Transmedia and Publishing

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This article was contributed by YPG member Kjersti Egerdahl. If you are a YPG member and would like to contribute articles on publishing-related topics for our site, please contact Becca Worthington at bworthington@publishers.org.

There is no truly concise definition of a transmedia project: it’s a young field, most often laid claim to by gamers and hacker types, and some features (such as its taking direction from its audience) are still in debate. But—as with more risqué debates in publishing—you know it when you see it.

The common thread in transmedia is interrelation: all of the stories told through novels, video games, comics, and/or film must be part of the official canon of the “universe” and exist in the same timeline. They must each inform the other media, even if you don’t have to know about them all in detail to understand one particular part. On the contrary—a transmedia novel should be enjoyable even if you haven’t played the video game.

Some of the best current transmedia examples come from licensed publishing, where juggernaut brands can extend their name recognition across an expansive fictional universe. Star Wars is perhaps the granddaddy of them all, with six films at its core and scores of related novels, several video games, and a new massively multiplayer online game, Star Wars: The Old Republic. At the heart of these endeavors sits Leland Chee at Lucasfilm HQ in San Francisco, the Keeper of the Holocron. The Holocron isn’t a mystical object—it’s just a database (albeit a huge one) where Chee keeps track of all the many timelines, characters, planets, alliances, and myths that fuel Star Wars.

We’ll discuss a couple current transmedia examples in detail, but first let’s back up and see where this trend comes from. The 39 Clues book series is one of the most well-known examples of transmedia publishing.

“The idea for a multiplatform series started in-house,” says Rachel Griffiths, the series editor at Scholastic. “We know how much competition there is for kids’ attention; we know that books go head to head with video games, TV, and the Internet. Instead of bemoaning that, we wanted to go where the kids are already and use technology to get them hooked on a book series.”

In the original transmedia project, each of the ten books contained one clue, and the other twenty-nine clues could only be discovered online by solving puzzles. The puzzles themselves were fairly simple and designed for children: anagrams, basic codes, and arcade-style games. A series of collectible cards unlocked more puzzles and games as part of a broader contest to solve the mystery behind all thirty-nine clues, with a $10,000 grand prize at stake.

“The authors created the world of 39 Clues in the books, and then the website and cards filled it in,” says Griffiths. “A team of editors and designers in-house created the website and cards, playing off what the authors dreamed up.”

Compare this book and game to the trend of alternate-reality games (ARGs) that seems to have peaked around the time the 39 Clues series started. ARGs are usually not tied to book publishing, but involve obscure clues that adult participants piece together, leading to cash prizes or exclusive live events. For example, in the 2007 ARG leading up to the release of Nine Inch Nails’s album Year One, a flash drive found in the bathroom at one of the band’s concerts contained an mp3 of a new track that trailed off into cricket sounds. Players had to discover that the cricket sounds needed to be run through spectrograph analysis to reveal a phone number and continue the trail of clues. The idea was that if you had enough players, someone would think of the solution, however obscure. Similar ARGs were created to promote J. J. Abrams’ TV series Lost (in 2006 and 2008) as well as his film Cloverfield (2007).

The transmedia experience of Halo 4 got underway well in advance of the new video game release in November. The focus, like a lot of higher-budget transmedia projects these days, is less on seeding puzzles for the audience to solve and more on providing many different branches of entertainment that give a global picture of the Halo universe. Game publisher Microsoft Studios set up a book publishing deal with Tor, and in January 2011, Tor (an imprint of Macmillan) released the novel Cryptum, the first of a trilogy set in the ancient past of the Halo universe. In October 2011, Tor released the first book in the Kilo-Five trilogy, Glasslands, by Karen Traviss. This more action-focused trilogy is set in the five-year period between Halo 3 and Halo 4.

But wait, there’s more!

October saw the first of five live-action webisode releases—what is essentially the first Halo film, after the 2006 Hollywood attempt fizzled. Together, the fifteen-minute episodes form a ninety-minute film called Forward Unto Dawn, which cost $10 million to make. By leaving the confines of a large studio, the creators are using the film to expand upon the Halo universe instead of rehashing its highlights, as feature films often do. The creators at 343 Industries, the Microsoft subsidiary that oversees all things Halo, see this as much more than an ad for the game. All of this is designed as a sort of onramp for new fans. Frank O’Connor, franchise development director at 343, described the glut of Halo novels as “a big commitment” in Variety. (There are eleven novels currently in print and eight games, including a remake and prequels.) “We needed a way to ensure there was a way for people to get onboard this universe without feeling intimidated,” he said. As a result, the Web series is intended to be “an origins story that teaches you about a lot of different facets of the universe.”

Lasky’s story in Forward Unto Dawn also provides insight into the multiplayer games that come with Halo 4—there is a combat add-on called War Games, and, most interesting, a cooperative series of missions called Spartan Ops. (Don’t lose count: we’re up to five timelines in 2012: the Forerunners trilogy, the Kilo-Five trilogy, the Forward Unto Dawn live-action series, the game itself, and the Spartan Ops series and game missions. This is happening across 4 platforms: novels, online streaming video, Xbox, and Xbox Live video.) All this buildup helped set a franchise record for first-day game sales: $220 million in twenty-four hours.

Let’s wrap up with just one more example. The Transformers have come back to the forefront of pop culture since the first Michael Bay film in 2007. But the films are just another entry in a scattered field of stories that can’t be called transmedia: the original 1980s film and TV show, comics, a string of animated series, etc.

It is only now, in today’s atmosphere of unified storylines, that the Transformers are getting streamlined. The current animated series, Transformers: Prime, serves as the backbone, and the two recently released video games by High Moon Studios build on the story. Two Del Rey (an imprint of Random House) novels by Alex Irvine, Transformers: Exodus (2010) and Transformers: Exile (2011), go back to the origins of the struggle between Optimus Prime and Megatron and hint at the first Transformers, the near-mythical Thirteen Primes. More books and TV episodes are on the way. (Full disclosure: I’m working on one of them.)

Many other video games and franchises are entering the transmedia ring, even as lone authors play with experimental fiction that crosses from e-books to Web to video. Books are not always a part of the equation, but if you want to tell a really immersive story, they are still often the best way to do it. Everybody wants their own universe these days, and publishers can help that happen.

Kjersti Egerdahl, an editor at becker&mayer! Book Producers in Seattle, has worked on nonfiction books with Lucasfilm, Fox, Mattel, Hasbro, CBS/Star Trek, Grateful Dead Productions, the estate of Jimi Hendrix, and the family of Babe Ruth. Her publishing clients include HarperCollins, STC, Chronicle, Running Press, Del Rey, Abrams, and Amazon Publishing. She has worked with best-selling authors including former Rolling Stone editor Ben Fong-Torres and celebrated Star Wars authors Stephen J. Sansweet and J. W. Rinzler.

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