1) We keep hearing about transmedia. What exactly does that mean, anyway?
Star Wars is my best example of an entertainment property strong with the transmedia force. In fact, I’m working with a co-author to write a book about this topic—a book that will become a film, a graphic novel, a hit music CD, and a videogame. That’s the whole point, right?
To make a transmedia property, you need first to build a “storyverse.” This is my catchy coinage to describe a broad and deep foundation of characters, settings, dramatic set-ups, conflicts, themes, mythology, rules, and hooks. But, the purpose of a storyverse is not to define a single story. Instead (and this is critical), its purpose is to create a uniquely compelling playground of story possibilities. A storyverse is to stories what GTA is to FMV games like Dragon’s Lair. (An extra life to those who don’t need to Google “FMV games.”)
In short, you want to both create and constrain a rich possibility space for stories to emerge. For Star Wars, we have a great supply of the characters (including heroes and villains), the planets and outer space (locations), the force (mythology), several conflicts between characters and factions, and unique hooks (Force powers and the lightsaber) within the storyverse.
2) How do you prepare IP for transmedia?
The secret sauce is all common sense stuff. But, above all, two things are required. The first is a strong lead character (James Bond, Spider-Man), or several strong characters (Star Wars, Lord of the Rings), along with a good supporting cast of secondary characters. Both Star Wars and Star Trek score well in this department. The second requirement is unique hooks like the Force and the lightsaber, both of which translate into unique and compelling gameplay features. I’m certain George Lucas wasn’t thinking about videogames when he wrote the script for Star Wars, but these hooks are what make it so unique and compelling as a videogame franchise. These hooks are what differentiate Star Wars from Star Trek, a franchise that has not successfully crossed into videogames, despite dozens of expensive attempts.
I find it revealing, in fact, that of the tens of thousands of films, novels, TV shows, and comics that have been successful in the linear media, only a dozen or so are consistently successful on the nonlinear, interactive side of the fence. That short list includes Star Wars, Spider-Man, James Bond, Batman, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and only a few others with a track record worth bragging about. That’s because so few have those inherent hooks that translate into unique, compelling game-play features.
Here’s where I need to unveil a big caveat. Kid properties don’t count. Kids will indiscriminately buy anything that’s based on a brand they already like, and so they fall willingly for transmedia efforts, even all of the bad ones. THQ became one of the top-tier publishers by taking successful non-transmedia TV shows and making (mostly crappy) games. With adults, though, that emu won’t fly.
3) When making a new IP, what’s important and what’s not?
I have a strong interest in creating transmedia properties. Why do anything less? While they can be creatively rewarding, they are also more challenging due to increased pre-planning. In this area I feel like my studio has done well with several of the properties we brought to the market, including Wolfenstein 3D (the last Id Software game to star a named hero), Duke Nukem, and Max Payne. Prey also has potential: MSNBC rated it as one of the five games released in 2006 that should be made into a film, alongside Halo and three others.
Games I’ve been involved with have always focused on lead characters with notable, strong personalities. This goes back to the early ‘90s when I realized that all of the popular comics were named after their lead character, like Superman, Batman, Iron Man, Spider-Man, etc. I figured out that this spotlight on the lead character greatly helped burn the character’s name into readers’ minds, plus it allowed maximum flexibility with future stories. Let me give you an idea of what I mean: As I said when it was first released, Eidos made a boneheaded mistake naming their female Indiana Jones game Tomb Raider.
Instead, they should have named it Lara Croft. Think about it: By using Tomb Raider as the brand name for this franchise, each game MUST be about raiding a tomb, otherwise the name doesn’t make sense. In effect, this name entombs the franchise into a limited, repetitive set of stories over its lifespan. Maybe that’s interesting to ancient Egyptians, but we current day humans prefer more variety to our stories. Additionally, Lara Croft is a star character that Eidos obviously wants to promote, but they must also spend time and money promoting the frivolous Tomb Raider brand. Had they named the game Lara Croft, they would have instantly avoided both of these problems.
6) Where does the money keep coming from for 3DR and what would you do differently with Duke Nukem?
I get this question a lot. Then I remind people that Duke Nukem 3D was made for $300,000, and we made back 25 times our investment—not to mention all of the third-party Duke console games that sold well. Plus, we made a killing with Wolfenstein 3D. And we made the biggest killing on Max Payne! We made $30 million in royalties on that game (off of a $2.5 million investment), plus another $48 million selling the IP to our publisher.
Oh, and we were also part owners of Gathering of Developers when that was sold to Take2. And finally, we have been pretty lucky with other investments, both in the stock market and in other studios. The bottom-line is that it really shows how important it is to own your own brands. It is only through ownership that a studio can truly create wealth and long-term sustainability.
Even so, I think I would have abandoned internal development six or seven years ago. I much prefer to work with external studios to develop games, as we did with Max Payne and Prey. Radar is following this very model, with no internal development. I wanted 3D Realms to switch to this model years ago, as it’s much more cost effective for us, with lower risk. For other independent developers this advice doesn’t apply. What I’d recommend for them is to not strive for perfection, which is the enemy of completion. For practically all aspects of a game, 80% is good enough.