I’ve always been involved in some form of media making since I was in grade school picking apart/repairing cassette tape recorders, so get off my lawn. Specifically, outliers and mainstreamers that insist on coming up with newfangled media taxonomy every few years, primarily to define digital media and the Internet. One of my ‘favorites’ has been Transmedia which I’ve felt has been over-hyped and inconsistently defined. I’ve heard people stammer when I’ve asked them to tell me exactly what it is. Even Wikipedia and one of the key proponents of transmedia Henry Jenkins, appear to differ on the definition. It seems to me it has never adequately defined anything really new as Disney could be seen as a transmedia storyteller par excellence before the internet even existed. The problem these folks have is defining the unique little flower that transmedia is, and not to confuse it with cross-platform storytelling. Transmedia is a push the story and audience to the media platform exercise with either positive or negative results (Jenkins: “… are dispersed systematically across multiple media platforms…”). And let’s face it, it’s a marketing strategy to get paid more for telling a story in multiple places. There’s nothing wrong with that if you’re successful. If you create characters, back stories and story arcs that are compelling enough to bring an audience to additional media platforms then good for you, but there’s nothing new here. Marvel, Lucas, DC, Dark Horse, Roddenberry have been doing this for years, well before the 1991 invention of the term transmedia. It’s just cross-platform storytelling.
Why am I bringing this all up now? Partly because the transmedia folks will mention interactivity among the storytellers and audience, though this seems lacking in the formal definition. Marketing proponents push to the platforms and have even fought their audiences from time to time, sometimes by declaring full creative ownership or even copyright infringement control over their fans. I think that violates the original intent of transmedia. I think transmedia should be wholly redefined from what it currently is: pushing a story to multiple media platforms, to the better definition of pulling fans to media platforms for the purpose of sharing the storytelling experience.
Enter Minecraft. This amazingly popular indie game released in 2011 after 2 years of alpha/beta development that I became aware of during a presentation at the XOXO festival last year by Portland’s 2 Player Productions who created a beautiful documentary about it: “Minecraft: The Story of Mojang”. And then around the holidays my tween daughter began to enthusiastically play the mobile version, watch YouTube videos and talk to her friends about it. What did I discover?
Minecraft is different. It’s a game with an audience. It’s an open ended game- you can do what you want, which is a key to it’s popularity. Participants create worlds, characters, stories and challenges to their heart’s content. They create elaborate scenarios- dare to call them stories on their own. This personal walled garden of storytelling between the participant and their device of choice (PC, game console or mobile) is by default not a shared experience. The shared experience comes when Minecrafters make videos (mini movies if you will) exploring their creation to share with an audience on YouTube. There’s no push to YouTube as a platform, rather it’s a natural choice to share what was created in the Minecraft game world. Like evolution taught us, pick the best tool for the job and the job at hand is to share my creation in Minecraft, and the best tool is a YouTube video. Because this is a purely creative endeavor, the YouTube video is the perfect platform to share the experience of your creation without actually being there. Think about composing and performing music. Because space and time won’t allow me to sit and listen to Bird perform his music for me live, I can purchase a recording that I’ll enjoy without actually being there. Or perhaps it’s the artist who shares a photograph of her painting on Facebook. A large part of the history of recorded media is about encouraging new fans to an alternate creation of the work.
Minecraft videos are very popular on YouTube. They spark interest in people who don’t even play Minecraft because these presentations tell a story of creation, survival, exploration and discovery. They can be engrossing if you take the time to watch a few choice videos. They even have their own creative style: typically hosted by one or two presenters either showing off an original creation or exploring a world created by someone else and downloaded as maps or mods. This is a feedback loop in it’s purest sense of creating game play and passively viewing that story. That’s a natural call-to-action that inspires to create and share more in Minecraft. The sharp growth in new videos posted and purchases of the game should be a marketers dream…
And this all takes place on the media platforms that transmedia pundits have been babbling about for years: digital video and games. Advertisers should be salivating as creative agencies have been striving for years to crack this duopoly of mediums in the hopes of getting twice the audience and theoretically, twice the payout. But the natural tendencies of this symbiotic relationship between interactive game and passive viewing experience were baked into this product from the start. Minecraft itself was created as a space to build. More options, fewer rules, open to modification- this starts to look less like a game as we’ve come to know them and a little more like those silly virtual worlds like Second Life that we would all be immersed in by now. We’re not of course because those worlds are just as advertised, a second life not really well integrated into our first life, the one we already barely have time for. A game field with open play, come as you can, build as you can, share when you can, integrates very well into our day to day first life just like building a project in Legos (an obvious Minecraft inspiration).
So how do we monetize it? That’s the question everybody want’s to answer, right? Well let me tell you something right now, you can’t. Period. Move along. You may think you can: hey, how about targeted in game ads? Nope! Lower thirds? Nope! Pre and Post rolls? Nope! You may see these in videos and game play and whether they’ll be effective or not for the ad platforms that use them, they won’t be for you. Game over. Why? because they interrupt the open feedback loop. They put unwanted graffiti on a special place created by someone who wanted to share it. It’s within our nature to be creative but we also must be able to trust ourselves and the audience in order to have the confidence to share what we’ve made. Invasive advertising breaks that trust by cheapening the platform.
So begin with the idea that you can’t monetize this at all, at least not in the ways you’re familiar with. Then look at the success of it, the millions of viewers and almost 10 million paid downloads of the game. What does that tell us about successful campaigns or content? Are you the one to shoehorn a story across media platforms in order to push your audience there, or would you rather ride the natural pull and symbiotic feedback loop between platforms? The key I think is allowing your fans to build the world, the message, the campaign, the story, in an unrestricted and natural way using the media tools they’re familiar with.
Simply put: Don’t push. Let them pull.