Gaming and the Future of Transmedia Entertainment

It seems like every year we hear claims that “20XX is the year of *insert name here*”. Usually that word is mobile, as has been the case annually since the creation of the smartphone. More specifically with the topics on this site, 2013 was supposed to be the year of social TV. Then 2014 was going to be the year of social TV…which didn’t last long before claims that social TV is dead (don’t worry it isn’t). If 2013 was anything, it was the year of the gaming console and 2014 will be a continued evolution of the gaming industry. Not only will our traditional definition of a mobile game be challenged, but the role gaming will play in the television and film industries will elevate to new levels in coming years as technology and behaviors change.

So why games? Games have a massive audience with the total number of people playing them around the world currently at 1.2 billion. With so many varying levels of styles and complexity combined with easier access, the appeal of video games is much broader today than in previous decades. 44% of the global internet population now play online games ranking it as one of the top online 3 activities. The surge in smartphone and tablet adoption is fueling the increase for what is considered today to be “mobile gaming”. While smartphone growth has slowed, tablets are on the rise with total 2014 shipments expected to reach 263 million units – an increase of 43%. The U.S. mobile gaming audience is growing at a faster rate than audiences in both online and social. This mobile gaming audience is not only growing, it is a highly attractive one for brands with 59% earning a household income of more than $75k a year. Despite mobile games being…well, mobile…the most popular place to play mobile games is at home. Not only do most gamers play them at home, 41% of mobile gamers (33% of tablet owners) play them most often in front of the TV. With so many playing mobile games at home, the attraction to mobile games isn’t necessarily that they are mobile. It has much more to do with accessibility and cost. Mobile games are often free or just a few dollars, which is a stark contrast to console games which can run upwards of $50.

With so many higher income individuals playing online and mobile games while sitting in front of the TV screen, should network executives be taking notice? Indeed they should. I’m not suggesting that games become the new second screen experience for television content. Far from it. Recent studies have shown that nearly all second screen users access asynchronous content (before, after, and between shows), but only 42% of them have accessed synchronized content. Given this divergence in adoption, it would stand to reason that based on the popularity of games and the likelihood for viewers to interact with asynchronous content, that gaming as a form of transmedia extensions to network programming is a viable market in which to experiment and would provide an alternate outlet for advertisers/partners.

I mentioned 2013 being what I would call the year of the console. This past holiday season brought us the launch of new gaming consoles from the two biggest players in the industry: Microsoft and Sony. Now the Xbox One and PS4 releases alone are arguably enough justification to make the claim for the year, but they are not the only story from 2013. Last year brought us several new players to the console space. Two of those were both products of Kickstarter launches: Ouya and GameStick. Nvidia entered the market with their Shield console (handheld with larger screen capable output) and Cox Communications got in the game with their Flareplay console product.

Not only did 2013 bring us those new consoles, we are also seeing an expansion of devices aimed at making it easier to play games on a television screen – making them essentially gaming consoles themselves. Roku, widely considered an OTT video streaming device, now has an NDK for gaming development plus a remote that functions as a limited controller (opportunity for software based advanced controller features using their remote app). The existing Apple TV has an AirPlay feature that is gaining popularity in use by app developers that could expand more into gaming. Google even launched their version of a mirrored experience with the Chromecast device and recently deployed their own SDK which will allow developers to build Chromecast friendly experiences. This trend will continue in 2014 with the launch of the new Steam console and even Amazon is rumored to enter the OTT hardware game providing an opportunity to tie-in gaming on the TV screen with their popular Kindle tablets – especially with their acquisition of Double Helix. More MVPDs will be joining Cox with their own offerings this year as we’ve already seen Comcast experimenting with cloud based gaming on their new Xfinity X1 set top boxes. As televisions continue to roll out their own app platforms (like Samsung and LG), those systems are a terrific opportunity in the home for gaming apps as well. Don’t count the WiiU out just yet either. Despite dismal sales figures, they still have a chance to become a player in the entertainment and gaming space given their existing partnership with i.TV who recently acquired social TV pioneer GetGlue.

Both Xbox and PS4 are making a push to be the entertainment center for the home, combining television and movie content with gaming in one hardware solution. They’ve also both opened up their networks to independent developers which is lowering the barrier to entry for independent games on those platforms without the expensive capital required to launch a traditional console disc. This means that both of those consoles will see a lot more games that would traditionally be available only on mobile devices. If you look at the other new devices like Roku, Ouya, and Gamestick, their gaming content is primarily mobile games ported to render on those platforms. Chromecast and AppleTV are much more directly linked mobile gaming since they are mirrored games from mobile and online devices. What is the trend that we’re seeing here? It has never been easier or cheaper to deploy online and mobile games that can be played on a primary television screen. Content that would have only been playable on a laptop or a smartphone/tablet (aka “mobile”) a year ago, are capable for viewing and play on a television screen. Given we already know most mobile gaming takes place in the home, this new combo of mobile apps meeting the primary screen through these devices is one that game developers and networks need to be considering for their audiences.

Gaming audience demographics and behaviors in the home are compelling and the new consoles and media devices have made it easier than ever before in video game history for people to play mobile and online games on their televisions. So the next logical question, if you’re a television or film executive, should be what types of games are ideal? And the answer everyone hates: it depends. Several factors must be weighed during the planning stages with the most common being budget, your audience demographics, and purpose. Games that require production support and access to talent will add to complexity and expense.

The following are just a few of the possible types ranging from lowest to highest in complexity:


Re-Skin Popular Games – By far the easiest entry into the online and mobile game space for a network is to take their show assets and re-skin existing game engines. Usually this involves adding the theme to the housing framework, but can include customized art elements in the game itself. Taking the classic pub machine game Photo Hunt and re-skinning it with a detective background works well for the casual gaming, likely older, female demographic of the TNT show Rizzoli and Isles. These game engines can be licensed with minimal expense and can create long session length visits on a network show site, ideal for partner ad inventory. Re-designing a popular game with entirely new artwork is a bit more costly, but provides a much deeper connection to the brand characters. A good example here is the Tiny Tower game rebuilt as Star Wars: Tiny Death Star. Generally, games in this group have no connection to any story arcs other than the characters seen in the background or in the game itself. These are designed purely for disconnected play away from the shows/films as a tool to keep fans occupied with an existing brand.

image: iTunes

Original Games No Story Connection – The next step up would be to create original gameplay environments with the show or film characters and branded universe that have no direct connection to expanding the TV show story arcs. This is a tactic that is heavily used by the film industry, especially with companies like 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros. Almost every major blockbuster released by those studios will get a free mobile games and experiences, usually released in advance of the film for promotional purposes. Great examples here are Fast and Furious and several of the Marvel and Batman films. Cartoon Network and Adult Swim do a fantastic job with releasing mobile and online games across a variety of their show brands. A new game for fans of the TV show Falling Skies recently launched called Planetary Warfare, which also fits nicely into this group. While none of these mobile and online games in this category drive story connections to television programming, they do allow fans to enjoy the character universe and build greater affinities toward the shows – not to mention session time for advertiser exposure.

image: EA Games

Games with Story Association - This group takes games played most commonly on mobile devices that can be enjoyed without watching the TV programming, but introduce content that connects the games to the television show. The best example here is The Simpsons Tapped Out. Fans can enjoy the game for the experience itself with the characters, but to keep the game top of mind and fresh, they integrate elements from new episodes of the show. These playable items in the game are only available for a limited time before the episode is shown and feature related plot elements and characters. This helps drive repeat visits to the game without requiring game players to watch the show to understand and enjoy them. The key distinction here from the next two groups is that none of the television story arcs are lost for those viewers who choose to not play the game. All of the story is contained in the television universe, with TV show related items simply being introduced into the game world.

image: Telltale

Games with Expanded Universe Stories - Games in this group can exist online, mobile, and even on the traditional consoles – not to mention all of these are capable of being built on any of the platforms with delivery access to primary television screens. These games are not integrated into the television shows being broadcast, but do involve additional (and even existing) characters and stories that exist in the same show universe. The difference here versus the “Games with Story Connection” category is that here the games provide their own stories which tie-in to the television world giving gamers additional related content. The other category may have the same characters, but don’t create new stories themselves. Telltale Games is a terrific example of a studio playing in this category. Their award winning The Walking Dead games have created story arcs that many would argue are just as exciting to watch unfold in the game as the plot lines shown in the actual show. This cinematic and character driven gameplay is a wonderful transmedia extension to the comic and TV show universe. While the characters do not cross over into the TV show, they are no less important to the overall universe of the post-apocalyptic zombie world of The Walking Dead. Telltale is currently in works on a game for another TV show and published franchise, Game of Thrones. The distinction for this category is that the gameplay creates its own story arcs that exist in the same universe as the show, but do not require the user to watch the show and play the game to get the full narrative of either of the arcs.

image: Syfy

Games Woven in Story Arcs – Building upon the previous category are games that are woven into the TV show or film story. The biggest difference in this upper echelon of transmedia integration is that the games must be played In order to get the complete narrative of the TV show or film. One of the earliest examples of this type of transmedia gaming experiment was the “Enter the Matrix” video game. This game was designed by the Wachowskis to be a companion experience to the Matrix film trilogy and ran parallel with the story in “The Matrix Reloaded”. It starred the same cast as the films and included an additional hour of original studio shot footage. The game plot filled in holes from the film while gamers weaved in and out of the movie storyline. Viewers could watch the film trilogy and not even realize they missed any of the story, but those who played the game after watching the film received a whole new level of understanding into what was taking place on screen. Gameplay without the film was certainly possible, but not nearly as meaningful to the gamer experience. Along similar lines is “Defiance” on Syfy, which is undoubtedly the most ambitious gaming and television project ever made. Much like Enter the Matrix, the Defiance game exists in the same story universe as the show and weaves in and out of the plot. The game is set in San Francisco while the show is based in old St Louis so the overlap isn’t direct, but characters and plot elements are fluid across both cities. Each have their own story arcs, of course, but every week new missions and elements are released into the game universe that directly connect to a previous or upcoming TV episode. Show viewers and gamers can enjoy either experience independently, but together they form a much broader understanding of the world of Defiance.

Television with gaming based transmedia integration has a massive amount of benefit and potential to the way in which we consume asynchronous media. Not only does it provide an opportunity for network brands and sponsors to converge in ways beyond traditional advertising spots, but it allows show fans to connect and interact with their favorite programming in ways television alone can not provide. While the highest level that shows can strive towards is the gaming experiences integrated with weekly programming, all of the games do not have to be built in that manner. There are plenty of opportunities that are possible at much easier (and cheaper) levels. The key here is that no matter the show demographic, fans are looking for ways to connect with shows beyond the show itself. For many networks and their show brands, gaming is a perfect medium to provide that connection. With the 2013 year of the console behind us and 2014 being the age where what was once considered a mobile game loses its original meaning, there really is no better time than the present to take advantage of the new and exciting platforms that are now available. These hardware devices exist in millions of homes so scale is no longer an issue. Contrary to doom and gloom articles, the TV entertainment industry is not dying, it’s evolving. And this evolution of storytelling will reside at the intersection of both television and games.

  • Chris Carmichael Ubiquity Corp

    Transmedia storytelling is telling a story across multiple media and preferably, although it doesn’t always happen, with a degree of audience participation, interaction or collaboration.