How to Build Legends Out of Stories

During the Netherlands Film Festival the brand new transmedia event From Story to Legend was held in Utrecht as an initiative of both the Dutch Organisation for Professionals in the Movie and TV Industry (NBF) and the transmedia agency Dondersteen Media. The goal of FSTL was to introduce professionals in the TV/movie industry to transmedia and the opportunities and possibilities it has to offer by having several experts who have earned their stripes in the field speak on the subject. And ARGNet was there to report!

What follows below is a recap of the four presentations that were held by the panel of international experts, after which everyone who attended got a chance to join the experts for Q&A in several round table sessions.

The first speaker was Drew Davidson from Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center. Davidson is not only a professor in the field of interactive media, but is also a player and a fan, which made for an engaging and passionate talk on the basics of transmedia and what’s currently happening in the field.

The start of his talk was the oh-so-familiar and almost unavoidable definition question: what is transmedia, how does it differ from crossmedia, and why should we care? Davidson seemed not to care too much about getting into the finer nuances of definitions, and instead briefly referenced Henry Jenkins’ description of “[having your audience] travel across media, giving them something more to do than just watch a movie.”

He continued, addressing the characteristics and potential issues associated with transmedia based around the question, “how does it fit into our lives?” First off: transparency and ubiquity. As transmedia is ‘broadcast’ over different platforms, through different technologies, it should be as transparent and easy to use as possible. Compare it to the example of the universal remote control: they can be programmed to control just about everything in your home, but become so complex and unwieldy that using them becomes impractical. Transparency and ease of use erase our conscious awareness of using technology, and Davidson argues that this is the way it should be for ‘consuming’ transmedia or people will not bother and ‘just watch a movie.’ Similarly, ubiquity refers to the fact that preferably, transmedia should be distributed in easy to accessed ways whenever and wherever we want, making it as immersive and easy as possible to dip in and out as we see fit.

Davidson further posed that there needs to be a ‘tentpole,’ a supporting body under the structure of (possibly several) transmedia experiences. In previous cases, this has been a movie, game, or TV show, but it can also be a product or original IP. Star Wars is a great example of a transmedia tentpole: it was the basis for cartoons, novels, action figures, theme parks and more. The genius of how this was managed by Lucasfilm lies in how they kept track of content, making sure it stayed canonical. This provided opportunities for video games, like Knights of the Old Republic, to be set a thousand years before the original movies and have their whole storyline be added to official canon and give it a lot of agency, while avoiding a situation where you could, say, kill Darth Vader because there was no way to have that be part of official canon.

The PC game Myst was incredibly popular back when it was released in 1993, due to its ingenius puzzles and mysteriousness of the story. The creators, however, struggled with the new medium because they couldn’t find a satisfactory way to get the emotional backstory into the game. To provide fans with this added bit of background, they wrote three novels and a comic and even played with the idea of opening up a theme park around the idea of Myst, so people could go onto an actual island and, by participating in puzzles, influences the experience of other visitors.

A final example is the US soap opera One Life to Live, where the character of Marcie Walsh wrote a novel that was actually published and became an actual best seller, so the character in the show went on a book tour where fans got meet her and interact with her and by doing so were even able to became part of the show themselves. It’s a great example of audience engagement. It is also interesting to note that soap operas generally have a fan base that’s quite different from the ‘geeky diehards’ that scifi/fantasy type stories like the examples above mostly attract, so this example shows that it’s perfectly possible for transmedia to “go beyond the geek” and cater to different types of audiences.

Davidson also elaborated on the topic of engagement: the challenge is to have a transmedia experience feel like the audience has some ownership, as opposed to a fan that only passively consumes. The trick is to make it a participatory experience where there’s actual influence by the audience on the outcome of the story. An interesting remark Davidson made is that we live in what he calls a “post-secret story era,” where you can find out about the ending of any TV show, movie or book online and even by accident if you’re not careful, and this makes it all the more interesting for an audience to be actually involved in creating the ending yourself, so that it’s a unique and almost personal experience.

When it comes to game/experience design, there are several things to take into account when it comes to keeping the attention of the audience. One is interest curves, which should be an integral part of your experience design: think about the levels of interest you want your audience to have and plot them along the timeline of your experience. Think about questions like where you want your highpoint to be and what other peaks in interest you want.

Another important aspect is that of achieving “flow” (based on the concept developed by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi). It is a concept that is already really big in video games and helps you achieve the right balance in difficulty and providing your audience with a rewarding enough experience to keep being engaged and feeling a sense of achievement.

When applied correctly, games and/or puzzles can be the glue between all the media in your transmedia experience – they function as a thread across and between different media as they provide the audience with an incentive to navigate from one to the other.

A very good modern-day example of this is Pokémon: it basically a card game, but if you watch the TV show associated with it, you can actually get better at playing the game. It is also designed in a way that you are rewarded for trial and error and experimenting, so that the reward does come only from winning.

Davidson calls this the concept of Ludic Narrans (playful storytelling). The way we humans initially explore and discover the world around us is by playing. ARGs inject playful elements into stories so they can be told more engagingly and enable you to explore and play while following along with the narrative.

At the end of Davidson’s presentation, an extended series of questions from the audience followed. One asked about the huge academic discussion taking place on narrative in games that Davidson finds “yawn-inducing.” For him, stories are what it all revolves about. He mentiones the success of the videogame Uncharted 2, that ignored the recent trend of open-ended formats in games but is instead set “on rails” where you follow a pre-determined path with laid-out moments where the game gives you a real sense of achievement. In a good story, we want to feel like the hero.

Another member of the audience inquired about the possibilities for non-fiction. Davidson brought up the example of the pharmaceutical company Bayer, which made a little gadget for diabetic kids to help them test their insulin levels that can plug into a gaming console, like the Wii, to give you achievement points for testing yourself. Davidson’s ETC is now working with Bayer to create games around that platform, where kids can use the points they collected to gain rewards, create avatars and interact with others in the same situation. He also referenced Jesse Schell’s talk at DICE 2010 on Game Design Out of the Box that revolved around putting together an achievement-based system for everyday things, like grocery shopping or going to the gym, enabling you to encourage people to eat healthy, work out, etc. In the same line of reasoning, one of Davidson’s colleagues at Carnegie Mellon teaches his class as if it’s an RPG, where you start off at level 0 (which is an F) and by attending classes and doing well on tests, you can “level up.”

Then an audience member asked if Davidson knew any successful examples of co-creation where fans take actual control of the plot. One of the things that sprang to mind was Lost Zombies, a fan created community that started out by basically saying “zombies are real, send us your footage!” and has now set the goal to create a full-on mockumentary using fan-submitted footage. Alternatively, EVE Online’s developer, CCP Games invites fans to sit on the games’advisory board and be involved in deciding the direction of its storyline.

The next speaker was Steve Peters of No Mimes Media, who made a name for himself in ARGs/transmedia by working on projects like Last Call Poker, Why So Serious, and Vanishing Point (as well as by founding ARGNet almost 9 years ago).

Once more it’s time for definitions: what exactly is an ARG? Peters has a hard time answering this question concisely, and to get out of having to elaborate, he sometimes just tells people “he designs games.” But to give the current audience a more in-depth look into what an ARG is, he proposes that they all participate live in a 10-minute experience called Mime Academy (which is also playable through No Mimes’ website), a quick and basic narrative, a simple story, spread across different platforms (a “corporate” website, phone, blog, Google, e-mail, character response).

Peters distinguishes between three types of transmedia:

1) Franchise transmedia, like Star Wars that Drew Davidson already referenced.  Disney is also very good at this kind of transmedia, turning Mickey and Donald Duck into transmedia powerhouses.

2) Marketing transmedia that supports a brand or property. This can either be a TV show, game or movie that has a narrative of its own, but also a marketing machine for a product that has no story attached to it at all, like the Vanishing Point game that promoted the launch of Windows Vista. Broadcasters and studios have long looked at the digital space as a promotional space, but they are finally beginning to see that the digital space is not where you promote your product, but where your product, or an extension of it, actually lives and breathes.

3) Native transmedia that’s there for the sake of it’s own content and narrative. A great example of this is Cathy’s Book and Expanding Universe’s Breathe, a transmedia feature film that had live events associated with it where you could make yourself part of the movie by participating in the events.

So, why would we want transmedia? Because it enables you to connect with your audience in a deeper and more meaningful way than ever before. It can give you the opportunity to have people believe the story is happening in the same space they occupy and enables them to interact with it in the same way they interact with their friends. It lets them touch the story and push the fourth wall behind the audience, into their very lives.

As a great example of a successful project that had major outreach to its audience, Peters plays a showcase video of the Why So Serious campaign, the 14-month campaign running up to the release of the Dark Knight movie. Such an extensive running time meant maintaining the attention of an audience for 14 months. In this respect, Why So Serious was successful because it was extremely narrative driven. It told the story of what happened right before the movie and provided a great way to develop some of the characters before the movie was even released. For its creators, it wasn’t just a way to market the movie, it was a way to elaborate on the story and provide die-hard fans with more than the casual movie-goer might be satisfied with.

Peters’ main example for the “ARGs for corporate training” subtype is No Mimes’ case study for Cisco’s The Threshold and its sequel The Hunt (the case study for which is not yet publicly available). The challenge was to create a real-time, global experience that enabled participants from all over the world to interact with characters through the use of social media and several of Cisco’s own tools. To make this work, the development team had to be up and running 24/7 during the whole 2 week experience to enable interaction in every time zones. This is exactly what makes experiences like this work: players interact with characters the same way you would do with your friends, making it all feel very “real.”

Like Davidson, Peters has some points to make on “keeping your audience”:

1. Make your audience feel like they live in the same world your story does.

For Why So Serious, people received voter registration cards in the mail to vote in the election for Gotham City’s district attorney, and they had fake Gotham City addresses and districts on them, which meant that people sought each other out to discuss who they were going to vote for and polling what choice “their” district was leaning towards.

2. Let the audience touch or affect the story. An interesting example of doing this is having a character live or die based on audience interaction. This suggestion immediately elicited a question from the audience on how to prepare for unforeseen ways of the audience influencing the story.  According to Peters, this requires a combination of pre-produced content for all the ‘forks’ in the road of your story and a healthy dose of improvisational talent.

3. Don’t betray the trust of the audience. Don’t make the ‘Ovaltine’ mistake of having your ARG just be an advertisement. Hollywood doesn’t seem to be learing this lesson very well, Peters sighed. If people are interested in following your story, what you should give them is not ads, but MORE STORY!

4. Make your audience feel smart. It is true that people mostly “just want to be entertained,” but it is easy to have them do stuff, like solve little puzzles and follow trails to make them feel smart and have it feel rewarding.

5. Let the audience see themselves in the story. The Why So Serious campaign did this very successfully during its launch at Comicon in 2007 with a live event built around the fact that joker was looking for new henchmen. When they pulled one player out of the crowd, put him in a limousine, and drove him off, 5 minutes later a “police report” was sent out about that player turning up dead in a field somewhere. It gives people a really satisfying experience when they know they can become part of the story.

6. Let the audience feel in-the-know. Don’t spoon-feed them advertising. Make it clear you are giving them a story.

7. Build pieces with viral potential. Both the phone-in-cakes and bowling ball live events for The Dark Knight are very good examples of how you can create a buzz.

8. Provide hidden content for the diggers. ARGs are still very niche. On top of the huge casual audience that mostly lurks and watches what’s going on from a distance, there’s also a core audience that will dig deep and leave no stone unturned. This is a group you will have to take into account and provide additional content for as a reward for digging around and being on the forefront.

Peters concluded his talk with some final thoughts: don’t think of ARGs and transmedia as something promotional; find a way to have it BE your product!

Transmedia is how the future will tell stories.

The third speaker was Michel Reilhac, head of Cinema for the French/German public broadcasting company ARTE. ARTE has become known in Europe as one of the pioneers in the fields of multimedia and transmedia. Reilhac spoke on the topic of a changing market for television and how transmedia can help tackle its problems.

Reilhac, who was somewhat handicapped by the fact that the projector refused to communicate with his laptop and therefore talked us through his presentation without any visual aides (and did so admirably), poses that there’s a major challenge for TV: the slices of the media pie are becoming smaller as there are more and more different ones. People in the field of traditional TV see their shares become smaller and smaller and it becomes a challenge for businesses, and also for ARTE, to prove their worth to the subsidizers (ARTE is a commercial-free TV station and is funded by public money).

It is the same challenge that has already been posed to cinema ever since the TV was invented: everyone thought that that would kill movie theaters, but a system around release and distribution was put in place to protect it. Then came videogames. Now there’s the internet. The old media have to fight alongside these new media, and being an old medium can be cumbersome, as you have a past that is hard to move beyond.

Another challenge is posed by a drastic change in audience behavior: in the market there is still an overriding feeling that we have an individual need to control availability for a product. However, people want to make the choice to watch something independent from the time they decide to sit behind their TV. There’s also the altered relationship we have to time: our attention spans have gotten gradually shorter. This is a factor to deal with, because the power is in the hands of the viewer, and if they don’t like you, they will zap you away.

Conclusion? Old models do not work anymore, because they do not develop enough of an audience. What we have to grow accustomed to is that there are and will be no new models! We’ve moved beyond the times were this could be managed by one simple model. The saying used to be “the medium is the message.” Right now, we could easily say “The medium is the mess.”

Futhermore, we are faced with even deeper changes in social values. Change is now a structural state of things. No longer is it a phase between past and future stable stages, it is the new nature of our world! It’s a new philosophical value, and the only thing we know is not going to change is change itself. In the past, you could gain respect and authority by Knowing. This was long one of the fundamental principles of our society. Knowledge was passed along between generations by vertical transmission. Now, knowledge is almost as easily gained by searching the internet and therefore  teachers do not, by default, have natural authority anymore.

A third big change in society that Reilhac touched on is that we perceive enlightened intuition as an accepted way of dealing with problems. This is very much visible in the gaming industry, where we see how intuition has gained power and authority. He also posits that reality is no longer objective. Because of emerging technology like augmented reality, we can relate to and experience reality in a totally different way from one to another.

Finally, he points to the trend of gamefying everything: shopping, storytelling, politics – everything seems to enhanced with gaming aspects. Reilhac quoted Jane McGonigal’s talk at TED, which pointed out that people who are currently reaching the age of 21 and are almost ready to enter adulthood have spent 10,000+ hours gaming, roughly’s roughly the same amount of time they will have spent studying. 10,000 hours is considered the time needed to become an expert at anything, meaning that this generation is one of gaming experts and virtuosos and this fact is bound to shape how they see the world and how they will impact society.

Michel turns these observations on social changes into the conclusion that, in his opinion, TV will certainly not be irrelevant in the future of media, but it has to become a two-step medium. Step 1 will remain the current-day program-grid in which we still are bound to offer certain programs at certain times, but this will only serve as a display, a store window for Step 2, where we showcase what we have. In the “store” itself, content will be completely delinearized. ARTE has already made major steps on this front, with the launch of ARTE Live where it already offers some 3,000 free programs on theater, dance and music. Only a few of those are offered on the “old-fashioned” program grid are there to reel you into the store where you can view all of the available content.

Another part of his vision of the future is that movies will no longer be products, but part of a process.  It is no longer about making a project that needs to be launched on a market, but it will be about catering to an audience. The movie is only one part of being part of the community, and the product will extend into added experiences beyond the movie.

He encourages the audience (of mostly filmmakers and TV producers) to go out and build creative partnerships with the gaming/internet industry. The gaming industry has traditionally been perceived as the archenemy, because they seem to be making so much more money so much more easily. The movie industry has looked down on it as being cheap entertainment for braindead kids. Michel, however, has very different experiences working with game developers, and has been amazed by how exciting and productive the cooperation is, and how much more creative of an angle the gaming industry tends to put on interaction. Likewise, the “gaming people” are oftentimes amazed by the part that narrative plays, and the movie industry is much more experienced in fleshing that out.

ARGs and transmedia have so far mostly catered to a geek audience, but this is rapidly changing and it is starting to develop into something major. Transmedia storytelling, as far as Michel Reilhac is concerned, is about to cause a total revolution in storytelling and we haven’t even seen the beginning of it.

The final speaker of the day was Monique de Haas of Dondersteen Media. Monique has gained experience in the field of transmedia working for several large clients, both corporate and (semi-)public.

Her opening statement is that in the past, life was simple. If you had a story, you wrote a book. If you wanted it more visual, you’d find a producer and make a movie. However, three things changed everything:

1. The rise of the Geek. People started to put information up in a public space and share it with each other through the growing internet. By using filters like Google, it is now possible to access vast amounts of information almost instantaneously.

2. The rise of mobile phones. It is now completely normal to be connected ubiquitously and, apart from accessing information instantly, you can also access it wherever and whenever you want.

3. The rise of gaming. Which Michel Reilhac elaborated upon earlier.

The next big change, De Haas predicts, is the relation we have to our stories. We began by sharing information, we then started sharing our contacts, and we are now sharing information about our contacts, which signifies the rise of social media. Now comes transmedia storytelling: we are no longer looking at a story, but at a storyworld where you can build lots and lots of stories. As an interesting and probably slightly controversial example, De Haas likens the story of Jesus Christ to transmedia. Jesus had a really strong means of storytelling: he used his 12 apostles, who all had their different points of view on this story. There is a central text (the bible) to the story, but this is only a starting point (a tentpole if you will) to aggregate all these different points of views and perspectives into.

De Haas’ theory of how to successfully set up transmedia storytelling revolves around knowing who your audience is, in what state of mind they are in, and trying to mirror that in how you reach out to them. In her theory, there are three phases to the story arch. The first phase is the “dive deep” phase, which sets up a prequel window and attracts a hardcore fanbase. Next is the broadening phase, that serves as the global release window and presents the central story as the ‘spine’ of the experience. Last, there’s the “deepen” phase, where you can have multiple windows for different audiences and various subcultures amongst those audiences.

Getting an audience interested in any of these phases depends on whether or not you can find the right hook to reel them in. De Haas’ favorite example is that of the True Blood transmedia campaign, where the makers found various people who blog about vampires and sent them a bottle of the series’ synthetic TruBlood. By doing so, they “dug deep” into the vampire community and attracted a fanbase of diehards that were instantly interested. The campaign then broadend, building interest for the series among the general public, while rewarding the hardcore audience by hiding extra info and little bits of story for them to find if they dug deep enough.

With this, the “masterclass” part of From Story to Legend ended. Some concluding words were offered by Syb Groeneveld, who is e-culture/new media chair of the Dutch Mediafund (the entitiy that manages the Dutch subsidies for media and culture) and one of the main sponsors of the From Story to Legend event. Next year, Dutch TV will celebrate its 60th birthday and apart from the traditional formats setting out to celebrate this birthday, the Mediafund is actively looking for good ideas to further the genre of transmedia and for that, they have an amount of up to €60,000 available for parties that submit creative ideas.

With that rather interesting carrot dangled in front of those present, the round table sessions were kicked off, where the audience could ask each of the experts to share their knowledge and experiences with them and to answer any questions they might have on the challenges and opportunities that transmedia might bring.

From Story to Legend was an interesting event, perhaps hovering around the basics of transmedia and ARGs a little much, but there were certainly interesting things said by all of the speakers and it will provide the Dutch media industry an impulse to start work on interesting projects. The people behind FSTL are quite ambitious and are already looking into how to expand and broaden the format to reach out even more (maybe even beyond the national focus?) It will be interesting to see to what level they can take it and what the resulting changes in the Dutch media landscape will be.


  1. Simon Pulman

    Daniel: thank you so much for typing this up and being so detailed and considerate. It must have taken some time, but by doing so you’ve provided an invaluable service. Much appreciated.

  2. Robert

    Thank’s so much for taking the time to write this up – it’s a really valuable blog post and very kind of you to document the conference in this detailed way.

    One point I would caution against is assuming that all youngsters spend 10k hours gaming – maybe some do but others are out getting drunk or buzzed or snogging behind the bike sheds. And don’t assume that 10k hours playing GTA4 will translate into a willingness to play an ARG. All I’m saying is that statistics can be dangerously misleading. Even though the gamification of our lives is in evidence there will be a push-back from people who resent being gamed. I would recommend that transmedia producers are humble in their expectations of audience participation and allow alternate routes for those who get a kick out of collecting badges and for those who simply enjoy being entertained.

  3. modelmotion

    Very helpful coverage.

  4. Evan Jones

    Wow – thanks for the coverage! Great to hear such detail on a conference talk – felt like attending.

  5. Kristian Bruaroey

    Really good summary! kudos

  6. Gerry Casanova

    Daniel, Thank you for sharing your quite in-depth summary – very interesting and very helpful.