Au Courant

End of an Era

No, no, not Deus Ex Machinatio; just another milestone in the career of a freelancer. Not a happy one, but without the valleys, the peaks would not be such a victory, would they?

For the last two years and more, I've been working on a long-term project with a private client dedicated to making an immersive narrative-driven Airsoft environment. Think of it as live-action steampunk Call of Duty, and you'd be in the right general ballpark. Alas, this project has run out of funding without ever getting its legs under it.

It's been a wild two years. In that time I created models for a game economy, trying to calculate how much physical currency to create and in what denominations. I fine-tuned rules for basic Airsoft play governing how to handle injuries, hospitals, vehicles, and more. I designed play scenarios that could adapt to fluctuating numbers of players and multiple factions, and with a variety of goals to keep play fresh. I created history and storylines for the world this took place in; actually I did that a few times, as our vision gradually shifted. I storyboarded and scripted and wrote fictional news articles; I even collaborated on the design of some room escape games conceived as part of a side business.

It was a really interesting project, and I'm sad that some of those ideas will never get their tires kicked hard enough to know how solidly I built them. It's not the first time I've done work that will never see an audience, and I'm sure not the last time, either. That's business, I suppose.

But alas, having your most reliable long-term client run out of funding puts quite a hole in your budget, it turns out. So this is me putting up the Bat-signal: I'm looking for new projects, and I'd appreciate it if you'd pass on my name should you hear of anything I could help to make better. I'm a big believer that 90% of being lucky is keeping your mind open, so I'm willing to consider all kinds of possibilities. Let me know?

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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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2015: So That Happened

Right. 2015! Dang. Just DANG, you guys.

While writing this post, I couldn't get over how much I've fit into twelve measly months. Things that happened in September already feel like they were a year ago, and last January might as well have happened in 2010. Or maybe 1999.

This has been an eventful year, to say the least. A year of spinning plates (and breaking some.) A year of oh-god-make-it-stop, please let me have two boring weeks in a row. Isn't that a thing? Don't people soemtimes have whole weeks where nothing very surprising happens? Months, even? I could swear I remember a time when life was like that.

Basically 2014 was a corker, and then 2015 decided that had looked like fun, so it kept up the pace. 

Work's Been Great

Let's start with the easy stuff: I'm not sure I've ever had a better year, professionally. Not even in the award-winning years. 

The big, big thing: I made my novel debut with Revision, which has been received better than I could possible have imagined. I got a few short stories and such published. And Lothian Airsoft, my ongoing client project, continues to sail along.

I also finished Lucy Smokeheart's Daring Adventures, at long last. And I polished off The Daring Mermaid Expedition, too -- a Lucy-world game/interactive novel that will be out in a matter of weeks. (OMG!)

I got a new agent! I sold A Creator's Guide to Taiwan! I went to World Fantasy Con and Phoenix Comicon! I taught a transmedia workshop in Austria, and briefly visited Vienna and Russia!

And perhaps best of all, I wrote a whole new book -- The Luck Eaters, née Felicity, which will be going on the market in a few weeks. And I also wrote a couple of novellas, which you'll be hearing more about before too much longer.

I knew it was going to be a red-letter year, but I didn't realize just how bright a red.

Personal Stuff Is More Complicated

But as lovely as the year has been professionally, my personal life has been characterized by... disruption, to put it kindly.

I came into January recovering from pneumonia, a process which was slow and not fully complete until this summer when I got some amaaaaaayyyyyzing new asthma drugs. (So amazing, in fact, that I now have an amount of energy I last saw in my late twenties.)

Then we figured out I have a kidney stone which is just going to sit there aching me for... probably ever. So I have that going for me.

We've pretty well concluded that my younger kid does not, in fact, have glaucoma, but my older kid has suffered bouts of mysterious and undiagnosed abdominal pain since April, which has been stressful for all of us. I'm spending easily a dozen hours a week dealing with phone calls and appointments for my sick child lately, because American healthcare freaking sucks.

We bat mitzvahed our daughter the same month Revision came out, which was wonderful and touching and we are simultaneously bursting with pride and so, so glad it's done. 

We got a new washer and dryer! Which was great except for the part where our new washing machine then broke for two full months before we could get it replaced, much less repaired. Along the way it leaked and damaged my laundry room walls and floors, and repairs are a work in progress. *looks at calendar* No seriously, the contractor says he might come by tomorrow. Or the next day.

But I didn't have skin cancer, not even one time! So that's nice?

Onward to 2016

The thing I've learned from 2015 is that too much going on in your life is hard, even if it's all great stuff. So my hope is for 2016 to be much more boring.

I need to finish up edits on The Luck Eaters in the next few weeks. And then The Daring Mermaid Expedition will be out -- and Circus of Mirrors, too. We'll be talking about those novellas! Maybe even Lothian Airsoft! I'm going to go on a cruise, which I've never done before! And maybe snorkeling, which I've also never done before! I might even sell The Luck Eaters to a publisher, and I hope to write at least one more book in 2016 -- and two is better. 

So 2016 looks pretty packed out of the gate, and my chances of a boring year aren't that great. But maybe I can get a boring month? Let's call if for March, OK? March, you're on notice. You'd better not let anything happen at all. Because jeez do I really, really need a break.

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Here's another piece of news I've been sitting on for... quite a while, actually, because it still doesn't feel entirely real and I have representation trauma or something. but! Guess what! I have a new agent! I am beyond delighted to say I am now represented by Zoe Sandler at ICM.

You guys. You guys. This has been a revelation for me, because Zoe is straight-up excited about the fiction I'm writing and the ideas I have. I showed some comments she'd given me to an author friend, who commented they wished they got emails like that from their own agent. Sparkles! Joy! I don't feel like talking to her is begging favors or imposing, you know? 

I'm pretty sure this is what an excellent agent-author relationship is supposed to look like.

And not just touchy-feely, either -- it's working on the business side. So far she's sold Taiwanese rights for A Creator's Guide and negotiated some work for me with Serial Box, the details of which are still shhhhhh very secret, we'll be talking about that more later. And we'll probably be putting a new novel manuscript on the market in the next couple of months. Editors, keep your eyes peeled. 

So going forward, if you want to hire me to design games or marketing work, you should still talk to me. But if you'd like to publish my next novel, make an audiobook for Revision, option Lucy Smokeheart to make an animated series, or translate A Creator's Guide into Finnish, talk to Zoe. She's awesome! It will be terrific.

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Get Thee to HR, to Be Hanged

So the now-infamous McKinney pool party happened, and it was terrible and continues to be terrible. I am amazed that incident concluded with nobody dead or in a hospital. And now we're in the everyone-is-upset-and-angry period, soooo of course I've seen some calls to try get a woman fired. Maybe a bystander, maybe even the woman who started the whole thing by saying racist crap and then slapping a black teenager. This makes me deeply, deeply, deeply uncomfortable.

Let's look at a counterpoint. This weekend, Tor creative director Irene Gallo got some heat for expressing some opinions on Facebook about the Sad Puppies, and was thrown under the bus by her employer. And a lot of people are calling for her to be fired, too.

This is our nuclear option on the internet, and we go straight there whenever our dander is up. Someone should get fired over this. Salt the earth. Wreck their Google results. Make it so they never work in this town again, or any other town for that matter. Sometimes it works. Mostly against women. But... not exclusively.

Every time I see this, I grow more and more upset. This is not the tool of a just and reasoned discourse. And this is a real slippery slope kind of issue. Look, I don't want to live in a world where "you made some people on the internet angry" is a firing offense. 

If the McKinney woman that people are trying to get fired is the right person who assaulted a child, then you know how justice should be done? By taking her the hell to court for criminal assault and battery charges. Or make it a civil case. The avenue for justice is not emailing her employer. Likewise, if Irene Gallo done wrong, the place for that is in court, too, for slander or libel, not emailing her employer to take her job away. And then if there are clauses in an HR manual or employment contract about criminal behavior (or opening the employer to lawsuit liability) then take it to HR for review, fine.

But that's not the very first step in the process. Unless you're happy operating as an angry mob like GamerGate, and I am very much not happy with that. I want to be better than that. If you believe in social justice, you damn well should be better than that. Due process. It's a beautiful thing. I believe in it, because I'd rather justice be slow than that innocent people have their lives ruined.

I'm starting to think we need some kind of Geneva Convention for public online discourse. Social media is not the arbiter of justice, and we should not be serving as judge, jury, and executioner. Because that sword doesn't just cut the people you think are racist, sexist, homophobic assholes. It cuts the people you like, too, the people who have opinions exactly like yours. And sometimes they bleed out right before your eyes.

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