Creating Core Content in a Post-Convergence World

AIGA "Collision!"
14 April 2000, New York City
Brenda Laurel

Licensed to Death

In 1983, aliens killed a 2-billion dollar company.  Superman had worked it over, but was ET who landed the final blow.  It was ugly.  I was there, but I escaped the worst of the carnage.  The remains were buried in concrete somewhere in New Mexico.

For those of you too young to remember, the victim was a company called Atari.  What killed it was a sort of Dr. Frankenstein attempt at what we now call convergence.  The company was owned by Warner and run by a band of executives from the world of consumer products.  None of them had a computer on his desk.  They had the simple belief that a great license would yield a great videogame.

The Atari corporation paid very little attention to designing for computer games, a medium profoundly different from films or comic books.  And so no one except a few lonely programmers who actually built the games was looking at the requirements for good interactivity, play patterns, or design principles.  There was no market research on what players liked in a game.  When it was determined that a movie was a hit with the target audience (yes, 14-year-old boys), a license to produce a game based on the movie was acquired.  The task was lobbed at a programmer who was typically given about three months to write the code.

At the same time, hordes of Harvard MBAs began churning out business plans and transplants from aerospace middle management drew up elaborate production schedules and P&G vets happily began planning marketing and distribution.  Great commercials were produced.  But no one except the programmers were in the business of creating great videogames.  And so Atari published some really bad products, and lo, the customers did rise up and smite them.  So began the great videogame darkness of 1984 that lasted until 1987 or thereabouts.  A wiser industry emerged, but only a little wiser.

The Children's Television Workshop never came up to speed on producing computer games from its properties, and Disney arrived very late at success in the game business, given the strength of its properties and the breadth of its market.  However, the formula of Disney games, despite good execution, has a limited lifespan.  Learning Books learned this the hard way.  Carmen Sandiego, a creature of the computer game industry, managed to get herself a TV series, and Power Rangers and X-Men and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had moderately successful transmedia lives as well.  Sailor Moon fared not so well, facing an uphill battle in terms of both culture and gender as a game property.  In these cases, it's worth noting, it was always clear what was the root property and what was the spin-off.

Now the world eagerly awaits Laura Croft's leap to the silver screen.  Wildly popular Oscar winner Angelina Jolie will play the title role.  The film being directed by Simon West, who also directed such action features as "Con Air" and "The General's Daughter."  Thus it may actually be an interesting, if not great, movie.  But still, one obviously based on a videogame.

My point, and I do have one, is that the content process thus far has consisted of "repurposing," more or less successfully, content from one medium for another - film to TV, TV to film, videogame to film, TV to web, videogame to web, doll to web (and therein lies some pretty ugly pink stuff), cartoon to radio, radio to web, etc.  In a post-convergence world, this will be an even less efficient way to do things than it is right now.  In a moment I will offer some guidelines for content creation in this brave new world, but first, I need to plague you with one more analysis of just what "post-convergence" might mean.

What Is "Post-Convergence"?

The internet is eating the radio!  Media One says so!  And it's true!  Don Norman reports that companies like Hiwire will soon let you listen to Bartok radio in your car and if you happen to be in Chicago instead of Budapest, it'll plug in local information during commercial breaks.  Hiwire already lets you choose among 3000 internet radio stations and inserts local advertising.  Kerbango, a company that Don advises, has produced an Internet Radio device that actually looks like a radio - with incredibly cute 50s design and real knobs.  This is not convergence; this is ingestion.  The recording industry is deeply afraid that a similar fate awaits the music-CD business.

However, the web is not ingesting TV and TV is not eating the internet.  Here's what WebTV has to say about interactive television:

Interactive TV merges the Internet and television so you can participate in new ways with your favorite shows.  You can play along and match wits with contestants on Wheel of Fortune® and JEOPARDY!®.  Vote in a live poll while watching Judge Judy. . . .  Get sports stats.  Voice your opinions.  Chat live with other fans.  All from the comfort of your couch.

How many teenagers do you know who would want to chat over the internet on the living room couch?  How many people would rather watch "Star Trek" on a 12-inch monitor than a 60-inch projection TV?  The situated contexts of television and the web are too different from one another for the two to merge.  Rather, I think, we will have web-enabled TV for such character-improving uses as Web-TV describes in their blurb, and we will have video-enabled web for activities that are more communication- or interaction-intensive or which require greater privacy.  THESE TWO THINGS ARE DIFFERENT and they will remain so.

Likewise, cellular phones will not ingest the internet.  Browsers that try to wrestle standard web content onto teeny tiny telephone screens will not work very well.  Again, it is not only the disparity in display size and quality but the situated context that is too different to merge.

In other words, we are not experiencing convergence in the sense of media.  We are experiencing a diaspora of displays and devices that will address even finer distinctions in situated context.  In this sense, things are not imploding; they are exploding.  Pagers, radios, phones, movies, TV, email, games, websites become formal containers that receive and transmit content from professional authors, fan communities, and regular folks.

Via Internet Protocol, content of some sort will be transmitted to (and from) every conceivable device.  People will be free to choose the device, form, and structure of an experience with "content" tailored to any particular situated context.

The convergence here is at the level of Internet protocol.

The collision is the forced unnatural coupling of media like the web and the television.

The opportunity here is to understand how to design what I would call "core content" that contains the potential to be shaped appropriately for myriad devices and contexts.

As they say on Vulcan, "Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations."

How Do We Need to Change?

And so, then, how must professional content creators change their thinking?

The rest of my talk is going to neglect technical, business, instructional, or purely informational content.  For reasons of time, I'm going to limit myself to the class of content we might call "entertainment."  We typically think of this sort of content as dramatic, narrative, or fictive, and we see it in movies, TV shows, and games.

One thing that doesn't change "post-convergence" is the need to identify and understand the audiences and contexts you are going to be addressing.  As Christopher Ireland has pointed out, if anything, the need for deep awareness of both global and local aspects of culture becomes more acute.

Beyond market awareness, if you are going to design core content for entertainment in this brave new world, here are some things I think you need to do ­ Laurel's laws of core content creation.  Okay, okay, heuristics.

1.  Think "Transmedia"

We need to give up the old model of creating a root property in a given medium like film and then repurposing it or spinning it off to create secondary properties in other media.  We must think in "transmedia" terms from the beginning.  Traditional authoring is formal ­ that is, one thinks first of the form ­ drama or novel or game, for example, and it is the form that guides the selection and arrangement of materials.  New authoring is material in nature - that is, it places the emphasis on developing materials that can be selected and arranged to produce many different forms.

2.  Create Environments

At the heart of core content is not a story but an environment - one that will support many stories, characters, and play patterns.  This environment must contain places that are well-envisioned, and it must obey consistent physical laws.  The principal kinds of being who live in the environment should be described.  In the beginning, there is a world.

3.  Devise Foundational Narratives

Part of the core content is the foundational narrative.  This may be a myth or set of stories or a history or chronology.  Researcher Rob Tow (who is also my husband) says that "narratives are the constitutions of new worlds."  There must be procedures for amending the constitution that are sufficiently difficult to enact so that change occurs only occasionally.  Even core content authors cannot exercise the divine right of kings.  In some ways, the foundational narrative resembles the "bible" of a TV series, but it serves also to facilitate the contributions of fan communities in the evolution of a world.  So far, Star Trek is the best example of this dynamic I have seen, although Paramount has kicked and screamed most of the way as fans have kept their property alive and growing through vibrant accretions that generally respect the canonical Star Trek universe.

4.  Provide for Rituals

Ritual is a kind of social form in which a designed narrative can unfold harmoniously (and simultaneously) within the larger context of an interactive environment in which most action is improvisational.  The constitution should imply some rituals.  Pockets of ordered behavior in which narratives can occur must be created.  This is not only necessary for supporting linear dramatic and narrative forms, it is also quite lifelike.

5.  Encourage Community Formation

Create situations and social conditions that encourage the formation of communities.  Fans should be enabled and encouraged to communicate and interact with one another in as many ways as possible.  So, for example, if Sony doesn't want people selling Everquest characters on E-Bay, Sony has the opportunity to figure out how to support commerce among its fans ­ perhaps with its own auction site.  But Sony should heed this advice - if you want a strong, living property, never, never stomp on your fan community.

6.  Make Audiences Authors

Audiences may be authors of stories and back-stories that can be published in various media types.  These contributions are accretions to the world and must be supported.  If they are supported well, the larger audience will naturally determine what becomes part of the canon or foundational narrative, and they will be much less likely to hack or vandalize the world since such actions typically arise from frustration of the impulse to co-create.

7.  Support the Creation of Personal Identity

The participation of audiences in your world is essential to its success.  They want to be acknowledged and have an identity in the context of your world.  Beyond supporting their participation as fans and authors, you should anticipate that some of them will want to participate in realtime as characters, role-playing the improvisational action of the world, perhaps in collaboration with professional actors who play persistent or key roles.  In this context, people want to create characters that function like personal identities, whether or not they correspond to their identities in real life.

8. Create treatments and scenarios for various devices and contexts

Core content will take the form of drawings, descriptions, and narratives.  To test its resilience in a post-convergence world, create scenarios or treatments that source the core content in different situated contexts and through different devices.  In other words, be sure that you have created the material to support diverse forms and media types by creating examples of as many as you can.

Paying for Core Content

Today, content production is underfunded and under siege from the failing revenue models of advertising and transactions.  Convergence is many things: media, form, style, content, technology.  It is also economics.  From television to the web, the unsatisfying economic models underlying today's media are even less likely to map successfully to convergent media.  Business innovation is as important as technological invention.  We face a crisis in content-who will make it, how will it be paid for, and what will it be worth in a new media world?

For about five years now, it's been a losing proposition for most content creators to sell their wares to television.  Advertising doesn't pay the way.  TV companies insist on a piece of merchandising revenue from the content creator in order to put a show on the air.  As channels multiply, this situation is only going to get worse.  On the web, we've seen steady and alarming declines in click-through rates on ads and only a handful of dot-coms are making their way into the black on the basis of transaction fees.

Who will pay for content?  Who will invest in content-creating companies?  If cable companies are the ones selling the IP streams to various device-driven markets, then doesn't it make sense that cable companies should be supporting the creation of content?  Judging from their investments, not yet.  If access to good content is the main reason why people buy devices, shouldn't device-makers pay some of the freight for content creation?  They aren't - not enough, not yet.  Not yet, but soon - because chat rooms and email make a pretty thin soup, and sooner or later the public is going to notice that content ­ real, juicy content ­ is something they were rather fond of.

One of the things I've learned about teens from working with Cheskin Research is that they are fundamentally suspicious of marketing.  They loathe it when people surreptitiously try to get them to buy things.  They spot it in a heartbeat and they hate it like homework.  Soon, I think, that view will prevail throughout society.

Now, another thing we know about people is that they will pay for things that have value to them.  So wouldn't it be nice if content were paid for by people who wanted to experience it, play with it, and use it as a scaffolding for their own creative activities?  I think that this condition is only desirable, but inevitable.  And I think the way it will happen is that the folks who make the razors are going to figure out that they should start investing in making blades.

"Creating Core Content in a Post-Convergence World"
copyright © 2000 by Brenda Laurel

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