Stop what you’re doing, down your tools, take a break because this Q&A with TEDx Transmedia 2012 speaker, Robert Tercek, is ESSENTIAL reading for any transmedia or interactive content producer.
The man who has launched breakthrough entertainment experiences on every digital platform, including satellite television, game consoles, broadband internet, interactive television and mobile networks sat down with us to share some of his incredible wisdom and experience.
He covers everything from the myths and tricks around creating interactive content to telepathy, the battles to determine the future of digital media to what he intends to talk about at TEDx Transmedia.
Robert’s an artist, producer, writer, director, strategist and interactive pioneer who has worked in top flight roles from Creative Director at MTV to Chairman of a foundation that supports Creative Activism.
We are really excited to have him as a ‘Mindshifter’ at TEDx Transmedia. Register here to get the chance to see and speak to him live.
Hi Robert, please can you give a brief overview of your relationship with Transmedia? What do you think of the term?
The word “transmedia” may not beautiful, but the concept is deeply appealing. For more than fifteen years, I have been working on interactive entertainment on a variety of platforms. I’ve faced the fun challenge of creating interactive content for just about every device, from TV set top boxes to game consoles, computers, mobile phones and more. In the past, we were confronted by the conundrum of weak computer power and the demand of processor-intensive graphics and interaction. These limitations demanded creative solutions and a lot of ingenuity to work around the limitations of the device. Today the devices are ten times more powerful, including the mobile phone, but those early lessons are still very valuable.
What’s the most important part of Transmedia for you? In your experience, what makes a great Transmedia project?
The key to success in any medium is to commit to the core attributes of that medium. As Verdi said, “Opera is opera and symphony is symphony.” Certain stories are best told in traditional linear media. But some stories can only be told in interactive format. Strive to tell your story in the medium that suits it best: don’t make the mistake of attempting to bend the medium to support a story that doesn’t quite fit.
What do you see as the future of Transmedia storytelling?
I believe that all media will be social, cross-platform, responsive and personalized. Authorship will evolve with the medium: authors will become collaborative, finding a way to integrate the ideas and participation shared by the audience. As traditional channels dissolve or evolve, marketplaces will rise in their place. Individual shows or stories will take on the attributes of a destination, a permanent part of the landscape rather than something seasonal or fleeting.
Is Hollywood missing out / missing the point on Transmedia?
A surprising number of people in Hollywood are keenly focused on the future. That’s an encouraging sign of evolution. But it is also true that some executives in traditional media companies are determined to fight the future. They are mounting a rearguard defense to preserve a crumbling business model from the previous century, instead of embracing the dynamics of the new century’s medium. Those who treat new media as a mere marketing gimmick or as an ancillary market are missing the point. At the core of transmedia is the promise of cross-platform entertainment. Embrace it, don’t waste energy fighting it.
What is vital in designing engaging interactive content?
The most important aspect of interactive entertainment is the two-way nature of the experience. This is very new. The previous century involved broadcast media, which is one-way, centralized, homogenized, controlled and programmed. There’s no room in that equation for audience participation.
But interactive media is different. The experience doesn’t really exist until the audience engages and participates. The reason the early interactive media platforms (such as CD-ROM) were unsuccessful is that they lacked a connection to a two-way network. Today, we have ability to integrate Facebook and Twitter into any kind of entertainment, and that presents a massive enhancement to the experience. Entertainment on a two-way network is different because it involves a kind of exchange. A trade. You ask the audience to give you something (their time, their energy, their involvement, their endorsement, or their commitment to creating the magic) and in exchange you must provide something to them. I think it’s quite useful to think about the Internet as a giant exchange, like a marketplace, where every participant is trading their time, attention, knowledge, contacts, tastes and preferences. The question for the producer of interactive media is: what do you demand of your audience? And what do you offer them in exchange?
What are some of the myths around creating interactive content? What lessons have you learnt about integrating content across platforms?
Today, many executives in traditional media companies have an outdated idea about the Internet and interactive media. I have encountered many television executives, for instance, who dismiss YouTube as “web junk” and who sneer at games as a degraded narrative experience. I think that they are mistaken. Everyone needs to revisit the interactive platforms often, to witness the incredible rate of change. There have been impressive improvements in internet-based storytelling in just the past 18 months, and of course it continues to improve. Traditional media evolves much more slowly. It’s very common to hear an executive from a big media company make a grand pronouncement about the Internet or the mobile web that is completely inaccurate. I think these are the myths that will die the hardest.
How do you get people to interact with a story or media experience in a more active way than reading a book or watching a film? Is it as simple as having a great story and characters?
A great story and characters are necessary, but those are no guarantee of success. To make a great interactive experience, you must get a commitment from the audience: they must identify with the story so strongly that they have an emotional stake in the outcome of the programme. If they don’t care about the outcome of the story or the plight of the characters, then they won’t complete the interactive portion, and the programme will fail. Get an emotional commitment from the audience!
One of the most useful things a producer can do is to define the role that the audience must play. In fact, there may be several different roles for the audience, depending upon how much passion they bring to the material. Some audience members will want to be very active: for them you must provide a role that is central to the story, with great stakes and big consequences. But other members of the audience are lazy, so you also need to create several smaller roles that don’t require a high degree of engagement. Most of the audience will be in a supporting role. Think of how your visitors engage with your blog: a few members of the audience get the chance to contribute a guest article. Some members get to post comments. Still others merely like and share the article. Some are just there to read, not write. All of these are valid roles for the audience.
What are some of the secrets to building communities in interactive media?
Most successful online communities thrive because of a shared passion. At the core, they share some kind of emotional commitment to the subject matter. There are many ways to generate a passionate emotional response: the key thing is to get them to care so deeply about the existence of the community that they feel some ownership and a need to protect it and groom it. Just like buying a home in a real community. Transmedia producers should think carefully about how they can generate an emotional reaction.
Your career has spanned many changes in interactive content. What do you think is the next game changer?
Simultaneous release across all distribution platforms. It is just beginning to happen now. I believe that distributing directly to individuals on personal screens (as opposed to distributing to households via television) will open up the market for quality video productions.
What’s your view on the future of publishing? Will print survive? Is digital publishing being innovated enough?
Books have been around in one form or another for at least a millennium, and we’ve had moveable type since 1453. We will still have them for a while longer! Most Americans and Europeans are unaware of just how saturated our society is in the printed word. Printed documents define our contemporary world: print drives government, health care, the financial system and currency. It will take a very long time for print to fade away entirely, and perhaps it never will. But I can predict with some degree of certainty that the mass market book will be gone within ten years. Sure, you’ll always be able to purchase a special edition of a bound book, but for most trade paperbacks and non fiction, digital delivery to tablets and e-readers will rapidly emerge as the most convenient option. This is a good thing. More than 300 books are published in the US every day. Think about how much paper and fuel is wasted printing and distributing those books, especially the ones that don’t sell very well. These books should live on digital platforms, not in print.
There is a titanic struggle underway right now between traditional media companies and technology companies. What’s at stake is nothing less than the right to determine the future of digital media. Companies are using their power, wealth and influence to reshape the Internet according to their strategic interest and their preferred business model. They cannot all succeed. Therefore we are about to witness some winners and losers. The most interesting question about our current situation is whether the old media of the past will prevail, imposing their business rules and economics on the young new medium of the Internet. To me, it seems unthinkable, but there are some very powerful companies at work on this right now.
Do you think your experience as an artist informs your work now? How?
Art is present in everything that I do. I surround myself with art in every place where I live and work. I travel with art supplies. I am rarely without a pen and paper because I draw constantly. I also draw and paint on my tablet computer. To me, art is a great way to connect with people. If your job involves thinking and sharing ideas, then you need to discover as many ways as possible to express those ideas. Visual arts provide an alternative way to describe the world, quite different from mathematics and verbal language. Visual arts communicate much faster, and on a visceral emotional level. To me, visual art is not optional or secondary. It is vitally necessary for the creative professional. Human beings are visual creatures. We think in images, we dream in images, we watch images on screen all day and night. Those who can create images have the ability to inspire others.
The theme of this year’s TEDx Transmedia, WEKids, is about harnessing child-like wonder and courage to make media that has a social impact. What do you see as the potential of that approach?
I love the two themes of child-like wonder and the courage to make meaningful media. When Nicoletta first proposed these to me, I responded immediately. Too often, instead of striving to achieve the extraordinary with transformative storytelling, producers settle for much less. Mere commercial success is a common goal. In my experience, producers can achieve much more by aiming higher. A great storyteller can inspire a generation with hopes and dreams. The greatest story franchises in media consist of whole worlds populated with compelling characters and meaningful dialogue. It takes a special kind of genius to conceive of a whole world: that requires an imagination that is childlike and egoless, able to breath life into every corner of a vast domain.
The theme’s focus on the spirit of an inner child is partly an encouragement for people to play. What do you see as the role of play in innovation or any work you’ve done?
Play is important. Play is often overlooked and underrated because it doesn’t strike business executives as important. Too often, they consider play to be the domain of children, not adults. That’s a mistake. A huge part of learning involves play and discovery. That’s as true for adults as it is for children. People experience their greatest creativity when they adopt a playful attitude: you can’t force great ideas to come into existence.
Play is also an important aspect of transmedia. I’d argue that play is the heart of any interactive entertainment. Games are the most compelling form of entertainment on the two-way network. No other form of interactive media offers such a clear proposition to the audience.
Everyone loves to play… even if some of us happen to be a bit out of practice. Sometimes adults need an excuse to shed their workaday identity in order to recover their childhood love of play. The best online games give us an easy way to set aside our conventional identities and assume a new playful identity. This is a core behavior on the two-way network. From the earliest days of the Internet, long before the World Wide Web, games were a part of the culture. There were simple shooter games, like Space Wars, but there were also incredibly rich narrative games in the form of MUDs and MUSHes. These were truly collaborative spaces. The lessons learned in MUDs informed the Massively Multiplayer Online Role Play games that we introduced in the late 1990s.
The subheading is Dreamers, Geeks, Mindshifters; which do you most identify with and why?
[laughing] That’s a very good question! In each of these identities, I see richness and also some element of risk. The risk of being a Dreamer is that one might never rouse to take action. The risk of being a Geek is to remain marginalized, outside of the mainstream, too weird to connect with the rest of the group. And the risk of being a Mindshifter is that one might mystify or confuse people instead of delighting them with entertainment. I embrace all three types, but I suppose these days I am most preoccupied with shifting minds and challenging conventional wisdom. So call me a Mindshifter!