Storyworld Conference 2012 in Los Angeles – Day 1

After attending last year’s amazing and truly impressive Storyworld 2011 Conference I was more than happy to be able to attend this year’s Storyworld in Hollywood as well. While it was great to see everybody again, the majority of the presentations and panels unfortunately had only very few new insights to offer. This may be due to a possible indecision among the organizers in terms of whether Storyworld should try to introduce transmedia as a concept to those who have heard little of it before, or whether it should foster a knowledge- and experience-exchange among the existing transmedia community. I do hope that the organizers will reach a consensus on the exact purpose of Storyworld until SWC13, and will provide you with a short overview of the presentations and panels that did offer new information, ideas, and/or approaches.


Wednesday, October 17th 2012

The first day of SWC12 was sponsored by Disney’s Imagineering and was kicked of with a presentation of Scott Trowbridge, VP Creative/R&D Imagineering. Some of his points which I find worth mentioning are:

  • The difference between synergy and transmedia:
    • Synergy: Referencing a story in a different medium (e.g. like many of Disney’s theme park rides)
    • Transmedia: Extending a story across different platforms (of course! :-))
  • Narrative forms, humans, technologies, etc. – everything is constantly changing. Starting with Walt, Disney has embraced this constant change and as a result never considers Disneyland finished. Instead, they keep looking for new ways to engage the audience and their visitors.
  • The 5 rules by which Imagineers work:
      1. Tell great stories
      2. Bring characters to life
      3. Make great places – let audiences live the story
      4. Find new ways in which the audience can engagebe with the characters
  • Audiences and their expectations are changing: Everything has to be fast and on the audience member’s own terms (where, when, what)
  • Consequently, experiences must change as well and become more participatory and more interactive
  • Imagineering R&D is currently testing new story experiences, for example, Legend of the Fortuna, a live-storytelling project in which the audience played an active part in propelling the plot. Legend of the Fortuna took place in Disneyworld (if I remember correctly) and had the audience dress up and take on the roles of characters within a live play that was complemented with actors.
  • Scott also introduced the Story Engine, a computer program that can write scripts in real-time. After laying out the storyworld, the Story Engine can even accommodate decisions that the players make and change the plot accordingly. It is essentially an interface system and lets guests determine the story they want to play out.
  • And finally, Scott announced the Living Worlds Program, an initiative to foster a community of excellence around real-life storytelling. They have been accepting applications with story proposals since Monday, October 22nd 2012. Anyone can apply, there are no qualifications needed (besides a good story, of course!). The Living Worlds Program can be found at
Scott Trowbridge presents at SWC12


Given Disney’s historic focus on storytelling and creating immersive experiences, Scott’s talk probably didn’t come as a big surprise for most attendees. It was extremely interesting to learn about the kinds of experiences and types of storytelling that Imagineering R&D is currently testing, and the principles by which they design their experiences. On top of all that, they are even reaching out to their audiences to help them tell their stories, and are once again ahead of the times. I can’t wait to see which of their projects make it to the parks in the end!



Following Scott’s presentation, we were treated to a talk between Damon Lindelof, the famous executive producer of the TV-Series Lost, and Sean Bailey, President of Production at Disney Studios. Damon talked about the relationship between the creator/storyteller and the audience:

  • The audience wants to suspend their disbelief, of course. As a consequence, audience members have a very clear image of the story and their place within the fandom and within the story itself in their head. This is something that a storyteller must always remember.
  • The audience both wants you to listen to them, but also wants to know that the story is already planned out in detail and you’re not “making it up as you go.” Needless to say, this creates a lot of room for conflict, both for the producer and the audience.
  • Shared media experiences remain extremely powerful and emotional.
  • As a storyteller, you must always know where your story is headed and how it continues. Here, Damon mentioned Felix XY’s record sky-dive as an example: It drew the attention of millions and was an incredible event, particularly for Red Bull as the sponsor, but now the question that remains is: What’s happening next? If nothing happens next, a lot of potential remains unused, given that the jump managed to bring together a massive global audience.
  • If you use a secret or mystery as the main or one of the main drivers for your storyline, make sure that the resolution of this mystery is really, really good. You’re asking your audience to spend a lot of time and emotion on your story, and a weak ending can easily destroy the overall experience.
  • The same holds true for asking the audience to follow you to a different platform – the reward for following you has to be really good, i.e. really and truly worth the audience’s time and efforts.
  • According to Lindelof, it is also important that your story has a clear and definite ending to offer the audience a sense of closure. This notion is contested amongst transmedia storytellers, but Lindelof is convinced that a definite ending is quintessential for a good story.
  • Sean agreed with Damon on this topic and added that a single conclusion is important even if the audience is asked to participate. According to Sean, it is ok to have one “right” dramatic ending planned by the storyteller.
Damon Lindelof and Sean Bailey


I am very glad Damon mentioned collective/shared media experiences. I strongly believe that the media’s future lies in the shared experiences of experiencing media content – whether it is an actual live event like the Superbowl, or the newest episode of a show. In the past, we have again and again seen that audiences love to share their viewing/entertainment experiences with others when they are emotionally invested. Gamers have long been talking to each other whilst gaming – whether they are in the same room or on headsets. In many cultures, going to the cinema involves shared reactions to the events on screen, and with the rise of many recent franchises, we have seen a trend towards such shared cinema experiences as well, particularly on opening nights. Twitter has long become a platform for shared TV experiences and I would even like to argue that, as scheduled broadcasting is slowly dying, TV will be able to benefit from fans’ emotional investment in few, particular shows that they can share collectively, and from nationally shared experiences, like football games or elections. Heck, some girls even film themselves reacting to the trailers for their favorite franchise’s next installments to create shared fan experiences!


"The Psychology of Play & Players" Panel
“The Psychology of Play & Players” Panel

Wednesday also saw the “Psychology of Play and Players” panel featuring Keith Oatley, Professor at the University of Toronto, Dr. Pamela Rutledge, Psychologist & Founder at Transmedia Associates, and Denise Weston, Psychologist. It was moderated by Corey Rouse, Tech Staff at Imagineering R&D.  In this panel, the following insights stuck out for me:

  • Keith Oatley:
    • One must remember that play and story are done for the sake of themselves, not for the result.
    • In both, the writer contributes 30% of the experience and the reader/player the remaining 70% (with their background knowledge, approach to stories/play, and their own imagination)
    • A recent study has shown that the more fiction people read, the better they are at understanding each other.  What’s more, when reading fiction, we use the same brain areas that we rely on to deciphering others’ behaviors.
  • Dr. Pamela Routledge:
    • It is important that users are given the social permission to play. In most cultures, play is frowned upon in adults, and only tolerated in children because it teaches them something. As a result, in order to engage audiences, we have to give them the active permission to play

While I enjoyed all the points above, Pamela’s mentioning of the “permission to play” stuck with me especially. The permission to play varies greatly from country to country, for example (something I can personally vouch for as a Third Culture Kid), so once we’re actually thinking about taking transmedia experiences to an international level this is definitely a factor that needs to be considered. In order to work, transmedia needs powerful stories and storyworlds, and engaging with storyworlds (particularly with fantastic ones) will require different types of permission to play, depending on the country one is in/marketing to. Thinking about it, the greater difficulty of getting a “permission to play” in many European countries is probably also the reason why Disneyland Paris didn’t get as many visitors in the past (and apparently, still doesn’t). So this is definitely something to look out for if you want your transmedia franchise to cross borders!

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