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The Transmedia Opportunity for Games

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Written by the Strategy team at Waste Creative.

Marvel, DC, Star Wars, Barbie, Lego… we watch their movies and shows, read their comics, collect their merch and in many cases, play their video games. They’re the epitome of something called ‘transmedia storytelling’, which, done right, can attract new fans, re-engage lapsed fans and deepen the bond with existing fans. The trouble is, getting transmedia right is a minefield. Before we wade into it though, let’s clarify precisely what we’re talking about.

What does transmedia mean?

For entertainment brands, a transmedia strategy is more than just repackaging one medium’s IP onto another platform. Instead, the idea is to build an interlinked universe which spans multiple media, exploiting each one’s strengths to create a richer, more immersive experience for fans. 

You’d be hard pressed to find a better transmedia example than the MCU, where fans have been served up 33 movies, 25 TV series, 12 video game tie-ins, a scripted podcast, and of course the original comic books plus new ones; all with a fairly high degree of narrative consistency and interlinkage.

Original Size IconImage © Marvel, The Avengers

Not an easy feat, but the results speak for themselves. As of 2023 Marvel boasts four of the top grossing movies of all time, with the combined MCU movies earning nearly $30 billion worldwide. Spider-Man 2 was the fastest selling game in the history of PlayStation studios and collectible card game Marvel Snap earned $116m in revenue in year one, with 24m total downloads and counting.

Transmedia storytelling turns fans into explorers

Multiple media touchpoints mean multiple points of entry for fans, making these worlds more accessible to diverse audiences who, once engaged, go on to become ‘narrative explorers’ voyaging from one media destination to the next. Why? Because of the way we’re wired to make sense of things:

"Transmedia storytelling takes advantage of the way the human brain processes information and constructs meaning: synthesising, linking and exploring multiple sources. When people actively participate, either through content creation or following a trail across assets, they become stakeholders in the transmedia experience.”  – Pamela Rutledge, Author of 'Transmedia Psychology'

Games are the perfect vehicle for deep fan exploration

Video games allow 'active participation' by definition, making them one of the best suited platforms to anchor the transmedia fan experience, where narrative fragments have been shown to trigger ‘encyclopaedia impulses’ or ‘curiosity to learn everything that can be known about the unfamiliar environment’ within consumers (Jenkins, 2009).

These ‘encyclopaedia impulses’ seem to be especially significant when video games are the original source for transmedia projects. As film and TV adaptations are created, core fans of the games get to become experts within the expanding community, achieving validation and status as their beloved world expands and their insights and theories gain traction.

A 2019 study of game-to-movie adaptations identified a unique set of motivations not observed in ‘normal’ (non-gaming) movie going audiences. Gamers were highly motivated by the cultural legitimacy movies gave their favourite games, meaning the wider world could also appreciate the thing they love. Even more significantly, game fans loved having the chance for their ‘expert status’ to be affirmed, making them highly motivated to share their knowledge and insight with the newer audiences in the community.

The transmedia minefield

As HBO’s The Last Of Us adaptation showed with its c.30m viewers per episode and corresponding 270% peak player uplift for PlayStation, a transmedia strategy is an opportunity to both deepen the affinity of core gaming fans and welcome new players into the world too. 

It’s a smart play too, as markets like the UK saw video-based content from the likes of Netflix, Disney and Apple earn higher revenue (£4.9bn) than gaming (£4.7bn) in 2023. The first time in a decade.

The trouble is, for every transmedia gaming success story, there’s a score of commercial and critical failures too. Take 1993’s Super Mario Bros. movie, which has an approval rating of just 29% on Rotten Tomatoes and failed to recoup its $48m budget.

Original Size IconImage © Super Mario Bros

By contrast, 2023’s The Super Mario Bros. Movie, grossed $1.36 billion for a budget of $100m, becoming the first video game adaptation to break the billion dollar mark, despite mixed reviews (59% on Rotten Tomatoes) and a seismic reaction to Chris Pratt’s accent, or lack of it.

Original Size IconImage © Super Mario Bros

A key difference between these two attempts to bring Mario Bros to the big screen seems to be the extent to which they deviated from the heart of a world that is so loved by so many. 

Entertainment Weekly described the esoteric 1993 version as “Blade Runner as imagined by a 2 year old” while heaping more praise on last year’s film which they said “faithfully recreates the look and feel of Nintendo’s games”. 

What these reviews reveal is the balance that storytellers have to find between actively capturing the essence of a game to the satisfaction of its existing fans, with the ability to coherently engage new audiences and expand the fanbase.

It is - as the litany of failed game adaptation attempts will attest - far from easy. So where should a gaming brand even start? As always - with the fans! 

Here are 5 fan-first thoughts on how games might most successfully become transmedia:

1. Don't over service the fans

Fan service is a term originating in anime to describe material - often nudity - intentionally added to please fans whilst not furthering the overall narrative. Nowadays the term is applied to any reference knowingly dropped in for the fans, from Obi-Wan repeatedly saying ‘Hello there’ across his Star Wars appearances, to Spider-Man films repeatedly bringing the ‘Spidey pointing at Spidey’ meme back to life.

Original Size IconImage sourced from Imgflip.com

This kind of storytelling risks becoming the junk food of entertainment. There’s a brief sugar rush, but it doesn’t leave the consumer feeling satisfied, and if you add too much it will spoil their whole meal.

Many game adaptations, from Mortal Kombat Annihilation (1997) to Silent Hill (2006), have been accused of adding too many fan-service beats. In doing so, they enraged the very fans they aimed to please, as well as confusing and alienating the new fans they aimed to attract.

Here’s the account of one fan of the Silent Hill games, who saw the film as a 13 year old, then went back to revisit it in 2021:

"Most of the time, the fan service is so specific that only people who have played the game will understand what’s happening. For everyone else, these moments are distracting and nonsensical. They wind up having the complete opposite effect on the audience, and the impact they had in the game - when you were able to control the characters - is completely absent." - Gray O’Reilly

2. Remember that players are used to playing

As the quote above shows us, the passive nature of watching movies or TV shows is something that has to be carefully considered when bringing a game to the screen. 

For fans of the game, their journey of narrative discovery benefited from what are known as ‘ludic elements’; the interactive experiences that helped them piece together the game’s story. 

When those elements are thrown onto the screen without capturing the ‘feeling’ of actively playing the game, it jars. That’s why director Paul W.S Anderson plays a game endlessly before finding a way to bottle the experience:

“I’ve always approached it first and foremost as a fan. I played Mortal Kombat in arcades in London before I got involved in the movie. I played Resident Evil in my apartment in Hollywood for days and days and days, becoming obsessed with it, before I started making the movie.'' - Paul W.S.Anderson, Vulture

For Mortal Kombat (1995), this approach paid off, with fight scenes designed to capture the intensity of playing the game, plus specific moves and lines of dialogue from the gameplay experience woven into the film, leading to a commercial success (over $122m box office from a $20m budget) that’s also started to enjoy a critical re-evaluation in recent years. (2002’s Resident Evil has yet to win over critics, but did earn $103m from a $33m budget.)

3. Leave breadcrumbs, not baguettes

You don’t have to cover every single detail of a game. In fact, even in an adaptation as impressively faithful as The Last of Us, leaving incomplete story beats or what HBO’s VP of Marketing, Emily Giannusa would call ‘breadcrumb content’ in the right places was key to their success. 

Original Size IconImage © The Last Of Us

As we say at Waste Creative - ‘Engagement grows in the gaps’ - and narrative voids like this stimulate an audience’s curiosity, driving them onto other media (particularly social media and fan forums) to ask questions, find answers and posit theories. More importantly, they inspire non-players to find answers in the game (hence that 200% uplift of the PlayStation game).

The recent TV adaptation of League of Legends, ‘Arcane’ also seemed to find a strong balance of teasing lore without unpacking every last inch of it. The first season topped the Netflix charts in 52 countries and it stands as one of the very few properties boasting a 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes. Perhaps more crucially for Riot, it helped boost player numbers, jumping from 115m to 150m according to some analysts. 

Here’s one fan’s perspective:

“New to LoL, came here after watching the masterpiece that was Arcane… I just finished this amazing show and I LOVED IT.  This makes me wanna get into LoL, I have no idea how this game works or absolutely any lore except for what Arcane showed us!” - Reddit user: Naxone

4. Respect the source material

Respecting your fandom means respecting what made them fans in the first place, and if you’re going to stray from core lore, you’d better have a good reason.

The latest attempt at a live action Mortal Kombat (2021) did a lot right, the grittier representation of the beloved fighting franchise was exactly what fans had been asking for. However, centering the plot around a non-canon character proved to be too much for many. Director Simon McQuoid explained his thought process behind featuring a new fighter, seeing Cole as ‘a bridge between the world of Mortal Kombat and a wider audience.’ Unfortunately the attempt served to alienate many of the core fandom for whom this was a bridge too far.

“You can practically see the ‘we need an audience surrogate protagonist that resonates with males aged 16-28’ wafting off of him. The name ‘Cole Young’ itself feels like it was machine calibrated for focus groups." - Reddit user: ScruffyTuscaloosa

Another well-intentioned but poorly-received narrative deviation was 2020’s Monster Hunter (another movie from Paul W.S.Anderson). In his attempt to give cinema audiences the sense of wonder that players of the game have, he added a parallel universe plot and new character that contradicted the game’s lore. Here’s his rationale:

“When you play the game, you’re a person from our world. You’re sitting in front of your computer, eating a pizza that you just microwaved, and you’re being immersed in this fresh, spectacular other world, and you’re playing a character that you create from scratch. So, Milla’s character is the avatar for the audience. You see the world through her eyes.”

The dissonance for fans seemed to be that the game took place in a unique (not parallel) world, where the relationships people have with monsters is firmly established, and is central to the story. The film grossed just $44.5m against a $60m budget.

5. Stop, collaborate and listen

All of the above points us to one clear mandate for brands attempting to expand a game into new media touchpoints. Engage with the fans early. Look to understand how they feel when they play a game, what details define the experience, which narrative elements are sacrosanct. As with any creative strategy, the key isn’t trying to appease every individual, but assimilating the key insights from a fanbase before crafting a vision.

In many ways HBOs The Last of Us is a master class in what engaging with your fan base early can achieve. In order to ‘establish authenticity with the fan base’ the show partnered with original developers NaughtyDog and fan favourite Neil Druckmann to share early concepts and content with fans on ‘The Last of Us Day’ (an annual tradition for the game’s fandom to mark the fictional Cordyceps outbreak every 26th of September). Further releases, and even in-show content would go on to be tweaked according to fan responses.

‘You don't have to start right out the gate with everything… especially for video games, I think this is just my mantra in general - you have to always be listening to the data and the audiences and the insights.’ - Emily Giannusa, HBO VP of Marketing

Original Size IconImage © The Last Of Us

Not only does this tactic yield crucial direction for the heart of a transmedia vision, but it helps the fandom feel like a valued part of the team. The ‘IKEA Effect’ comes into play, whereby people place a higher value on something they helped build. So not only do you understand how to make a resonant final product thanks to the fans, but they’ll go to bat for you across the internet too. Like this guy:

‘This scene was absolutely EVERYTHING!!!!!!!! One of the greatest scenes in a video game EVER and it was transferred to TV incredibly!! This show is phenomenal!!’ - TwitterUser @JohnSacco94

In summary

A transmedia strategy has a huge potential upside for gaming brands; creating new entry points to attract fresh audiences, adding new dimensions to storytelling, and bolstering cultural status in a way that can rekindle lapsed fans and strengthen the affinity of existing players.

All of this is contingent on the successful translation of a game’s core qualities into new forms however, and that is a profoundly difficult thing to get right. If a storyteller has a vision that is fundamentally jarring to existing players, or unintelligible to new ones, the opportunity cost of the media expansion is wasted, not to mention the negative impact on brand trust.

What’s clear to us is that fan insight and empathy are the baseline for success. From there, even the most autonomous auteur can craft a vision that has a chance to resonate; and if they’re willing to share the developing work at key intervals and listen to fan perspectives, there’s even more chance of a successful transmedia expansion.

As with all entertainment marketing, it boils down to respect for the fans. After all, it’s they who find meaning in the worlds we create, and they who popularise, mythologise and sustain them. 

Transmedia really should be fans' media.

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