Glitch, Fourth Wall, and Perplex City

Two companies doing work I admire have announced in the last few weeks that they're closing their doors on projects I love: Fourth Wall Studios, creator of Emmy-winning Dirty Work; and Tiny Speck, creator of quirky Flash MMO Glitch.

In neither case is the company itself shutting down. They're both conducting a pivot, as the Silicon Valley lingo goes. Fourth Wall will focus on developing its technology platform and get out of the business of original content. Tiny Speck will pursue chat technologies it developed... not games.

Neither company is continuing the work the founders meant to do when the company was formed. In both cases, nearly all of the staff have been let go.

I know what these teams are going through. I know exactly what this is like, in fact. Five years ago, my employer Mind Candy did its own pivot, switching from making the edgy, pervasive treasure hunt Perplex City to a children's puzzle game. Mind Candy was the rare pivot that was a runaway success: the project they pivoted toward was called Moshi Monsters, and the company is worth hundreds of millions of dollars now. But that wasn't my doing, and I don't have advice or insight for the people who are staying behind.

I have quite a few things to say, though, to the staff at these companies, about how to get through these coming weeks and months. And for other bystanders like myself, I have a few thoughts about this sad story and why it keeps happening. Because in every case, it's the same story.

Once Upon A Time...

...there lived a team with an amazing idea. They formed a company, then lobbied and received venture capital. O joyous day! Then they went out to build their dream with it: A risky but innovative and beautiful new kind of entertainment. The work attracted a loyal and ardent audience. The project was highly regarded by critics. It was clear the company had made something very special.

But it was also a little inaccessible to newcomers, and that loyal, ardent audience wasn't really big enough to justify all the money from that investment. A wider, more mainstream audience, though long hoped for, never arrived.

After two or three years, the company just couldn't afford to keep things going any longer. And everyone was sad that this beautiful, creative thing would pass from the world.

The end.

It's heartbreaking, that's the only word for it. It's heartbreaking as a fan -- I attended Glitch's final shutdown party late last night, and more or less cried myself to sleep after. But as sad as it is for the audience, trust me, it's orders of magnitude sadder for the creators who spent years, literally years of their lives pouring their deepest selves into building a magical thing, only to have it taken away in the end. Not to mention the, you know, sudden need to find a new job. 

But wallowing in misery, while it offers its own comforts, doesn't ultimately help anything. So let's move on.

Without a Net

For the former staff of Tiny Speck and Fourth Wall: It's going to be OK, I promise. If you start to freak out about it, you don't have to take my word for it; go look for yourself.

The nice thing about working on a critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful project is that you still have all that glory to bank on. And if you weren't, say, the CFO, nobody will hold lack of revenue against you. In fact, you may find your late and lamented job unexpectedly opening doors for you two, three, five years in the future. 

In the meanwhile: Give yourself room to grieve. You haven't lost a person, but you've lost a dream, and that can hurt just as much. The first few weeks are the hardest. Be kind to yourself, whatever that means to you: spend more time around people you love and less around people you don't. Eat nice things. Take bubble baths. Hit the whiskey, but not too hard.

If you're like me, it'll be a year or so before you start to remember the joyful parts more. But it will happen.

Don't despair that your best work is behind you, because that's only true if you stop working now. Know that you made one amazing thing, and that means there are inevitably more amazing things in you. Keep going. Fourth Wall: Spread into the studios and networks, and change the face of Hollywood. I know you can. Tiny Speck: Go Glitchify all of the games. They need a good dose of emergent, collaborative whimsy. In being struck down, you have become more powerful than anyone could possibly imagine.

And let me know if you need a shoulder to cry on. I don't even care if we've never met before. It may be hard to find people who understand exactly what you're going through right now. I'm here for you.

But Why?

And now on to the lessons-learned part of the post.

Once or twice might be a coincidence, but the same story three times is a pattern. And I bet if you looked hard, you could find many, many more examples of this same story playing out. So... why? Why do smart people and good intentions and an amazing product keep flaming out this way?

Putting on my pundit hat, I'd say the answer is this: venture capital is toxic to a creative enterprise. 

The reason that people go for venture funding in the first place is to get the money to build a bigger team and a bigger project than they could otherwise afford. Some dreams -- RIDES, for example -- would be harder and slower to build without a big injection of funding. But I'm here to argue that's not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes a leaner company built on sweat and shoestrings is the better bet for the long haul. I think this is doubly true when the company in question has a creative output.

Investors bring problems. One is the need to answer to a higher authority. A funder will always bring new interests and expectations to the table. But few venture capitalists are going to have the savvy regarding storytelling or experience design, and may not recognize the difference between their own taste and objective truth. (Not to say that's what went down in any of these three cases -- but it's a significant risk to the company's output.)

When the party's over, a venture capitalist is looking to make money. Usually on a particular timeframe; usually in a particular quantity. A VC wants to get in and cash out, and no critical acclaim or special community or innovative experience is going to change that. So accepting venture capital puts a ticking clock on your success.

A massive injection of capital can also provide creators with a false feeling that an immediate revenue stream isn't necessary. Consider the case of Glitch: The only way to give the company money was a subscription, which only came with questionable benefits -- extra teleportation privileges, and credits to spend on in-game clothes and house customizations. Now that there are art books and music for sale, many wallets have been opened anew. Fourth Wall Entertainment never had a visible revenue stream at all! Perplex City had its puzzle cards, the board game, and so on... but abysmal distribution outside of the UK. For people in most of the world, you'd have had to spend as much on shipping as on merchandise, which wasn't exactly an easy sell.

And even Perplex City didn't do a lot of the things I consider no-brainers now for scraping up revenue from a creative venture. If you're making media, you should also make sure you're selling t-shirts, art prints or posters, plushies, hard-bound books, jewelry, music downloads. Embrace the philosophy of the thousand true fans, and continually produce a fresh stream of new reasons for them to give you money.

Look at Penny Arcade or MS Paint Adventures, who have taken this kind of organic growth and ruthless monetization and turned themselves into bona fide cultural phenomena. Don't leave money on the table. Just don't. And consider only building as much as you can stand to build out of your own pocket to begin with. Bootstraps and duct tape. If you only commit your own resources to the project, then the only one who can decide when the show is over is you.

Not All Investment Is Bad 

Even if you don't think you can make the project of your dreams without investment, venture funding isn't the only game in town. Consider the case of Zombies, Run!: A successful crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter, which led to a great product that people will pay money for. That money led to expansion of the company and the Zombies, Run! product line, even more expansion of the fan base, and to all appearances, a stable revenue stream. It's the picture of successful organic growth.

Crowdfunding may not be for everyone, you say. It's hard and scary, and the outcome is uncertain. But consider this: If you can't conduct a successful crowdfunding campaign, there is a strong possibility that you're making something nobody wants. Or something that you can't explain well enough for people to understand why they want it. Or that you can't market well enough for people to hear about it even if they did want it.

And in all three cases, it's better to find out before you've spent months or years of your life building something -- because if any of those things is true, you won't be any more successful with the product launch than with the Kickstarter. 

There are a thousand reasons that companies fail. Bad marketing or bad management, bad luck and bad timing. Sometimes it's down to interpersonal conflict, legal drama, sometimes the core vision simply wasn't very good.

But for companies to fail, even after building a thriving community, or winning awards, or getting industry kudos for innovation... a tragedy, yes. But with slower growth and more modest expectations, arguably a preventable one. It's OK to make something that isn't the next Star Wars or World of Warcraft -- and that shouldn't be anyone's benchmark to begin with. Success can come in all sizes... not just the big fish venture capitalists are hungry for. 

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Laser Lace Letters

Those of you who have been reading my blog may already be familiar with Haley Moore from the Creative Spotlight covering her amazing Etsy project Rule of Three, her Blag-O-Pets, or even amazing work I never even wrote about, like her crazy fantastic Majora's Mask laptop bag. Haley is an artist of the first waters, and she deserves nothing less than rampant support in all her endeavors. Which brings me to the Laser Lace Letters.

Haley is working on a gorgeous combination of story and tangibility. Her Kickstarter is running now, and for only another two weeks. You should support her today. But don't just take my word for it -- see for yourself. 

 This project is going to knock your socks off, I am dead certain. Fund fund fund!

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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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ACG Unabridged: J.C. Hutchins

In today's penultimate installment of ACG Unabridged, I bring you J.C. Hutchins, podcasting pioneer and master storyteller known for such projects as Seventh Son and Personal Effects: Dark Art.  J.C. is the picture of an indie creator building his own fanbase. He's inspirational, energetic, and on top of all that, my god such a good human being. Clearly he has made a deal with the devil.

Here's what I had to cut from his interview for A Creator's Guide to Transmedia Storytelling -- but this is a mere fraction of his wisdom. The rest? Inside the covers of a certain book, on sale now!

Q: Where do you see the art and business of storytelling headed over the next few years?

A: To be clear: There will always be stories best-told through a single medium. Folks need not worry about their novels or movies going away. But I believe transmedia narratives will crack open storytelling in new ways that we’ll be exploring and experiencing for decades.

We’re already at a point where storytellers can economically craft narratives in which their characters can receive and send emails and phone messages from real people (aka consumers), post video blog “confessionals” or handheld location shots, and leave behind “evidence” in real life locations that can be documented and shared online by audience members. What I just mentioned is kindergarten, low-cost stuff that nearly any creator can execute.

The future of storytelling is so bright, and is gonna be so cool.

The true and disruptive potential of transmedia storytelling is that nearly everything around us — your phone, a billboard, a mailed letter, a t-shirt, a Twitter update — can be used to contribute to a cohesive narrative. Your narrative. That’ll blow your mind if you let it. And you should let it, because storytellers need to be thinking about this stuff.

There’s a trade-off, however: When you start adding additional media or channels to tell your story, you start adding time, effort and risk to the project. You also add expense, which can sharply decrease your number of achievable cross-media / cross-channel storytelling opportunities. I reckon this is why the most famous transmedia stories — such as the brilliant alternate reality game Why So Serious? — are funded by mainstream entertainment entities as promotional vehicles for films, video games and TV shows. These stories have many moving parts. You gotta cough up cash for those parts, and for creatives like me to make them go.



This is bonus material from A Creator's Guide to Transmedia Storytelling, in stores now! It's also available from the internet retailer of your choice, including AmazonBarnes and NoblePowell's, and others. Pick it up and let me know what you think!

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