The Narrative Design Exploratorium™
A publication dedicated to exploring interactive storytelling.
Today’s creator is John Johnson CEO and Creative Director of Vancouver based Smoking Gun Interactive. His most recent project Exoriare is currently live. As an original IP manifesting itself in various forms of media it’s already proven a compelling mystery of a transmedia story world. John started Smoking Gun Interactive with some of his award winning team members from THQ’s Relic Entertainment, he produced the highest rated Real-Time Strategy game of all time Company of Heroes.
Entertainment is on the verge of something new; no not 3D, but a new generation of transmedia story experiences. Story worlds that, in a calculated fashion, cross from media to media providing players with new ways to experience, and immerse themselves in, an authored interactive world. In the past this was done solely for purposes of merchandising and franchise expansion, but in the present it’s being used to create fantastic story experiences. This new NDE series, Creators of Transmedia™, sets out to explore what visionaries in the field are now creating, and what they believe tomorrow will bring.
Stephen E. Dinehart: We’ll skip over the CEO portion and go straight to your role as Creative Director for Smoking Gun Interactive, what does your job entail?
John Johnson: My role is to get the various stakeholders onboard with a shared vision of what we want to accomplish with a project. Then, as we go through the various stages of development, I’m there primarily to make sure that we’re meeting that vision, in everything that we do.
Probably the most important decision we made, in terms of how we approach trans-media, is that our core creative team stays in the action, regardless of what media we’re dealing with. So, for instance, we don’t have a separate web development team, or a separate comic team – we’re treating everything as an organic, critical part of the project. We still bring in collaborators, of course, like Douglas Rushkoff, but he’s working with myself, our art director, and narrative team.
You new IP Exoriare launched in november and already has a dedicated audience decoding it’s transmedia puzzles. Without spoiling the experience, how is Smoking Gun using a transmedia approach to enrich your player experience?
JJ: A key point for us is that the audience gets to be an active participant in this universe from day one. You’re not just reading the comic – you’re diving into it, you’re entering the same world that our characters inhabit.
So, already we’ve opened up a narrative space that can exist along-side a console game. We have a pretty trippy ending to this first one, that is literally out of this world and we hope that captures people’s imaginations both for our story, but also for just what’s possible.
What transmedia storytelling mean to Smoking Gun?
JJ: For us, trans-media means that nothing is off limits. It’s a license to say that we’re going to take you places and do things that you might not imagine are even possible. Once we set the stage like that, it gives us some great opportunities to really capture your imagination, and that’s half the battle in telling any story – if we can capture your sense of wonder, we can transport you anywhere.
How will Exoriare fans benefit from a broad spectrum of interlaced story development?
JJ: I think they’ll be taken to places, you just can’t go in a traditional story. They’ll be interacting with community members building relationships, and really exploring a deep rich world that exists everywhere.
When you and your core team began development on Exoriare was the intent to create a transmedia experience, or did that evolve out of iteration?
JJ: When we developed Smoking Gun Interactive one of main company vision points was to innovate in this space (gaming). We want to look at how people interact with products, and how we think they will interact with products in the future. We’re looking to help forge new ideas. So short answer yes.
Can you describe your teams’ creative process?
JJ: Most of us have work together before and we all know each other well. Ego’s are always left at the door. We’re here as a team, and we all have the same passion. We share all our ideas with each other and bounce them back and forth, many of those grow into something much more powerful or solidify as they bounce around.
For me personally I never like to say “never”. I really like blue skying. Even if something is completely un-obtainable, it’s good to delve into what core emotional response or experience you hoping to get out of that, then just keep looking for other ways you might be able to deliver that same core feeling. I find a lot times if you look at the core of what your trying to get across and if your passionate enough about achieving it, you will in some way do just that, especially with an amazing team that all believes the same thing.
What about creating an immersive story world is most challenging for you?
JJ: With our current project, we’re being very rigorous with our backstory and reference material. We’re taking things that are already out there and weaving our story in between so making sure we have all our facts straight is a big task on this project considering how much it encompasses. It’s been a huge effort to get that to a point where we’re happy with it, while still ensuring that it matches our vision for the overall player experience.
Currently you are utilizing an online rich media experience with Flash based mini-games, a forum, and comic book. What additional entry-points to the franchise can you reveal?
JJ: We have something coming up very soon that’s just out of this world – something that’s never been done before as part of any interactive entertainment. There are maybe a couple hundred people on the entire planet that can accomplish what we envisioned, and a couple of them have kindly agreed to work with us. That’s about as specific as I can get at this point.
What is the time frame for your rollout strategy?
JJ: The only commitment we’ve made to date is that the first volume of the comic will be printed early next year and will be sold directly to fans on our site. We do plan to release six volumes over the next couple of years, as we move closer to a launch date for the console game.
As one of the creative forces behind the highest rated strategy franchises of all time, Company of Heroes, how is that experience helping you craft a next-generation strategy experience?
JJ: Whatever industry or genre you’re in, the drive for excellence always has the same ingredients. It’s all about the passion, and having a team that refuses to say “it can’t be done”.
Your talented team has crafted a fantastic mystery, one full of cryptic clues and rich possibilities. Will mystery be a driving style in the entire Exoriare experience?
JJ: Yes, mystery and wonder is a key part of Exoriare.
What’s the most exciting part of your job?
JJ: Working with such a wonderful passionate team and seeing cool things created on a daily basis.
With such heavy players on your team, how to prevent the creative process for being trickle-down, that is, how do you keep the little guy involved?
JJ: We’re pretty open, I think. If somebody on the team is particularly excited about something we’re working on, and feels like they want to participate, then they’re in that room, and nobody’s going to worry about their job-title. It’s all about the passion – that’s the only price of entry. We did Company of Heroes in this same way and many of the team members had great ideas that flowed back into the game.
Finally, what do you see as the future for transmedia storytelling?
JJ: A generation from now, nobody’s going to be thinking in terms of trans-media, because it will be so ubiquitous that it will become absolutely transparent. A lot of walls will begin to crumble as we move forward into this next decade of gaming.
John and his Exoriare team are a fine example of real-world media creators crafting a transmedial play experience, ones which engage players in deeper stroy worlds. This is clear evidence of AAA game development teams trying thier best to bring deeper experinces to a broader audience. I’m Stephen Dinehart for the NDN, I hope you’ve learned as much as I have. Remeber, it’s only through play that great stories happen.
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