In the run up to the launch of the Technology Strategy Board's £15m Cross-Platform Production in Digital Media Competition later this month, here at the Creative Industries KTN we are much looking forward to seeing the emergence of some highly ambitious business-led projects that will significantly stimulate innovation in the UK digital media sector. Via our website, newsletter and Twitter we will be keeping you fully up-to-date with all elements of the programme as it unfolds. In addition we also look forward to listening to, joining in with and capturing what promises to be some great debate along the way.
As part of that process, in this guest post, Alan Jack, a games designer from Scotland, presents a few principles which he proposes should be key to the development of any successful cross-platform strategy.
Angry Birds Soda was recently announced as being the best-selling soft drink in Finland, ahead of Coke and Pepsi. Skylanders was the biggest selling toy franchise in Europe and the US in the first half of 2013. Both are impressive achievements, but both become mind-blowing when you consider that each brand started life as a modest little video game (Skylanders being an extension of Sony's Spyro The Dragon brand).
You can call it “convergence” or “cross-media brand exploitiation” or even “trans-media storytelling” if you like – the concept of maximising the reach of your brand across every delivery platform available isn't new. Even in the early days of silent films, there were adaptations of Frank L Baum's Oz book series. What's changed isn't the idea, but its execution – companies are learning, slowly but surely, how to reach every audience they can, and how to have their brand associate with every aspect of your daily life.
Rovio has risen from a 3-man mobile-game startup to a company with a net revenue of €152 million – but reaching to and from the video game platform hasn't proven easy. The world of video games is rife with cheap attempts to shoe-horn IP from one medium to another, and though there are a few success stories, there are plenty that have fallen by the wayside as well. There's obviously a system to achieving that cross-platform success, but it isn't common knowledge … yet.
Perhaps (being a game designer) my opinion on the issue is skewed, but in any situation where an attempt is being made to maximise the reach of an IP, it seems that the key lies in how a brand is understood by the creative people who craft its entry onto each platform. Taking a brand across multiple platforms is always a risk: a poorly thought-through adaptation can leave your brand diluted, its popularity blighted by a failed launch or poorly-received product. In my opinion, the only two ways to guarantee success are to consider your intended platforms at the point of IP genesis and ensure their suitability, or to give serious consideration to the roots of your IP, and what makes it appealing at its core.
Take, for example, the dual attempts to bring The Walking Dead – an IP that began as a widely-acclaimed Image Comics publication and went on to become an award-winning AMC TV drama – to the interactive screen. One, The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct, was based on the TV show, and was a critical flop, mauled by players and critics alike. Its counterpart, from Telltale Games, licensed the IP of the original comic, and has been considered by many to be the best game of 2013. One could argue that the cause of disparity between the success of the two titles was down to the quality that was poured into each one – the love and affection poured into Telltale's Game is obvious - but there's also a sense that Telltale Games' Walking Dead game is somehow more in tune with the spirit of the TV show, despite not featuring any familiar voices or likenesses. By going back to the comic books, and not being hindered by requirements to include particular faces, voices or recognisable soundbites, Traveller's Tales were able to identify what made The Walking Dead stand out, both as a TV show and a comic book, and craft a new interactive experience that, from the ground-up, stood for those values (in this case, a duality of stomach-churning gore and emotionally draining moral dilemmas).
Conversely, the Angry Birds franchise's success is underpinned by the simplicity of the central IP – there's nothing uncharacteristic about a plush, cuddly Angry Bird, and there's even something slightly mischievous about the antagonistic Bad Piggies that makes their appearance on a soft drinks can or a child's backpack slightly amusing. This is why Angry Birds has become, now, probably a more ubiquitous image amongst children's brands than even Harry Potter or Star Wars – because to capture the original IP's appeal requires no context or story, but a mere image of the character.
Consider, as well, the odd case of the Lego franchise, whose first sojourns into the world of video games were careful to maintain the surreal, creative aspect of the original toy, and whose later, wildly popular cross-brand titles acted almost as parodies of their non-Lego-related counterparts. Had Lego Lord of The Rings featured the same po-faced characterisations as the movie, it might not have fared so well. The key to their cross-platform success was acknowledging that Lego has a cheeky, anarchic side to it – a child can purchase a pack which represents a castle, but can choose instead to build a rocketship. That comedic uncertainty played through into the appeal of the cross-brand games and was respected on both sides, creating a wholesome product that didn't feel out of place to either of the brands it represents.
Of course, it doesn't help that Traveller's Tales took great time and care in creating the Lego franchise games, or that Rovio's Angry Birds IP grew from a game that was genuinely addictive (if not entirely original). Over and above any consideration about how your IP fits in with the proposed new platform, ensuring that the finished product meets the standards set before it should always be paramount, and that means ensuring you choose the right partners, and trust in their expertise. You have to make sure that these partners understand the core concepts of the IP, just as you trust in their expertise to apply that in their given field.
Which rounds out my advice on convergence nicely: understand the core appeal of your IP, trust the experts to take that core appeal over to other platforms, and make sure the finished product, put frankly, doesn't suck. Whatever you do, don't disrespect the intended platform by trying to shoe-horn in parts of your IP that don't fit. Angry Birds Soda, after all, doesn't ask its customers to throw it against a wall before you drink it.