LOS ANGELES – When THQ releases its "Red Faction: Armageddon" video game next year, the Martian shoot-'em-up won't arrive alone. The fourth installment of the destructive sci-fi series will be accompanied by a comic book, downloadable arcade-style game and a Syfy television movie that could possibly serve as the pilot for a "Red Faction" TV series.
The red planet smorgasbord will be the publisher's first major foray into transmedia storytelling, the increasingly popular method of scattering a narrative across multiple platforms. Instead of repeating one yarn, transmedia storytelling uses the strengths of different mediums to tell unique parts of a story typically set within the same fictional realm.
"Many people have been theorizing about this for a long time, but the trick is executing it," said Danny Bilson, core games vice president at THQ. "The secret is to connect everything and release it in a way that makes sense. Every single piece should lead people to other pieces, so that the user can get as much or as little of the story as they choose."
In April, the Producers Guild of America, which represents over 3,500 members, added a transmedia producer designation to their list of credits for the first time in the guild's history. The move means producers who expand a storyline onto three or more platforms, such as film, TV, animation or mobile, could receive PGA credit for their work.
George Lucas set the transmedia storytelling benchmark with "Star Wars," creating an expansive universe in a galaxy far, far away that has been used as the backdrop for numerous novels, games, trading cards, comic books, cartoon series and — oh, yeah — movies. Forbes magazine estimated in 2007 that the franchise is a Death Star worth more than $22 billion.
Ultimately, transmedia storytelling is as much of a business opportunity as it is an artistic decision, especially if producers work together to streamline the production process. The dollars can quickly add up if consumers are willing to spend any combination of $10 at the movie theater, $15 for a soundtrack, $25 on a graphic novel or $60 for a video game.
To mine the "Red Faction" world for such an expansion, THQ enlisted transmedia gurus Starlight Runner Entertainment to create what is essentially a sprawling encyclopedia of anything that ever appeared in the series' previous games. Until that point, "Red Faction" — an "open-world" concept where players are free to roam a virtual environment — had simply been a disjointed but respected series about sociopolitical conflicts involving Mars.
THQ will use the almanac to transform "Red Faction" into a generational sci-fi saga. The movie will be set after the events of the 2009 game "Red Faction: Guerrilla" and focus on the adult offspring of the game's mining colony inhabitants, while "Red Faction: Armageddon" will take place decades later and feature a grown-up villain first seen in the movie.
"Our job is to maximize the potential of the property as it stands," said Jeff Gomez, CEO at Starlight Runner Entertainment. "We're not here to change 'Red Faction' in any kind of dramatic way. We're here to make it work solidly across different media platforms by developing a resource for everyone involved to be able to tap into the mythology."
That means the artists illustrating the comic book, the screenwriters penning the made-for-TV movie, the designers crafting the next games and anyone else who hammers on "Red Faction" will all be drawing from the same inspiration and adhering to the same continuity, which Gomez insisted will keep savvy fans entertained and, more importantly, loyal.
It doesn't always work. "Avatar" took flight with a unified transmedia approach that yieled mixed results. With a domestic box office total of more than $749 million, "Avatar" was a hit with movie audiences, but that success did not extend to the third-person "Avatar" game developed by Ubisoft in tandem with director James Cameron. Ubisoft said last month it sold 2.7 million copies.
"It was flawed from the very beginning," said Mark Long, CEO at Zombie Studios. "The character wasn't related to the movie. One of the paradigms of transmedia is that you're telling different parts of the story across media, so you're usually connecting characters or story arcs, but the character you play in the console version is nowhere in the movie."
Long hopes to achieve a transmedia victory with "BlackLight: Tango Down," a comic book and first-person shooter about a covert ops team due out this summer. The downloadable game focuses on multiplayer matchups while the comic book delves much deeper into the futuristic backstory. Imagine Entertainment has a first-look deal for the film rights to the series.
Electronic Arts developer BioWare is already thriving with its transmedia tactics, releasing novels, comic books and other games pegged to their "Mass Effect" and "Dragon Age" role-playing video games. Next stop, Hollywood. They recently partnered with production companies to develop movies set in their fantasy worlds.
"At some point, someone is going to nail it with a movie, book, figurine and game that will all be awesome," said Greg Zeschuk, co-founder at BioWare. "That's the next wind condition. Gone are the days when you could just trick the consumers just by having a big marketing budget."