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Opinion: Where's that glorious transmedia future?

Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander takes a look at how film and other media are doing at leveraging brands into the world of games, finding slow progress toward that popular transmedia vision.
The relationship between games and media licenses is as old as games itself, but in the 21st century content creators and IP holders have been particularly keen to explore what opportunities the booming, fast-evolving video game industry can offer it to create more immersion and more permanence for their brands. In the age of connected entertainment the possibilities grew ever-broader: What if worlds and stories could become platform-independent, with multiple entry points that could let users tailor their experience? People imagined a television show that evolved and changed based on what users did in an online game, or interactive books on mobile devices. Some even envisioned wearable devices that could somehow make people themselves the pieces in an ever-living game. Now, we have an app for everything, but where is this glorious transmedia future? Video games are surely leading the social media revolution, leagues ahead of other spaces in terms of creating ways for players to share their experiences, play together and access their gaming properties from multiple points. Yet film, television and other forms of storytelling still seem slow to get on board. The important lesson learned about licensed video games -- which are far from the guaranteed cash-ins they once were -- is that film and games appeal to audiences for fundamentally different reasons. One simply cannot take the action and story of a blockbuster film and shoehorn it into a video game and expect it to sell. Perhaps they looked like interchangeable experiences to the money folks that made them, and maybe even to the console-owning consumers who'd spot movie games on shelves. But the consumer that buys video games is much more savvy now; even when we can expect quality from a movie game, it feels redundant. In more good news for the games space, consumers are much more amenable to the idea that games can have universes, characters and long-term storylines all their own. That was one of the messages from Activision's Eric Hirshberg at the recent unveiling of the company's new Skylanders Giants, which he saw as proof that video games can generate their own strong brand power without having to borrow from other media. Brand recognition is still considered an important driver of sales, so it's not like movie games are going to disappear from shelves any time soon (for as long as games are still sold on shelves, at least). But it seems that now rather than the knock-off console game, Hollywood is diving full-speed into the knock-off Facebook game or iPhone app. The popular Hunger Games series of novels will shortly see the release of a highly-anticipated film, and there's a Facebook game slated to launch at the same time, but from the information available it seems more of a marketing tie-in than a considered attempt to more deeply engage the audience around the fiction. Facebook is deceptively difficult territory, with user acqusition cost high and consumer quality expectations even higher. The precise balance of design elements that both genuinely entertain audiences and effectively monetize the game is still not well-understood. You'd think if the property-holders bothered to make such a significant investment in gaming at all, they'd want to do it in a fleshy, persistent way. Especially as it wouldn't have been terribly unnatural to develop some kind of richer game experience related to the Hunger Games book and film -- the story, which pits teenage kids from 12 distinct districts against one another in a brutal free-for-all toward a final survivor -- is pretty much about a game already. Half the work is already done. Is it too expensive to be the first property to take an earnest and well-researched leap into media crossovers? Too complex, too unproven, too much the unknown? Whatever the reason, efforts to develop properties across multiple media are still unexplored, let alone the sort of tandem media-agnostic world-building that transmedia advocates once visualized. But if other media want to leverage the power of video games -- a field that seems actually to threaten to leave them behind in terms of their ability to keep fans captivated with a brand over years -- and if that transmedia future is ever to take place, they ought to look more closely at the massive fields of opportunity they let lie fallow. Maybe the wells of money they're leaving unmade will persuade them someday, too.

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