Building Transmedia Worlds

Building Transmedia Worlds

Transmedia storytelling, the art of telling related stories across different media platforms, has recently become the topic of much thought, discussion and implementation. This is not a new concept, but with technology now offering us more platforms, it is finally becoming a substantive and legitimate one. A story can originate in a video game, a book, a graphic novel, a movie, a television show or even a toy.

Star Wars is an important modern example of transmedia storytelling. It began with a film in 1977, and has told its stories of galactic empire and revolution across many media platforms. Fans have been able to carry on interactions with that galaxy far, far, away, in video games, toys, cartoon series, books, comics, radio plays, and almost every entertainment medium that exists today.

But Star Wars is not simply the story of Luke Skywalker as it was in its infancy; it is many stores set in the same universe. I propose that in creating a transmedia property, building the world is more important than building an individual character or plot. We must lay out the rules of a universe and design it in such a way that it can foment rich fiction of all types. Those stories can be of many different characters and their individual journeys, all tied together by their relationship to the same universe or world.

Some have attacked transmedia stories as a cheap marketing ploy created to suck money out of enthusiastic consumer’s wallets. I think that if the property is being designed as a revenue driver it can risk failure, as the creativity may be limited by cynical revenue-based restrictions rather than the love of the property by fans. I might also propose that successful transmedia stories are closer to fan fiction than one might think. When an inspired transmedia author sits down to build a world, he or she should really start with the place they’d like to visit the most. Then they can look at the property from the point of view of, “If I love this thing, how would I want to experience it, and in how many ways?” I am a huge fan of the old Microsoft ad that featured the slogan, “Where do you want to go today?” That bit of creative marketing speaks volumes in it’s relation to the kind of interactive entertainment that houses a transmedia story.

Being in the video game business these days, I am most concerned with the game as the central hub of a transmedia story. When I approach other content providers to join in the universe, I often explain that for each of us, our media is the central hub. For us at THQ, the movie or TV show is an extension. For the filmmakers the game is the extension, for the fan at home, their fiction posted on the Internet may be his or her central hub. The beauty of transmedia storytelling is that they can all live together and complement each other in a consistent universe. And if you are a fan who loves that universe, you have the opportunity to experience as much of it as you like.

Community tools which use social networks to expand a story or universe are becoming new and interesting access points for transmedia storytelling. These tools can help the fan find their way into and through a multimedia story. They can also help them share them with friends and fellow fans and even create their own pieces of a transmedia universe. I think the quality of those stories will be filtered by the viral system itself with the best and most resonant stories reaching the most people. Those stories will most likely be the ones that are most consistent and respectful of the universe and its original inspiration.

Finally, we are finding that the ultimate challenge for delivering transmedia experiences is one of production and timing. How can these pieces be built, how often on different systems and at different costs and how can they be delivered in the most rewarding sequence to the fans? For instance, a film may take a year or two to produce; a video game may take three years; and a graphic novel six months. Getting these to arrive in the most dramatic sequence is a new challenge that transmedia producers only now are having the privilege of facing. But it still all starts and ends with a robust and consistent world, created and managed by inspired visionaries, who are themselves its biggest fans.

About Danny Bilson
Danny Bilson is EVP, Core Games for THQ, and oversees production and marketing across its action, shooter, strategy, racing and fighting titles. He has over 20 years of writing, directing and creative experience in entertainment media, including games, film, television and comic books.


  1. I really appreciate the fact that you call attention to the strategic aspect of staggering the launch/distribution of various transmedia story elements. The true visionaries and creators of great, multi-platform story worlds in today’s fragmented media landscape must be truly adept at strategizing how their story unfurls. No longer can we rely on lazily creating characters isolated in a stories constricted by linear storytelling techniques.

    The old writer’s trick of writing a “backstory” to your character must now evolve to the point where we dream up how that character would live, breathe, interact in the world outside the core story and how unveiling such behaviors [actions/reactions to an expanded world of conflict] in a strategic fashion can enrich the overall story world…

    …Complex to say the least. But for those truly passionate about the world they create, this should come naturally. Yet, as always, only those with true talent will succeed in creating multi-dimensional stories and characters that resonate on a mass, universal level.

  2. Heya,

    Actually, and this isn’t to harp on your comments JC, but really the only requirement to build a transmedia rich background is an interesting story that incorporates an interesting world filled with interesting characters. Once you have that, you can create more stories that exist within that same envelope.

    Take a look at what Red Faction does, a THQ game, it makes a cosm for the player to explore. Mars, and all it’s secrets, are outside of the game experience. Yet you can do multiple media based events in this world because it has enough hand holds to generate interest. Red Faction: Guerilla and Armageddon both leverage this. Other games do it too – Bioshock I’m looking at you.

    The process is simple, you create new hand holds (plot hooks) based on the inferences of the setting and interactions with previous stories to give a player a sense of consistency. The story of the world, in a sense, tells itself through the details of the stories before it. It creates it’s own continuity as you build on the world with new story.

    Look at the pulp era stories and novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Fritz Lieber, and H.P. Lovecraft. They were doing exactly this way before transmedia was even a concept.

    It’s not that hard to do. The hard part is to make the stories told relevant to the player, the consumer, the viewer. To give the stories value, to weave them in a way that gives the person absorbing the story the impetus to return? Now that requires talent and hard work.

    What really interests me is how you can use social media, specifically games like ARGS, to act as glue to tie the transmedia experience together. This is a tremendous tool for creating the investment necessary to have people return again and again. This worked super well for Lost, Halo, and even Nine Inch nails in the past.

    Still, it’s only a small portion of the gaming/online audience that will participate in such an effort.

    What really nails the transmedia experience is the ability for people to imagine what could happen within the confines of the setting – based on their experiences with it – that really creates a sense of dimension and wonder that will engage them. To do that, you need to create just enough depth for them to enjoy, and just enough space for them to use their own imagination.

    Just look at all the fan-fic a series or setting inspires, and you can get a sense of what types of settings and characters really could be goldmines for transmedia.

Leave a Reply