Taking a transmedia production from a local market to a global audience isn’t just a matter of dealing with bigger numbers. As David Varela, transmedia writer & producer has discovered, going global brings challenges that go beyond mere scale.
Most of the biggest transmedia productions in recent history have been born in the United States. This isn’t necessarily because they have a more advanced media industry or a more adventurous approach to entertainment. Indeed, American corporate culture can be very conservative – the number of lawyers between the creative idea and the audience stifles many an adventurous idea before it sees the light of day.
No, the reason transmedia has thrived in the US is that many of the largest transmedia productions have been forms of marketing, and the United States is one very large market. More particularly, it is a sizeable, affluent market united by a common language.
For transmedia developers operating in Europe, reaching a big audience often means breaching the language barrier. And that brings with it major issues for interactivity.
Two of the most recent projects I ran were multilingual Xi, produced for Sony PlayStation in 2009, a live three-month Alternate Reality Game run simultaneously in English, French, Italian, German and Spanish. Secret Life, created for Reebok and M&C Saatchi in 2010, ran for eight months in those same five languages plus Turkish, Japanese, Mandarin and Korean.
Both of these games were marketing campaigns of a sort, and both required collaborative action. We wanted players to act as a single community and to progress collectively, discovering information and overcoming obstacles by working together. Their actions would unlock new parts of the story for everyone.
Sometimes, this worked incredibly well. In one memorable instance, Xi’s players in France, Britain, Germany and Italy shared information and coordinated their actions on the ground in eight cities across languages to solve a pan-European puzzle in a few short hours.
This degree of coordination was made easier by the fact that PlayStation themselves maintained and moderated a set of closely linked messageboard forums in all five languages, enabling players to find each other easily and giving us, the organisers, a relatively focused way of disseminating information to all the players at the same time.
But some language barriers are higher than others. During Secret Life, for example, I can’t recall a single instance of Turkish and Korean players speaking to each other directly.
When you have a fragmented community like this, managing the game becomes very tricky. Forums using less common languages may fall into disuse. More active languages may make breakthroughs quickly then get frustrated while other languages lag behind – either because they have a smaller community or because they’re in a different time zone – and that demoralises the smaller forums who might feel that their actions are having no impact on the game.
The sense of cause-and-effect, the satisfying interactivity between the players and the game, can be diminished.
There are ways of overcoming these issues. The Lost Ring, produced by Jane MacGonigal for McDonalds in 2008, employed native-language ‘puppetmasters’ to run the game in each of its seven languages, effectively creating a set of separate communities operating in parallel with little need for crosspollination.
Not every game’s budget can stretch to that kind of solution, however. The most common and cost-effective approach is to develop the game in one language and then translate it into all the others.
The big problem with this approach is that it’s inherently unresponsive. If players respond to you in a language you don’t understand, the time required for translation of their comments and the drafting of your response can be so slow that any sense of conversation or interactivity is lost.
Straight translation of your original text can also overlook telltale cultural differences that may make your story less relevant to your international audience. Simon Pulman recently wrote on this subject with great eloquence and more thoroughness than I can fit here. Ideally, your players should always feel like the game has been designed for them, not just copied-and-pasted across cultures.
As well as differences in language and culture, there are also differences in law. This makes things particularly tricky when it comes to running competitions or even simple prize draws. Trying to give away free stuff can become surprisingly expensive when you need to comply with the conflicting laws of a dozen nations. These legal differences mean that you might need to design entirely different types of gameplay for different countries.
Lost in translation
Every one of these issues decreases the interactivity of the project and makes it more and more like a one-way broadcast, unable to respond to its audience. The less responsive a project is, the less likely it is to hold the audience’s attention and build an active community.
So if you’re planning a multilingual interactive project – particularly with a corporate client – it is vital to accelerate this translation and sign-off process as much as possible. There are a few ways you can do this.
First, show that you understand the client’s aims, values and language. Show that you can be trusted to speak on their behalf, just like one of their own employees. Get hold of their tone-of-voice guidelines, if they have any. The more trusted you are, the faster the sign-off will be.
Get the lawyers on your side. Show that you understand the legal issues and, if possible, get a checklist of precisely what you can and can’t say. If you know and comply with the legal requirements, that’s another stage in the sign-off process you can breeze through.
Find a translator or translation agency that the client trusts, and make sure that they can turn around text quickly and accurately. Your reputation will be in their hands.
Have a named contact (and a back-up) on the client side who can check and sign off translated text in each language at short notice.
And finally, know your limits. For most corporations, a transmedia project will be new and terrifying. Trusting an external party to speak on their behalf, continuously, in multiple languages that no single executive can fully understand, will probably mean a significant cultural shift within their organisation. Companies are still getting used to this new interactive world where customer relations are an ongoing public conversation.
You might not be able to change their internal structures overnight, single-handed, from the outside – but if you can help them improve communication across their international network, you’ll be doing them a much bigger favour than merely running a transmedia campaign.