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The definition of transmedia: is it just brand extension?

By on June 20, 2011
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The GAMESbrief guide to marketing and gaming has been very popular, and huge thanks to everyone who has shared it via Twitter, email and Facebook.

There has been some negative response though. In particular, some people took issue with my definition of transmedia.

“Transmedia is taking a media property and extending it into a different medium”

Not so, said some commenters. That’s just brand extension, or even cross media.

Transmedia is about telling aspects of the same story in different media, such that you cannot understand the whole without reading all the parts. It’s not just about giving consumers a different angle into the the same world; it’s a different angle into the same story.

A tale of two definitions

I have a problem with this definition. Well, actually, not with the definition, but with the outcome. Basically, by this definition, transmedia makes content a bit rubbish for all but the most committed fans.

[Warning: slight spoilers for The Matrix: Reloaded coming up]

I don’t know if you remember Enter the Matrix, a console game designed to tie in with the second movie in the Matrix franchise. (Don’t worry if you don’t. It didn’t sell very well, which is why it is included in Ten turkeys of the Noughties.) The Wachowski brothers got very excited about transmedia, and made a movie where certain events took place in the console game.

if you hadn’t played the game, you only saw the results of entire levels of the game appearing in the movie. You saw a character who had spend an entire game level manoeuvring a car through freeway of traffic to catch Morpheus when he was punched off a lorry suddenly appear out of nowhere in the movie.

The result was an overwhelming sense of deus ex machina in the movie, where Morpheus and Neo were rescued by Jada Pinkett Smith’s character with no buildup and no warning. The idea was to make the console gamers feel more involved because they contributed directly to events in the move.

The practical outcome was to make the movie disjointed and disappointing. (I’m not saying this was the only problem with the second Matrix movie, but it was definitely one of the problems.)

I fear that when transmedia is defined as telling the same *story* not showing the same *world*, it starts to break some basic tenets for success. Instead of the initial IP (the Harry Potter books, the Star Wars movies) being the core that everyone experiences, with the other elements (such as the Star Wars Expanded Universe) existing for the fans, you have an experience that you *can’t* enjoy unless you do all of it.

Which is bad for audiences, bad for story-telling and bad for revenue.

Aren’t you just saying that bad transmedia is bad?

I am definitely saying that bad transmedia is bad. I am also saying that I prefer my definition, which focuses on giving consumers a different view on the world of the IP, not the story.

But GAMESbrief is a blog, which means that I want feedback and iteration on what I write. What do you think? Is my definition too broad? Does it seem like brand exploitation, not transmedia?

Please let me know, and have a lively discussion. When it’s all over, I’ll update the original post to reflect the new points.

Over to you.

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve:
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  • I think you are right, inasmuch that a world is not linear, so it is hard to mess up the flow with a transmedia project. A narrative is much more linear, and much easier to mess up.

  • Zoya Street

    Is the problem here simply the definition of ‘story’? The Matrix was reliant on an understanding of story as a narrative arc composed of a series of causally related events. In contrast, other transmedia projects (Pokemon, .hack, etc.) were prefigured on an understanding of story based not on narrative, but on database consumption. This looks a lot like the ‘world’ being consistent, rather than the ‘story’, but for some the story itself is the thickening of the database, the weaving of an ever tighter net of knowledge about the world.

  • I guess my game focus has come to the fore.

  • I think my point is that the key element of this is the “world” being consistent, more than the story.

    So I suppose we could say that if the story doesn’t cross over, then it’s not transmedia, it’s “brand extension” or “cross-media”.

    I have to say that makes me pretty negative on transmedia. The risk is that the attempt to create transmedia interlinks weakens each individual part. Far better to play to the strengths of each medium and cross-over, rather than shoehorning it together.

  • … the fact that games deal far better with telling worlds than stories plays into your approach rather nicely …

  • Patrick

    Imagine I create a new original world and make games for multiple platforms, each of which features a different story from that world. The stories cross over each other, and there is interaction between the platforms, but you don’t need to play all platforms; you can enjoy any one on its own, or play several of them if you want to.
    Surely this would be a new ‘transmedia’ IP? I wouldn’t be taking a ‘media property’ and extending it. And I wouldn’t be telling the same story across multiple media.