A Patreon ARG?

No, this isn't an announcement... yet. So far this is just a thing I've been turning over in my brain every so often for probably a year now.

I have a Patreon, but I haven't used it in ages now. I'd initially set it up as a short-story-of-the-month club, but to be honest, it seemed like a weird way to run things; I was limiting my possible audience to only the people who already knew my work. I tried posting short stories on my site after a time delay, but that felt both like I was cheating my Patreon subscribers AND nobody was actually reading 'em. In the end, I got busy doing more lucrative things (not to mention projects where I could see immediate growth) and the Patreon fell by the wayside.

But I keep thinking about ARGs and about Patreon, and wondering if the time isn't right for a Patreon-funded game. Here's how it would work: backers would be charged monthly. If it's not a lot of backers, it would be a fairly simple thing: a few characters who are only lightly responsive, maybe one central website that gets updated once a week with story and puzzles to solve. People who went in at higher levels could get tangible ephemera; that's your postcards, letters, etc.

If the amount of funding ramped up, I'd be able to justify spending more time on more elaborate storylines and more intensive interaction. Patreon supports that model pretty well by allowing you to define specific income goals and what you'd add to an experience (or project) when you reach that level.

The story structure is the kicker here. In order to make it constantly accessible to newcomers, it would need to be absolutely episodic, with each episode playing out over the course of 4 to 8 weeks, tops, and only gradual change in characters over time. In order to keep overhead costs down, it should always be roughly the same storyworld, so I don't need to build out a whole new web presence every few weeks. And in order to keep me sane, it should probably be something rompy and fun in tone, along the lines of Lucy Smokeheart.

So what I'm thinking is... maybe... Lucy Smokeheart ARG, anyone? Is there an audience for something like that? Would you want to give me all of your moneys...? Or is there some other kind of thing you'd much rather see? I'd really, really treasure your feedback if you have any for me. I am all ears.

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What's Happened to Transmedia?

I got an email in my inbox a week or two ago asking the titular question. It's been haunting me ever since. 

The underlying premise to the question is that transmedia reached a peak in or around the year 2012, and ever since then, new conversations, resources, and works have been increasingly hard to come by. It's hard to dispute that. ARGfest as a professional conference isn't a going concern anymore, nor is StoryWorld. TEDx Transmedia has pivoted to dealing with a variety of topics involving futurism and philosophy. 

"Transmedia" as I once knew it was, as Brian Clark would have said, an art scene encompassing a particular group of creators doing some things in common, largely springing up around the space that used to be alternate reality games: Clark himself, of course, but also the folks at Campfire and Stitch Media; the crew of FortyTwo Entertainment, later turned Fourth Wall Studios; the filmmaker Lance Weiler and his myriad projects; Steve Peters and No Mimes Media. Transmedia has included documentarians, experimental theater designers, web video creators, musicians, authors, and more.

And it still does... kinda.

It's true you don't hear a lot about transmedia as such anymore, in the same way that you rarely heard about hot new alternate reality games as such after about 2008. So did we move on to a shiny new buzzword? Nah. Did we all cut our hair and get real day jobs? Not all of us, no. So what happened, exactly?

Basically that indie art scene that started with alternate reality games is... well, it's over. We had our fun, and now we've more or less gone our separate ways.


This by no means is equivalent to "transmedia is dead," so let me just stop you. There are still strong standard-bearers talking about transmedia in so many words. A quick look at the Twitter hashtag right now shows me participation from long-time experts like Jeff Gomez of Starlight Runner, Simon Staffans, and Gary Hayes. 

For a lot of the rest of us, we've spread our transmedia-like tentacles into a lot of distinct and separate industries and arts in the interest of building longer-term careers and businesses.

A lot of the air and energy that used to be invested in transmedia has moved to virtual reality, with Campfire making award-winning experiences for the likes of Westworld. Fourth Wall's Sean Stewart works with Magic Leap, now, a Florida company that my money is on to be the next big thing. (And if you're from Magic Leap... email me. Seriously. I want to work with you so bad it's like acid running through my veins.)

There's also a thriving if small web film subgenre, continuing through companies like Astronauts Wanted. Experiential theater is going strong; Third Rail and Punchdrunk are making intense, transformative pieces. And locational theatrical experiences like Accomplice are still running, too.

In fact, the short but high-touch experience is where most of the action is these days. It's no accident that the room escape game began to boom right around the time transmedia-the-buzzword began its decline. Now room escapes are just about as widespread as the family restaurant chain of your choice. It's easy to see why: they use a lot of the same compelling ARG formula of experience + narrative + puzzles, and you can charge admission. I've done a little room escape work myself, and I'd enjoy doing a lot more—it's a very rewarding format.

And finally, some of us have taken our know-how in-house at places like, say, Disney Imagineering. Some of us are dedicated indie game developers now, or writers, or authors. And some of us have kinda dropped out of sight entirely. I don't want to name and shame, not least because I'm sure I look like one of 'em. 

Not to say that there's nothing left of that community—because of course there is, though the nature and tone of it has shifted along with the media landscape. 

The primo sources of conversation and information right now are the StoryForward podcasts and meetups. ARGN is still a going concern. The Future of Storytelling conference is a brilliant way to explore the intersection of narrative and technology... if you can afford the ticket price (and I wish I could). The core of creators that coalesced around that word "transmedia," though, has gradually decentralized. There's not one place you can go to find out what's happening in transmedia, or if anything is happening at all.

The Business Model Problem

At the end of the day it's not down to any one cause, but a lot of them working in conjunction: artists need to eat, transmedia as such lost its novelty, social media turned into a raging river where once it was a mere firehose, and media companies have become a lot more parsimonious than in our heyday about digital. These factors all contributed to making the ground transmedia grew in less and less fertile. 

But really, it's mostly down to money. We never really cracked a business model for social media storytelling where the social media bits paid their own way in terms of ROI. That meant a lot of transmedia creators like me were reliant on sponsors and marketing work to pay the rent. But as social media has transformed, it's become harder to grab attention in the flood of free content out there, much harder to get press coverage for methods of storytelling that we've maybe seen before, and old funding sources are shyer about spending money on stuff when they're not sure if it'll work. "It's on the web" doesn't sound like an automatic Cannes Lion anymore. Innovative things don't stay innovative for very long.

Outside of the marketing arena, more than one company has sought investment to try to build out original content on a transmedia-driven philosophy. Those companies have by and large folded, often due to an internal lack of clarity about whether they were primarily trying to build platforms or content.

In a way, though, room escape games are the ultimate answer to what happened to transmedia. So are mystery box services. So are single-user VR experiences. They don't just solve the business model problem; they also solve the real-time problem, the friction problem, and the late-joiner problem. It turns out that if you want to tell stories embedded in the real world, the best technology is no technology. A real key and a real lock you can hold in your hands (or the illusions of them) are a billion times more immersive than any old character on Twitter.

The Future

So does this mean transmedia is over? Nah. The genie is out of the bottle and can never be returned to it. Techniques for social storytelling, immersive narrative, and interaction have all come a long way; we can't forget what we've learned, and we apply that knowledge everywhere we go. Even ARGs still happen, and they can still be amazing, artful, and new.

And the future is always being born. There are probably a dozen other things going on right now that I don't even know about, because they're taking place in communities and under names that aren't "transmedia." I am dead sure a new, vivid, incredible art scene is happening right now with a group of starry-eyed creators who just want to make amazing things. I can't wait to see what they have in store for us, whether I'm invited to the party or not.

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The McKinnon Account

I made a thing! And I'd like to share the thing with you!  It's called The McKinnon Account, and it's a story told over the course of a morning via several emails and a few text messages. The fabulous and warmhearted Ben Scofield wrote the platform, and one day I'd like to make it open-source.

You can sign up for this little story at Hunter, Brown & Shen. Once you've registered, it begins for you at 9am the next day. (For extra verisimilitude, sign up on a Sunday so it plays out while you're at work of a Monday morning.) Just to be clear, it's not a game, just a story, and you can't do anything but read it. Call it an ARG without the G? 

This is just a tiny prototype for a larger project I'm hoping to make later this year, assuming I find the time to write it. That one is called The Attachment Study, and it's an experiment with a few things I'd like to try: single-player replayable immersive narrative; the illusion of interaction, where no real branching or player agency is actually possible; and for the real thing later in the year, the emotional texture of a character in the story falling in love with an audience member. The McKinnon Account does two out of three, and along the way incorporates some of the narrative techniques I plan to use in The Attachment Study  -- attributing actions to the player, for example. 

One more thing! Services to send email and text messages aren't entirely free, so running this story is likely to cost us a (very small) amount of money. If you think The McKinnon Account is super cool and you enjoy your time working for Hunter, Brown & Shen, maybe buy us a cup of coffee? I've set up a Gumroad product where you can pay what you like, if you are so moved. (The downloadable is a photo I recently took in Vienna, just so's there's something there. It is not actually related to the story of The McKinnon Account.)

So! That's the thing! Since this is a prototype, it's important I find out how this actually works for you. Please, please tell me how the story plays out for you; what you liked, what didn't work for you, thoughts on how it could be improved or modified to be better. Comment here if you can, or on Facebook or on Twitter, or reach out to me privately by email through my contact form. Even if you don't like it, that's valuable information I can use before I spend some months working on a story that everyone will hate.

Thank you! And congratulations on your new job at Hunter, Brown & Shen. Good luck!

UPDATED: If your phone number isn't in the U.S., alas you'll only receive the texts as emails and not to your phone -- but you will still get them, no worries!

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ARGs and LARPs and Me

Tomorrow at 1pm Eastern/10AM Pacific, I'm going to be taking part in the webinar series that the LA transmedia meetup (and in particular, Scott Walker) are putting together in the run-up to StoryWorld! The sessions is called "ARGs, LARPS, and Transmedia – What’s the Difference, Anyway?" I'll be a guest along with LARP expert Aaron Vanek. Here's the description, all official-like:

Alternate reality game. Live-­‐action role-­‐playing. Transmedia. These labels for storytelling and immersive experiences continue to spark definitional debates. But do these separate practices actually have some commonalities? Are they complementary? Are they even, perhaps, potentially describing the same thing? With an understanding based on years of playing and designing these kinds of experiences, Aaron Vanek and Andrea Phillips will explore the intersection of ARGS, LARPs, and transmedia... 

I expect it's going to be a fabulous time, and I'd love for you to take a listen and poke us with your sure-to-ve-insightful questions. Please do register for the event! The smart money says it's going to be a really fun conversation.

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Deadly Affairs: Some Final Thoughts

Now that the Deadly Affairs experience is over, I have a little housekeeping to do!

First up: Though I'm being widely credited as the writer for the project, this is only a partial truth. I did break the story and write most of the pre-scripted stuff, but I also had a family vacation scheduled smack in the middle of the run. There was no way it could be a solo effort.

And so let us all give mad props and credit to Dee Cook, who not only saved my bacon by handling the vast majority of the responsive writing, but made the character of Julie come to life with pieces of a romance novel so bad they could only be written by a creative genius. I am awed and humbled. I mean, look at this:

A storm was brewing in her viscera, the kind of storm that knocks the power out and leaves car windshields all coated with pollen and leaves from the trees. She covered her face with her elegant, slender fingers and wept tears that were more bitter than the pith from inside the rind of a really old lime. Afterwards, she felt cleansed, renewed, almost like a bird caught in an oil spill who had been painstakingly wiped off by a loving environmentalist. But the fact remained: she still needed to win back the affection of her one true love.

Talk about going above and beyond. Dee, if you were to write such a book and send it to Kindle, I would flog the hide off that thing. You would make so much money. All of the money!

Beyond that: The structure of this story was really interesting to develop. I've been considering it high-level plotjitsu. That's because our mission was to integrate with the Deadly Affairs promo, which shows you whodunit right out of the gate. That put certain limitations on how to create and prolong narrative tension... and so we pulled a proper Roger Ackroyd, as I've been calling it.

If you're not familiar, that's a reference to an Agatha Christie novel in which you learn at the end that the first-person narrator has been the murderer the whole time. And for Deadly Affairs, we led you down a garden path thinking the character of Gabs is the wife -- but she's been the mistress the whole time. Switcheroo!

That narrative complexity was balanced, though, by making the actual story itself fairly accessible and easy to navigate. Light on challenges, moderately heavy on available character interaction (especially compared to the standard for a project out of a TV network or film studio). It did the things we wanted it to do very well, and the community it was aimed at -- the ID Addicts who make the network go -- were asking us to do another game like this one even before the end. A good feeling, that.

And of course I am delighted that I finally got to do a soap opera like I've always wanted... though I didn't get to throw a wedding at the end. One day. One day.

Last but not least: I owe a huge thank you to TC Conway in specific, and also to Investigation Discovery as a whole, for making the project possible. It was a lot of fun, and I'd love to do something like it again.

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