Today’s creator is Jeff Gomez CEO and President of Starlight Runner Entertainment. Jeff remains hard at work tackling the nut and bolts of making transmedia stories a reality, or should I say, “maximizing the value of entertainment properties and consumer brands by preparing them for extension across multiple media platforms.” Working on everything from Magic: The Gathering, to Microsoft’s Halo franchise, Jeff joins us to talk about his work and thoughts on the burgeoning craft of interactive narrative design for transmedia experiences.
Entertainment is on the verge of something new; no not 3D, but a new generation of transmedia story experiences. Story worlds that, in a calculated fashion, cross from media to media providing players with new ways to experience, and immerse themselves in, an authored interactive world. In the past this was done solely for purposes of merchandising and franchise expansion, but in the present it’s being used to create fantastic story experiences. This new NDE series, Creators of Transmedia™, sets out to explore what visionaries in the field are now creating, and what they believe tomorrow will bring.
Stephen E. Dinehart: Jeff, hello and welcome. As a transmedia evangelist and producer what does transmedia storytelling mean to you?
Jeff Gomez: Transmedia storytelling is quickly becoming the single most powerful way to convey messages and narrative to a mass audience. We’re seeing this most prominently (if awkwardly) in the interaction between politics, media and the American people right now. It doesn’t seem to matter how accurate the information is, so long as you are building a compelling narrative around it and taking advantage of television’s omnipresence, the Web’s interactivity, the soap box of radio, or the intimacy of town halls. While it’s debatable how much of this is being done according to some master plan, you can’t argue with its efficacy.
From an aesthetic point of view, transmedia storytelling is so electrifying to me, because in some ways it harkens back to the days we sat around the campfire in bearskins. We listened to our shaman tell us why spring will almost certainly follow winter, and how the hunter chases his prey across the starry night sky. The shaman would read the faces of his audience, playing to and even incorporating their shouts of approval or tears of sorrow. Storytelling was a communal experience. We were participants.
With the advent of mass media, that direct connection between storyteller and audience became more and more diminished. We had applause, we could measure popularity through television ratings and box office receipts, but true intimacy went away. We lost interactivity at an emotional level—at least until now. The technology inherent in transmedia implementation grants storytellers the ability to “read faces” again. The Internet provides us with thousands of voices, sometimes many times that amount. This creates an instant feedback that brings us full circle, placing us all back around that primal campfire. Our storytellers can gauge our response, hear our voices, and the narrative can respond. Transmedia is bringing back the shaman, only this time the story is being told to the world.
SED: How is it different from other forms of storytelling?
JG: Imagine that each storytelling medium is a musical instrument. If played well, you’re going to get something artful and beautiful. What transmedia does is it brings a few of those instruments together and attempts to compose music that allows for talented people to play them in some kind of concert. Think of the possibilities that opens up!
As artists, we can create vast narratives that play across film, music and books all at once, leveraging the strengths of each medium. We will weave dense, elaborate tapestries of narrative with our mobile devices, for example, to which a few or many thousands of audience members can contribute creatively. Visionaries we haven’t even heard of yet will build transmedia orchestras, immersing us as participants in swirling symphonies of story.
SED: Are there unique properties to a franchise with transmedia possibilities?
JG: You don’t need a science fiction or fantasy story to spark up a transmedia narrative. Our main criteria at Starlight Runner is that the story, brand or message lends itself to a rich world, real or imagined. This world needs to have a past and future, it must be populated with engaging characters, and there has to be something about it that makes us want to be a part of it.
So, I imagine it might be difficult to generate transmedia out of a story about a handful of fortysomethings hanging out in a living room, yearning for their glory days. But you can easily take a soap opera scenario, a high school scenario, the building of a new model of car or home, and blast away.
SED: What are the fiscal and creative benefits of creating transmedia stories?
JG: When transmedia narrative is done well, it’s like we’re being invited back across that threshold into a world we’ve come to enjoy, even love. Those news reports I’ve been watching on the Web that are set in the universe of True Blood, they are funny as hell, but they also give me insight into what the world of the show is like beyond its Louisiana setting. Watching them, I’m allowing myself to be convinced of the reality of this vampire world. The verisimilitude, the patterns and themes weaving back and forth between the shows and this digital content, is so pleasing that it helps to strengthen my bond with the show. So I bought the DVDs for a friend who didn’t have HBO and introduced her to this world.
In short, you buy what you love, and you want to share what you love. The Internet and especially social networking makes it easier than ever to tell people about what you love. It’s become a specified form of self-expression. And in the case of popular culture, the richer the world, the more there is to love.
Artists, producers, studios and publishers are only beginning to understand all this. They’re going to need training to realize the creative possibilities implied by transmedia storytelling. As something of a producer and storyteller it’s part of my job to provide this kind of training to my partners and clients. But once these things start to be designed from the outset, once true visionaries are allowed to weave these narrative tapestries, the question of the fiscal and creative benefits of this form of expression will go away very quickly.
SED: So what have you been up to on James Cameron’s Avatar?
JG: The chance to work with James Cameron and his producer Jon Landau in some small way on Avatar was a career high for all of us at Starlight Runner. Again, we’re bound contractually not to discuss our work on it. Suffice to say, despite the trailer and IMAX preview, the world still has little idea what this film and this universe has in store for them.
SED: What can you say about how this fictional universe will take advantage of transmedia possibilities?
JG: Jim and Jon have made it clear that they are fierce advocates of extending the Avatar universe across every conceivable media platform, and if the UbiSoft videogame is any indication they’re going to be doing it in a big way. They demand quality, consistency and a kind of fractal growth for the Avatar narrative. We’ll be cheering them on at every milestone.
SED: Can you describe your work on Microsoft’s Halo franchise?
JG: 20th Century Fox and Lightstorm were pleased with our work on Avatar, and since Fox was a licensee of the Halo franchise, they recommended us to Microsoft. Although I can’t really get into the details of what we did on Halo with Microsoft Game Studios, I can say that it was one of the biggest jobs Starlight Runner has ever taken on in terms of scope, and that everyone seems to be energized by the results of our work.
SED: What was your first transmedia project?
JG: You might say I’d been preparing for it all my life. Nothing made me more excited than to see Godzilla, Rodan and Mothra visit each other’s movies, same with the Universal monsters, like Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman. In the early ‘70s, when I realized that the Marvel and DC super heroes each existed in their own contiguous universe, I imagined mega-threats that would force all of them (and all of their titles) to unite to stop them. It would be more than a decade before Secret Wars or Crisis on Infinite Earths made that wish come true.
On the other hand, I thought it kind of sucked that the Star Trek novels weren’t “real”—they didn’t take place in the official canon of the TV show. I was crushed to learn that Splinter of the Mind’s Eye and the Han Solo novels we deemed by George Lucas not to be in-continuity. Why bother reading them? They were fan fiction with a price tag on them, and if that’s what I wanted, there was wilder fan fic to be found at science fiction conventions. Like the best of the Japanese manga and anime creators, I wanted to tell stories using different media in which everything counted. It all had to be “real.”
In the early ‘90s I got my dress rehearsal for transmedia with the Turok franchise while I worked at Valiant Comics, which had recently been purchased by the videogame publisher Acclaim Entertainment. I worked with Fabian Nicieza, the writer of the comic to sort of have the game storyline be in-continuity with the series. We published special tie-in comics that explored aspects of the story that weren’t covered in the game. Fabian wrote supplementary fiction that showed up on Acclaim’s web site, and there was even some unique story material on the packaging of the Turok action figures we did with Playmates Toys. It wasn’t perfect by any stretch, but man was it successful.
A couple of years later I managed to pull of something close to true transmedia storytelling with Magic: The Gathering. The creators were acquaintances of mine from the Dungeons & Dragons world, and I helped Acclaim land the comic book and videogame license for the brand.
Magic: The Gathering was a trading card game, so the object for me was to create a kind of super-narrative that tied many of the characters, locations, creatures and artifacts pictured on the cards into a sprawling mythology. As a writer and editor, I was obliged to work with half a dozen factions to make this work: comic book artists, game developers, the game creators and editors at Wizards of the Coast, marketers, web site designers—all working in tandem, telling stories in a collage of comic books, graphic novels and prose fiction that all built toward a climactic videogame. The game would unite all of the major characters introduced in the cards and the publishing program for one final showdown. Along the way I would adjust and tweak story elements based on feedback that I’d get from fan letters, message board postings and emails.
Again, not everything came out exactly the way I would have liked—we were always in such a tremendous rush and that hurt some of the content—but a lot of it still stands up. The accomplishment was exhilarating. There was no turning back for me.
SED: What lessons did you learn from Magic?
JG: The main lesson I learned from my work on Magic: The Gathering is one that we hold as a basic tenet in transmedia development at Starlight Runner to this day. It’s that diplomacy and leadership is every bit as vital as a deep knowledge of the fundamentals of storytelling if you are going to produce a successful transmedia narrative. If you’re prepping one of these suckers for a mass media rollout, you are not doing it alone. Even your entire home team will be one of many putting this thing together. If you’re going to get this done, you’re going to need expert planning, superior project tracking and the ability to incentivize people into rising above corporate politics, fear and apathy.
This brings us back to the role of the shaman in primitive society. He or she was that rare combination of storyteller and diplomat, schooling the hunters and the gatherers without stomping too hard on their toes, getting them to realize a vision that might be bigger than any single one of them could imagine. That’s what makes us so effective here at Starlight Runner. Our devotion to the inner life of the world and the story actually seems to inspire the people we work with and it gets them all to play well together.
SED: Transmedia production seems to be the hip train in town, is it a good thing for all brands, or does it only help certain properties?
JG: That transmedia storytelling seems to be coming into vogue is wonderful, but we’ve always seen it as inevitable. In fact, I don’t care much what you call it, so long as you understand what it is and how to apply it.
I think it’s important to point out, for example, that transmedia storytelling is not branded entertainment. Branded entertainment drives product awareness by sort of tacking the brand onto something else, like when you watch the contestants on The Apprentice build their jobs around Burger King or Sephora products.
On the other hand, transmedia builds brand mythology, placing the brand front and center and building narrative around it, like what Starlight Runner has been doing with Coca-Cola’s Happiness Factory campaign. Branded entertainment comes and goes in a flash, but transmedia storylines are timeless because they are built on a foundation of classic narrative structure. They’re good stories.
Finally, the owner of the brand pays for branded content, but transmedia entertainment is designed to generate revenue because it’s content that the audience wants. We think the world of Happiness Factory is so compelling that people are going to want to visit that world in the form of videogames and novels, to toot our own horn a bit.
SED: What do you see as the difference between multi-media franchises and transmedia franchises? Say take Harry Potter vs. Star Wars?
JG: This might be debatable, but I think Harry Potter is less transmedia than Star Wars, because J.K. Rowling and her media partners have put up a strict border around the canon of the novels. The author has declared that the story is finite, and all we’ve really gotten from various media are reiterations of that specific narrative. The movies, videogames, web content, music—it all tells roughly the same story over and over again. Potter fans may be granted a forum for expressing their love or even questioning the franchise, but nothing they say will have any impact on the content, past, present or future. Interestingly, the same actually holds for the Twilight franchise.
Star Wars, on the other hand, is a thriving and true transmedia franchise, because it presents a living universe that is constantly expanding before our eyes and has been for over thirty years. Although a strong visionary stands behind the fiction, he’s opened it to many dozens of sub-creators, who are allowed to contribute to the canon. An effort is made to place various extensions of Star Wars into the continuity introduced by the films, and some major canonical developments have happened into those extensions. We learned of Darth Vader’s secret apprentice in a video game; Chewbacca died heroically in a novel set after the films. Finally, Star Wars fans are active participants in almost every aspect of the franchise. Lucasfilm listens to them intently (believe it or not!), designing five- and ten-year programs around their desires. They are invited to contribute fan fiction and films to sanctioned web sites, and there are many instances where fans (like Leland Chee and Steve Sansweet) were promoted to become authorized stewards and contributors to the canon. Quintessential transmedia.
SED: How did you get into transmedia development?
JG: I gave myself no choice. I wasn’t going to be a rock star or movie celebrity. I had no patience for writing novels or directing films. But I knew I wanted to tell stories to huge numbers of people, especially if there was a way for me to riff off of their feedback, incorporate their creativity the way I did while playing Dungeons & Dragons as a kid. I wanted to be a Dungeon Master for millions of people around the world, all at the same time. Every so often, the process we’ve developed here at Starlight Runner actually gives me that feeling—like when we walked the floor at San Diego Comic Con this year and saw the impact of our work all around us. Nothing compares to it.
SED: What is Starlight Runner?
JG: Well, “starlight runner” is kind of a corny term I made up when I was a grade school teacher just out of college and talking with my students about the meaning of friendship and loyalty. A true friend will come running, even if you called in the middle of the night. When naming my company, I guess I wanted both my staff and my clients to know that we were going to deliver. We were going to be there, day or night and get the job done. It’s a way of thinking that took me out of some pretty dire circumstances as a kid, and it’s a philosophy that has taken my company further than any of us could have imagined.
I founded Starlight Runner Entertainment in 2000 with my partner Mark Pensavalle and our creative director Chrysoula Artemis with the idea that somehow we could make a go of this strange kind of storytelling. We were alone in the woods for quite a while, but things really began to pick up steam after we found ways to clarify to our clients what transmedia is and how valuable it can be to their bottom line.
SED: You were an avid Dungeons & Dragons player, what lessons from RPGs do you carry with you today?
JG: D&D, and any good tabletop roleplaying game, is essentially interactive storytelling. A group of people comes over and they sit around a table and listen to you tell a story in which they are all participating characters. I was a very popular Dungeon Master in high school and college, but it always amazed me that people bothered to keep coming, to keep playing their characters in my strange worlds with their sprawling dramas. I was honored and touched. I saw this kind of storytelling as a privilege. So I felt I owed it to each one of these players—no matter how much a pain in the ass some of them were—to show him or her a good time.
Each of these players wanted something a little bit different out of their experience of the story and the story world. I took it as my responsibility to take note of this and put something in there for each of them. Sure, I wanted to concentrate on staging the final epic battle between the hero fighter and my evil wizard. But it really didn’t take more than a few minutes of my time to research some herbs that my fauna-obsessed druid player would surely be looking for in the middle of the session.
If you love a sports team, you’re likely to dive deeper and deeper into the names, personalities, statistics and aspirations of the players. No matter how deep you dig, there’s always something to discover, something to talk about. Why can’t it be that way for story? D&D taught me that it doesn’t take all that much more effort to give your audience something extra, something that makes the world a little bit more real to them, a little bit more personally engaging. Every character, every location, every item has a meaning, a history and a destiny. The privilege of entertaining your audience obliges you to take all of it as seriously as they do.
SED: What do you see for the future of transmedia?
JG: Transmedia storytelling is going to flourish as an art form. Even now, we’re seeing more and more studio and videogame endeavors integrating transmedia planning and methodology into the concept and development phase. This means that transmedia will be integrated into a production’s budget rather than after the fact in its marketing campaign. This shifts roles like those held by Starlight Runner and myself from that of service provider to that of creator and producer. It’s a major distinction for us, one that will resonate throughout the entertainment industry.
More importantly, and again to bring things full circle, transmedia narrative is going to play a major role in addressing social, economic and political issues. To that end, it’s vital that all of us, especially young people, become literate in this new form. We need to understand its power and teach ourselves how to wield it. We need to make certain that it retains its integrity, because if we allow producers of transmedia to drop the interactive and participative components of the narrative, at best we have old-fashioned storytelling and elaborate commercials, and at worst we have dangerously potent propaganda.
SED: Jeff, as always, it’s a pleasure. Thank you for taking the time to talk with the Narrative Design Explorer. I’ve learned, and I’m sure our readers will say the same.
Jeff and his Starlight Runner are certainly off to a fantastic start. I look forward to experiencing thier creations for sometime to come. You can read more about transmedia storytelling, Jeff Gomez and Starlight Runner Entertainment at http://www.starlightrunner.com. For The Narrative Design Explorer, I’m Stephen Erin Dinehart, thanks for stopping by. Remember, it’s only through play great stories happen!