March 17, 2006
MIT C3 NEWSLETTER AND INDUSTRY UPDATE
- Henry Jenkins on comics and branded entertainment
- Shenja van der Graaf on knowledge management in the game industry
- Cable 2.0: the rise of niche broadband channels
- Maker of Bratz to launch doll-based fashion line
--------------- OPENING NOTE ---------------
WHAT COMICS HAVE TO TEACH US ABOUT BRANDED ENTERTAINMENT
By Henry Jenkins
The release of V for Vendetta this week marks simply the latest example of a growing interest among entertainment producers in content which originates in comic books and graphic novels; content which ranges from superheroes (X-Men 3, Spiderman 3, Superman Returns, Batman Begins) to more realistic stories (A History of Violence, Road to Perdition, Art School Confidential). Yet, if the entertainment industry understands comics simply in terms of content which can be adapted to other media, they have not fully understood their potential value for shaping the future of branded entertainment. Longtime comics editor Denny O’Neil has aptly described comics as the R&D division of the entertainment industry.
Comics and graphic novels might better be understood as a medium for rapid prototyping for new content strategies. The costs of producing a comic book are significantly lower than the costs of generating new content in any other medium; the planning and development stage for comics is shorter than any other medium. As a result, one can see new trends in entertainment emerging first in comics where the risks of innovation and experimentation are significantly lower. Add to this the fact that the market of comics is so low that the costs of a bad choice may also be lower while desperation pushes the industry to try new approaches in trying to reach and hang onto audiences.
Finally, add in the fact that many of the most successful comics franchises have been in continuous production in the case of DC’s characters, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman since the late 1930s and in the case of Marvel’s heroes, Spiderman and the Fantastic Four since the early 1960s. In most of these franchises, multiple stories appear each month and their most hardcore readers have continued to engage with these characters across the decades. This situation poses a number of challenges which require constant experimentation as comics publishers attempt to balance the mastery of longtime fans with the needs to open up the market to new readers and as they attempt to refresh the franchise with new approaches and perspectives.
Trend-spotters would be advised to follow closely the experimentation which occurs pretty much every week in comics publishing. Here are some things you might learn from monitoring comics right now:
1. Continuity and Complexity: Since the 1960s, comics fans have been demanding a high degree of continuity not only across the installments of the same superhero narrative but across all of the superhero franchises published by the same company. Fans talk about the DC Universe and the Marvel Universe, seeing these stories as connected in complex ways. Publishers have become adept at distributing information relevant to one storyline across multiple titles, increasing the number of books the average fan reads in a given month, and they often have universe-wide events which generate buzz about the entire publishing line. This system is worth exploring at a time when the most successful media franchises, Lost for example, depend, as Steven Johnson has suggested, on complexity rather than simplicity. Comic book publishers, at the same time, have had to develop systems which allow accessibility to first time readers so that people do not become so frustrated or confused that they feel blocked from entering an ongoing franchise. Finding that balance between complexity and accessibility is a problem which television producers are just starting to confront. Comics don’t always get it right. But there’s several decades worth of experiments there which allow one to track good and bad approaches to this challenge. For those wanting to see how this process works, there are several important new events unfolding across the major comic book publishers, which show the expansive potential of comics narratives. DC’s Infinite Crisis series will unfold this month across 14 different franchise titles; Marvel’s Decimation storyline will unfold across 12 different titles. Perhaps more interesting will be DC’s 52, which will include characters from across its full product line, and will result in an new installment each week for an entire year, each representing one week worth of activity in the DC universe.
2. Multiplicity: Television and film producers often express the need to maintain absolute fidelity to one definitive version of a media franchise, fearing audience confusion. Comics, on the other hand, are discovering that comics readers take great pleasure in encountering and comparing multiple versions of the same characters. There are multiple versions, say, of the Spiderman character in publication at once, each reflecting the distinctive vision of a particular team of writers and artists: in some Peter Parker is still a teen while in others, he is an adult; in some he is married to M.J. and living at the Avengers Mansion, while in others, he is still courting her. Some emphasize action elements, others romantic entanglements. But this is just the start. Further on the fringes, comics publishers experiment with books which are told from the perspective of long term villains (stories centered on Lex Luther, Kingpin, and Doctor Van Doom have surfaced in recent years), stories which situate the protagonists in radically different time periods (see the recently launched Batman Year 100), experiments where the characters are reconceptualized from the ground up (DC ran a Just Imagine series a few years ago allowing long time rival Stan Lee to develop totally different conceptualizations of Batman et al), or experiments in which the character is placed in a different generic or historical context (the DC Elseworlds series has offered fans a glimpse of what Superman would have been like if his rocket had landed in Russia rather than Kansas or what Batman would have been like as a pirate). The closest we have seen in other media to this kind of radical repositioning of characters might be the year one story offered by Batman Begins or the kind of pre-Superman narrative offered by Smallville, both of which have enjoyed considerable success with younger viewers who are turning their nose up at many more straightforward screen adaptations.
3. Transmedia: Because the costs of comics production is relatively low, they are increasingly being used to expand upon universes created for other media into directions which might be cost prohibitive in film or television. Joss Whedon is an important figure to watch in this regard: around his Buffy The Vampire Slayer franchise, he developed Tales of the Slayers and Tales of the Vampires, both anthology series which dealt with the prehistory of the television series and around Firefly, he developed a series of comics published concurrent with the release of the Serenity theatrical film which filled in some of the backstory. Some other examples to watch at the moment: The Fountain (a graphic novel by Darren Aronofsky which expands upon the universe he is creating for a forthcoming feature film) and Hatter M (a comic book series, based on a radical reconceptualization of Alice in Wonderland, which is helping to prepare the American market for a successful fantasy-adventure series, and The Looking Glass Wars, which has already reached cult status in England.)
4. Globalization: American comics publishers are struggling with intense competition from Japanese manga: indeed, by some estimates, manga outsells American comics in the United States by almost four to one; manga also seems to be attracting many of the younger readers and has been more successful at broadening out to reach female consumers. Not to be outdone, the comics industry is aggressively recruiting talent from around the world, trying to feed the impulses towards pop cosmopolitanism in this current generation. Some examples would include the Marvel Mangaverse (which reconceived classic superheroes as they might look and act if they had originated in Japan), Batman: Hong Kong (which adopted a distinctly Chinese comics style to depict the dark knight), and Spiderman: India (which draws on South Asian art and folklore to depict a Mumbai-based Spiderman). There has also been an explosion of new talent recruited in recent years from Europe and Latin America whose influences are just starting to be felt on comics. Capitalizing on these trends, Virgin’s Richard Branson recently launched a new company which would produce comics and animation for the South Asian Diaspora. As Aswin P. suggested several weeks ago, these projects do not simply tap the Desi population; they also aggressively target American teens of all races and ethnicity who are searching for cultural difference.
5. Digitization: Comics creators and fans are exploiting a range of strategies which take advantage of the even lower production and delivery costs of the web environment. There are thousands of new comics creators producing material for circulation via the web: most of them are amateurs who will never make a profit, but there is now a well trod path by which commercial publishers use the web to test new talent and identify audiences before bringing them into print publication. These artists are supporting themselves through a variety of different business models, including micropayments, subscriptions, merchandise sales, or banner advertising. Comics retailers, such as Denver’s Mile High Comics, use the web to systematize the circulation and sale of comics back issues, which can be difficult to locate in any given national market. Comics publishers are using the web to offer free or low cost samples to potential readers at a time when most comics are sold in specialty shops which are cut off from the main flow of consumer traffic. Comics creators are using the web to blog and establish a more personal relationship with their readers which is proving to increase consumer loyalty. And fans are creating sites such as Sequential Tart (http://www.sequentialtart.com/) or No Flying, No Tights (http://www.noflyingnotights.com/), which allow specific groups of consumers to exert greater pressure on the industry; women in the case of Tarts, teens in the case of No Flying. Brian Wood’s Local, has created a site (http://localthecomic.blogspot.com/) where readers can propose local communities and landmarks which might be incorporated into future installments of the book.
6. Alternative Culture: Because the turnaround from conception to execution is so much shorter in comics than in film or television, comics are the first to feel shifts in the political climate. This process has continued down to the present day: the past few months has seen the launch of several comic book series which use futuristic settings to offer criticism of Bush’s America (see Brian Wood’s DMZ, about an embedded reporter in a future New York marked by armed conflict between the U.S. military and local insurgents and Douglas Rushkoff’s Revelations, which uses both science fiction and Biblical stories to deal with the consequences of a surveillance society, both published by Vertigo, an off-shoot of DC). Part of what insures the topicality of comics has been ongoing efforts to recruit alternative artists and writers into the mainstream of the media: nowhere else is the line between experimental and commercial work so blurry.
We have simply scratched the surface here. There is still a great deal that entertainment companies can learn from comics. You should be watching them more closely.
Scratch below the surface on comics and several other media forms with Henry Jenkins... live and in person at the C3 Conference at MIT, 27-28 April 2006. Mark your calendars... now!
--------------- TRANSMEDIA ---------------
- NY Times writes about the rise of niche TV channels distributed over the broadband connections, drawing parallels with the early days of cable. "In the last six months, major media companies have received much attention for starting to move their own programming online. Perhaps more interesting — and, arguably, more important — are the thousands of producers whose programming would never make it into prime time but who have very dedicated small audiences. It's a phenomenon that could be called slivercasting."
- MGA Entertainment, the maker of Bratz dolls, has teamed up with Resilience to debut Bratz Couture, a line of couture clothing based on the dolls and designed for girls ages 8 to 12.
- World Wrestling Entertainment is launching a $3.99 mobile alert subscription package, "a precursor to a plethora of new web and wireless programs WWE plans to roll out later this spring. As part of this package, subscribers are provided exclusive WWE content each week, including breaking news about WWE Superstars, “Monday Night Raw” and “Friday Night SmackDown” previews and results, and special Superstar columns."
--------------- STATS ---------------
- "According to a [British] national survey from BMRB, latest figures suggest that over 10% of the adult population have downloaded a podcast in the last 6 months and figures will continue to grow. Among adult internet users, 17% have downloaded a “podcast” in the last 6 months (rising to 28% among 16-24 year olds) and 24% are likely to download a podcast in the next 6 months."
-- Another British report by Directgov says that "web users now have almost 76 million sites to choose from, yet most only visit six on a regular basis."
- "Results of The Retail Customer Dissatisfaction Study 2006 -- conducted by The Jay H. Baker Retailing Initiative at Wharton and The Verde Group, a Toronto consulting firm, in the weeks before and after Christmas 2005 -- show that only 6% of shoppers who experienced a problem with a retailer contacted the company, but 31% went on to tell friends, family or colleagues what happened. Of those, 8% told one person, another 8% told two people, but 6% told six or more people."
- "Broadband Internet service has changed the way people use their computers. The average person now spends 30.5 hours per month using their home computer; two years ago the average person spent only 25.5 hours at their PC each month. Broadband penetration grew 13% last year to 95.5 million homes, which means 68% of active home-Internet users now use a broadband connection, according to a study by Nielsen/NetRatings."
- Web Marketing Association released findings of a decade-long study of web development trends. The Internet Standards Assessment Report is based on data collected from nearly 10,000 Web site evaluations across 80 industries.
--------------- ADVERTISING ---------------
- Nielsen, which had been estimating that DVRs were present in only about 8 percent of U.S. TV households, Wednesday revised that projection upward to 10 percent, and said it now anticipates DVRs will reach 18 percent of U.S. homes by the end of the year. Alan Wurtzel, president of NBC Universal Television Research and Media Development, said the problems with commercial avoidance were worse in non-DVR homes than in DVR homes. Wurtzel said the loss in commercial effectiveness was currently just under 7 percent in non-DVR homes, as compared to about 3 percent in DVR homes.
- Deep Focus reached an agreement with YouTube to promote its studio clients' trailers on the portal. The first trailer for "Scary Movie 4," was added to YouTube's "featured videos" on Monday and has since been viewed 437,000 times.
- Business 2.0 blog writes about why MySpace burried Friendster. "The reason kids left Friendster is that it did not allow strikethroughs of every word and personal pages with black backgrounds. The lesson there is that if you are trying to build a social network, you need to let the members express themselves however they like, even if you don't like how they are doing it."
- "Advertising Research Foundation’s initiative to focus the measurement of advertising’s effectiveness on engagement will heat up later this month at the organization’s annual conference."
--------------- END NOTE ---------------
On Developers, Publishers and Gamers: Knowledge Management in the Game Industry
By Shenja van der Graaf
The established business models of top publishers (eg Electronic Arts) in the gaming industry - one of the fastest growing creative industries worldwide – have, not unlike the music and films industries, become challenged by new online distribution models. On the one hand, digital technologies have opened up ways for decentralization and diversification by enabling consumers to become participants in the production and distribution of media content rather than being endpoints for the delivery of a product coinciding with a shift to a network model with greater reliance on the user’s self-regulation, bypassing traditional media controls. On the other hand, firms have aimed to use and leverage some of the unique qualities of information and communication technologies by linking consumers directly into the production and distribution of media content for reasons of reputation and loyalty building and increasing ROI.
The relationship between these two trends can be viewed as an emerging site for revenue opportunities, expanding markets, and re-enforcing consumer commitments, laying bare the underlying structures by which both firms and consumers gain, process, and exchange information.
Setting an example: VALVE’s STEAM
Valve was founded in 1996 and is based in Seattle. It is one of the most renowned and successful game developers worldwide. They launched their first game Half-Life in 1998 and which is accounted as one of the best and most popular First Person Shooters (FPS). The (graphics) engine of Half-Life newly incorporated a multiplayer mode that allowed gamers to team up and play over networks and, later, evolved in a software platform that could be employed by anyone to program FPS games. Opening up the way to third-party programmers to generate new extensions, tracks and entirely new games - for example, Counter Strike was created by a small group of gamers as a mod for Half-Life, released as freeware online and was an instant hit in underground circles. Valve was impressed when Counter Strike became even more popular than Half Life resulting in the purchase of the mod and the employment of its online distribution model to build Steam.
Steam has brought Valve ahead of competition as it has provided them with substantial (financial) independence from publishers. In other words, Steam offers an online game distribution network as well as space for virtual communities, multiplayer activities, and upgrades directly to its end-users bypassing the game publisher’s traditional and generally physical distribution channels. As such, impacting the business structures of the game industry by tapping into and employing characteristics of virtual communities as strategic tool.
Hence, Valve’s Steam lends itself well to explore a community-based approach to KM in which knowledge is one of the most important resources or assets that a firm can possess – here, not mere seen as a passive repository rather knowledge is understood as something that the firm generates, as ‘knowing activity’ which transfers the ‘knowledge of’ the firm to the ‘knowledge from’ the firm, including cultures of consumption. Valve’s capabilities to create, diffuse, integrate, and share knowledge means then leveraging resources about all knowledge facets associated with specific practices that facilitate the generation of new knowledge and which may impact the boundaries of the firm and strategy formation.
Somewhat simplified, the following principles can be discerned:
- Clearly defined boundaries (both the boundaries of the game developer and gamers that can add and withdraw units from the game, must be clearly defined);
- Appropriation and provision of rules (refers to when is who allowed to appropriate what part of the game and with what technology?);
- Access to conflict resolution mechanisms (people can fulfill the role of mediator or arbitrator in conflict situations in order to sustain the continuity of the community);
- Access to collective choice mechanisms (people involved and impacted by operational rules can modify these rules);
- Presence of monitoring and graduated sanctioning (participants ensure that both gamers and the company act according to created rule sets and adhere to community values and norms);
- Multiple layers of nested enterprise (refers to communities that deal with often large and complex resources that generally consist of subsystems that need to be managed as well); and
- External recognition (communities are never a completely isolated phenomenon from external authorities such as software markets and legislation, which must also be taken into account).
Now looking at Steam, the following features are available: ‘play games’ such as Half-Life 2, Counter Strike and Team Fortress that can be downloaded(1), ‘browse games’ of all Valve’s titles as well as third-party games including mods, ‘friends’ is basically an IM program like AIM(2), ‘servers’(3), ‘settings’, and ‘news’ and other features such as user forums and a developer community(4). All these features point to Valve’s interest in enhancing the gaming experience through communities.
Hence, communities or the relational-base is product-oriented while simultaneously being a service platform – that is, all services offered are free, the gamer only needs to pay for purchasing the game which is the same as retail-prices. More precisely, it is the way gamer and developer communities become linked through ‘knowledge activities’ surrounding a electronic distribution platform and become the most important knowledge resources available to the game developer firm and are put to use as strategic business tool – whilst appearing to impact the structure and dynamics of the game industry.
Fostering in particular then, bottom up knowledge processes as an approach to KM whereby Valve’s experience, by focusing on customer successes (and failures) - such as what has been termed ‘user-generated content’ like Counter Strike – as knowledge practice, contributes to yielding insight into potential future requirements and unmet needs, which lie at the base of its organizational growth and aspects for improvement and strategy formation.
(1) Based on p2p technology, developed by Bram Cohen of BitTorrent, though it is not fully decentralized. See http://www.steampowered.com/status/content_servers.html
(2) It offers also for instance chatting while playing the game and to see on which servers your ‘friends’ are playing on.
(3) Steam offers the option to browse all servers with in-progress games. Note that not all servers are open to all and are password-protected. Also it is possible to watch games without participating.
Shenja van der Graaf is one of the faculty advisors for C3. Starting out with an interest in the Hollywood industry and audience research, she has moved on to the organization of media firms and strategy formation regarding issues of digitization, while employing her experience in an extensive international network of companies including MTV, Sony BMG, Warner Bros., THQ, Granada and Endemol.
Want more? Read a longer version of the above note in the pdf document attached with this newsletter. Want even more? Attend the C3 Conference at MIT, 27-28 April 2006 and interact with Shenja van der Graaf live and in person! Mark your calendars... now!
On Developers, Publishers and Gamers: Knowledge Management in the Game Industry By Shenja van der Graaf (PDF / 163kB)
Compiled by Ilya, Sam, Alec, Geoff, Ivan and Parmesh
Edited and signed off by Ilya (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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