Monday, July 23, 2007

The Future of Entertainment

I'm sure there are countless in-depth examples of how some innovative thinkers envision the future of how we consume entertainment, and when I come across them, I'll append this entry with links. But for now, I just want to ramble on for a while about the subject, so bear with me. Thanks in advance.

For the last few weeks, I've been utterly enamored with the entire Web 2.0 movement. The dynamic content and direct connections with so many people at the same time-- the possibilities are boggling my mind. The future can't get here fast enough.

You probably already use Web 2.0 and don't even know it. If you do anything with MySpace, YouTube, Wikipedia, Facebook, Flickr or any of the dozens of other sites that let you upload content and share it with your friends (or with the whole world), then you've dipped your feet into Web 2.0. These types of applications are moving from fun curiosities to becoming incomprehensibly useful. Take Google Earth/Maps. What started as a neat mapping program has evolved to where you can customize the Earth to what YOU want to use it for. Apartment listings, crime statistics, voting trends, your friends and family's locations, your business locations, restaurants in your area, and on and on and on and on. Anything that has any sort of location data in it can now be mashed up with Google Earth to create a custom overlay.

I subscribe to a blog called that tracks all the cool Web 2.0 stuff coming along, and it's an almost hourly stream of fresh news about new websites with names like,,,,,, and If it's a goofy sounding and spelled name, it's probably Web 2.0. What makes all of this stuff so exciting to me is that it's almost all designed to work together. You can use data from one site and use it to inform something on another site. Tell your genealogy website ( to use your Flickr photos in your family's photo album, and then use the location data entered on each individual to instantly create a custom Google map for you showing pins where everyone lives. The dates entered for birthdates and weddings and deaths can then be piped over to a custom timeline creation website ( and create a family timeline that updates itself whenever anyone adds or changes a date in any of the programs that access the data.

It doesn't end. Right now, people are creating custom website startups for every possible combination of datasets and/or hobbies or activities that two or more people might be interested in. Apparently there's a knitting social networking site that has hundreds of thousands of people already signed up for it when it goes live.

So what on earth does this have to do with the future of entertainment?

Indulge me for a bit as I flash back to circa 1993. CD-Roms were just starting to become available, and 'multi-media' was the new buzzword for computing. All sorts of things were starting to become interactive, such as encyclopedias, globes, and catalogs and phone books (remember, this was slightly before the internets burst on the scene). But the one thing that struck my fancy was the concept of interactive books. I was actually thinking in some depth about it already when I started hearing great reviews of one of the first interactive CD-Rom novels. I tracked it down at a books-on-tape bookstore in Houston that happened to have it, and excitedly brought it home for when I would one day HAVE a PC computer with a CD-Rom drive. That's how excited I was about this concept.

Finally, I DID buy a capable computer and loaded up this example of the future... and was disappointed beyond belief. It was crap. The story was crap, the ideas behind it were crap. It was something about the Song of Roland (okay, now I have to track it down... hold on a moment... my aplogies.. it's called The Madness Of Roland) and was hailed as groundbreaking. I didn't agree. The dream lived on.

There have been many attempts at creating this sort of interactive/multimedia novel experience, but nothing has quite matched what I saw in my mind's eye all those years ago. The closest anything has come are what are known as ARG's, or Alternate Reality Games, which attempt to create a network of real websites about make-believe organizations and personal web pages and real-world things like newspaper ads and physical gatherings in order to simulate a fictional world for the purposes of telling some sort of story. Often they are in conjunction with something like a movie or TV show, such as the Lost Experience and Nine Inch Nails latest musical project. All the websites continue or expand upon the world of the story, often making it appear to be seamless with real reality.

But even these ultimately fail, because they are most often about solving some sort of mystery with clues embedded in the website code or within images or videos on the sites. It's a gigantic puzzle and is quite cool. But once someone (or a group of someones) cracks the latest clue, it's shared with the rest of the community playing that ARG, and it takes most of the fun out of it for the vast majority of the people that didn't have the time or stamina to solve these often VERY complex puzzles. There always comes a point where you realize you are so hopelessly behind (and/or not smart enough) to ever contribute to the greater community and you just wait until it's over to see what it was all about.

These ARG's WANT to be about stories and immersing you in a world, but ultimately, they end up just being about solving the puzzle. Rarely are the stories themselves compelling enough to hold one's interest.

Coming at it from the other direction are virtual social worlds like Second Life, where it's almost entirely about atmosphere and interaction with others. There are entire sections of Second Life where diligent users have created replicas of fictional worlds like Star Trek and the TV show Firefly. You can dress like your favorite characters and engage in virtual roleplaying, not unlike Dungeons and Dragons (but without the dice)or put on virtual plays or create virtual games for visitors to solve.

These are all interesting, but even this isn't quite bringing it all together yet like I see it.

It's like the Devil's Tower image in Close Encounters. I can SEE this in my head and it haunts me, and I'll know it when I see it when it finally becomes a reality.

It's getting closer by the day.

This whole thing is top of mind because in the midst of all of this Web 2.0 goodness came the Harry Potter book seven storm this weekend. Apparently eight million or so people worldwide snatched up the book within the first day of its release. There's still an instinctive sort of desire within humanity to READ something, to let it play out at the pace WE want to experience it. We don't just want video games and movies and youtube videos.

So it occurs to me that the one thing that's missing from this whole equation is a compelling story for readers to immerse themselves into. It' has to be both a story and a world that's rich enough to facilitate exploration beyond just the main narrative.

What I see happening is a major author or creator, like J.K Rowling or George Lucas, using a virtual world or Web 2.0 site to release the next chapters of their universe's main narrative.

Imagine in a few years J.K. Rowling announcing that the next official story of the Harry Potter universe is going to be released exclusively within the framework of a Harry Potter online experience of some kind. The main narrative would be a linear text-based story, just like it's always been. But instead of it being released in one big chunk it one book every two or three years, it's instead doled out bit by bit over the course of three or four years. And it's not just straight text. It's a constantly updated and expanded upon world filled with mysteries to solve and locations to explore.

For example, much like comic books are published today, Rowling could publish one chapter per month until the book is finished. Paying members/subscribers of the website would get first crack at the latest chapter. But this chapter wouldn't be just text. It would be an interactive, Wiki-style experience. Every character and event would be linked to information that corresponds to to where in the narrative that character is. If you're only on chapter one, it only shows you information relevant and accurate to that character through chapter one. As you advance through the story, the cloud of information increases. Connections among characters and locations and events are easily checked. Every event is linked to a discussion forum, or it's discussed in a Second Life sort of virtual venue where everyone is a character in the Harry Potter universe.

Written into the narrative can be opportunities for user-generated official story content. Perhaps there is some sort of election set to occur in the Harry Potter world. An actual procedure for members to vote can be set up, with the outcome being represented in the story itself. This would make the readers INVESTED in the story. Perhaps there are contests for members to be included in the official story as background characters. Or maybe a virtual magazine could be created and 'published' by fans/members, and this paper can be mentioned within the story. Or how about virtual quidditch matches where the outcome becomes the official version used in the story. Or a character listens to a song that is composed by a member, and whenever the song is mentioned, a link to listen or download the song is available. Or artwork. The possibilities are endless.

Fans love creating fan artwork and films and stories. Create an official framework where members can submit their creations and have them be featured. People can create machinima recreations of the story as each chapter comes out.

With this concept, it allows fans to not just read the story, but experience it in a more fully immersive way and even affect the path and outcome of the story.

Also with a model like this, it allows an author to tell the story in whatever way they want. Maybe Rowling wants to take a while off from the main narrative and explore something from the distant past in her world. Maybe flesh out Harry's father or grandfather or write a full narrative about how his parents met.

OR, maybe it's not just text for some events. Say they decide to hold the virtual wedding of Harry Potter himself. The story proper could lead up to it as regular text, but the wedding itself can be inside a chatroom or virtual wedding chapel (as of this writing, there are still issues of how many people can be in one room/location at a time, and it usually tops out at about fifty to two hundred, depending on if they allow for a four corners sort of nexus point), and allow some avatars (official ones controlled by someone that works for company producing the website) to act out the wedding using Rowling's actual official words. Can you imagine the furor over being able to ATTEND Harry's wedding? Perhaps auction off seats at the wedding if there is a space limit. Or better yet, bring Daniel Radcliff back in a few years to perform as Harry just for events like this wedding. Instead of a virtual wedding, it would be a video simulcast with real people also getting to attend the 'real' wedding. It would be huge.

But everything in this world would be clickable and cross-referenceable. Family trees, videos, artwork, wiki entries, timelines, recipes, puzzles, discussions. The conversation would be constant. The story never-ending. Fans could be permitted to create apocryphal fan fiction that links directly off of the main narrative if you choose to display that layer of data.

It allows the reader/user/member to experience the story at their own pace, and get as immersed as they desire. If they just want to read the story as is, they can read each chapter as it comes out, bare-bones, and it will be a totally fulfilling experience, just like reading the book is right now.

Maybe you just want to wait until the chapters are all collected together into the next hard copy novel, and you can read it just like any other book.

Like an ARG, there are mysteries to be discovered, either narrative-only, or hidden within the world and network of websites. But because it's tied to a serialized linear narrative, you don't have to feel like you are being left behind. Each element will be self-contained to the chapter you are currently at. It might even be structured as a Chapter One zone and a Chapter Two zone. You stay in each zone as long as you want to before moving on to the next chapter, all the way until where the story currently is at.

I think this sort of model would be successful perpetually.

Of course, Harry Potter is just one example of how this can be done.

Take Star Wars. George Lucas is getting ready to produce a new Star Wars TV series. What if instead of just being a linear TV series it was set in a virtual world like outlined above? The TV show would be the skeleton that everything else would hang on. In addition to the TV show, tons of other video could be produced to enhance the experience. Or just prose stories could accompany the TV show. Or online comics.

Or take something like a pet project of mine- Buckaroo Banzai. This is an obscure movie from 1984 that has developed a cult following (of which I am a card-carrying member). This is a world that would totally support an online virtual world/ARG sort of experience. But even more than Star Wars or Harry Potter, Buckaroo Banzai would facilitate real world events. Each town could have a physical location that the members of that town's Blue Blaze Irregulars could meet at. Real world puzzles and mysteries could be conducted, spanning the real world and virtual worlds (how about an entire virtual 8th Dimension official story events could take place in. There could be real actors hired to be the characters, and they can physically travel the world, continuing the story. Meeting real world people, dropping in on real Blue Blaze Irregular clubhouses as part of the official narrative. Buckaroo Banzai also fronts a band called the Hong Kong Cavaliers, and these actors could also play gigs here and there in character. But all of this could be in service to the overall narrative.

Characters could upload video blogs from wherever they are. This would be a slightly different experience than Star Wars or Potter, but I think it would be even more immersive.

There's so many ways this can go. But just about every one of them I think needs to have a major user-created element that leads to official content.

Could a new fictional world be created from scratch to fill this niche? I don't think so. I think they need to already have a sort of built-in fan base that's already passionate about the world. Star Wars, Potter, Star Trek, Marvel and DC Comics, or maybe even soap operas for the less-geekily inclined. Something like Lost seems like a natural fit, but it really isn't, because the world is so self-contained, at least the part that the TV show characters inhabit.

It COULD maybe work with a TV show or movie or live action experience, but the most successful (both creatively and commercially) I think would be something book-based at its core. But outside of Harry Potter, I don't see anything out there that inspires even a fraction of the passion needed for a project like this. I imagine someone like Stephen King or George R.R. Martin or Michael Crichton could come up with something that could really take advantage of this format, but I don't think any of them have anything going right now that would be readily applicable. A Song of Ice and Fire, while brilliant, is too much of a book. And Martin is too slow of a writer to ever be able to pull off something like this. If he COULD write at the pace needed, I think Song of Ice and Fire would be an amazing world to apply this model to. But it won't happen so there's no point dwelling on it.

Most fantasy worlds I don't think would support this, because part of it I think needs to be something that blends in or connects organically with our real world. The Matrix would be perfect for this if it didn't completely destroy the story with the two sequels.

Anyway, I'm tired of typing. I don't even want to see how long this blog post is. I don't think anyone but me will ever read it, but here it is, for anyone to read for all eternity.

I can see this so so clearly. I know it would work. It's turning into an obsession with me. I don't just want to write a story or create a video. I want to create an entire constantly growing and evolving story world. I want it to be heavily user-influenced and for them to share in the creation of the story itself.

I just need to figure out how to make it happen. It's my new life's goal, creatively. I'm thisclose to making a giant mashed potato computer on my kitchen table. I need to get this out of my head and into reality.

Good night.