The Three Es: The Value of Transmedia Fiction For Franchise Development
By James Waugh | July 04, 2013
My first tangible encounter with a transmedia franchise came on my sixth birthday. Weeks before, I had started to see my first grade contemporaries playing with amazing new toys that had the ability to transform from trucks, planes, guns, and boom boxes (remember those?) into the coolest things imaginable to any six-year-old boy: robots! These, of course, were the first generation of that bedrock product of geek culture, Hasbro’s billion-dollar Transformers toy line. At the time, I couldn’t begin to fathom how these objects would spark such depth of engagement and creativity within me, nor could I anticipate how they would inform my childhood in such a rich and encompassing way. They were, after all, just plastic. All I knew was that the cool kids at school were playing with Transformers during recess, and I’d watch covetously as they shifted between automotive and robotic forms. Like any social-climbing grade schooler, I had to have them too so I could join the fun. The word on the schoolyard was that the two Transformers I needed to get were called Optimus Prime and Megatron, only names to me then, not the characters that would come to define them. So, with my birthday looming on the horizon, I sat down and composed a wish list, making sure the two Transformer leaders were at the top.
I always hated alarm clocks. (I still do.) But I remember setting mine to 6 AM sharp the night before my birthday so I could start opening gifts as early as possible. When the alarm went off the next morning, I ran right up the stairs in pajamas to my parents’ bedroom, shouting over and over (in a cute voice that I’m sure went unappreciated at 6 AM), “It’s my birthday! It’s my birthday! It’s my birthday!” On the dresser I saw a large box wrapped in bright paper and sporting a big blue bow. My father, seeing the eager smile on my face and noticing that my eyes were fixated on the package as if a tractor beam had them in its grip, got out of bed and handed me the present. I wasted no time shredding the wrapping paper and diving into what was beneath. But something was wrong. The packaging didn’t have the artistic rendition of interstellar robotic warfare that was standard on all Transformers toy boxes. Instead, it was generic white cardboard, the kind that held the socks I’d get at Christmas, with a pair of large lumps protruding from within. Inside were two yellow zucchinis with Sharpie black-marker drawings on them, anthropomorphizing the vegetables with eyes, wheels, guns, and teeth.
“Zucchinibots!” my father said, trying to hold back a smile. My eyes narrowed. This was not cool. NOT. COOL. “I saw those Transformers you keep talking about,” he continued, “and I realized you probably would like something I made for you myself more… And they’re just as good. Besides, Transformers are so expensive. I figure with zucchinis, I can make you new ones whenever you want!”
I was mad. Fuming. This had to be either a joke or some cruel misunderstanding that my mother was sure to rectify. But as the hours rolled by and I still had nothing but Zucchinibots to play with as my grandparents arrived with balloons and cake, it seemed as if I wasn’t getting Autobots or Decepticons on my birthday after all. It was Zucchinibots for me.
Near sundown, we ate dinner. I opened a few other non-Transformer presents and pouted my way to dessert. When the cake came out, I made a wish. I want Optimus Prime. I want Megatron. They were already becoming characters in my mind. Once the candles were out, something happened that left me believing in miracles and the power of wishes for years to come. My father reached behind the couch and revealed two new gifts, wrapped ornately with big bows. My eyes lit up at the sight. To this day, I’ve never unwrapped presents faster. The wish had come true. I got my Transformers—Megatron and Optimus Prime. I screamed each of those names in glee. I was so elated that it completely slipped my thoughts that an incredibly wacky and some might say mean joke had just been played on me.
It’s a funny memory that I hold dear, even if it does remind me of the terribly sick sense of humor my father had. And, sure, the force of that memory alone was enough for me to look back fondly at those toys for years. But nostalgia doesn’t explain why I (or, better put, my parents) continued purchasing Transformers for the next six years of my life, or why I as a grown man have consumed movies, comics, TV shows, and books based on the franchise up to the present day. Unlike so many other toys that I’d gotten as a kid, played with, and tossed aside weeks later for the next new thing, Transformers inspired an affinity from me that only grew as time went on.
Why was that? Why do I see Transformer toys and still get bombarded with stories about the characters they represent, burrowed into my mind, my imagination giving them powerful context and personas that go far beyond the plastic and metal they’re composed of?
The answers to these questions led me to the career I have today, as I discovered the importance of character and story and realized the deeply meaningful impact of those elements in any form of brand building.
THE POWER OF CHARACTER AND NARRATIVE
As human beings, we are all storytellers (whether we’re good at it or not). We relate to the world around us by telling stories. Our memories are simply stories about our pasts. We naturally apply context, character, and catharsis to everything that we perceive. This essay started with my story about Transformers. There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end—a desire, a conflict, and inevitably, a resolution. Sure, that was a bit of a deus ex machina at the end, but I never claimed I was attempting to deliver the defining example of narrative form. That being said, it is the truth by which I relate to those events in my life, and you probably won’t forget it anytime soon. Stories create a deep, impactful connection among those who experience them. They cause us to reflect on the characters and form opinions about what they do, ultimately leaving an imprint on our lives. Stories are mankind’s original interactive medium.
My engagement with the Transformers continued not because of the memory of my birthday, but because of something that happened shortly afterward. That was when I discovered The Transformers, a 22-minute animated TV series I’d eagerly watch the second I’d get home from school. It may have been a glorified toy advertisement, but the show taught me that Optimus Prime and Megatron were far more than names on a box. They were characters with distinct personalities, needs, and desires, whose stories made me contemplate ideals such as heroism, courage, and loyalty, along with concepts like right and wrong, jealousy, and greed. Suddenly, those birthday presents had an entirely new layer of connectivity and context. This context enriched my time playing with Transformers, and though I didn’t understand its mind voodoo then, it was directly responsible for forging my personalized connection with the Transformers brand and the toys within it. These weren’t just playthings anymore; they were alive, characters whom I had thought about and emotionally reacted to, giving them an advantage over anything else in my cluttered toy chest.
The TV series might have been enough to keep me hooked, but my experience didn’t end there. On a trip to the grocery store, I found my way into the periodicals section, and on the rack were Marvel’s Transformers comic books. This new expression of the IP—that of serialized comics—allowed Hasbro to push deeper into the Transformers’ mythology than it ever could have done in a non-serialized television show. That’s right: I said “mythology.” This was a toy franchise, ladies and gentlemen, and it was so much richer than its competitors because of esoteric notions like giving the universe a cohesive history. It didn’t matter whether the root concept behind the property still hung on cool cars turning into silly robots with names like Jazz or Bumblebee. The comic and TV show sparked ideas that begot new toys, and evolutions in the toy line were integrated into these other media. Transformers began to seep into several aspects of my life. When I wasn’t playing with them, I was reading about them or watching them on television. The Transformers brand became all-encompassing, and my connection with it was cemented by the ancillary content to the core product. It was distinctly a transmedia franchise before the term was coined and it was unlike so many of its competitors in the best ways. Looking back, it was these early transmedia encounters that made the Transformers brand indelible to me and, it was this defining transmedia experience, the imagination inducing thrill ride of that toy brand, that has led me down the career path I’ve traversed as a thirty-something professional. There were lessons to be had in its construction, lessons that can be reproduced by the entertainment brands of today.
Below I’ll posit what I believe are the three strongest benefits of developing ancillary narrative material outside of a property’s core focus. (Just as toys were the core focus for Hasbro, video games are the core for the company I am employed by. However, you can replace this root product with whatever applies best to your interests.) I call these benefits THE THREE Es: ENRICH, ENGAGE, AND EVANGELIZE. By creating an ecology of narrative-driven entertainment, you make the IP richer, give fans greater potential engagement for their money, and allow Evangelizers to increase the brand’s advertising in manifold ways. I have applied this methodology to my former work as a film executive and most adamantly to my career at Blizzard Entertainment, expanding and developing blockbuster brands like World of Warcraft, StarCraft, and Diablo.
ENRICHING THE IP
There’s an old adage in Hollywood that “work begets more work.” In an industry of feast or famine, the momentum garnered from being prolific is undeniable. This idea applies to IP development as well. Expressing transmedia narratives across platforms allows for consistent character and concept creation. It generates fluid momentum that inevitably gives the IP’s creators a much more fertile landscape to compose future content from. Heroes will be fleshed out; villains will be born; the setting will be more deeply examined. By diversifying the media—the conveyance mechanisms for the story world—the franchise developers ensure that they’re truly mining the entire potential of the IP, as inevitably creators ask different questions and come up with different answers depending on the platform they’re working in. Ideas that spring up because of the specific needs of a comic book, a novel, or an ARG (alternate-reality game) narrative might not have been possible or even considered during the development of a game or movie. The IP steward constantly needs to do exploratory work, plumbing the depths and searching for the “Yahooo!” of striking gold. Often, that “yahoo” concept won’t be fully realized until years after its initial discovery.
Mining an IP for all of its potential pays off down the line, and it is the most valuable reason to create ancillary content. Comics, novels, books, and so on aren’t where the money comes from, and they shouldn’t be judged by that value. They are conceptual spark plugs that will ignite later as the franchise matures. The costs attributed to these projects should be viewed as intelligent, inexpensive R&D.
Let’s see IP mining in practice with a few examples. I’ll shift away from Transformers for a moment and look at an instance from the granddaddy of entertainment franchises: Star Wars. In the mid-1990s, Dark Horse Comics released a series called Tales of the Jedi, which focused on the events during the as-yet-unexplored “Old Republic” era of the IP’s history. It was a moderately successful title, which in dollars-and-cents terms is comparably unimpressive. However, the series was full of terrific ideas and built a rich mythology for the time period it covered in the Star Wars universe. Years later, when RPG super-company BioWare adopted a license from Lucasfilm to develop a video game, the content and concepts that were originally fleshed out in these comics led to the now-legendary Knights of the Old Republic. This game spawned a sequel, a series of comics, toys, and novels that further explored its characters and politics. Currently, EA and BioWare are maintaining a massive MMORPG based on this expression of the Star Wars IP, an expression that would never have been possible if Lucasfilm hadn’t been firmly committed to developing narrative within the framework of its properties, across multiple platforms, in order to realize Star Wars’ full potential.
Another great example comes from my experience at Blizzard Entertainment. World of Warcraft’s expansion, Cataclysm, features the mad black dragon Deathwing as its antagonist. Deathwing first appeared in the 1996 Warcraft II expansion, Beyond the Dark Portal. At the time, he was a fairly minor character. However, as the years went on and Blizzard struck a deal with Pocket Books, the Warcraft novels explored Deathwing in greater depth. He soon became a much bigger villain with a lot more nuance behind his behavior, a fleshed-out, fully realized character. This was possible because linear prose narrative asks different questions of its creators than the video game world did in ’96, demanding insight into personalities, pathos, and plausible motivations. This work begot work… By the time 2010 rolled around, Deathwing was a villain displayed prominently in four novels. His motives had been thoroughly scrutinized, and it became clear to the game’s developers that this character was the ideal baddie we were looking for to raze the realm of Old Azeroth! Because Blizzard’s publishing program had consistently incubated the IP and its villains, Deathwing was ready to go when the core product—the game—needed him. The ancillary content developed in Blizzard’s novels has been an incredibly useful tool in the overall success of the Warcraft franchise.
Finally, the FPS giant Halo has also delved into its IP to incubate and enrich the billion-dollar franchise. Writer and Microsoft narrative design director Eric Nylund wrote a book in 2001 called The Fall of Reach. In 2010, the setting and concepts generated in that title became the launching point for the blockbuster FPS game Halo: Reach, a reimagining of the scenario first envisioned in the novel. In addition, Halo’s publishing program invented the ODST combat force, leading, of course, to the 2009 title Halo 3: ODST, a game centered on these soldiers.
With the right steward representing the core product, this ancillary content functions as R&D for the franchise. The bean counters might say that it doesn’t make enough money on its own, but that’s only because they often don’t understand the mercurial nature of story-world development, andoften fail to attribute the cost of these projects to R&D for future growth of the primary medium.
ENGAGE THE FANS
Every time you finish a story, you start a conversation. This has never been truer than it is today, because there are more places than ever to have these discussions. As I mentioned before, a story is designed to challenge its viewers/readers to reflect on their opinions of various characters and, inevitably, their own morality. These reactions are not meant to be bottled up. Going back to Transformers for a moment, I can still recall countless arguments and ferocious debates about why Megatron kept Starscream around when he clearly wanted to be the Decepticon leader, along with many other disputes that are too dorky to share publically (as if that one weren’t bad enough). My friends and I were invested in these stories as kids, and we needed to share our feelings about the characters with each other. These narratives were designed to evoke an emotional response. But from a purely mercenary perspective, they engaged us in the brand. We were engaged in Transformers, talking about them even when the show wasn’t on or the next issue of the comic wasn’t out. They were an inescapable part of our lives, and more often than not, we ended up purchasing a new toy somewhere within the month.
Today, these conversations aren’t happening in just the schoolyard anymore. Now we have that series of tubes known as the Internet, and every opinion ever uttered, no matter how inane, can be found with the click of a mouse. Continuous creation of ancillary story content gives fans more to talk about, more to think about, and more to engage with when they need a break from the core medium or are in between movies, seasons, or novel releases. Fans tend to express their reactions on company message boards or external journalistic websites that summarize and review this content. For Warcraft, there is such an avid player base obsessed with the game’s lore that there are many of these sites to choose from, allowing massive debates to occur. This leads to a much deeper experience than the core product alone could ever offer. Your audience can engage with what they love at all times, in different places, which means if they’re not in the mood to interact with the primary medium, they can still enjoy the IP or (perhaps more importantly) share their views about the franchise and its stories. Providing enough material so fans can constantly learn something new, constantly grow more connected to the IP, is the ultimate goal of transmedia narrative.
In the game space, another strong benefit of ancillary content is that it encourages players to replay the game, giving them more to explore. Other media can flesh out what the core sets up in rich, exciting ways, inspiring players to revisit a level or game so they can go through it with fresh context. This ancillary content often results in a much more enjoyable experience, enabling fans to have greater understanding and deeper pathos than the core medium can currently induce. For an MMO developer with monthly subscribers, having an additional tool to keep gamers intrigued and eager to renew their subscriptions is a massive boon.
If you engage your fans properly, giving them content that spreads like wildfire through communities and news sites and offering them other ways to experience your franchise, inevitably you’ll cultivate the coveted Super Fan.
Year after year, time after time, the people who will consistently return to you are the fans who feel the most rewarded, the most involved in the IP. These are the Super Fans. You’ve seen them before. They line up for BlizzCon in their tier 8 paladin armor. They are the myriad Heath Ledger Jokers wandering like twisted zombies around the halls of Comic-Con. These are the fans who know every last bit of all the characters’ histories in the fictitious worlds they love, who buy everything that’s produced under the IP out of sheer enjoyment. They should never be mocked or overlooked. They are the ones who will come back after Metacritic hammers your latest game or Rotten Tomatoes kills your supposed blockbuster. Any franchise worth its proverbial salt needs Super Fans and longs to have hordes of them, and not just because of the revenue from their personal purchases (though that ain’t bad). If you engage these fans enough, they will become Evangelizers of your property and the best honest advertising any creator could ever hope to find.
Which, of course, brings me to our next E.
Ultimately, having an enriched IP that people are engaged with should lead to the ideal result: Evangelizers, fans who will spread the holy gospel of your franchise. These are fans who love your careful nurturing of the transmedia experience so much that they’ll share their passion with others. They’ll write essays decades later about their fan love (like me). They’ll become walking billboards for your franchise, and they will do so for their own enjoyment because you’ve done your work right and respected them. These fans will pick up the torch and find even more avenues of engagement. They spawn fansites, clubs, cosplay events, and countless other ways to interact with the property. Some of these fans even start businesses based on their adoration. Sites like WoW Insider and Lorehound earn revenue by advertising to players who want to engage further with the IP. In World of Warcraft, every guild has the “lore guy” who shares the game’s story with those who don’t read the books or all the quest text.
Today a major avenue for Evangelizer participation is the magic of wiki sites. Now the vast knowledge of every beloved franchise is easily discoverable with only a few keystrokes. Even if you’re not a Super Fan or you don’t take in the transmedia content, one visit to the wiki for your IP of choice will open up the Cliffs Notes for a panoply of information. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found myself losing entire weekends to the Star Wars (Wookieepedia), Transformers, or Lost wikis. These resources have inevitably lent massive efficacy and engagement to fandom. Once again, these sites are created by Super Fans, by Evangelizers who enjoy cataloging and sharing the information, stories, and character histories that have entertained them. Fans reap benefits and get more franchise-engaged pleasure because of the Evangelizers’ dedication. The transmedia experience goes far beyond the actual products made for it. Because of Evangelizers, fans who don’t have time to consume that entire novel or comic series or to play every expansion can go to these sites and see that their franchise is offering them much more than the core medium.
Of course, traditional licensing rationale still holds water here. Expanded presence outside of the brand bubble is terrific, low-cost advertising. Shelf space in stores for products like Lego Star Wars or books like Thrall: Twilight of the Aspects reminds consumers of the IP the same way billboard Coke ads remind drivers of their favorite soda. Many of the novels I’ve edited for Blizzard have ended up on the New York Times Best Sellers’ list, which means that even the highbrow folks who read the New York Times every Sunday can’t escape seeing the name World of Warcraft when they want to find out what’s going on in the literary world. All of this is a form of brand evangelizing, and all of it is possible because of the ancillary content.
A LIFE’S PASSION SPARKED BY PLASTIC
Those are the Three Es, the three values that codify my personal methodology for approaching franchise building through transmedia content.
You get the idea. I could write on and on, proselytizing you about why I feel transmedia narrative is an effective and essential component of franchise building and why I believe my methodology is the ideal philosophy for creating that content. I could further explain those three Es and rattle off examples ad nauseam. Instead, I’ll spare you and hope that the beauty of this codification of ideas is its simplicity, and that you’ll reflect on your own franchise loves and see how those Es have impacted you. Because despite all the business reasons I’ve given about how producing ancillary content helps make you money, at the end of the day, it makes you money by creating amazing experiences for people like you and me, and that’s what is most important. This content makes you money by doing something intrinsically good, by offering people great stories, characters, gameplay, and entertainment that give their lives joy, purpose, and meaning.
For me, two plastic toys and the ancillary fictional content that supported them led to an entire career and passion. I hope the work I (and you) create has the same effect on some kid somewhere who’s already dreaming of the franchises of the future. I just hope his or her father doesn’t have as demented a sense of humor as mine did… Then again, maybe I hope he does.
James Waugh is the Lead Writer, Franchise Development at Blizzard Entertainment
TWITTER - @Waughtang
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