Thursday, March 18, 2010

Worldbuilding is Easy

This whole worldbuilding thing has been on my mind since hearing some of the comments about transmedia from SXSW. For those unfamiliar, transmedia is currently the hip phrase to describe using different media platforms to tell a larger story. For example, consider the television show Heroes. In addition to the TV show, it has webisodes and a sort-of comic book (also available online) to say nothing of various cel-phone points of interaction. Each part ideally stands on its own, but taken as a whole it creates a bigger, more satisfying picture. As a storytelling mechanism, it lets a creator tell stories in more dimensions, and as a marketing gimmick it lets you squeeze a lot more selling out of a single piece of IP. Other good examples of this include ARGs and, for all that this is a hip new phrase, there are lots of older examples of this from all the various Star Wars spinoffs to the Little Orphan Annie decoder ring.

If I sound cynical, it's because I am, but perhaps not as much as you might think. The marketing end of this is pretty shameless, and it hinges on making more money from less creative material while reinforcing the idea that you should go back to the well, no matter how dry it seems[1]. Plus, the new buzzword for an old idea is pretty lame. However, from a purely creative, storytelling angle this seems to have some juice to it. The idea may not be new, but calling it something helps gives creatives permission to push the boundaries a bit[2] and that hopefully means we get more good stuff out of it as a result.

The part that worries me is worldbuilding. This seems to be riding along in the buzzwake of transmedia - the idea that for transmedia success you don't need to storytell, you need to worldbuild. After all, if you build a rich world full of stuff, you'll have so much material for transmedia efforts that the stories will write themselves!

This is, to put it bluntly, fool's gold. It sounds really good on the surface, and it's compelling because it's actionable, and thousands of 14 year olds have filled up three ring binders chasing this dream, and my expectation is that transmedia will send a whole new generation down this particular rabbit hole.

The problem is that Worldbuilding is easy, easier than writing. Worldbuilding is like writing where you only need to write down the neat stuff and never have to worry about sticky things like characterization or conflict[3]. It is intensely satisfying, a lot of fun, and it feels creative, but beyond a certain point it's finger flicking. Yes, some worldbuilding can be useful to a creative endeavor, but it's something to be done in service of the greater endeavor, not the primary activity in its own right. Making it the primary activity is ultimately a bankrupt proposition - you don't produce much of real worth, and if you're doing it solely to create IP, then it's probably going to be pretty unsatisfying in the end. At least the 14 year old kid fills his binder out of enthusiasm.

But I don't bring this up purely to piss on the idea. There are a few arenas in life where role-playing experience is actually a big boon, especially if you're willing to embrace it's benefits. If you put yourselves into strange situations and other people's heads for fun, then you can benefit from doing the same thing in your daily life. And sometimes a creative idea comes along that's old hat for you but new to the rest of the world. This may be one of those times.

See, we in RPGs have put in our 3000 bad pages[4] of worldbuilding. If we've been paying attention, we know the difference between how to worldbuild for play versus how to worldbuild out of pure self indulgence. If you've learned those lessons, then you can probably build a world in four pages that is more compelling than even the most talented novice can in 100. That's an opportunity, and this is why I keep using the word Transmedia rather than stubbornly refusing to accept the buzzword, as is my normal practice. Bottom line is this:

If you are a gamer and you want to create, transmedia (or perhaps more aptly, the buzzification of the concept of transmedia) is something you need to be aware of and keep your eyes on, because this is an opportunity. Like most real opportunities, it's not going to walk up to you and demand to acknowledge your genius, but that doesn't mean it's not there.

1 - Sequels are not technically transmedia because, hey, same medium. But in terms of the spirit of it - expanding on core material - they totally are. That is to say, transmedia thinking without restraint gets us Nature Trail to Hell part XXI in 3 D.

2 - If I sound like I'm suggesting creatives may have more of a conservative streak than commonly thought it is because I do.

3 - This is something you see as you read people's attempts (intentional and otherwise) to worldbuild.[5] Worldbuilding is story without conflict. And the thing is, I sympathize with the desire for this. The idea that conflict is necessary to storytelling is not an idea that sits well with many people. It's painful and disruptive and can detract from what you really want to say. I totally get that. But this is one of those tough realities - you can write stories any way you like, but if you expect people to care about them, you are going to have to risk some discomfort.

4 - Shorthand for an idea expressed by many artists and writers that if you want to do something well, you need to do it a) a lot and b) badly first. Everyone has a few thousand bad pages in them, and you need to get those out of your system and down on paper before you can get at the good stuff.

5 - MUSH folks - most MUSH writing is worldbuilding. Lord knows most apps certainly are.


  1. Worth pointing the way toward the #terribleminds game/story post today, which has ties to transmedia --

  2. I am painfully aware that this is my problem when it comes to writing fiction. I'm so comfortable with world-building and setting the stage for action that I have tremendous trouble kicking off conflicts. A little voice keeps telling me 'that's not your job'. It's immensely frustrating.

  3. Your point is well-made that bad world-building is easy, but so is bad writing. Given your definition of world-building as writing without characterization or conflict, I have to agree with your general premise. I would also define world-building without characterization or conflict as "bad" world-building. A well-designed world ("good" world-building) will have have both conflict and characterization. Such a creation is more of challenge.

    I would also argue that world-building is going to come easier to some than others and that there are creators who find writing easy and world-building hard. It's a matter of perspective and personal experience.

  4. (Oh, and I'll offer a not crappy comment a little later -- doing a page by page finesse of the script, not enough time to parse proper comment-fu!)

    -- c.

  5. Worldbuilding can be storytelling without conflict, but good worldbuilding builds in conflicts because even conflicts held in stasis, ready to collide and tell stories, are detectable by human instruments. I talk about this all the time at the Shared Worlds worldbuilding camp I teach at Wofford College. In fact, I have argued, and may again, that good worldbuilding provides fuel for all the core dramatic conflicts — versus Nature, versus Society, etc.

    Folks have gotten off the hook for conflict when designing worlds but that doesn't mean that they are exemplars of the method.

  6. @david I figure the math is that given equal quality, worldbuildign is easier. It's likely great worldbuilding is better than crappy writing, but getting punched in the face is often better than crappy writing too.

    That said, you're right, some people will find one or the other easier based on their natural talents and personal experience, but all things being equal, I'm ok with my premise.

  7. Did you just have a footnote in your footnote? OMG, you totally did! Epic win, sir.

  8. @will See, that's shit we know that others don't.

    Though I think it's probably even trickier than that. Building a conflict into a setting is more nuanced than just putting it in there (as you know - just talking for talking's sake here). The leap from "Conflict in the setting" to "Conflict I give a crap about" is not a trivial one.

  9. "If I sound cynical, it's because I am, but perhaps not as much as you might think. The marketing end of this is pretty shameless, and it hinges on making more money from less creative material while reinforcing the idea that you should go back to the well, no matter how dry it seems[1]."

    Let me tackle the transmedia thing first: this is true, but maybe a little over-cynical in terms of the reality.

    With STM, we've been pitching some transmedia materials bound to existing properties. Now, that's not the ideal way to do transmedia, no, but from a marketing perspective, it's a creative one, and one that arguably allows for greater audience investment.

    The transmedia stuff we've pitched hasn't been stuff the company would've sold -- it's all value-added stuff, and from our vantage point, it's a way to approach (for us) properties we love in a new way. We're not attempting to be gimmicky. We're not looking to milk the public; further, neither is the company. They're delivering free material that will build audience.

    Can it be used poorly? Can it be exploitative? Yes. That's less "marketing," though, and more "merchandising." IMO.

    -- c.

  10. @chuck I get the distinction, though that is a finely, finely split hair. But it's also a distinction that opens up a door of deeper cynicism that I've left closed: it can be hard to distinguish between transmedia and brand management.

    But that said, I don't meant o suggest that there's nothing to be gotten from going back to a source and extracting some transmedia gold form it. That's just not the case, especially for a fresh property.

    However, business is conservative, and it's historically demonstrated it would rather reuse and recycle than risk creating, and transmedia arguably makes that more of an option. I do not begrudge the first transmedia effort for a property, or the second, or even the third. But sometime around the 10th, I'm going to wonder if maybe there's something better to do.

    That said: I can accept a hypothetical argument that transmedia can be crafted so that the incremental improvement more than offsets the diminishing returns due to the network effect - sort of a Metcalfe's law of fiction - but I would really have to see it proven to totally buy it.

    -Rob D.

  11. As transmedia storytellers and producers, we must constantly remind ourselves that it all starts with story. Worldbuilding can be tremendous fun, and you're right, I know dozens of young people with notebooks and gigabytes full of highly detailed fantastical worlds. But for the purposes of popular entertainment it's important to understand that without a strong central character and narrative, our storyworlds are dreams as colorful but empty shells, devoid of the psyche, frailties and aspirations of the dreamer...

  12. I guess my concern is, it becomes so easy to distrust the medium. Television is easy to dismiss, too -- they call it the "idiot box" for a reason. Television is essentially an advertising-delivery box that happens to get you to watch the ads by providing you with content.

    That doesn't make the content bad, though. It can be. But any content can be bad, regardless of the delivery technology.

    Transmedia is, for me, falls into the same realm.

    I'm barely making sense over here, because I'm doing about ten things at once, but I figure it's better than saying nothing at all. :)

    -- c.

  13. @chuck I mainlined the entire history of the "Age of Persuasion" podcast over the past month, so I'm hyper-sensitized to the connection between media and advertising, and with that in mind, I feel confident saying my concern is actually from a slightly different vector.

    See, I'm not really viewing transmedia as another type of media. I think it's just a perspective on the use of media to serve stories (or so I hope) and through that lens, it's a tool. A powerful, easy to use tool.

    A good comparison might be photoshop: it's powerful, and it's not hard to grasp the basics, but if you _only_ grab the basics (because you're lazy or, more likely, because you're too swept up in excitement at the newness) you get a lot of bad pictures of your friends faces pasted onto celebrity bodies or Abe Lincoln pasted into your last frat party.

    This happens with every powerful tool that gets into people's hands. Desktop publishing. Template-based class design. Autotune. It's a natural thing, and it's not a condemnation of the tools that it happens. Rather, because it's a known thing, my hope is it's something we can get in front of.

    As transmedia gets more popular, we're going to see a lot of really, really bad examples before the good ones start standing out. Nature of the beast. But my hope is that the RPG community, by virtue of the essentials of the hobby, has already gotten at least some of those bad examples out of their system. If so, that's a mighty cool opportunity.

    -Rob D.

  14. Well it really depends on what you are trying to do. If you are building a world for something else, such as fiction or a game, then it is a means to an end, and the means should always be orientated towards the intended end.

    But I personally find that there is the beauty of crafting a world that actually works and is a coherent self-consistent whole in and of itself, rather than orientated towards some other purpose. [After all, discovering the fundamental nature of this world was one of my day jobs.] It's also a major reason I prefer science fiction and fantasy, as they can open up whole new universes to explore (and not just the universe of the physical, but cultural and philosophical as well).

    There are whole worlds containing new things and ideas to play with, to contemplate and think about, and how, as in all works of Art, it reflects back on us and our condition. What is more fun than that?

    And with regard to transmedia, world-building has the advantage that it then allows a group of largely unconnected artisans to work to a single overall design specification, especially when working on projects in parallel.

    And it isn't easy. Especially once you start considering consequence (something which most teenagers appear loathe to do), and the evolution of complex systems. Things which most world-builders don't do (instead, they generally get obsessed with the details and not the interactions).

    <shrug> YMMWV.

  15. Hi Rob. Here's something I've thought about in regards to worldbuilding.

    I think there's a difference between worldbuilding that one consumes and worldbuilding that one engages.

    And, I think this is even true of the creator him/herself. Part of the trap, I suspect, is that it's much easier to create something you and others consume (i.e. read, riff on, etc.). Whereas, creating a world that's dynamic enough to engage with means you've got to get over destroying something you've created, because inevitably it changes as you engage. And, that's harder.

    And, for readers, the same holds. You really like that one thing about the world. But, as you engage with it (tinker, play, whatever) that one thing could change. And, maybe there's some part of you that fears losing the thing you like most in this particular playground.

  16. @Rev So, the bigger question there raises the question of the difference between contemplation and art. I agree the act of worldbuilding can be a powerful one, but (at least in my experience) it is a very personal one. The actual world itself grows less communicable as it grows more vivid and powerful.

    That said, you raise an excellent point about worldbuilding as a collaborative structure, and I may have to nerd out about that through the lens of project management sometime. It even raises the question of worldbuilding as a group activity - lexicon games may not be a huge rage, but they are absolutely something that has a little juice.

    But even so, there's still that hurdle from being rich and meaningful for the creator to being meaningful to everyone else, and I think stories are necessary to bridge that gap. And that brings it back to the beginning - even if the purpose of the setting is not to tell a story, if there is any desire to communicate the setting powerfully, then the story will have to become a priority.

    This is not to say there's an obligation to share, or to change your creation to make it more interesting to others. But as you say, it's important to stay aware of the intended end.

    -Rob D.

    PS - That said, I'm also a liberal arts nerd, and as such, I acknowledge a certain amount of entertainment value in consuming pure worldbuilding through that lens - like reading history books of places that don't exist. But that is, I think, a VERY SPECIFIC sort of entertainment, partly because the academic bent of it makes it require a far greater tolerance of terribly dry material. So I don't want to say such a fandom doesn't exist, but I'm not sure there are enough of them to be more than a rounding error.

  17. @Matt That's well enough put that I have no lengthy reply!

  18. I do have to admit of having come up with game worlds which I've refused to actually use because the players would be intruders in it (in much the same way that angry bulls irritate purveyors of fine china). Which is a failure of sorts, but a beautiful failure. Now if only I was a god and could create the worlds whole... <grin>

    [And it really doesn't matter to me if I don't share this beauty with anyone else since I am inherently selfish. I had fun, and that's what counts. It's not a guilty pleasure to do so.]

    As for wordbuilding as a design protocol, consider Thieves World (which had no initial design strategy beyond a dinner conversation at a convention), and later efforts such as Liavek (OK, I cheat here, since Liavek was originally some of The Scribblies' game world). Both groups contain excellent writers of fantasy, but I find the quality of the later shared-world series to be vastly improved because of the coherency provided by the initial world-building.

    As a collaborative effort I don't think you can go past Glorantha these days (and the all-consuming World of Glorantha mailing list), now that Greg has recognized other experts in aspects of his world and stopped Gregging* himself so much. The creation of the world, especially its cultures and mythology has really grown beyond the needs of the game systems played in it.

    Some of the best world-building in RPGs is the result of player action, where they change the world through their actions, since what we are engaged in is cooperative storytelling (as a rule; the story may be an extremely simple one). I find this to be rather rare though. Most game-worlds don't really change; the situations the players are involved in change, but the worlds tend to be rather steady-state affairs as a rule. I think because the objective of most traditional RPGs is to continue play, not to win/complete.

    And I think more people appreciate world-building than you think. Take the film Avatar for example. The major reason it was so popular was because it was the first time many people had the opportunity to experience a whole new world (well, it certainly wasn't the plot). [I will add here that my major nitpicks with the film concerned incomplete world-building.] We are beginning to get the tools together where creating other worlds becomes viable, but the man-hours and skills required means that it won't be the activity for an individual, but rather a large team following a design specification for the world.

    As for authorhood, well, one big problem with newbies is that they try to make the plot fit the world, rather than vice-versa. This gets more problematic the more world they build before they write, as it gives themselves more corners to paint themselves into. But they have also forgotten what they are there for in the first place.

    [In television screenwriting you frequently have the reverse problem, where "a good plot" idea contradicts what has gone before. In which case it is often left to the licensee of the RPG to sort out the problem after the fact.]

  19. No it isn't. That's why so many people are bad at it.

    I'll cover this in a blog post of my own, I think.

  20. Thank you, Rob, for continuing to make it unnecessary for me to blog myself.


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