The Bible, for example, has been made successful as a transmedia project, from its creation myth to its world-building, and to its re-imagining and further transmedia exploration in such stories as C.S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles.
~Howard Goldkrand, director Dexter

Another, much older example of transmediation versus adaptation might be found in a somewhat unexpected place: the stained-glass windows of cathedrals. [...] hymns, sermons, artifacts, and, perhaps most spectacularly, enormous stained-glass windows. Are these transmedia extensions? One might argue that since a parishioner could first experience the story of Genesis through a rose window, then Exodus through a sermon, then Leviticus through hymns, and then Deuteronomy through paintings, the Bible has always been a transmedia franchise
~Geoffrey A. Long, Transmedia Storytelling, 2007

Your Life!

The array of media tools through which to “present ourselves” is already ubiquitous, and constantly expanding. Social networks, personal blogs, microblogs, digital cameras, location-based social applications [...] With every status update and photo upload and location check-in and “like” we click, we are producing an endless stream of new “entry points” into our personal narratives. [...] In the digital age, transmedia isn’t simply the default for how we experience entertainment, it is how we experience the story of our lives.
~Jenka Gurfinkel, Your Life is a Transmedia Experience

By the current trending definition of “transmedia”, I believe it is safe to conclude that Everything is transmedia – Everyone is a transmedia property.

Your mom is Transmedia.

So really, what’s the point of “transmedia” if everything is transmedia anyway?  What happened to the good old multi-platform-story?

In the essay “Do You Have A Big Stick“, Dr. Christy Dena clarifies this apparent polarization of transmedia productions, defining them as a “collection of mono-medium stories” (eg, a franchise), and a “collection of media that tells one story” (eg, an ARG).

Let’s get back to the basics.

“Transmedia” is not new, and it’s probably not going away. So we should encourage people once again to tell stories, to make compelling, entertaining, educational experiences that play out wherever people are at in their own lives (using whatever platforms and media they use regularly), or even better – make an effort to create experiences that encourage people to make the world a better place.

@GuyGonzales:
Most exciting aspect of transmedia is its focus on great storytelling over business models. Without good stories, there is no business.
Even marketers jumping on the transmedia bandwagon as the new shiny are focused on the power and value of a good story.

Just like legends or stories passed on through generations over a campfire, the best productions are the ones that focus on this. They’re successful in the long term not because of their business model or financial gain – marketing for a product is irrelevant and temporal! - but because the people who willingly immersed themselves in them chose to continue their legacy, because they loved the experience and wanted to continue to tell other people excitedly about it.

Bring back the Alternate Reality Game!

Thankfully, Adrian Hon from Six to Start provided a positive outlook and some insight into the “hype curve” at SXSW 2011 in his talk “Project 314: Putting the ‘Game’ back in ARGs“.

Additionally, the new Transmedia Artists Guild (TAG) is an advocacy group of experience developers and creatives who work in this media space.  From the About page:

The explosion of the internet and mobile platforms have put tools of media creation into the hands of people that previously couldn’t reach a wide audience.  Many have refocused from more traditional media channels to work in this new space. For lack of a better name, much of this work is being called “transmedia.”

The TAG forum is a great starting resource for those interested in producing transmedia experiences, to communicate and interact with passionate developers who create them both for a living and just for fun.

Now, all that said, I don’t mean to imply that anything developed under the “transmedia” umbrella lacks anything by default.  There also have been a number of quality projects, entertainment properties, and marketing campaigns that have been executed recently, along with a number of great ARGs that have returned to the roots of the genre.  And, I can personally accept and understand the use of “transmedia” as a term on the franchise level, if it’s indicated as much. I can grok Star Wars, Star Trek, The Matrix, and Halo as transmedia franchises.  But I think we need to bring focus back on the story-telling experience moreso than the franchise developing.

In the end, the “transmedia” label itself has certainly helped creators and enthusiastic newcomers grasp the concept and importance of synergy across platforms within franchises, properties, and single stories, providing a standard for consistency and encouraging a strive for quality storytelling in our modern social media world.

And that’s a Good Thing.


Followup discussions:

Some other great articles posted, weighing in on this topic:

Additional interesting articles that discuss transmedia development at various levels:


Structural analyses:

  • Stitch Media chimed in with what I think is a very appropriate and accurate diagram of what we are currently including in the “transmedia” discussion, one of the best and simplest I’ve seen so far:


UPDATE April 11, 2011: I’ve created a diagram geared more towards the confusion that seems to be caused by the Producers Guild of America’s “Transmedia Producer” credit. As an attempt to visualize the distinctive qualities of different productions, this depicts much of the structural differences between transmedia on a single experience scale, and a franchise scale. (click to enlarge)

Another followup diagram I made illustrates the type of general creation in this media space, but without the vagueness of the “transmedia” term. (click to enlarge)


UPDATE May 2, 2011: Brian Clark of GMD Studios posted a response article (on Facebook) summing up much of the situation, confusion, and controversy in the discussion surrounding “transmedia” in the context of storytelling and franchise – read it here: Reclaiming Transmedia Storyteller. His article has spawned an immense discussion. (Facebook login required)

UPDATE May 18, 2011: Steve Peters of No Mimes Media once again chimed in with another effort at clarification and trying to understand this confounding debate about “Transmedia”, with What the hell *is* Transmedia?. He offers this definition of “transmedia storytelling”

Transmedia storytelling is telling a single story spread beginning-to-end across multiple platforms.

Building the world in which an alternate reality game or transmedia experience can play out successfully is like planning and directing a single-shot film.

In 2001, Alexander Sokurov set out to film a unique drama called Russian Ark – a film shot entirely with one take at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Comprised of over 2000 actors plus the cast and crew, it took three attempts to film the entire script successfully. Imagine the ordeal with those first two failed attempts, having to rewind completely and start from scratch because of a single  unrecoverable mis-step somewhere in the filming process.  Yet nonetheless, having every cue and movement planned and practiced, Sokurov and his cinematographer Tilman Büttner managed to capture their story to their satisfaction in one day, in a single long take.

For a production like that to be successful, the actors and crew need to know what’s coming and when so that they can produce what the director is looking for without straying so much as to break the intended flow of the production. They are within the environment and immersed in their roles and tasks, prepared for the camera and their cue. If something doesn’t go precisely as planned when the shot comes, they should be flexible in their actions, prepared to improvise, even having potential contingencies so as to keep the story flowing and natural enough that the director doesn’t have to scrap the entire take and start over. The director especially needs to be ready to improvise instructions at a moment’s notice to avoid a dreaded, unavoidable “Cut!”.

In forming a storyworld in which an ARG takes place, the environment should be built so it is, in theory, a living and thriving place on its own. Ideally, there should be room for discovery and contingency, prepared back-stories and fleshed out characters (whether ultimately discovered by players or not), websites, tools, and technologies at the ready. Flexibility is necessary for interactivity, at those times where the audience can have an effect on their surroundings, on characters and events, or even when they curiously wander off the path to explore. The response from the created world should be natural and smooth so as to keep the story flowing and believable, even if it directs them back on the path. Then a dynamic and flexible story can be told within it, minimizing mis-steps and taking the audience and players along for the experience that was intended.

In a successful ARG, there is no premature “Cut!”, there should be no immersion-breaking interruption from the director, or puppet-master. There is only a starting point and intended goal, with each essential beat in between defined to whatever degree of flexibility is desired to produce the desired experience, and remain as natural and complete as possible – all in one long shot.

If the PM yells “Cut!”, or steps in front of the camera while not themselves being a part of the storyworld, it can remove the player from their immersion and destroy the intended storytelling experience.  The players may also interact with the world in an unexpected way. If the PM panics, uncertain of how to respond, and that  may cause confusion and derail actors or crew, breaking the feasibility of the world and removing the player from the immersion.

Here, there can be no unplanned cut or edit, no re-take or removal of unwanted mistakes.

Roger Ebert, in reviewing Russian Ark, commented:

If cinema is sometimes dreamlike, then every edit is an awakening. “Russian Ark” spins a daydream made of centuries.

An ARG is an experience that is, by definition, an “alternate reality” – a dream-like progression through a fictional story taking place in our personal world. We should be able to interact with it, explore it, learn from it;  it may even affect us in such a way as to open our eyes to new ways of thinking in our real world.  Like any good dream (even nightmares!), waking up unexpectedly from it can leave us with a sense of incompletion, a wondering of what would have happened next, perhaps even frustration at being unable to complete our “dream’s” story.

Puppet-mastering an ARG or an interactive transmedia experience is like being a director for a single-shot film — but without the ability to start over. You must be prepared, be flexible. Build the world in which the story takes place, including its cues and essential content – first. Pay attention!  Try not to trip up the camera operator once filming’s begun, and try to hire competent actors and crew who can improvise yet still fill the roles they’re placed in enough that nothing irreparably breaks.

And finally, unless you’re also an actor, stay behind the camera!

Ever since the inception of the “alternate reality game”, the idea of telling a dynamic, flexible story through heavy interaction with players has grown in popularity. Given the “play once” nature of an ARG, if the resulting story is repackaged and distributed, could audiences at some point start seeking out a return on their investment?

Generally speaking, an ARG’s story stands on its own in historicity – in the players’ memories and documentation of in-game actions and interactions. One of the trade-offs to the flexible interaction of an ARG experience is that it is by nature playable only once. But what if the creators of an ARG, without the agenda of having it promote a brand or product for an existing IP, actually intend to package the resulting story as a product itself? In a sense, the final product would have a distributed authorship.

A new project called The Black Helix, which launched today from The Design Zoo, intends to do just that. Their project, funded, by the Northern Ireland Arts Council, asks players to “become part of an unwritten story”.

View trailer on Youtube

The Black Helix is scheduled to run for four weeks, beginning with a mysterious kidnapping, and culminating in a live “role playing event” — everything that happens in between (player choices, character interactions, perhaps photos and/or footage) will officially become the story.

Once the ARG is complete we will be publishing the story as what we believe to be the worlds first crowd sourced ARG novel/story. The player’s alias names, information, research and sub plots that develop over the period of the game, will all be integrated into the final story to create a unique transmedia book that all players will ultimately feel truly part of.

According to the ‘Zoo, the final publication will be available online.  The only questions that come to mind when formulating a crowd-sourced project like this is how issues such as player privacy or even resulting profits are handled when the creators of the content are now independent of the production organization.

Would players take issue with their personnas (online or real world) being used in the reproduced story, or will they welcome the opportunity to be immortalized?  Regarding the “realism” of an ARG, would it be feasible to provide a waiver to sign beforehand allowing yourself to be used essentially as a character in the final tale, without legal repercussions?  If this sort of final production becomes a trend, will the players begin seeking ROI?

The Black Helix does have a terms & conditions form for perusal, and the sign-up process asks for an alias which is “required to be part of the finish book”. As they say, IANAL. Nonetheless, I believe The Black Helix is a project worth keeping an eye on (or playing!).  I’m very interested to see how the final product will be packaged.

More project details available via Wikibruce.


Keep your eyes on this one!

UPDATE!

The Black Helix has launched. And with it, the kidnapping:

View footage on Youtube

At ARGFest 2010, we had the opportunity to take part in a workshop that discussed using physical items within a storytelling experience.  An ‘artifact’, sometimes debatably referred to as ‘swag’, can take a story out of its packaging (words in a book, scenes in a movie) and make it tangible, adding to its reality for the audience.

The workshop, run by Haley Moore and Michelle Senderhoff, focused on the value artifacts have within a storytelling experience and the ease with which they can be made, creatively, even with little to no budget.

The most fun and interesting activity was the hands-on artifact creation exercise. We were given a brief, but wild short story to work from, with the task of creating items to place in a safe that would serve to fill in the mysterious backstory of one of the characters. The outline presented to us was this:

…help a hot brunette recover his grandfather from mysterious kidnappers who have also stolen his uncrackable safe and hidden it in an unknown location.  After remotely blowing up a courier car sent to retrieve the safe, and getting the coordinates of its destination from an apparently indestructible GPS unit, the players find themselves in the woods, unearthing the safe.  Its contents may reveal a secret about the hot brunette’s grandfather that he never would have guessed, or they may raise even more questions.

We were then led to a table strewn with craft supplies and unique items one might pick up cheaply perhaps at dollar stores or garage sales.  Of course, having a much larger budget to work from would afford the ability to create highly customized, quality props, or manufacture lines of items that can be distributed, transported, collected, etc.  The intent here however was to present a challenge to be creative in the context of an ARG without a notable budget.

With only the items on hand, what ended up being produced for placement in the safe was not simply a collection of the grandfather’s items that would tell his story, but would hint at an additional mystery. Composed of what at first glance were unrelated heirlooms, on closer examination they actually had interconnecting properties that would lead to the revelation of a grand secret.

For a full rundown, Haley Moore documented the workshop’s artifact creation task and outcome at Workbook Project. It’s well worth the read!

For this demo ARG, the dead drop was aimed to bring players together somewhere in the search for a safe. To take advantage of that, the items within the safe would hold additional value in their shared discovery by players.  Each item left a dangling question or had a curious property begging for closer examination, which would reveal a new mystery. A letter, for example, had a strange symbol stamped on the bottom. Each item was also connected with the rest; they’d always only be parts of the connected story – the symbol was a partial outline of another item that was found in the safe, which led to the key that would be used to decode part of the hidden message, all within the safe.

The real value

This workshop demonstrated that a good mystery is always welcome, and helped to demonstrate the value of artifacts when used within a transmedia story, or ARG. Rather than simply creating individual items for use in the story, the workshop attendees wanted to create something even more valuable to their players than just physical items.

For those players in this ARG who would venture out to retrieve the safe, the most memorable thing that they would take home with them wouldn’t be the artifacts themselves, but the experience they shared with others, the collaboration, and the story they unraveled together.

Unique/Rare artifacts

A simple artifact itself may hold little to no physical value. It may even be poorly constructed of cheap material. But it’s the value placed by individuals themselves through association that make it a treasured item and enhance the storytelling experience as a whole – whether for the one who takes it home, or to those who had a hand in its discovery from across the world, over the internet.

Artifacts can help any range of storytelling experiences truly come alive. Especially in grassroots ARGs, the inclusion of unique physical elements incorporated into the story is an enormous benefit to the project, and the shared value is held by the community who experienced it.

Mass produced artifacts

At the other end of the spectrum, items produced en masse for large scale marketing campaigns for an existing IP and distributed to masses of fans may even be simple and produced relatively cheaply, but their inherent value is, generally speaking, in the memories the player has of the experience and of being a part of something much bigger. Physical artifacts, of any caliber, help bring a story to life.

This kind of “swag”, however, could be controversial. There’s a stigma associated with it, that players may want the swag items only for their inherent hype value, even as a way to gain money off a popular property. Quite often items from mainstream media projects will end up on eBay, with hefty prices attached because they know that fans who missed it will dish out the dough to have them in their collection.  In these cases, we need to ask if the items serve to play a role or enhance the storyworld for the fans, or if attention is gained only temporarily for the items themselves, being collectible or holding monetary value.

Story-enhancing artifacts

An example of a story that incorporates real world artifacts is the novel series led by Cathy’s Book. Each novel comes packaged with numerous items described in the story, each telling their own little bit of the larger picture.  As the reader progresses through the story, the mysteries described on the pages therein can be explored first hand with the actual physical items.

There is great benefit to expanding a story into the real world for the audience through relevant props and artifacts. This artifact workshop not only demonstrated how simple artifacts can easily be created, but also how being wrapped in an experience, a real-world context, can bring a story to life – personal and memorable on an entirely different level. They don’t need to cost a small fortune, nor do the artifacts themselves need to be high quality – just relevant.  Their value is found in far more than just their physical form – it’s the experience to which they belong.

ARGFest museum

ARGFest ARG Museum 2009, by ineffabelle
Go to Youtube

As a side note, a regular component of the annual ARGFest conference is the ARG Museum. This is a wonderful exhibit of artifacts and swag collected by players over many years of ARGs and transmedia campaigns. It contains anything from unique and rare items created for grassroots projects, to highly coveted quality collectible items manufactured for popular franchises. If you attend the next ARGFest, please be sure to check it out, and perhaps you’ll find some inspiration for ways to bring your story off the page!

There’s a growing trend of marketing attempts that try to invade the personal digital space of their target demographic. Recently, two campaigns began vying for the attention of bystanders through distributed video – for two very different properties, with two very different results.

First, a brilliantly simple, and brilliantly effective strategy for socially marketing of the upcoming film “The Last Exorcism” due for wide release on August 27th, took to the community of Chatroulette.

Chatroulette is a hazy, risky video chat service where users can connect to the network and be randomly paired one-on-one with another active user, sharing audio and video webcam feeds. No one knows who or what will appear on their screen.  Suffice to say, a significant portion of the userbase is there for one, rated, reason.

The marketers for The Last Exorcism decided to take advantage of this untapped demographic and medium.  You can see the results in their compilation video below.  Be warned: the video content may be disturbing to some.

Reactions to the chat sessions were recorded and posted to a youtube channel for public consumption and entertainment, bringing visibility of the film to people who may never even have knew of its existence.

How is it effective?  Chatroulette is about as personal and intimate you might be able to get to many people, freely. Even though it’s completely random, there’s an expectation of what one might expect to find: reality. By invading this space and providing a surreal experience, the connection to this property is intense and memorable.

In addition, in what might now be considered standard method, a website was set up in the world of the film for the Church of Saint Marks, along with a twitter account for the Reverend Marcus Cotton, the film’s exorcist.

On the other end of the spectrum, however, a campaign began that is intended to be more focused in its target demographic, instead hoping to gain the attention of local Xbox owners in the Toronto and Vancouver areas.

September 14th will see the release of Microsoft’s next video game in the Halo franchise, Halo: Reach.  Xbox Canada is very involved and pro-active with its Canadian Xbox community. For the previous Halo release, ODST, a pre-launch ‘training event‘ was planned for Toronto community locals. Following suit for this video game, Xbox Canada has plans to run community launch events for Halo: Reach prior to its release.  Just as the ODST training events were hyped with a localized viral campaign, the Reach pre-launch events also have a tie-in campaign to build local hype and excitement.

The ODST training event marketing was effective throughout, but unfortunately the plans for this marketing iteration were a little muddled and confusing, being met with some harsh criticism and backlash.

Subscribers to the monthly Xbox Canada newsletter received a tip to follow a twitter account UNSC_INTEL and to watch Xbox.ca/Reach for updates about launch events and instructions for winning a limited edition Halo: Reach package.

Then, what began as a relatively vague launch for a new video series on the Xbox community dashboard called “Xbox News” became a big mixup.  The series’ web page shows the anchor of the news series as a mystery.  The premiere episode revealed the host as Laura Niven, with a stiff script and news items completely unrelated to Xbox.  Not only were players confused having no context for the news video, but the production quality was effectively laughable (intentional or not), and no one really knew what to make of it. Watch the premiere episode below.

To add to the confusion, a twitter account appeared for Laura Niven, who was interacting with users on behalf of the news anchor, even getting into a bit of a tiff with some followers. The account’s connection though was quickly denied by official representatives as unrelated to the campaign. But as with any online mystery these days, who do you believe?  Though it seems the account has died in activity since being debunked, the creator of the account and its intent remain a mystery.

News popped up all over the place about this campaign’s launch.  Because of this community criticism, the following episodes of Xbox News contained clear references to Halo: Reach, and their connection with the Toronto and Vancouver launch events were indisputable. It was a rough start, and one that prompted some alterations to the campaign’s initial rollout plans, but in this case the saying may yet be applicable: “Any exposure is good exposure.”

(You can follow Xbox Canada’s Halo: Reach community launch campaign as it’s tracked at Halo.Wikibruce.com)

Both of these campaigns invaded their demographic’s personal digital space – on viewers’ screens at home in Chatroulette, and in players’ Xbox dashboards – where expectations about content already exist. The results of these two campaign launches though show how a first impression can really have an effect on the acceptance and impression of a social marketing campaign.

The “Rule of Thirds” dates back as far as the 18th century, defined as a guideline to help artists compose esthetically pleasing art. It encourages images to be composed in such a way as to best keep the eye flowing naturally from one point of interest to another.

The Rule of Thirds can apply to more than just visual composition, however. It’s also applicable as a guideline for effective storytelling.

In visual composition, subjects in images are best positioned over any of the four central intersection points. Linear elements (such as horizons or trees, for example) should also be positioned with the horizontal or vertical lines.

Research has shown that the most natural balance of content and flow is achieved when following this composition because these lines and intersections are the areas to where the eye most naturally gravitates when wandering a scene. When the points of interest in an image are in line with these areas, a natural harmony and balance is achieved.  However, there are also times when it may be better to intentionally break this rule for various reasons. Consequently, this ‘rule’ is better considered a compositional guideline.

Telling stories

As a photographer at heart, what makes photography so enticing to me is its ability as a medium to tell stories.  A picture is worth a thousand words, as the saying goes. Any professional photographer will tell you that a good photograph needs to tell a story. Photos that stand out from others do so because they don’t just put a subject on display – photographers incorporate the surrounding environment, the subject’s context as a way to enhance it.  This is done most effectively by either abiding by, or intentionally breaking the Rule of Thirds when composing the photo.

Like a dance, the Rule of Thirds essentially creates an imbalance by shifting weight, moving off center and leaving it to the participant to seek out a balance. This effectively generates an opportunity for them to willingly engage in the experience.

Visually, eye motion within an image is proportionate to viewer interest: as long as the eye is moving over the image, it’s interesting, and the viewer has more opportunity to respond emotionally to the artist’s composition. As a result, if you change how the eye moves, you can play with the emotions of the viewer. A compositional imbalance for example can lead to feelings of tension and uncertainty.  This is why the Rule of Thirds is so significant in photography and art.

Next, let’s look at some standard story-telling tips and how they may be influenced by the Rule of Thirds.

Show, don’t tell.

From grade school, we’re taught that when writing a story, we shouldn’t describe everything in extreme detail. An author should leave room for the reader’s imagination to fill in the blanks, not words.

A good story doesn’t simply talk about a subject, but rather invites the audience to enhance it with their own imagination, participating in the story by filling in gaps and personalizing the experience.  Ask two people who read the same novel, and their visualizations of the same scene may be completely different, because their individual imaginations filled in the gaps.

In photography, if the subject is dead center, it can feel as though we’re being told, almost forcefully “This is the point of interest — look at it!” But by visually shifting the subject off center, the photographer is inviting the eye to wander around the rest of the image as it naturally seeks an explanation for what it sees and why, to find a meaningful balance. Will the viewer end up satisfied, following a composition that’s pleasing to the eye? Or will they be left feeling cut off, with empty voids or questions that remain unanswered, feeling discomfort because the imbalance wasn’t resolved? We’ve all, for instance, experienced that badly composed portrait or group photo.

If the subject shifted off-center, the creator is now asking the participant to find meaning in the remaining space, to explore and examine other elements, and form for themselves a story that frames the subject, based on what’s been provided by the artist. Additionally, by giving up that level of control, the audience may not even end up having the experience that the creator was intending, because the experience was voluntarily individualized.  In the context of an ARG, this may have the effect of story content being created by the participant which wasn’t predicted by the creator, to which the creator may respond in turn. One might say the creator and participant just pulled off a spontaneous dance move!

This search for balance could also be demonstrated in ARGs by allowing players themselves to locate story elements, rather than pushing them out. For example, in today’s culture one might expect any average company to own a website.  We see the effect of this cultural expectation in TV and movies more often today.

On TV a viewer may see a company or website shown only for a split second on the side of a passing vehicle, or perhaps in an ARG the subject at the moment is an email from a character that mentions the name and website of a company.  Rather than being told what to do, a brief imbalance is created, and the participant may voluntarily seeks a balance.  Many will curiously check for the website on the internet.  There’s a euphoric moment of discovery if they’re rewarded with additional story content. Likewise if there’s no closure or resolution to the curiosity, no balance, they’re left with a reinforced sentiment that the company – and story – is entirely fictional, and they remain simply an observer. An opportunity for greater interest and involvement is lost and the experience is limited to only of what they’re told.

Know what your subject is

In composing a photograph, the intended subject matter should be considered. Is this a picture of the Eiffel Tower? Or is it the BIG Eiffel Tower? In this case instead of taking a simple picture of the tower, one might have a friend wave down from a walkway halfway up. This effectively shifts the intended subject out of central focus, but enhances it with environmental context. Its simple existence is now contrasted by other elements in the composition and evokes a very different feeling for the viewer.

In writing, a good example of this may be character flaws. Imperfections can cause the audience to wonder why a character is the way they are. What happened to make them react a certain way or say something the way they did? Instead of answering those questions directly, simply having the subject feel even slightly off balance can have the desired effect of engaging audience imagination, making the character more interesting and mysterious, less flat and predictable.  As long as those questions or flaws remain unresolved or unqualified, the audience is intentionally left feeling very uncomfortable about the character, potentially seeking out their own explanations.

Foreshadowing, and side stories

If the subject of a composition is no longer central, it’s often balanced by environment, negative space, or some other subject or element. This provides opportunity to come at the subject from other angles. Can secondary subjects offer openings to tell tangential stories, hint at other content, or take different perspectives into the story of the primary subject?

The photo of the Eiffel Tower with a friend waving from a walkway halfway up may be a lead to another photo – captured just off to the side is a very, very long nearby stairway that the friend walked up. The next photo then shows just the friend on that stairway, collapsed playfully in exhaustion. All of this enhances and takes place within the context of the BIG Eiffel Tower.

By shifting the subject off center, additional compositional elements can lead to optional side-stories, creating a depth that wasn’t initially provided – all prompted and discovered by the participant’s desire for balance.

World-building

When taking pictures, it’s easy to answer the What? question by simply pointing at what you want to capture in a frame and snapping a shot. It’s harder to compose an image that not only answers What?, but also subversively asks Why?, inviting the viewer into the composition, evoking emotions, seeking answers, and keeping them interested in the story being told, potentially spanning multiple photos.

Likewise, it’s easy to tell a story. It’s far more work to provide the elements needed for your audience to willingly build the world in which your story takes place, or even to dynamically create and alter it in partnership with your audience.

If the philosophy of the Rule of Thirds is applied effectively in storytelling and the audience is invited to participate in this dance, a deeper connection can be made to create an environment in which the dance takes place – a world begins to take shape in which stories can be more than observed, but experienced.

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Update 8/31/10: Gamasutra has published a similar article discussing art techniques used in game design, including the Golden Ratio. Read here.

Whether you’re planning to be in attendance at SXSWi this year or not, the SXSW online panel picker is now open for the public to vote for the panels they feel should be presented at the event.

Transmedia is a hot topic at SXSWi this year.  Of more than 2300 submitted panels covering a smorgasboard of topics, there are at least 23 submissions that touch on Transmedia if not already entirely focused on it in some capacity.

Below are some panels I recommend reviewing and voting for.  If you wish to browse more, visit panelpicker.sxsw.com.

SXSW takes place March 11-15, 2011 in Austin, TX.

Transmedia is a hot topic at SXSWi this year.

This year ARGFest took place July 15-18, in downtown Atlanta. It was high summer, but once again ARGFest came together for a great conference, even in Hotlanta!

My brief recap of ARGFest events has been posted to ARGNet, so please check that out. No words, though, can truly express what a joy it was to meet up with friends once again, and to make new friends and acquaintances, social and professional, in this growing and evolving community. I certainly came away inspired, and with lots of ideas for the future.

The ARG Museum was in full swing again this year as well, which was great to see. The hope for the museum is that the creativity poured into some of these ARG/Transmedia artifacts would provide inspiration for such creativity in others.

This year, some of the best parts of ARGFest for me included:

  • Andrea Phillips‘ session Beyond the Brunette, and subsequent opportunities I had to chat with her about creating projects
  • Benham Karbassi‘s Jeopardy-like videochat session on Transmedia Production
  • Maureen McHugh‘s provocative, yet touching, and overall awesome keynote speech (lightning and all)
  • Being able to chat with Steve Martin Aggett of Remix Fiction, who’s doing a wonderful job with his photography and TV videocasts.
  • Playing Munchkin again with great friends
  • Witnessing the birth of ARG Fluxx!
  • Being inspired to buy Rock Band and practice some drummering
  • Finally being able to meet some more people in the face!
  • Being the 2nd to solve Stitch Media‘s pamphlet puzzle and earning a great sling bag, and a $50 food voucher for some local Atlanta restaurants (which was never used…)
  • Locating one geocache in the heart of the Atlanta airport near Delta’s HQ with SynthBio. Then running around in the heat visiting a few geocaches in Piedmont Park, but logging none.
  • An unbeatable evening with Tongo Hiti at Trader Vic’s tiki bar, and their serene-turned-metal cover of My Heart Will Go On. Whether it was the tiki bar environment or pure unadulterated amazingness, that night will go down in infamy.
  • Okay, one thing beats Trader Vic’s — being able to connect again and spend time with some of the best friends people can have. Mingling with professionals and players alike, getting a taste of and being inspired by the high-end production and creative process while seeing all that can be possible by even grassroots lay-people with no budget, and the value of community – all of it is what makes ARGFest so great.

I can’t stress enough how wonderful an opportunity ARGFest is to dig right in at ground zero and associate with creators and players, veterans and lurkers, both professional and grassroots.  If you’re in the Transmedia or ARG or whatever-you-happen-to-name-it-today industry, or you’ve played ARGs or experienced a transmedia story or game, or just want to come and hang out with great folk, it’s for you. It’s educational and entertaining, and it’s an event that we look forward to every year, bringing together a community of people from across the nation, continent, even the world.

Stay tuned to ARGFest.com for news and updates about 2011′s date and location.

Where would you like to see ARGFest in 2011?  Voice your thoughts at Unfiction, and we’ll see who’s willing to step up to the plate and present a feasible plan and location. Next year, it may be near you! Hope to see you there, wherever it goes.

More? Here are a few memorable quotes and comments overheard during ARGFest:

“Success for any of us is success for all of us”
– On competition in the creative community vs in ad agencies

“Strangely this year we have an unusual number of B’s”
“I love B’s!”
- On ARGFest registration

“What is the best transmedia technology a producer can’t live without?”
“His team’s brains!”
~ Benham Karbassi

“F* you, I went to see it in theatres and couldn’t sleep for 3 days.”
- On The Blair Witch Project

“Transmedia isn’t telling us something we should know already… I think it’s making something more true than it’s ever been before”
~ Maureen McHugh

“ARGs are dead. But transmedia is lightning in a jar.”
~ Maureen McHugh

“I love your tongue, it’s cute!”
- Sockpuppet workshop

“So there I am, asking transvestites in a cafe, ‘are you a student of Spelman?’”
- Jonathan Waite, on the city game Unobtrusive Measures

UPDATE 8/13/10: The original article on ARGN has been syndicated to Wired’s Decode online magazine – check it out!

Tupperware. In the woods.

Who wouldn’t want to find that?  Well if you do, you’re probably a geocacher, or else you’d make a good one.

A brief primer: What’s Geocaching?

Geocaching (pronounced gee-oh-cash-ing, or gee-oh-kay-shing to some) is a relatively new hobby that began in 2000 when selective availability, the government regulation that degraded GPS satellite accuracy to the public, was discontinued. GPS devices – handhelds and navigational tools among them – became all the rage, and far more useful and practical!

Not one day later, Dave Ullmer of Beavercreek, Oregon thought “Hey, this might be fun!” and he hid what would now be revered as the world’s first geocache (now commemorated by a plaque). Back then he called it a ‘GPS stash hunt’, and his little scavenger hunt spawned a hobby that now covers the world, literally.

Since then, the process of using a GPS device to hide and locate containers of any shape or size in any publicly accessible location has been labeled Geocaching, with its own website (www.geocaching.com) and massive database of over 1,000,000 geocaches world-wide. It’s grown into a pasttime that’s family-friendly, takes place outdoors, away from the computer, it can be competitive or challenging, it’s nature-respecting, relaxing, adventurous, and for people of all ages all around the globe.

Evolution of the geocache

In the ARG world, we make use of a method of exchange called the dead drop, which is used to exchange information or items covertly between two parties at a given location without them meeting face to face. A geocache is essentially an independent dead drop. It, however, remains in place, whoever finds it leaves it there (re-hidden) for the next person, and it contains at the very least some form of log sheet for the finder to sign and date as a record of their visit.

Geocaching, since its inception, has also evolved to incorporate a far wider range of cache styles and types.

As its popularity increased, people soon began placing containers that could only be located after solving puzzles to determine its coordinates. Sometimes you’d have to visit multiple GPS waypoints, picking up clues at each, in order to locate the final container. Some were simply tasks you had to accomplish at a specific location to be successful.

Arguably the most educational and interesting type of geocache, however, is the Earthcache. These are geocaches the details and accuracy of which are heavily scrutinized before publishing, and which explain or teach about natural landmarks, geological history and the like. In order for a player to legitimately log an Earthcache as found, the player must answer a few questions (like a little exam) about the subject matter, sometimes only solvable on-site, and generally they have to at least visit the location and share a photo as evidence of having been there.

Telling stories and creating experiences

What’s great about geocaching is its flexibility to be used as a story-telling tool, incorporating real-world tasks and rewarding players. While dead drops are typically a single task or event belonging to an overarching story, a geocache (or a series of geocaches) must be entirely self-contained. They must also be placed in such a way as to be able to last and be maintained for an indefinite amount of time.

In 2001, while still in its infancy, geocaching took on a unique promotional project. Paramount approached the webmasters of the site at the time, and partnered with them to produce a geocache series called “Project APE“. These 14 caches located worldwide were part of a promotional campaign for the film Planet Of The Apes.

Much like ARG dead drops, clues were released about the drops before they were published, and geocachers were among those in the hinted locations who were on their toes. These caches were very time sensitive. They were published as sequential missions around the world, telling events within the film’s universe, yet fictionally independent from the film. The missions were to retrieve highly sensitive items from caches placed by field agents fighting against a government coverup, while avoiding being detected by federal agents.

The caches themselves were specially labeled, and generally contained collectible items like props from the film as prizes for the first to find. The final cache, a special bonus cache, even contained coveted tickets to the film’s premiere for the first finders.

For all intents and purposes, these were legitimate geocaches. However, being placed by local geocachers on behalf of the marketers, over the years they began disappearing as they were either collected, stolen, or simply archived or retired for lack of maintenance. Currently, only two original Project APE caches remain active. One is still available in Brazil, and the other in Washington. The latter is maintained by Geocaching.com staff as the one and only remaining APE cache in the United States. Players who find these geocaches are rewarded a unique and rare icon for their finds collection. Three other APE caches have also been adopted, but were converted to traditional geocaches.

Since Project APE, however, geocaching has continued to be refined and made more self-supportive and independent. It’s been receiving more media attention recently as the GPS buzz spreads, and as mobile devices become cheaper and more consumer friendly – especially handheld phones, now packaged with GPS capabilities. It’s a hobby that’s sure to continue attracting people from all countries and walks of life for years to come.

Geocaching stories post-APE-pocalypse

With more and more tools and technology being made available, the potential to create more involved story-based geocaching experiences is enticing.

Another series inspired by Project APE is Forbidden Zone Geocaches. This is a series of caches designed to expand on the mythos of the APE caches, and provides an independent website for players to keep track of their progress and discoveries until they’ve found all the necessary tips to unlock the secret final mission and locate its cache.

More local to myself, there’s a geocache named LAARU BRAVO which takes on another mission-based theme, creating a story and self-contained experience with tasks that must be accomplished in order to locate the cache container. Reading past logs, many geocachers have even described their experience while still remaining effectively in character.

Another adventurous geocache with a small story based on an existing franchise is called Tomb Raider, located near San Diego. The story itself is minor and contained to the initial puzzle, however the journey to locate and find the cache is the player’s extension to the story, and that is where the real adventure lies.  More than simply finding a tupperware container in the woods, as it were, many geocaches prompt the player to embark on real-world hikes and experiences they otherwise may never have thought they’d ever be doing. This is one of the main attractions to the hobby, and wherein lies some of the best opportunities to tell stories and create experiences.

While many still view geocaching as a hobby that should remain simplistic and easy for laypeople to pick up and go, there’s no reason why it should be limited to such a view. These sorts of experiential geocaches are what attract the attention of visitors from around the world. There are many geocache series and unique caches that make headlines. A quick google shows a sample list of bookmarked “must do” geocaches, many quite distant from the geocacher’s home town. People love memorable geocaches, and elaborate story-based geocaches are a rare commodity; especially well created ones.

Geocaching 2.0: the Wherigo

Wherigo Geocache LogoCreating extensive stories for geocaches is not a simple task, given the rules and guidelines now in place for publishing at Geocaching.com. There is another new type of geocache, however, that promises to provide a method for generating even more interactive experiences. This is the Wherigo. It’s a form of executable application that runs as a “cartridge” on a currently very limited number of GPS devices, including Garmins and some Pocket PCs. Wherigo caches are more complex to create, but afford a lot more flexibility for storytelling, tasks and scripted actions.

While generic geocaches are primarily coordinate-based with optional calculations or separate puzzle solving required, the Wherigo makes use of the GPS device and provides live interaction with a script based on your physical location. This means stories can be told in segments on the field, and different types of puzzles and missions can be created to be executed, and solved while outside.

From Wherigo.com:

Wherigo is a platform that allows you to build location based GPS experiences on your computer and play them in the real world. Think Zork, Secret of Monkey Island or Myst, but in the park around the corner, or on the beach during your family vacation. Rather than clicking the mouse and selecting a location to move your character, you actually walk from one location to the next to advance the story.

Support for Wherigo cartridges is still fairly thin, but it should only be a matter of time before Android*, iPhone, Blackberry, or other smartphone app versions appear. Additionally, while not officially Geocaching activities, there are other organizations that provide location-based gaming experiences similar to this, such as GPS Mission or SCVNGR.

Bushwacking to the future

Geocaching is still in its infancy, with so much untapped potential as a story-telling method. As time goes on, hopefully we’ll see more innovative use of this pastime to provide memorable and entertaining experiences that span more than words on a screen or numbers in your hand, but engage players through multiple media. Who will create the first truly transmedia geocache? Has it already been done?

If you’re a geocacher, I’d recommend checking out the geocaches mentioned above next time you’re in their areas. If you’re hiding geocaches, I challenge you to do more than just hide tupperware in the woods (or magnets in the city) – create an experience to remember! Write a story, an adventure! Even if the container is easy to find, the journey to get there is what people will remember most.

Do you know of other notable geocaches that have given you memorable experiences?
Do you know of any that tell amazing stories?
Please share in the comments below!

And if you haven’t already, buy a GPS or GPS enabled smartphone, and sign up at geocaching.com!

* Update: The official Android port of the Geocaching app is now available, see Geocaching.com/Android

Some Geocaches to add to the To-Do list:

The past few days have seen an increase in discussion of labels and content production due to the PGA officially recognizing “Transmedia Producer” in the Producer Code of Credits. But what is “transmedia”, and is their definition of a Transmedia Producer an accurate representation of the people who claim to ‘produce transmedia’? In the midst of this hot topic, however, another caught my eye – Rowan72 tweeted a challenge for ARG creators:

Create an ARG where the missing friend is found and/or the mysterious journal is explained – AT THE BEGINNING OF THE GAME.

Labfly expanded:

and then players realize they shouldn’t have found the journal or friend and they must spend the rest of the ARG plotting and executing re-vanish

It may have been a bit tongue in cheek, but the challenge is a sincere one. Rowan followed up by posing the age old question:

Why does it seem like the majority of games are about finding the missing person or explaining the mysterious thing?

Maureen McHugh of NoMimes Media raises the point in Storytelling and the Illusion of Authenticity that “the stories seem most effective when the plot of them is rather conventional”. We do tend to find these days that many ARGs are telling the same stories – just with different characters and different places.

Rowan’s concern reminded me very much of Rob Paravonian’s Pachelbel Rant:

The ARG ‘formula’ is getting so saturated with copycat conventions that it’s like walking into a book store and having to skip the genres we don’t like, heading straight to our favourite aisles. But even in the midst of all the noise, occasionally one book may stand out, a best-seller perhaps, and we curiously dive in. Why?

These are the games that, as Rowan later put it, have “personality”. The ones that stand out from their neighbours in some way. Or, as Maureen also wrote:

The audience needs some level of comfort and some elements of surprise. For now, Transmedia is pretty much always surprising for the audience

Just as with novels, there a couple of major factors to take into creative consideration: Plot formula (eg, rescue the kidnapped girl), and content personality (are the characters lovable and unique so that people connect with them?). If neither are up to par, chances are it will get pushed to the back of the shelf, perhaps picked up a few times, but mostly put back to gather dust. But if either factor attracts attention, there’s a much better chance it’ll start flying off the shelves. If something catches our curiosity, it may cause us to accept the parts we’re not as excited about, and end up having a great experience anyway

There will, however, always be an audience for the ‘rehash’, stories and games using the same old safe conventions. The “OMG help! My friend is missing!” for one, is on track to become a “cheesy romance novel” of ARGs. Everyone has their likes and dislikes, and that’s great! But I think, if we want to evaluate this form of entertainment and engagement, we have to stop looking at this creative method (ARGs, Transmedia, pervasive gaming, ‘insert-name-here’) on the whole where every item effectively defines the genre in some way, and rather come at it with more of a bookstore mentality.

Just as novels will never disappear, ARGs and transmedia storytelling are here to stay. As its sphere of influence and visibility grows, we’ll be seeing more of this mentality. Our bookstore layout is changing year after year, even month after month while we try to organize the aisles with appropriate categories – it’s growing and expanding at an exponential rate. It will be filled with endless genres and variants and labels. It’ll be filled with best-sellers and dust-gatherers, novels and videos, fiction and non-fiction, education and entertainment, reference and religion. It will have new releases, and newspaper archives. There will be special events and games taking place in its doors. It’ll attract old and young, rich and poor, window shoppers, lurkers, and buyers. It will house promotions, contests, and community events. There may even be book signings. Our bookstore is a thriving location for creatives and community. It could even take the form of a library where rather than providing only one-time purchases, items can be checked out and experienced repeatedly by many.

We can’t gauge the overall state of “Books”, but we can certainly see trends and we can survey book enthusiasts in efforts to drill down and analyze the latest and greatest. Novelists don’t define “Books” either, that’s rather redundant – they simply create content in their style which attracts a certain target audience, and their novel naturally finds a place in some aisle (or may potentially even find a place in multiple). An unsuccessful novel doesn’t indicate that books are dying out, nor its genre, and neither should unsuccessful transmedia productions have a negative defining effect. We’re at the point now in this industry that everything that has been created will be created again – the aisles will expand, being populated with non-unique productions, rehashes and copycats, utilizing tried and true conventions – and they’ll still have an audience. But it’s the first movers and innovators that are the ones pushing for new subject aisles and categories entirely, the ones that seek to expand the selection within the bookstore.

What we’re on the verge of right now is breaking out of the ‘aisle’ mentality. Other industries look over here and see creators debating about the subject and what the aisle should be labeled, rather than being guided to what they’re looking for. They see some separate out to make their own aisle, sometimes for exposure and 15 minutes of fame, but usually because the creator realized what they’ve created or want to create seems out of place in our aisle or they felt limited by its particular definition and is better suited elsewhere, under some other new label. Additionally, if someone looking to break into this creative community generates a project that doesn’t quite fit the current label or fails outright, they’re left in the cold as some undefined independent ‘thing’ because accepting it into our subject aisle means the others are condoning something that doesn’t quite represent accurately what our aisle’s about, and that’s a bad thing because we’re still trying to define our aisle. Then the other industries are drawn to wherever the popular buzz of activity is, like moths to a flame, and we wonder why they don’t get it.

If we embrace the bookstore mentality, we’ll be able to expand and collectively accept the growing repertoire of styles and methods. Subject aisles become collections of similar ideas and implementations without a sense of inherent ownership of the label or method. It doesn’t by any means limit the potential or scope of creative productions, but rather encourages a more positive perception as this industry evolves. There will be a place for everyone in its doors. It’ll have projects we don’t really like, and some we love, plus many we’ve never even heard of because we can’t keep up with everything that’s being created. Stories and games will be created and they may sneak into an aisle with no warning, but it won’t matter – because someone will still come across it and be interested in it. It’ll be easier to freely create, and whether it’s free entertainment or marketing, rehash or completely new, there will always be an audience, and the cream of the crop will rise to the top as the best-sellers, regardless.

We want more best-sellers! We want writers and creators who challenge our thinking, who create unique, memorable, refreshing experiences. But love it or hate it, there will always be someone posting to a blog begging for people to help them rescue their kidnapped friend — the cheesy romances are here to stay.

Welcome to the newly updated 4DFiction.com!
A long time in coming, but the update is complete (I couldn’t bring myself to roll it out on April 1st). And, as a kick-off to the new template, 4DFiction has a brand spanking new interface to watch and participate in multi-dimensional fiction! :)

4DF Live is a dynamic tool that will be used as an interface for future live events and streams. Go check it out, because its first live event begins tonight (April 2) at 6:15pm Pacific!

Hazado will be streaming video live with his iPhone from an official Encom International press conference in San Francisco. Chat with him in his UStream chat, and connect to IRC channel #flynnlives to follow along and chat live with more of the community. At 6:15pm Hazado will be covering the pre-event happenings: a gathering of Kevin Flynn supporters who will be infiltrating the press conference under the guise of Encom employees – employee badge and all. When the Encom event officially begins at 8pm PDT, Alan Bradley will take be taking the stage to announce a new Encom product. After that, who knows what will happen!

For more details about the event, visit www.operationtron.com, or the wiki and spread the word!

Finally, bookmark 4dfiction.com/live/operationtron and set an alert for 6:15pm PDT, but in your timezone :) (9:15pm EDT, or 2:15am GMT, etc)

I am personally quite excited and intrigued about this event, as it’s the first time to my knowledge that a significant actor will be appearing in public for a live event in character for a free promotional event as a way to further a story. Bruce Boxleitner is scheduled to appear in character as Alan Bradley on site (he also played Alan in the original 1982 Tron film). This is a wonderful example of a story that is crossing over into reality. Little is known about what will transpire at the event, but providing Hazado is able to keep his video stream alive, we should have front row seats (in spirit).

Flynn Lives!
It’s prompting nostalgic retro-flashbacks to the 80′s, all this hype for the upcoming film Tron: Legacy – a sequel to the classic cult sci-fi adventure from 1982 Tron. But the new face of Tron presented by 21st century technology and special effects has the fan-base in a tizzy. It’s having a similar effect as the recent reboot of Batman had; and perhaps it’s not unconnected that the same marketing team behind Batman’s Why So Serious campaign is heading up Tron’s Flynn Lives campaign.

Visit the
TRON ARG WIKI
at Wikibruce.com

Last year at the San Diego Comic-Convention, a very successful live event (with online components) was the platform for the public revelation of a life-size ‘Light-cycle’ and the first public teaser trailer from the film (watch the official video recap here!). This event opened the door for fans to start following FlynnLives.com – hoping, wishing, and praying that whatever happens between then and the movie’s release would also award them with some sweet Tron swag! If the Comic-Con event was any indicator, Tron fans would be in for a wild ride over the next year.

Tron: Legacy Bit NO mailed rabbithole packageSure enough, in early February 2010 I, along with other people all over the globe began receiving small packages in the mail containing a palm-sized “Bit” as seen in the original Tron, with a hand-written phrase written on the inside lid of the box reading “/zerohour“. From this, the website FlynnLives.com/ZeroHour was discovered with a binary-coded countdown to 11am EST, February 24th – Zero Hour.

ZeroHour binary countdown clockThe Tron community erupted with theories, as over the next few days a mysterious message was slowly revealed below. A list of cities appeared, located within the United States, Canada, France, UK, and Australia – but there were no instructions accompanying them.

An email was distributed just before “Zero hour” hit reminding people to watch their nearest city. Right on schedule, three cities first lit up linked with instructions to meet a contact at a specific time and place in each city. What happened was a feeding frenzy of F5′s and website refreshes for the next 9 hours as all 27 cities lit up three at a time. At the drop points, the first person to arrive and say the code phrase to the waiting contact (and only the first person!) would be given a cell phone by which they were instructed to locate a deaddrop containing exclusive Tron collectible swag – as well as codes to be entered online.

At this point, FlynnLives.com allowed anyone to create a profile, including contact information. This implied potential phone calls, text messages, even physical mail to be distributed in coming months. Once signed up and connecting the profile to a facebook account, players discovered they could earn achievement badges – bragging rights. Additionally, those lucky enough to be the first to each ZeroHour location and enter at least one of the discovered codes online also received a special achievement, and their name listed as one of 66 special operatives.

Flynn Lives sample badge: Gridlock Rendezvous

At the end of this ZeroHour event, players online and offline were rewarded with a new desktop background, and instructions to visit PitCell.com at 4:00pm EST the next day — to be the first to register for an exclusive, limited IMAX screening in one of five listed cities: Los Angeles, New York, Toronto, London, and Sydney. Of what the screening is – still a mystery.

The next day, when this second zero hour hit, once again the refresh-frenzy began. Word had spread over the course of the day through mainstream media, and people worldwide were waiting in anticipation for the moment the (FREE!) ticket registration for this IMAX event would open. In an unbelievable record (where is Guinness to confirm?) The Los Angeles IMAX event was flagged SOLD OUT in under one minute. New York quickly followed suit about 5 minutes later. Toronto and London were next in short order, and Sydney selling out closed the deal.

Sample ticket to Feb 27th, 2010 IMAX screening

A leading theory at this point is that individuals who grabbed a ticket in time (which is good for two people) will have access to view a special IMAX 3D scene from Tron, much like the 6 minute prologue scene for Batman: The Dark Knight. But details about the Tron screening as of this writing are still up in the air.

That’s not the end of it, however. After the updates, more was discovered online. Additional mysteries and strange codes, a hidden discussion forum with reference to Encom International, and what appears to be a deeper story still to be unraveled.

With tron: Legacy not slated for release until December 17th, 2010, this hype campaign is sure to kick up a notch or few in upcoming months, and those who miss out on this IMAX event shouldn’t fret about missing out entirely. Sign up for a profile, and watch for any opportunity to get in this game! One thing to keep in mind is that this kind of catering to a market fanbase is best and most successful when free, and only as good and enjoyable as the fans, players, and community make it.

You can join the search for Flynn in numerous ways:

(this article is mirrored from the original publishing at wikibruce.com)

About the time of Levi’s launch of their new “Go Forth” campaign, reports began popping up of nifty packages being delivered from the Levi Strauss and Co. Archives in San Francisco. Days after I reported the press release, another package arrived! Unfortunately this time, there was no charcoal briquette goodness used as packaging.

There was, however, a red bandanna marked with a very good question: “Who was Grayson Ozias the IVth, and where is his treasure?” So I had a creative urge and decided to share the opening of Grayson’s mail…

You can join the game and help solve the mystery by starting at goforth.levi.com

Then follow GraysonOziasIV on Twitter for updates, and stalk Grayson on Facebook

Then go and bookmark the community wiki here at goforth.wikibruce.com for help and answers (and please contribute if you want!).

You can also join a community discussion at Unfiction.

Now get II it and Go IVth!

(this article is mirrored from the original location at wikibruce.com)

Celebrities are a hot target for ransoms and blackmail. So is it any surprise that Seth Green of Idle Hands and Austin Powers fame has now had to likewise suffer a life-altering, catastrophic tragedy? If you don’t know what I’m referring to, check out these videos:

Almost 1 million views in 10 days. What exactly happened? Someone (maybe marketers?) stole his lucky vintage Butterfinger bar. As Seth testifies on his blog, “So last Friday I was on my cell during a break while shooting a Butterfinger spot. Im in the parking lot, getting some junk outta my car, when two guys jumped me. These guys took my wallet, keys, bag…and the most important thing ever: my lucky vintage 1928 Butterfinger.”

While the videos stirred up the viral pipeline hornet’s nest and caused some heated debating over hoax videos, Seth and Nestle were busy setting up a central web hub called DudeWheresMyBar.com (get it? It’s a play on “Dude, Where My Car?” got it? ok, moving on) in preparation for a campaign to help Seth get re-acquainted with his precious Butterfinger bar; because no one lays a finger on his Butterfinger bar. Well, except that someone already did. In typical ransom style, the goofy perpetrator also then mailed him a letter-clipped ransom note. Seriously?

Seth outlines his dilemma in the following video, which has also apparently been hacked by the mysterious goofy perpetrator with no face.

Seth's Butterfinger, Ransom noteApparently the perpetrator also really knows his flash programming, because part of the ultimatum given to Seth is to that he must play games at his expense to reveal, in a very Joker-like fashion, a secret message which must be solved by midnight on October 31st or the bar will be destroyed o noes!

But ho! Seth has decided to team with Nestle and recruit the help of his throbbing mobs of fans to play these five games as they are magically made available and earn the high scores to unlock the gameboard message! And of course, as a thank you, Seth is prepared to reward the most successful player with a golden Butterfinger Bar valued at $10,000, and a trip to L.A. to be rewarded by Seth in person! Eh-oh!

BF_Gameboard_for_blogUnfortunately to some, it seems the mystery may go deeper than the surface. This ‘mystery man’ has been leaving video messages, and surely there will be clues hidden throughout this evil-kidnapper-of-evilnesses tricks. As he describes his game: “It is an enigma, wrapped in a riddle, smothered in secret sauce”

It appears though that Seth only likes the U.S. So, if you live in Canada, you’re not eligible for his reward according to the official rules. Boo-urns.

Turn that frown upside down though, because you can still play the games! And you can still feed the gears of virality by sharing and spamming the brand-ridden cry for help with friends who embrace any of over 85 social networking tools! (even those who don’t who at least have email)

All that said, if you still want to help Seth (and who wouldn’t want to help those teary puppy-dog eyes), go log in, and start playing the Tap-Tap Revenge Remix That Rant game and shoot for as high a score as you can – but don’t forget to collect the clues along the way.

ARG? “Lite” ARG? Uh… Contest style marketing viral banking on celebrity pseudo-reality? That’s a little closer. And you know it’s viral when you’re told about it by the development team, who were inspired by the ARG community. Enh — not very ARGish. But who cares, I like Seth. And I chuckled. Here’s hoping Seth will make some personal phone calls… or Mars and Hershey will crowd-source a covert corporate takedown of Nestle via a public blog. Perhaps they’ll spread rumors of government conspiracies, or introduce an AI from the future, or a corrupt pharmaceutical company, or sharks with frickin’ laser beams attached to their foreheads!

Other media coverage:

(this article is mirrored from the original location at wikibruce.com)