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A Unified Labeling System for Transmedia Projects

robert | February 11, 2011  ‐  43 Comments

I’d like to develop a unified labeling for transmedia projects. The objective is to allow the audience to quickly and easily determine

(a) if this is the kind of project they will like

(b) what is expected of them in terms of time and effort required to enjoy the project.

I believe this type of communication will help multi-platform projects become more widely accepted and more easily understood.

The diagram below shows a simple label that I think covers all the necessary bases. The fields are explained below.

Age rating.

Same idea as for movies and games, identifies if this experience is for children or adults.

Genre.

The genre of the story.

Type of experience.

In my Transmedia Radar Diagram I show how an experience can be explained in terms of four dimensions: “A” – authorial control, “P” – participation (audience ability to change the story), “R” – degree to which the story builds its fictional world on the real world and “G” – degree of gaming such as use of puzzles and challenges. In the labeling system, the radar is reduced to a simple binary decision and the producer is required to indicate the two strongest aspects of the experience.

A = the author’s story is a predominant feature. Of course story is important in all experiences but an A indicates that on balance with the other dimensions, there’s plenty to read or watch. This will be true for experiences based predominantly on books, comic books, webseries and so on.

P = audience participation will change the course and/or outcome of the story

R = the real world places and facts are used as a foundation for a fictional experience. Of course this could be argued for any contemporary or historical fiction but here we’re inferring a pervasive or alternate reality experience.

G = solving puzzles or completing challenges is a predominant feature of this experience.

Platforms used

There is space for five icons to communicate which touchpoints are used to tell the story. For example, video, online, locations, audio, phone calls.

Remember that the label is being used to sell the project to a prospective audience. Hence the producer should use icons that communicate the predominant or more appealing part of the experience.

Time required & Duration

Time  tells the audience how much time commitment they must make to complete the experience.

Duration communicates the period over which the experience will unfold.

So, for example, a 90 min movie unfolds over 90 mins so that would be 90 mins/ 90 mins. An ARG might require 5 hours puzzle solving, video watching and blog reading over a 6 week period – so this would be shown as 5 Hours/ 6 Weeks.

Level of difficulty

This tells the audience how familiar they need to be with this type of experience. For example, reading a book or watching a movie would be “easy” whereas solving a complex puzzle with online collaborators from around the world might be “difficult” or maybe even “killer” – depending on the producer’s marketing angle.

Examples

Here are some examples that illustrate the label in use.

Lowlifes is a crime thriller that unfolded over a month and takes about 2hrs simple effort to read the book, watch the videos and read the online blog. The story is on rails but is firmly rooted in the location and history of San Francisco’s Tenderloin district.

The Jejune Institute is a location-based game that takes the audience about a hour of solving puzzles and walking around San Francisco.

No Mimes Media LLC’s 10 minute Mime Academy game is a introduction to alternative reality games that has the audience following clues. Note that making and receiving a telephone call is a cool feature of this experience.

Lance’s Pandemic 1.0 took place over Sundance 2011 (10 days) and I’m guessing took about 2 hours to experience. Although there’s a lot for the audience to do in terms of finding hidden objects and matching story segments together, I’ve not scored the experience with a “P” for “participation” because the authorial aspect is very strong (character tweets, videos, objects) and the challenges (G) are a predominant factor.

Next Steps

It’s up to all interested parties to talk about the need or otherwise for such labeling, work through any problems and improvements and then to start implementing it.

  • Marie-Paule Graham

    I think this is a good idea so that you don’t lose people when an experience takes more time than expected, as example of one pitfall (more relevant to long term projects). Lets make it easy for this form of storytelling to be absorbed into the mainstream.

    • http://twitter.com/tStoryteller TStoryteller

      yes exactly!

  • http://twitter.com/vpisteve Steve Peters

    Oh dear. So you’re being Tipper Gore now, Robert? ;)

    • http://twitter.com/tStoryteller TStoryteller

      LOL!
      Well I’m not suggesting it’s mandatory or that we establish a large bureaucracy to maintain it :)
      It’s entirely voluntary but worthwhile for all the reasons Marie-Paule says below.

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  • http://twitter.com/andrhia Andrea Phillips

    I have qualms about this system. They are many and varied, and all deal with the kinds of assumptions underlying these criteria.

    1. It assumes finite projects in which all of the pieces to be used are known out of the gate. This is not always the case, particularly in very performative, improvisational pieces.

    2. It assumes player experiences are similar, and does not account for experiences tuned to multiple levels of engagement, or consisting of multiple optional pieces. How many hours does it take to go through a Star Wars transmedia experience?

    3. It is skewed toward gamers and a game paradigm. I have read some books and watched some movies I would call “difficult.”

    And of course you do lose some of the magic of discovery if you tell people up front “there will be phone calls, a comic book and a live event.”

    Transmedia is much larger and more wonderful than the real-time social media drama format this would most simply be applied to. I agree some of these pieces of information would be helpful for audiences to have… but I don’t think this is the way to go about it.

    • http://twitter.com/tStoryteller TStoryteller

      All good points Andrea, let me see if I can respond…

      1. It assumes finite projects in which all of the pieces to be used are known out of the gate. This is not always the case, particularly in very performative, improvisational pieces.

      If the experience has no end date because it could potentially run forever, let’s use the infinite symbol in place of the duration.
      For an improvisational project, this would imply that the audience can determine the cause of the story? Therefore use the P designation in the experience box.
      Whatever the project it must exist somewhere either online or in a real location so use the icons to indicate the predominant platforms. If the project evolves over time to encompass a more predominant platform then just update the label.

      2. It assumes player experiences are similar, and does not account for experiences tuned to multiple levels of engagement, or consisting of multiple optional pieces. How many hours does it take to go through a Star Wars transmedia experience?

      Oh sure, that’s a good point. How long does it take to read a book? The point here is that the label is a marketing tool – if the producer wants to convey the importance of a lengthy experience then stick in a big number; or if the producer is worried that a big commitment will put people off then stick in a more reasonable number. There’s no hard and fast rule but it’s an attempt to simply convey what might be ahead for anyone taking this on.

      Also, of course worlds grow and expand so that label would be applied to each implementation of the story and not to the whole world. Hence I’m not advocating labeling the story universe, just each transmedia experience within it. Where the “experience” is just a book or a movie then no need for the label.

      3. It is skewed toward gamers and a game paradigm. I have read some books and watched some movies I would call “difficult.”

      Well not necessarily games, no, but to “experiences” rather than static single media. So if its just a book then no need for the label.

      4. And of course you do lose some of the magic of discovery if you tell people up front “there will be phone calls, a comic book and a live event.”

      Yes that’s completely true. So it would be at the producer’s discretion to use the label or not or to reveal every aspect or not. As I said, it’s a marketing tool – so use to win your audience with what you can tell them and leave out what you’d like to keep a secret :)

  • http://twitter.com/tStoryteller TStoryteller

    All good points Andrea, let me see if I can respond…

    1. It assumes finite projects in which all of the pieces to be used are known out of the gate. This is not always the case, particularly in very performative, improvisational pieces.

    If the experience has no end date because it could potentially run forever, let’s use the infinite symbol in place of the duration.
    For an improvisational project, this would imply that the audience can determine the cause of the story? Therefore use the P designation in the experience box.
    Whatever the project it must exist somewhere either online or in a real location so use the icons to indicate the predominant platforms. If the project evolves over time to encompass a more predominant platform then just update the label.

    2. It assumes player experiences are similar, and does not account for experiences tuned to multiple levels of engagement, or consisting of multiple optional pieces. How many hours does it take to go through a Star Wars transmedia experience?

    Oh sure, that’s a good point. How long does it take to read a book? The point here is that the label is a marketing tool – if the producer wants to convey the importance of a lengthy experience then stick in a big number; or if the producer is worried that a big commitment will put people off then stick in a more reasonable number. There’s no hard and fast rule but it’s an attempt to simply convey what might be ahead for anyone taking this on.

    Also, of course worlds grow and expand so that label would be applied to each implementation of the story and not to the whole world. Hence I’m not advocating labeling the story universe, just each transmedia experience within it. Where the “experience” is just a book or a movie then no need for the label.

    3. It is skewed toward gamers and a game paradigm. I have read some books and watched some movies I would call “difficult.”

    Well not necessarily games, no, but to “experiences” rather than static single media. So if its just a book then no need for the label.

    4. And of course you do lose some of the magic of discovery if you tell people up front “there will be phone calls, a comic book and a live event.”

    Yes that’s completely true. So it would be at the producer’s discretion to use the label or not or to reveal every aspect or not. As I said, it’s a marketing tool – so use to win your audience with what you can tell them and leave out what you’d like to keep a secret :)

  • kulturvulturz

    I think Andrea makes some very good points. However, at the same time, my reaction was: “Finally”. As a player, some of these things are things I frankly want to know up front. And as a PM, I think I would like to establish some of the categories from the outset. I think the main aspect that appeals to me is being upfront with the genre, the duration of the experience, and the platforms involved. In addition, some people really don’t want to be part of an experience not knowing how much of a time commitment is involved and for what length.

    For Andrea’s second point, this could easily be rectified by having something along the lines of 2 minutes – 10 hours/weekly showing their is a range for the casual to hardcore game player. The other categories are expendable for my tastes, but I do like what you are trying to accomplish. I’m not sure if this will catch on as an “industry” standard, but I think advocating that certain parameters are more transparent from the outset is a good direction to go in (even if it violates the often lofted TINAG aesthetic).

    • http://twitter.com/tStoryteller TStoryteller

      Thank you for your comments and your support!

      Regards the TINAG, I believe that if an ARG is going to go mainstream then it’s going to have to communicate the rules and rewards – and ask for permissions. I see a future in which there are two types of ARGs – those that strictly adhere to TINAG and those that acknowledge they’re a game. The later will attract much larger audiences/players from a “mainstream” population and so spread adoption of ARGs which will then feed more players into the former ARG type.

  • http://twitter.com/isaak_kve Isaak

    I suppose my uncertainty comes from a bit of doubt. A system like this has its perks definitely: in one glance someone can see what the game is all about and it definitely aids PMs in defining their experience and presenting it to a client or other PMs.

    The doubt comes from a (natural) aversion of trying to compartmentalize things, I agree with Andrea in that Transmedia is larger than this. It err… transcends basic conventions and expectations, becoming something more than the sum of its parts. Parts this system ‘casually’ presents to the player as if that’s all the experience amounts to; a collection of things.

    What if the project involves teaching technophobic elderly how to use a computer? Seeing the label would instantly turn them off as participating would put them out of their comfort zone.

    The Transmedia phenomenon is brand new and doesn’t have a ‘language’ yet like other media such as film or conventional games, so any effort to form that I welcome. But I feel this is trying to use old words to describe something brand new.

    Like how early films were basically plays but filmed or how today’s keyboards are still based on typewriters.

    That’s my input for anyone to bounce ideas off.

  • http://twitter.com/tStoryteller TStoryteller

    Isaak, I hear where you’re coming from but it’s from the perspective of an aficionado. If you put yourself into the shoes of someone unfamiliar with transmedia experiences then you’ll find that “transending conventions” equates to “I don’t know what to do”. And the same can be said of keyboards – it’s widely agreed that the QWERTY system isn’t the best layout and is based on the old mechanical requirements of typewriters BUT we stick with it because we want people to adopt the new technology and that means innovating where we can (touch screens and multi-touch commands) but sticking to the familiar where we have to – the QWERTY layout.

    Gauging by the Twitter comments I get the feeling that people fear I’m creating a straight-jacket and restricting creative freedoms before the entertainment has barely got off the ground. I’m absolutely not trying to do this and I’m not at all suggesting labeling should be mandatory.

    So (a) if there’s no benefit for a particular project then don’t bother with it and (b) if the labeling doesn’t fit new experiences as yet to be invented then let’s change the labeling.

    But, I think a standardized label communicates to would-be audience that this project might appeal to them.

    On LinkedIn someone commented “nobody’s going to excited to see a mouse icon”. Well that’s a fair enough if that’s all there is but if a producer is selling a theatrical event then communicating that there’s an online component gives the mouse icon a different value – it’s saying that there’s more to this live performance and that might be a differentiator for the production and an incentive for the consumer. The same would be said for an SMS (text message) or telephone icon – it’s no big deal on it’s own but again couple that with some other platform and the combination of platforms communicates a different value and a different experience.

    I believe that today most people find transmedia projects confusing – they don’t understand the concept or what they, the audience, are supposed to do. A simple labeling system could act as a guide and hence firstly remove any worry & confusion and secondly communicate that a book, movie, game or play etc belongs to a broader category of entertainment known as a transmedia experience.

    There is also another requirement and that is based on audience permissions. Some transmedia projects will expect to call someone or text them or use data from their Facebook profile to personalize the experience. A labeling system will indicate that such permissions are necessary for the full enjoyment of the experience.

    If we flip over a DVD sleeve we’ll find information about the region, the sound system, the aspect ratio, the age appropriateness etc. and we don’t think this is at all odd – it’s communicating value and technical requirements to get the maximum enjoyment.

    What I’m proposing is that labeling a transmedia project in a similar way will bring similar benefits and I think in the long term – if, say, ARGs, are to become more widely adopted by the mainstream – will be necessary.

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  • http://twitter.com/vanjangle Vanessa Burt

    It’s a great idea, nicely designed and just gives an overall feel for the different elements and potential commitment from its audience. Some users may want to sample some or all and this “at a glance” is a good unifier.

    • http://twitter.com/tStoryteller TStoryteller

      Thanks Vanessa!
      ps. I too am a chocolate addict… 70% and up :)

  • http://twitter.com/isaak_kve Isaak

    [Isaak, I hear where you're coming from but it's from the perspective of an aficionado.]

    Hah, I’ll take that as a compliment. Guilty as charged.

    [If you put yourself into the shoes of someone unfamiliar with transmedia experiences then you'll find that "transending conventions" equates to "I don't know what to do"]

    You’re right. Transmedia isn’t as ubiquitous yet as for instance the internet and even then there are millions of people not even very familiar with THAT.
    I let my personal beliefs cloud my judgment.

    [Gauging by the Twitter comments I get the feeling that people fear I'm creating a straight-jacket and restricting creative freedoms before the entertainment has barely got off the ground. I'm absolutely not trying to do this and I'm not at all suggesting labeling should be mandatory.]

    Well, you are talking to a crowd of creative thinkers who find their artistic freedom very important, so maybe that’s not so surprising.
    Perhaps we’re not the best group to ask for thoughts then and gathering feedback from possible participants or other 3rd parties would be more fruitful.

    [So (a) if there's no benefit for a particular project then don't bother with it and (b) if the labeling doesn't fit new experiences as yet to be invented then let's change the labeling.]

    I did some thinking: instead of telling prospective participants what they can expect from the transmedia project, tell them what the project expects from them.
    They are after all a part of the experience and not merely an audience.

  • Paul Burke

    Hi Robert

    We have talked about this before and I keep thinking about it now and again.

    I like a lot of what you have done but think it should be repurposed slightly to be more about the audience than the project. It’s only a small difference but I think it makes a er… difference

    Have I got time to get involved with this?
    Can I do it with what I have at my disposal? (my phone, my friends, my city)
    etc

    We need to work out a way that it doesn’t need a key too. Though if its online you could do a nice ‘hover’ solution…

    Ah! Just seen Isaak’s last comment line – I think thats it.

    Finally, as you know I am working on something connected to this and will have news for you soon – hope you can be involved in that too ;)

    P

  • http://twitter.com/tStoryteller TStoryteller

    Paul and Isaak, I thought had approached this from the perspective of the audience – the labels inform them of the pertinent “dimensions” of the project. But, if I understand you both correctly, you don’t think this labeling does that?
    What you’re saying is tell the audience what you need from them? Don’t you think that’s a little arrogant if done the wrong way?

    You could re-phrase the same and ask for certain permissions – “this project would like to contact you via email” or “..would like to interact with you via Twitter”. But then you could say either
    (a) why would someone just grant permissions without knowing what’s in it for them? This is often the problem that Facebook apps have, I think – they want to take over all my personal details for uncertain benefit to me
    (b) how do you communicate the request for permissions in a simple way? Answer: using icons as I have, or?

    So that’s why I still say that my label does respect the audience: it communicates the project dimensions and hence implicitly asks for permission to interact with the audience on the platforms specified.

    Paul, I grant that the APRG is a little detailed but it seemed easier that having yet more icons to represent these dimensions. I think that frequent players will come to recognize the combination of letters A_R_ as a type of experience without “translating” directly to what it means – as some do with Creative Commons logos. For those unfamiliar with the labeling then of course there needs to be an easy look-up – again, as with Creative Commons.

    • http://twitter.com/isaak_kve Isaak

      The difference is then perspective, as it seems we’re all three right.
      As for being arrogant, I’m not sure. Playing a game, watching a film, reading a book always means a player/participant/reader has to ‘surrender’ himself to the rules inherent to it.

      A film has a certain length, games have rules, a book has pages etcetera. I however realize this is incredibly high level stuff, so most people aren’t really aware of that. Going at it from that angle might be taken the wrong way, if done inappropriately.

      I also see I should’ve phrased that better. Not so much “what’s needed” from the audience, but… “what’s expected”? “What audiences need to participate skill/tool wise”?

      In short I don’t mean it as invasively as you’ve interpreted it (the joy of textual communication, heh). I suppose that’s seeing it in an old fashioned and indeed arrogant manner, like how many Facebook apps handle it.
      But those are Facebook apps, we’re not talking Facebook apps.

      So that’s not how I’m seeing this, as it would only tell the audience what they need to participate and be an actual part of the experience. Or in other words what the project needs from the audience in order to progress.

      A pure, honest “Hey, you’ll need a few things to truly make the most of this two way street experience.” and not “Hey, would you like to fill in these things for vague reasons other than we’ll somehow make more money with your private data. By the way, here’s a virtual item.”

      Err, that’s all I can add now. Trying to come up with a way to wrap this up but words seem to escape me. Anyway, I hope I’ve made myself more clear.

      • http://twitter.com/tStoryteller TStoryteller

        I think we do agree with each other! :)

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  • http://usmannaeem.blogetery.com Uzzi

    Audience: From their perspective its as easy as a barcode that explains the ABCs of were to go from one medium to the other.

    From a personal storytelling experience: I think its genius “y didn’t I think of that” idea. Now all thats needed is a spreadsheet that translate that and a barcode reader. I am going to retweet this over and over.

    Thanks Robert

    • http://www.tstoryteller.com Transmedia Storyteller

      Thank you! :)

    • http://usmannaeem.blogetery.com Uzzi

      Can I get this template from somewhere say as PSD format

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  • http://twitter.com/josenevarez Jose Nevarez

    Like your approach. Can I begin to use it in my future projects with your permission? I will give credit to you.

    • http://www.tstoryteller.com robpratten

      yes of course! please go ahead!