writers-guide

DIY Part 1 Concept to collaboration

DIY Part 1 Concept to collaboration

The writers guide chapter 8

By Therese Fingleton

The following three chapters chart some of the key steps involved in developing a new media property for a particular market. This is by no means the complete picture but rather a roadmap, which identifies common routes and important decision junctures to accompany your explorations in the new media industry.

Motivation

An important factor in concept development is the goal of the creator. Is the purpose to entertain, educate, or allow the creator themselves to learn a new practice? Is it to create new work for commercialisation or indeed any combination of the above? The ultimate goal will influence the concept development and the process followed to realise the project.

This Guide assumes the creator is working toward generating income from the concept by commercialising it for a particular market. Commercialisation does not imply anything about the style, content or audience of the concept, only that it will have a definable target audience and an associated business model through which to generate revenue for the creator and their collaborators, partners or business investors. Irrespective of how these variables are ultimately resolved, whether you are creating a subscription-based mobile drama for women aged 25–35 or an educational multiplayer online role-playing game for children aged 8–12, your project will most likely involve completing some of the following steps with a team of collaborators: concept development; proof of concept; making the business case; developing a business plan and seeking development finance or investment.

Concept development

(Section by Christy Dena)

The more methods you explore, the more options you have. (Bateman and Boon 2006, 5)

There are many schools of thought about the creation process and how it changes in the interactive context. Like all creative processes, what suits the creator matters. It helps, however, to broaden the field of possible and consider new ways of creating. The following section provides a glimpse into some of the ways one can approach game and cross-platform concept development.

Game concept development

In 2006, film production company Big Screen Entertainment Group announced they would develop a massively multiplayer role-playing game (MMORPG) tie-in for their forthcoming film Babysitter Wanted. The film was described as revolving ‘around a tormented and tortured young girl whose only concern is the safety of herself and the child she is babysitting’ (Sinclair 2006). The idea of the MMORPG was met with immediate derision from gamers, like ‘Platyphyllum’ at GameSpot:

… an MMO ROLE PLAYING GAME based on a movie, which centres on a BABYSITTER? How is that supposed to happen? You play as a monster and scare babysitters around or something?

(Sinclair 2006)

This misjudgement by Big Screen is a good example of how certain stories are not appropriate for games. Interactive projects need characters a gamer will want to play for hours. There also needs to be a wide scope for possible actions – which usually means a variety of locations and missions.

How do you begin though?

As a provocative guide, Chris Bateman and Richard Boon outline ‘seven varieties of design methods’ (Bateman and Boon 2006), which are briefly described here as:

  • First principles: in this approach you start with what you want to do, then determine the nature of game world abstraction, design and lastly implementation.
  • Clone and tweak: start with an existing game and modify it to suit your own needs.
  • Meta-rules: start with rules or principles and design from there.
  • Expressing Technology: start with a new technology and design specifically for its use.
  • The Frankenstein approach: use existing materials for a new design.
  • Story-driven design: the story drives the design process.
  • Iterative-design: create a design, revise and repeat until complete.

On the story-driven approach, Flint Dille and John Zuur Platten (2007) recommend that game writers work in ways similar to screen writers: start with a hook; write the story premise (2–4 pages); list the characters (player-character, friends, allies, main boss the player has to overcome, level bosses and their minions); describe the locations and (if applicable) worlds; and consider any franchise constraints (if applicable). For a playcentric approach to creating games, with lots of concept development exercises and case studies, see the second edition of Tracy Fullerton’s Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games (Elsevier 2008).

As with all formats, certain constraints need to be considered from the beginning:

  • Is it meant to be replayable?
  • Is it single-player or multi-player?
  • Is it collaborative?
  • What medium(s) will it be experienced on?
  • Is it for those knowledgeable of a certain technology, art form or genre?
  • Will it be for hardcore and/or casual players/audiences?
  • Will it be experienced for short, medium or long sessions?
  • Is it self-contained or episodic?
  • What age-group(s) is it targeted at?
  • Will it appeal to males and/or females?
  • Will audiences be local or international?
  • Is the game mono or multilingual?
  • Will it be multicultural?
  • What are the budget constraints?
  • If commissioned, what will be the client brief constraints?

These factors apply to all forms of new writing, but it is also worth exploring some approaches peculiar to the emerging area of cross-platform writing.

Cross-platform concept development

In cross-platform writing projects, one needs to be acutely aware of the affordances of media, such as the Internet enabling real-time asynchronous communication between people all over the world. Appropriateness for certain parts of the story experience can then be applied. Backstory, for instance, would perhaps be best suited to a fixed medium such as a book or film. Blogs would be good for a single character, whereas a multiplayer game needs an ensemble of characters. Target audiences are very different in cross-platform projects, because each component of the project (each medium) can appeal to different audiences. This is both a blessing and a challenge. The first Craft chapter of this Guide discusses some helpful writing techniques to address this issue. But given the range of mediums involved in a cross-platform project, a question often posed by cross-platform writers is whether they should start thinking about the mediums or the story?

Story first, then characters, then choose the medium

Canadian cross-media creator Evan Jones (2007) says he doesn’t start with the media in mind, but with the story. He then selects media according to what the characters would use. And so, just as an author writes dialogue according to the phrasing a character would use, a cross-platform writer thinks about the media a character would use. A character, for instance, may be suited to communicating using a blog (Web log, Internet diary), photographs, sketches, email or a book.

End experience first, then story

Interactive applications engineer Jonathan Marshall (2006) recommends beginning with the end point in mind. Specifically, Marshall suggests starting with the entry points and user journey, then considering the audience segments, and then the time, location and devices the audience will use to experience the fiction. A creator needs to think about where they want a person to experience the project and design accordingly: will they be alone at home in their study, with friends in a lounge room, or with strangers in a park? After the audience, end devices and experiential environments are well conceived, the story can then be developed.

Circulation patterns first

As you may have noticed, many creators of cross-platform projects think in spatial and experiential terms. One can therefore see a correlation with theme park design. Walt Disney was the first (in fun park design at least) to introduce the notion of the ‘guest experience’. Rather than design according to economics or even what each ride developer wants, Walt designed for the guest experience, revolutionising theme park design. Bob Rogers notes that this meant Walt planned the circulation patterns first:

That’s the place where the people walk. They planned that as a first priority. Up to that point, designers usually focused on the positive space. That’s the thing being built; rather than the negative space, the place where people will be. And he planned every attraction from the perspective of the guest rather than the operator or the manager. Walt focused on the people.  Walt’s original revolution focused instead on the guests’ experience; putting the guests’ priorities first: cleanliness, service, adventure, music, magic, fun, happy feet.(Rogers, no date)

In the cross-platform writing context, this means thinking early on about what people will be doing between each medium. For example, how long it will take to move from one media to the next (are you asking a reader to put their book down to go to their computer, or to the cinema) and what obstacles are they facing (sign-ups, payments, learning new media)?

These are just a small selection of possible ways to approach concept development. A writer can work with a team, or alone, and develop a concept using any combination of these. Along with media, genre and audience constraints are business model considerations. The business model is more likely to be unobtrusive if integrated at the concept stage.

Proof of concept

Developing a proof of concept is generally required in any new media project being developed for a particular market. A proof of concept can take many forms, but the outcome should always be the same; a set of materials that enable the creator to clearly explain their idea to a range of external parties, such as distributors, online broadcasters, publishers and other third party investors.

When you don’t need a proof of concept

If a creator has sufficient credits, experience and industry clout, they may be successful in pitching a concept with little development work. For example, if the concept is to extend a new or existing traditional media property for primarily marketing and/or distribution purposes, such as extending a book using a blog or social networking site to increase the audience, a creator may well get this idea off the ground without too much effort.

In this case the creator can immediately begin writing their manuscript, doing a basic scope of the content for the new media extensions and focus their ‘business’ attentions on signing the agent most likely to secure the best publishing deal. The same applies to screenwriters trying to secure a broadcast deal. Knowledge of which publishing houses and broadcasters are actively extending traditional media for marketing and/or distribution purposes will be important for such writers. Of course writers in this scenario may still wish to apply for traditional media grants to help fund this phase as it’s still primarily about creating a traditional media product.

When you do need a proof of concept

In the new media industry the norm is to first develop a proof of concept and possibly a prototype to prove its creative and commercial viability. This is especially true for concepts with multiple delivery platforms, partners and complex business models. However, a proof of concept is not restricted to new media or software. It’s common in engineering and mathematics and even used in filmmaking. Filmmakers working on concepts based on books, or films with complex technical challenges, will often develop a short as a proof of concept to secure the rights to a book or firm up investment.

A proof of concept can involve developing product scoping documentation, an electronic proof of concept (EPOC), a paper prototype and in some cases a working prototype. Another key element of the proof of concept stage is the pitch. Be it a brief project overview, a more detailed set of pitching documents or a polished presentation, developing a strong pitch is another way of proving your concept. Which elements you develop depend on the concept and how best to illustrate it, the potential opportunities to pitch or present the concept and the relevant market and what that market demands as a proof of concept.

Project scope document

The project scope defines the concept and range of the proposed project as well as what will not be included in the product. Clarifying the scope and limitations helps to establish realistic expectations of the many stakeholders, such as users or customers, funding agencies, investors and partners. It also provides a reference frame against which proposed changes can be evaluated.

The scope document will often describe what will be included in the initial version or release of the product and what will be included in subsequent versions. It will usually describe benefits the product is intended to bring to the various customer communities, and the product features and quality characteristics that will enable it to provide those benefits. Avoid the temptation to include every possible feature a potential customer category might conceivably want. Focus instead on those features and product characteristics that will provide the most value, at the most acceptable development cost, to the broadest community. If a staged evolution of the product is envisioned, indicate which major features will be deferred to later releases.

Electronic Proof of Concept (EPOC) and prototypes

Both an EPOC and a prototype can be used to demonstrate the creative, technical and innovative elements of a product. Creating an EPOC is also an effective way to delve more deeply into the user experience and to understand the unique aspects of what your product or service has to offer. An EPOC can range from a simple flash animation to display the design aesthetic and key touchstones across the different media (the game website, the social networking site, and video) to a website mock-up that appears to work as you click through, although it’s actually just a series of images.

Prototypes are usually created for one of the following three reasons:

  • Pitching – as part of your proof of concept materials which you would use in pitching for further investment
  • Iterative design – as part of a design process that involves doing the initial design, building a prototype, reviewing the design, testing the interaction experience, revisiting the design and so on.
  • Testing – to allow you test it with a user group. This will help identify design flaws and functionality problems and may even unearth new uses and functions you hadn’t thought of.

While not all projects require the development of a prototype, doing so can improve the quality of requirements and specifications provided to developers further down the track. If you develop a prototype and test it with users, even if it is a paper prototype, potential design flaws can be eliminated much sooner and may prevent misunderstandings between team members, especially the designer and developer.

Working prototypes are more complex and in functionality terms may not be too far from the end product. The point of a working prototype is to have a playable version that demonstrates and tests the key technical aspects and usability of the product. For a website you might develop a simple wire frame (like a wire sketch of the site), which does not contain the content (words, images, video, etc.) but includes key functionality.

Paper prototyping

I cannot emphasize enough how important the inclusive quality of paper can be. Though some people shy away from paper prototypes because they feel they will not be taken seriously, I argue that many people are intimidated by a formal, highly technical design process and that the less ‘professional’ nature of paper prototyping is a great way to lighten the mood and engage a more diverse group.

Shawn Medero, University of Pennsylvania, 2007

Paper prototyping is a cheap, easy and fun way to design a testable ‘walk through’ of the product without spending hours on complex electronic designs. Being low-tech also means the designer can enlist the help of even the least tech-literate members of the team, which is vital in making sure you are designing a usable product. Paper prototyping doesn’t work for all types of new media projects, but it can certainly be useful for most. With your paper prototype created you can test your product on team members but also on prospective users.

Rapid prototyping

Rapid prototyping is an approach gaining popularity amongst software and new media design and programming teams. It essentially reverses the prototyping process by asking the designer to interpret ideas for the product goals and user experience, and design a visual mock-up of the interfaces with a focus on the core value of the product. The designs are then passed on to the developer or programmer to realise in a working prototype. These initial designs can also be integrated into a document to support a pitch for investment as discussed later in the Pitch section, in the following chapter DIY 3.

Although this approach doesn’t mean that technical scope documents are not developed, it does mean that the developer can rapidly respond to the visual design, rather than only a lengthy set of technical scope documents. Rapid prototyping is often favoured for its ability to enhance communication between designers and developers (programmers) early on. It can show investors how the product will work and feedback from initial user testing can be utilised to make necessary changes to the prototype.

Prototyping in games development

The games development cycle is mature and defined with clear phases: pre-production, prototype, production and post- production. Pre-production is largely concerned with concept design, writing and production planning. Prototyping happens as part of pre-production. Generally, once initial planning has been completed, the team begins working on a prototype, often following a rapid prototyping methodology. Most prototypes are rudimentary, require minimum assets (artwork) and can be put together very quickly. Prototyping often occurs in tandem with the initial design phase to quickly try out new mechanics and ideas to see if they’ll work in relation to the game as a whole.

Prototyping for mobile

If developing services for mobile, the best way to prototype is not on the mobile phone. If the services are to be provided through a mobile Internet service (WAP or mobile web), then it is a lot easier to test as a web service on a PC. Shrink the window down to the size of the mobile screen and check that the interaction works, that you can see what you are reading and that, most importantly, the users can interact with the service in the way you expect. This last point means that you may need to prototype different versions of the service for different handsets. The iPhone, while it has a great screen, uses a very large pointing device (the finger) to navigate, whereas others use a joystick to move up or down line by line.

If your mobile service is delivered in the form of a series of SMS messages, paper prototyping offers the best solution. If various paths can be trod, draw up a flowchart; if a single story is being told in parts, write this line by line on a piece of paper (fold the paper so only the current line is visible). As with any other story format, SMS stories, although short, still need to be good stories, so make sure to test them on an audience.

Once you get to the point of developing the final product, you are likely to be working with a technical partner who should be in a position to provide you with an early ‘pilot’ of the service based on your prototypes. If your story uses features related specifically to the nature of the mobile (such as GPS positioning), mock this up using an example location so you can test that the results are what you would expect (see what happens when there is no GPS signal, such as in a tunnel or between high buildings).

Prototyping for cross-platform

Many cross-platform projects are experienced in real-time and are reactive, preventing them from being revealed beforehand. For that reason most cross-platform prototypes would be done on paper as part of a proof of concept for pitching, or certain elements such as websites would be prototyped for iterative design and limited user testing.

Testing your idea works

As you develop your proof of concept in whatever form that takes, it’s also wise to test that your idea works. This may sound obvious, but it can be overlooked until too far into the process. The proof of concept stage is the right time to catch design flaws and change direction. Ensure your team are all involved in the process so what is being designed is reviewed from all perspectives. Also try to test your prototypes on relevant user groups, and develop relationships with other industry experts to bounce ideas off and ensure that you are on the right track. This is especially important if you and your team are all new to this space. Industry experts can provide an external quality check and help identify any fatal flaws in your product design and development strategy.

Funding the proof of concept stage

A number of state and federal government arts and screen agencies offer grants or finance towards the development of EPOCs and prototypes. At this stage of development you may also wish to pitch the project to intended market partners. If they are sufficiently interested in the product they may contribute funds towards the proof of concept stage from their development budgets. A producer with solid experience in negotiating with commercial entities is invaluable at this stage. Some funding options are listed at [http://delicious.com/Writersguide/funding] and funding is covered in more detail in DIY part 2- The Business Case and Business Models.

Collaboration

The really successful sessions were when everyone took their hat off and contributed different ideas from different perspectives.

Simon Hopkinson, 2006

As is clear from the previous section on developing a proof of concept, new media projects involve people with many skill sets: creative, technical and business. As mentioned in the Craft section, adopting the principle of ‘early and equal’ when working in collaboration, ultimately enhances the creative and business process and output. Early collaboration with specialists from other fields such as interactive designers and producers and people with a good understanding of your market will almost always produce a more rounded concept. It will also make best use of the particular qualities of the chosen format, media and devices and best tailor them to your desired audience. This is especially important if it is your first foray into writing for interactivity, as their knowledge will unlock new territories in which to establish your story world.

Team tactics

Projects are almost always realised by a team, or a number of teams. The two most common collaboration options are to work with an existing team, such as an interactive production company or games developer, or to assemble a team of independent collaborators. The former brings with it the stability, experience and infrastructure of an existing company. If your ultimate goal is to commercialise your content, a company with runs on the board and new media contacts may smooth your route to market. The trade-off might be sacrificing more authorship and ownership than anticipated and there may be more people with a claim to any profit generated. The latter may grant a greater level of creative independence, authorship and ownership, but will most likely be offset by a longer development time and more unknowns en route.

Motivation first, then model

When deciding whether to build a new team or work with an existing company, it’s imperative that you understand commercial as well as creative motivations and that you factor in the three key drivers of time, quality and cost. Ask yourself the following questions early on to help you make the right decisions on who to collaborate with and how best to turn your concept into an income-generating product or business:

  • Why are you trying to commercialise this particular concept?
  • Are you planning to sell your IP or develop and market a new concept?
  • Are you aiming to increase income from existing channels or generate a new income stream?
  • Does your project need to be realised within a certain timeframe?
  • Would setting up a new team and/or business involve a steep learning curve? Is this what you want and do you have the time?
  • What standard of quality are you striving for and who do you need around you to achieve it?
  • Do you have a budget (most likely none at all to begin with) or if not, do you have a track record in attracting funding or investment in the past?
  • What are your expectations of a financial return for your own investment?

If you decide you would prefer to work with an existing team, identify companies that are producing products similar to yours, or have a strong knowledge of your target market and approach them to work with you. If you resolve to build a new team your next step is to figure out who you need and how to find them.

The production team

Much like in the film and theatre industries, many people in new media are freelancers who form teams around a specific project or production. These teams usually include some or all of the following members:

  • Writer or Director: the person with the key creative input into the project such as a the writer, animator, graphic novelist or film/theatre director
  • Producer:can be both a ‘signing cheques’ producer and a creative producer who might be a co-writer or bring other creative skills to the project and also understands your target audience or market
  • Interactive/Technical Producer: the person who produces the interactive components and who will have technical expertise
  • Interactive Designer: a designer with expertise in designing for interactive, dynamic, broadcast media (Web, mobile, interactive TV)
  • Developer/Programmer: the person who codes the content and may build the framework for hosting or serving the content (e.g. website backend or games engine)
  • Marketing and communications specialist: a person with experience in marketing on different platforms, viral marketing, creating online buzz for projects
  • Community Manager: often required by online projects that grow communities, such as multi-player games and social networking sites
  • Business Manager/Developer: a person with skills in market analysis, business development and management
  • Legal and financial experts: as with any traditional media project, you will also need to enlist specialist advice at certain times.

The entrepreneurial team

If you already know that you wish to start a new business, , which is more likely if the project has significant budget and time requirements, you should give some thought to building the entrepreneurial capacity of your team. While it is possible to be a lone entrepreneur, the most successful business ventures, particularly in the new media, are built around teams (think Google and Yahoo). This team could simply be you and another member of the production team who form a company to manage this and other projects. But if you expect to pitch for serious investment, then work hard on building the best entrepreneurial team possible. Quality teams are more attractive to investors than a single person. The composition of the team will largely depend on your personal and business strengths and weaknesses, industry contacts, credits and networks. So begin by reflecting on what you can and cannot bring to the team proposition and build from there.

Where will I find my team?

Do your research and start networking! Approach creative and business people involved in other successful new media projects. Go to seminars and meet people. Lots of teams find each other this way. Make the most of the fact that it’s still a small industry and that word of mouth and personal recommendations go a long way. Look up the case study subjects in this Guide and ask them to recommend team members.

It is advisable to have someone with solid producing experience on your team. Many film and TV producers are keen to work on new media projects. You can find producers through industry organisations and their annual conferences and networking events, referred to as ‘speed-dating’ in the media industry.

Contact schools and universities running courses in digital media and ask if you can put the word out through their courses or if they can recommend any bright sparks. Contact local arts organisations – they often have some form of job listing services. Some industry associations will post job notices to their members, although you may need to become a member first.

If you’re in a position to pay your team members from the outset, use job posting and recruitment channels and the international outsourcing sites that are a phenomenon in Web and media communities.

Team development

This may be covering old ground, but it is valuable to revisit team development concepts before you embark on any collaboration. Apply the ‘early and equal’ principle again to build and sustain a strong team with a shared vision. Examine early and equally each member’s motivations for being part of the team and revisit them frequently. In the early stages of many projects, team members will be working on a deferred payment, or in-kind basis. It is vital to agree up front what is expected of team members, for how long, for what reward and how their contributions will be recognised. Don’t be too product focused and don’t wait too long before addressing questions of IP ownership raised by working as a team.

Project management

As with team development it’s also worth taking time to brush up on project management principles. While these points may be obvious to many, revisit them anyway to ensure your project is set up for success. The complexity of most new media projects means a project manager or team member must be appointed to take responsibility for managing the project. Teams are often dispersed and may even be in different countries. As the initiator of a project, don’t fall into the trap of assuming you are the best person to manage it; this is not necessarily the case. Establish clear communication guidelines, how often you will communicate (weekly updates, monthly meetings, etc.) and using what channels (Skype, phone, email). Remember people with different backgrounds and skill sets may prefer different communication methods. Don’t make assumptions, agree your methodology as a team and ensure the decision-making process is understood. Always keep the end goal in mind and measure progress frequently against the three project management pillars of time, quality and cost. Identify, understand and manage risks. Understand the motivations of investors, financers and partners and mange their expectations accordingly

Legal considerations

As you build a team to develop your proof of concept and start discussing it with other stakeholders, remember that what you are discussing is your Intellectual Property (IP). Be mindful from the outset of legal considerations that apply to your project, which can generally be protected, published, monetised and shared within some IP and copyright framework.

The Australian Copyright Council [http://www.copyright.org.au/] and IP Australia[www.ipaustralia.gov.au] are the best starting points for those new to the concept of IP and copyright. If creating new IP it is recommended you seek legal advice as early as possible. As well as protecting ownership of ideas, you will need a disclosure strategy. New media projects, be they games or interactive dramas, usually succeed or fail on their ability to capture the attention of an audience and take them on a compelling narrative journey. Team members and partners may be required to sign non-disclosure agreements binding them to not reveal details of the project in order to maintain its marketability.

The Australian Institute for Commercialisation [http://www.ausicom.com]recommends the following IP checklist:

  • Make sure you own the IP.
  • Is it the idea new?
  • Will you infringe?
  • Assess the commercial worth of your IP.
  • Get the right IP for the technology and business strategy.
  • Make sure you develop a strategy before you disclose your IP.

Your IP may be your most important asset. It is tradeable and can be protected, which is as important to commercial success as business, marketing and financial plans. Be sure to secure your IP protection before going to market. For more information on intellectual property, copyright and some other ‘creative’ options, refer to the Copyright chapter.

One of the barriers to creative and commercial innovation is the lack of clear, open-source material that encourages creative businesses to converge. Tools like these are a pre-requisite for effective collaboration and will enhance independent producers’ development of cross-platform content ideas.

Jon Kingsbury, Director of the Creative Economy Programme, NESTA, UK, 2008

As the industry matures it will become easier to work out agreements with partners and production teams, but for the moment a lot of time may be spent working through issues of copyright and IP. Nesta in the UK has just published a range of tools designed to make it easy for TV and film producers to work with digital producers on convergent or ‘cross-platform’ projects. The tools include legal templates and can be found at [http://www.pact.co.uk/detail.asp?id=6412].

> DIY Part 1 - Concept to collaboration references

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