Welcome back. This is going to be a long one, because I’m pushing through to the end, come hell or high water.
You’ve read along this far, and I know what you’re thinking: “So, Mister New-Media-Buzzword-Smartass, that’s all very interesting, but how do we make the leap? Pop quiz, hotshot: What do we do? WHAT. DO. WE. DO.” (Or something like that, anyway. I’m a bit fuzzy on the specifics.)
Short answer: You keep doing what you already do: Design worlds. You just expand how you present them.
That’s what it all melts down to. Now let’s talk details.
Tear Up The Rulebook
Think of the current standard for presentation of an RPG. The Big-Ass Rulebook (BAR). Most games are published this way, in some fashion — whether it’s a softcover BAR, a hardcover BAR, a multi-book set of BARs, or the recent return to the boxed format (where the components could be compiled into a BAR). As conventional wisdom has it, the BAR is divided into “Crunch” (the rules) and “Fluff” (the setting material).
So here’s the thing: take out the Fluff, and concentrate on developing that. That’s your central content, which you will then leverage through various other formats. The Crunch? The crunch becomes the RPG — one of the formats you release. Going with examples provided by Trent Reznor and various Webcomics folks (that I linked to yesterday), I’d recommend making the RPG available free as a PDF download, with upgrade options for sale (softcover, hardcover, limited hardcover, limited hardcover + extras, limited hardcover + extras with design commentary, etc.).
But the main thrust of your work will be to develop your property — the material that has been labeled with the dismissive title “Fluff.” The fictional world is your centerpiece — the core of your property, and everything else you do will orbit around it. Everything you release will be a method for a consumer to interface with your world, whether actively or passively. The goal here is to create fans. Give them as many paths as possible, with all paths leading to the center — the world you’ve developed.
Now, let’s talk about those paths.
The first step for your property should be a centralized, branded website. I don’t mean branded for your company — I mean branded for the property. Don’t half-ass this. “www.YourCompany.com/NewTransmediaHotness” is worthless to you. Go for “www.NewTransmediaHotness.com.” The goal here is to build the brand of the property, not your company. Let’s put it this way — Trekkies are fans of Star Trek. They’re not fans of Desilu, Paramount, or any of the other companies responsible for its production. If you establish a track record of good stuff, branding for the company will follow — but that branding is only valuable in its ability to bootstrap the launch of further properties (as an example, witness the track record of Mutant Enemy, Joss Whedon’s production company, which fairly successfully imports its fans into every new project).
This website should be regularly updated — new material, behind-the-scenes looks, commentary, links to various social media extensions, forums for your fans, etc. Most importantly, there should be membership sign-up. Not only does this give you a mailing list, and hard numbers for advertisers (should you choose to put advertising on your site), but it is a wonderful way to start building the sense of tribe that is critical to fandom.
The membership should have perks — participation in the site forum is only the most basic. Exclusive content is better. In addition,you should have levels of membership, ranging from free to various tiers of paid membership — each with their own unique perks. This concept is something that was suggested to me during a talk I had with Michael “Burnie” Burns (of Red vs Blue) at SXSW. He pointed out that they introduced a sponsorship level of membership at their site, $10 for 6 months, and that it was a major source of income for them. Fandom is membership — fans like being on the inside, so give them a way to do so, and they’ll take you up on it.
But what about the content?
Video killed the… Well, you know.
I would strongly advocate making one of your major efforts some form of video. There are a couple reasons for this.
One, it’s critical that one of your major presentational platforms be geared towards passive consumption, rather than participatory. Passive consumption is easy, and will reach the widest audience because of that ease. Nothing works better than video — fandom is already pre-primed to connect with television, films, etc.
Two, the rising speed and reach of broadband, plus the proliferation of consumption platforms (like the iPad, or streaming via PS3/XBox/etc. directly to home entertainment systems), is going to be leading to a seismic shift in video entertainment — the same shift that has already struck the music industry and is currently overtaking the publishing industry. Democratization of content — the tools of production and distribution being in the hands of creators rather than in the traditional gatekeeper corporations — will have this effect in every facet of the entertainment business, and TV/Film is the last domino that will fall. You’re already starting to see it, with webseries gaining wide viewership. As streaming via the internet (from Netflix, or Hulu, or any number of other providers) becomes more commonplace, consumers will become less occupied with *where* the content is coming from, and just concentrate on the content itself. If I’m watching it on my television, what does it matter to me if it’s on-demand, broadcast, internet streaming, or packaged media (Blu-Ray, etc.)? The viewing experience will be the same. And the content creators in this new world? To quote Liesl Copland from William Morris Endeavor at SXSW this past March: “Everybody is a Network.”
I would recommend assuming that the majority of your video content will be consumed in small amounts, rather than in long form. Shorter video takes less time to stream, is easier to turn into a viral sharing situation via embedding, can be watched on a mobile phone while waiting for the bus, etc. Think of it in terms of single-issue comics and trade paperback collections. You’ll want to produce the single issues (short video — shorter than 10 minutes, ideally), making them available for free as web video. You make behind-the-scenes video, bonus scenes, commentary, production diaries, sketches, etc. available as exclusive membership content for your various tiers. Once you’ve got a whole story, or season, or what-have-you, you release that as a paid download (via iTunes and similar platforms), as well as a higher-res version with the extras on DVD/Blu-Ray, etc., via mail order on your site as well as through sites like Amazon.
How can you produce video? Stay tuned.
Games Without Frontiers
The next presentation platform, obviously, is to release games based on your content. You’re already there, of course, if you’ve done the design work on an RPG. As I said above, release the core rules for free, with upgrades available for sale. Open your rules system to anyone who wants to use it. Offer a free license for anyone who wishes to produce branded supplemental material — but offer it to members of your site (hell, make the ability to commercially release branded supplements a perk of one of the premium tiers). Let them participate.
Don’t stop with RPGs, though. If your setting is appropriate for a miniatures game, release one. Don’t limit yourself to text-only games. Produce web-based Flash games featuring your property’s concepts. iPhone and iPad applications are well worth exploring — games are top sellers. There is even a growing community of sites devoted to DIY production of videogames, which can make your job a lot easier. (More on this later)
Remember, the more “rabbit holes” you provide, the more people will find their way to your property.
Storyteller Ain’t Just a Game System
You’ve created a world — and the main purpose of that world is to act as a setting for stories. In our traditional set-up, those stories have taken the form of the play experiences of consumers playing our RPGs. The “Fluff” — the setting material, the backstory, meta-plot — we’ve now made the focus of our transmedia property. I’ve already talked about using video as a major way of bringing your story and setting across to consumers, but there are other options as well.
The first and most obvious is producing fiction. Many games producers already do this, and so there’s not much I need to say here, apart from noting the changes in the publishing industry and its potential effect on this method for you.
Read this post from author J.A. Konrath about his sales for the Amazon Kindle. Think about what that might mean for you, releasing fiction based on your property. Also think about the fact that he’s only talking the Kindle. Apple now has the iBook store (and sites like Smashwords can get you listed there very easily)… and just this week, Google announced Google Editions, their browser-based eBook store. In a very short time, the available major sources for electronic sales of books have tripled. Sales are only going to grow, for the foreseeable future. Get on that.
You don’t need to stick to ePublishing, of course. With short-run and print-on-demand, it’s incredibly easy to offer hardcopy through your own site, Amazon.com and other sellers. Remember the upgrade principle. Give them choices, and they’ll go with the one they want the most.
You can also present stories in graphic format, via webcomics. Your best sources for advice and how-to on that subject is the book How to Make Webcomics by Scott Kurtz, et. al , and the website, Webcomics.com, which I mentioned in an earlier entry.
The Wide, Wide World of Merch
What else can you put out there?
In a word, EVERYTHING.
It’s what SXSW referred to in a panel title: “Merch: The Other White Meat.” It’s what I refer to as the “T-shirt, refrigerator magnet, goo-gaw and widget” business model. There is a nearly endless array of things that you relate to your core property and release via your site. Basically, if you have an audience, you can do two things to make money — you can sell stuff to the audience, or you can sell the audience to advertisers. Personally, I’d rather do the former, because as a fan, I know that I love my “tribal ownership” stuff, and it builds a relationship, rather than handing my fans over to potential spammers.
- Music: Especially if you’re already creating music for use in your video, you might as well get out there as a separate platform as well. Free downloads, for-pay high-res downloads via iTunes, etc., and the sky’s the limit for physical collector’s versions (CD, Limited-edition vinyl, lossless audio on branded USB stick, whatever).
- Clothing: We geeks love our T-shirts. You can go with on-demand sites like Cafepress or Zazzle or any number of others. These are good for starting out, but the main issues you’re going to run into are the fact that your margin is not that great, and you’re sending people away from your site to make purchases. Eventually, you’ll want to get your own stuff produced (allowing you to charge lower prices, increasing the likelihood of fans buying) and for sale via your own site. Once you’ve gotten to that point, look into partnering with a production and fulfillment company. Storenvy.com is a good example, and others are easily located online.
- Art: Presentation artwork related to your property can be turned into prints, calendars, stickers, etc.
- Toys:There’s an entire community out there of boutique, collector, short-run action figure and toy producers. Phil Reed’s Battlegrip.com is a great site to read for news regarding what’s out there, in both the commercial and collector markets.
My point here is this: If you can think of it, and it relates to your property, you can find production sources, and offer it for sale. Don’t limit yourself.
OK, Smartass — but HOW?
I can hear you, out there — how can I do this stuff? To which my response to you is: You’ve already got the skills, you just need to use them in a different way.
The standard operating procedure for your current operation is probably the same as mine: If you can do it yourself, do it. If you can’t, hire a freelancer. Right?
Well, it’s the same here. There are people with the necessary skills who are readily available online. Hell, some of them are probably already your customers. Put out a call, just like you already do for art, writing or editing. Use your existing contacts, first — I think you’ll be surprised at the skill-sets of some of your current fanbase, and their enthusiasm to come on board. After that, you can look for freelancers in more specific venues:
- Wreck-a-Movie isn’t really a freelancer site, but rather a crowdsourcing site devoted to film production. Folks pooling their skills, helping eachother find the things they need. Iron Sky (Nazis on the Moon!) and Snowblind (Post-apocalypse spaghetti western) are two productions which have been produced using this service.
- ODesk is a freelancer site covering everything from programming, design, translation, writing, sales, marketing, etc.
- Elance is a similar site, with an equally wide array of fields, and freelancers from all over the world.
Other tools which might come in useful, and in whose communities you can find talented folks:
- Flixel is a free Actionscript library for creating games in Flash.
- GameSalad is a video-game creation tool aimed at non-programmers.
- Wildpockets is an engine and community for productions of 3D games and media for the web-browser.
- Game Maker from YoYo is a drag-and-drop game creation platform.
- Ponoko.com is a site which will turn your designs in to actual 3D objects, using laser cutting and other methods.
- Powertools: A wiki-based communal collection of tools that assist creatives with audience-building, collaboration, and commerce.
Do what you already do: Find freelancers to plug the gaps in your own skill set.
How do you pay for it? That’s outside the scope of this discussion, really — I’m just telling you the direction to head in; you need to figure out you’re going to get there. The fact of the matter is, though, all of the above is doable on tabletop game industry budgets. If you read this post by Fred Hicks, you’ll note that he’s citing $90,000 gross to cover print and production costs for Dresden Files. From several of the webseries producers I’ve spoken with, they’re looking at budgets of less than a third of that, on average.
If it’s still outside of your budget, you can consider options like Kickstarter, a “ransom model” fundraising site, where creatives can post information about their project and take pledges for a limited time. If the goal isn’t reached, the pledges are not charged.
You can also try funding through pre-orders, through sales of premium memberships to your site, from sales of on-demand merchandise (which you should launch before you have completed production on your main platforms — fans like the feeling of “getting in on the ground floor”) — there are as many options as ideas.
“I’ll Be Back.”
We’ve reached the end, finally. I hope I’ve given you some stuff to think about.
Although this is the last post of this series, it’s not my last post on this subject. I’ll be coming back to it from time to time, talking about various aspects — Audience Building, the effects of “Piracy”, etc. — and also getting into some specifics about my own plans in this area (as Adamant currently has two different transmedia properties currently under development).
At the prompting of Daniel Perez of Highmoon Media, I may also be doing some impromptu seminar/discussions on this topic at Origins and GenCon, for folks who are interested. And, as always, the comments are open for questions.
Thanks for coming along with me this far. Now get out there and get to work.