Best selling author Xavier Waterkeyn discusses his views on transmedia, the future of storytelling and The Chimera Vector Project: We may not know it completely yet, but we’re on the cusp of the most radical shift in storytelling history. The digitization of media is revolutionizing the way we tell stories and the way we consume them. But can we, as storytellers, keep up with the changes that are happening under our very noses?
The Chimera Vector Project began with a little idea we had for an app. It welded the ebook and audiobook editions of The Chimera Vector novel together – making the elements synchronized and switchable. It wasn’t exactly ground-breaking, or maybe it was. At the time we thought to do it no one had thought of it yet. (Although sure enough, since then, at least one publisher has:
Little did we know at the time, that we were in exactly the right place with exactly the right jumble of skills to turn this idea into something bigger than we expected.
To introduce the team: I am a bestselling author and literary agent who has a background in directing documentaries, scriptwriting and marketing. For some time now, he’s been thinking about the future of stories -- not only what makes them successful now but also what will make them successful in years to come.
Nathan Farrugia is a debut author with a background in film, television and mixed media.
Our idea first came to light when Xavier was shopping Nathan’s debut novel to publishers in Australia. The novel, The Chimera Vector, was a techno-thriller targeted to a young, media-savvy audience. Xavier realized it was the perfect prototype for the future of storytelling. It wasn’t long before we sat down and had a good honest look at the storytelling technology available today. We realized all the technological pieces were already here -- the accessibility was already here. So what were people waiting for? What was missing?
And that’s when we decided to give the next generation of storytelling a shot.
We have two big ideas for this that we know to be essential to the future of storytelling.
1) Let’s go beyond the text and explore other media. Let’s get the reader to be able to experience the story in their favorite medium of choice. Readers can open the ebook and listeners can play the audiobook. More visually-oriented readers can enjoy the graphic novel and the purely visual and auditory audience can experience the narrated, scored, graphic novel, which is a combination of all the above.
But there’s a problem with all this …
The Problem with Transmedia
Transmedia explores more than one medium to tell a story. But the problem that plagues most transmedia experiences is that the experience can be splintered and disconnected.
For example, the graphic novel tie-ins to a TV series like Heroes or Misfits can often seem like an afterthought. Is the graphic novel an integral part of the story, of the world? Or is it just a peripheral add-on? And how does the audience move easily from the TV show to the graphic novel? Do they even know the graphic novel exists? And if they do - and this is a BIG question in the world of fandom - are the tie-ins canon or non-canon?
We’re both fans of Misfits and Heroes (well, at least the first season of Heroes) and it’s only while writing this case study exploration that we became aware these graphic novel extensions actually existed. This is the problem with transmedia - disconnectedness - and it needs a solution.
The solution, we think, lies in a digital application that is distributed via multiple platforms and that can easily encapsulate a whole bunch of different media and methods of story delivery such as film, television, the written word, comics and graphic novels, photography, art, music and more. In simple English, this means an “all-in-one” package.
We learned fairly early on that there was only one transmedia platform that was accessible, popular and above all fun – applications, or apps for short.
Book Apps Suck
Book apps, generally are no more than exactly that - books in an app. Add a few bells and whistles, much like DVD special features and [link] you’re done. The same argument is raised again and again: are apps the future of the book? This is irrelevant. The app is just the medium – simply one option among many. It really comes down to how you take advantage of the possibilities that open up to you.
Developers are quick to blame the app ecology, not their own failure of imagination when the app alone fails.
Are apps to blame? Or is your app to blame?
What is the future of storytelling?
So that’s our first idea. What I suppose you could refer to as a rare form of transmedia: cohesive transmedia. But our second idea is something else entirely. And we know we’re onto something because other storytellers we hear about are starting to think about it too.
2) We believe there are a very large number of imaginative, passionate people out there who are looking to escape from Mundania. Not because they can't handle the real world, but because the modern, real world offers little in terms of passion and connection. Just under the surface appearances that we show to the world, many of us have unmet expectations. We expect that life is supposed to offer us opportunities to experience heroism, exploration, adventure - passionately! - just like the cave men and women that still live inside us. But it's hard to go on a good mammoth hunt or commune with your fellow villagers about the monster that lives in the forest or the dragon that lives in the cave because our world is full of artificial lighting and artificial dramas, like arguing with telephone companies. We’ve solved so many mysteries and conquered so many monsters that used to give our lives an … edge. And that’s why we keep having to invent new mysteries and breed new monsters. We still need that edge and screaming at a poor customer service schmuck doesn’t quite cut it.
And our village of like-minded, like-spirited individuals are no longer living within spear-throwing distance, but spread out all over the world. People are looking for depth and are looking to share that depth with each other. As storytellers we're looking to create and co-create this depth and connection for the very same reasons that drive audiences to engage with them.
As we sat down to explore exactly what we were going to do, we came to the realization that the future of storytelling is for the creator to create immersive experiences for the audience, with levels of engagement from the completely passive to the interactively dominant.
In this new paradigm of storytelling, the author becomes the composer - the master of ceremonies. Authors create the spark that ignites the story and bring the story’s world into first life. But they do not control the world. The community does.
The “reader” then becomes any number of things and can play any number of roles to engage in any way they like - from a member of the outer circle of spectators to someone in the middle ground of participants all the way to performers and even on to part of the inner circle of composers.
Our vision of the future of storytelling is this:
A co-creative experience with the composer as a ringleader in a circus of media.
Massive Multi-Player Online Role-playing Games - MMORGs - such as World of Warcraft possess one key component: participatory immersion. Although they lack in the storyline department, because there is no storyline.
But in WOW there is at least an opportunity for the engager to satisfy their continuing desire to explore and to connect. And it’s not the superficial sort of desire to connect in order to show off your new car to your high-school friends on Facebook, but a desire for an emotionally genuine connection to something meaningful, a story of your life. The experience is emotionally real, even if it takes place in a fictive environment.
Superficial Social Media
To enrich an experience with a community of engagers, you need a community to begin with. And you need elements in place that encourage a connection, otherwise, all you have is just a bunch of disconnected users sitting in isolation.
But what if we open engagement up and invite the “audience” to reach out to their existing networks such as Twitter, Google+ and Facebook’s Open Graph API?
You might be thinking: OK so maybe if I allow the user to share bits of the app on Facebook and Twitter then I have social media connectivity, right? Well, sure. You have a superficial connection, but does that mean anything new? No. So we thought, what if we can go further?
The first thing we did was figure out the essence of community. What makes a vibrant, engaging creative community? Next, we brainstormed some ways to tap into that. One of our ideas was the “timeline”.
A novel, a graphic novel, an audiobook, even a film is a linear storyline. So the best way to engage with this is through a linear timeline. And we aren’t the first to think of this. Facebook is poised to release its version of the timeline to an unsuspecting 800 million Facebook users.
Our version of the timeline is less in-your-face. Unobtrusive yet easy to use, our timeline shows you not only your own comments and bookmarks but also your friends’, and even the most popular comments outside of your social circle. It also shows your friends’ progress through the storyline and what achievements they are unlocking. We thought the timeline was such a great idea we’ve used it not just for the community but also for the fictional characters.
Gameification – Just a Buzzword?
“App” was the buzzword of 2010, but gameification is a relatively new one. Yet gameification as a process is not new at all. And just like social media, it’s more likely to be implemented and utilized poorly rather than correctly.
One of the first ideas we came up with while brainstorming how to create an engaging community is a concept typically reserved for computer and video games: an achievement system. This can be implemented very nicely (see Valve’s Steam platform) and can also be implemented quite poorly (see Microsoft’s Xbox Live platform). Much like apps, it’s not the technique that can fail; it’s how you use it.
We plotted out a set of achievements that work in tiers. Firstly, there are the usual story progression achievements that everyone achieves (assuming they finish the story). And then we designed the more elusive Covert Ops achievements, which are awarded to the engager for exploring things like their growing inventory, their character’s health and the dynamic profiles of characters they encounter along the way. And then we designed the more challenging Black Ops achievements for exploring newly unlocked content.
While these are only two examples of the features we have planned, you can see what we’re trying to do here. And it doesn’t matter how many ideas and features you plan to include, they can be nothing more than bells and whistles if they are not intrinsic to the plot. And not only that, they need to be engaging and above all entertaining.
Throwing in a bunch of extras without much care or thought is a recipe for disaster. And if we go to the trouble of adding more content, we want to enrich it, not water it down.
The Problem with Apps
The problem with apps is they are expensive to make. Unless you’re hiring an independent app developer, your app could cost anywhere from $20,000 to over $100,000, with an average of $60,000. Apps - like books themselves - rarely even get as far as breaking even.
The viability of an app, or even the decision to create an app in the first place, depends on who you are and why you’re making an app. Publishers need to make a profit for the app to be worth their while. We don’t. And that’s why most publishers shy away from making apps - because it’s rarely worth their while.
We’re making The Chimera Vector app not simply to turn a profit but because we want something like this to exist. We’ll be honest with you. It probably won’t make a profit. At say $2.99, the app would need to sell 46,666 copies just to break even. Of course the audiobook and the graphic novel will sell separately, so let’s make it 40,000 copies. How many apps sell 40,000 copies? How many book or transmedia apps sell 40,000 copies?
The Nursery Rhymes app received a lot of press attention and repeated promotion from Apple and sold 37,339 copies. The Solar System app only took six weeks to earn back its developmental costs. And these apps are priced much higher than we plan to price ours. So yes, it can be done. It might take a month; it might take a year. It might even take longer, with a continued evolution of app updates and sequel apps to break even. But at the end of the day that’s not our goal. Our goal is to push the possibilities of storytelling as far as we can and to make this as engaging and fun an experience as possible. And we think that’s the right reason for doing this.
This is why Momentum, Pan Macmillan’s new digital imprint, is publishing The Chimera Vector ebook and print-on-demand book, while we retain complete control and responsibility for developing the app.
If, and only if, we get the funding.
We realized early on that we couldn’t afford to fund this project ourselves. What started as a $20,000 basic app idea soon evolved into a $93,000 app idea that would redefine storytelling, but only if we have the funds to make it.
Our first foray into crowdfunding was to launch the entire project on Kickstarter.com. If you haven’t heard of Kickstarter.com, they are a crowdfunding platform for creative projects.
Kickstarter.com works like this:
- You create a project.
- You set your target amount to cover the projected budget of that project.
- You pitch your idea to anyone who might be interested in seeing the project happen.
- You devise a campaign to appeal to prospective financial contributors and backers from the general public.
- Contributors can then pledge money to your cause or project.
- Contributors not only get a “feel-good” response for helping your project happen, they will also get rewards.
You decide the duration of your campaign and the rewards you will give backers according to how much they pledge. If you reach your target amount before your campaign finishes, you get your funding and the backers get their rewards. If you don’t, no money or rewards change hands. It’s all or nothing.
This in itself is a very interesting finance model. But what makes this even more interesting is that Kickstarter’s method of raising funds to back a project goes beyond money. Its intrinsic quality is that it’s already laying the foundations for community. We see Kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms such as IndieGoGo, RocketHub and Appbackr as an opportunity to connect to an audience that is more than just an audience and even more than just backers, more than just silent partners in a creative venture.
Backers can, should they choose to, become participants in the making of the project as well as intimate observers. They can be behind the scenes from day one. And there is potential for them to engage with the project in ways that otherwise would never be possible.
With Kickstarter, and many other crowdfunding platforms, if you reach your target amount before your campaign finishes, you get your funding and the backers get their rewards. If you don’t, no money or rewards change hands.
It’s all or nothing.
This in itself is a very interesting finance model. But what makes this even more interesting is that Kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms such as IndieGoGo, RocketHub and Appbackr are already laying the foundations for community. We saw Kickstarter as an opportunity to connect to an audience that was more than just an audience. They were participants in the making of the project, they were behind the scenes from day one. And there was potential for them to engage with the project in ways that otherwise would never be possible.
We launched a gargantuan, ambitious campaign on Kickstarter asking for $140,000 in only 30 days. By end of this first foray, we’d raised $43,266. Not quite the amount we needed, but still an impressive sum nonetheless. We learned a lot from our first attempt.
So we re-evaluated and planned our next attack.
A project that ran at the same time as ours, the impressive and mesmerizing Search for the Lost da Vinci asked for $266,500 -- double our large sum -- and despite being featured in the Kickstarter blog, on the Kickstarter front page and also the New York Times and Huffington Post, only raised half what we raised. Both the da Vinci and the Chimera Vector projects did not have enough of a community behind them to close in on their target goals. It became clear to us that smaller, bite-sized projects, simple and easy to explain, were more successful. While the epic, complex, game-changing projects were wonderful and amazing, in the current market, it would seem that they, unfortunately, have little chance of success. We didn’t have an engaged community of 2,000 participants, we had only our friends and our social circles.
We also realized our project wasn’t the easiest to explain. Really, the only way to show what we were doing was to make the thing! So we found ourselves going against the very thing we opposed - fragmentation of media. We broke the project up into smaller, bite-sized pieces and started crowdfunding those. Once the projects were to be funded, we could put them back together again and make the complete storytelling experience.
We posted The Chimera Vector app on Appbackr, asking for $20,000. On Appbackr, instead of rewards, the backer actually invests. They pre-purchase units at a generous discount and when the app starts selling in the app store, the backer receives a 154% return. Not bad, eh? And unlike all-or-nothing platforms, once we meet our reserve of $8,000, we receive the funds and we can start developing the app right away. But it’s up to us to reach out to people and ask them to back us. People don’t stumble across these projects by accident, they need to know they exist.
While funds begin trickling into the Appbackr project, we returned to Kickstarter with our lessons applied and an entirely new tactic. We launched The Chimera Vector graphic novel. The current project is incredibly simple, the rewards are simple and straightforward. We’re asking not for another $140,000 but a modest $19,000. Just enough to create the first volume of the graphic novel (100+ pages).
We plan to fund the later volumes ourselves.
If we are successful, then we can do everything we have claimed in this ambitious project. This will serve as the beginning of the evolution of the book. If we can make this app a reality, then anything is possible.
If the Kickstarter and the appbackr campaign are not successful, if we fail to reach our target, then we can’t make the app.
But that’s OK. Because if you don’t take risks, you never get anywhere.
And there are always other opportunities out there, and second chances …
Because in real life, just as in the world of games, you can always save your progress and start again, and get to Level 2 the next time around.