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Alice Born Digital: How Transmedia Storytelling Becomes a Billion Dollar Business

inanimate alice

Editorial by Ian Harper

“It stands above others to demonstrate the potential of a true ‘electronic book’ — as opposed to the digital ‘picture’ of a printed book that you’d download to your e-reader, Inanimate Alice is a wonderful place to glimpse the future of electronic texts…” John Warren, Marketing Director, Publications, RAND Corporation

We are entering a new era where digital authoring tools allow us to develop reading-from-the-screen experiences that will captivate audiences who come with expectation of ubiquitous rich-media content. I am a digital first, transmedia storyteller. I work in a team with novelist Kate Pullinger and digital artist Chris Joseph, to produce Inanimate Alice, the fictional adventures of a young woman growing up in the early years of the 21st century. Over ten increasingly complex and interactive episodes we accompany Alice from the age of eight, in China where her father has gone missing, to her mid-twenties, when she is a game designer on a mission to save the world.

Looking back, I have come to appreciate that is a story that was “born digital.” I don’t know whether it was Kate who first coined the phrase but it took several times of hearing it and reading it before I fully understood the potential impact of that concept. The series didn’t emerge from a printed book; it is not a translation or adaptation of something that was once it print. It was written, produced and directed as a YA chapter book for the screen.

This production describes what looks to me to be a new model for creativity for the “book” business, one that reflects the development processes of the movie and computer games industries. This, in turn, creates considerable opportunities when designing the story as a multiplatform package from the outset.

We are almost halfway through the story arc and at a pivotal point for the business model: seeking a publisher/distributor that “gets” the digital narrative. It hasn’t been as easy as one might hope.

The Story of Alice

Today, Inanimate Alice is a multimedia interactive fiction, produced using manipulated images, text, games, music and sound effects. It began as the back-story to a movie screenplay call E|Mission, a sci-fi thriller I had written in 2003-2004. The momentous events in that tale called for some explanation of who Alice is, her relationship with her digital friend Brad, and what took place that led to her being the one person who would save the world.

Since then, you might say, the production has taken on a life of its own.

Back in 2005 we were focused almost exclusively on story. We were setting out the story arc, creating a world in a way; Kate, Chris and I settled on the idea of an interactive back-story, told in episodes. We describe Alice’s life, first her travels around the world with her parents, then at school, in college, and then at the video game company. At the video game company she would finally encounter the characters from the original screenplay and embark on their world-saving enterprise.

At the story progressed, we envisioned each episode becoming more interactive and complex than the one before, thus reflecting Alice’s character growth and her developing skills as an animator and computer game designer.

To date, we have completed and made available four episodes online. The first five episodes of the series use manipulated still images to form the backdrop. With episodes six and seven we will shift gears, upping the tempo with digital video to achieve a racier, grittier feel. For the final episodes we will shift formats again, this time using a 3-D game engine as we delve ever deeper into Alice’s extraordinary world.

IA#“I’ve been a fan of Inanimate Alice from the very beginning. It remains a touchstone for engaged, interactive works in two fundamentally useful ways: 1) as a concrete example of melding metaphors of use and access across multiple media, and 2) as a conceptual demonstration of how gaming, Web sites, narrative, and user choice can determine provocative and immersive environments of a genre likely to increasingly significant in the years ahead. Alice is well worth its attendance.” Peter Brantley, Co-Founder, Open Book Alliance

Alice Abroad

We were, and remain, an international crew, working virtually. We launched episode one, about Alice’s life in China, in 2005. This episode was awarded the Premio per l’arte digitale from the Italian Ministry of Culture, helping establish an audience overseas. Today, we estimate episode views to be well in excess of one million — in the US, Europe, Asia, and especially Australia and New Zealand — and the audience continues to grow with each release.

Now, with the fifth episode in production, we have gained a better understanding of the wider implications of the digital opportunity, particularly among audiences abroad.

The early episodes were translated into French, German, Italian and Spanish for the European Commission’s Intercultural Dialogue initiative. That experience led us to think about different ways in which we might use Alice for something beyond simply reading.

One area we considered was language training. Not only will the series reach a far wider audience in multiple languages, the prospect of easy toggling between languages provides further opportunities for inter-lingual studies. Inanimate Alice has, indeed, proved popular with international schools and language learning schools around the world, particularly in AsiaPac countries.

Alice for Education

We asked Dr. Jess Laccetti, then a student in Creative Writing and New Media, to develop complementary educational materials, ones that we hoped would inspire and equip a new generation of teachers embracing Web 2.0 education for the first time.

Now, education departments at universities around the world use those lesson plans and worksheets as core materials for literacy and ICT education objectives targeting 10-14 year old students with widely differing competencies. Dr. Laccetti’s efforts have given two generations of students (educators and high school pupils) a title with which to embrace and engage in education 2.0.

Inanimate Alice has been able to function as a literacy stimulus across wide age groups and among differing capabilities. For YA readers, growing up with Alice reflects the arc of the story; relevance and mutability across educational needs suggests that students can grow alongside Alice, from class to class, from year to year across several curricula.

At the academic level it is a high-quality text that supports the deep reading and re-reading necessary for sustained enquiry. At the other end of the spectrum, it encourages the hard-to-engage or reluctant readers to interact with educators, as well as other students.

The puzzles and games have become more elaborate with each new chapter. This framework simulates a multi-tasking environment with a high-quality text as a base that teachers can use for many different outcomes including ICT education. Further, it acts as a primer for those who are not yet familiar with computer games.

IA2These early episodes provide the framework for a considerable (100+ hours) modular non-native-language training program. Following the format of the online series, this program will provide content for both language schools and the individual learner. Here is a taster of what we’re talking about: www.inanimatealice.com/efl

“In my attempts to encourage teachers to embrace new forms of narrative in the digital age, the example I keep returning to is Inanimate Alice, a multimedia experience which is way ahead of its time, and teachers never fail to be excited by the possibilities it opens up for transforming learning in their classrooms.” Bill Boyd, Independent Learning Consultant, The Literacy Adviser

Alongside the series we have planned for a suite of software tools that students can use to emulate Alice’s career path as she grows up to become an animator and computer game designer. Storytelling tools that offer storyboarding, animation and game mechanics not only teach, but also inspire user generated content. It seems everyone is interested in contributing to the creation and building of great stories. Already, while waiting for Episode 5 to appear, we have seen many student-created “next episodes” in anticipation of the arrival of the “official” version: http://aliceandfriends.wikispaces.com/

A Billion Dollar Story?

I believe that Inanimate Alice is a breakthrough project demonstrating a new kind of reading-from-the-screen experience. Is it a billion-dollar story? Perhaps…Our vision, a package that addresses movie, game, on-line and print outcomes from the outset, is designed with this in mind. It sets out objectives and addresses issues from the beginning. It would have to be successful, but not on the scale of a Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings to achieve that.

The team’s commitment to this project far exceeds the six-figure sum that has been spent thus far. Completion of the series will take the budget north of a million dollars, a considerable sum for a digital novel. But then, as CTV reporter Kris Abel succinctly put it, “there is nothing else like it on the Net.”

Alice has become a bridge with the ability to connect technologies, languages, generations and curricula. At the half-way point, we find ourselves looking for the industry to meet us in the middle.

At the tender age of 50 and with a raw idea in his head Ian Harper attended the UK’s National Film and Television School to learn how to write for the screen. With two screenplays under his belt he has created the role of digital novel producer developing plans for a studio to complete the Inanimate Alice series while producing five further titles in a similar vein.

VISIT: Inanimate Alice Online

CONTACT: Ian Harper directly

DISCUSS: Can publishers transform into transmedia storytellers?

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  1. Posted April 30, 2010 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    I am impressed. The biggest question I have is how are you monetizing this wonderfully creative new form of storytelling?

  2. Ian Harper
    Posted April 30, 2010 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    Hi Beth,

    Thanks for your welcome comment….and the billion dollar question.

    Whether we are creatives, producers or marketers we have to think like we are in the start-up phase of a business. One of the best pieces of advice I read recently (I paraphrase) was that hiring a VP of Sales at the outset was a ridiculous idea. What you need is a VP of audience development.

    That is what we are doing and have been doing for quite a while – building an audience. This is the freemium business model, audience first, monetize later.

  3. Elle Moss
    Posted April 30, 2010 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    I am inspired by your beautiful, original, exciting project— and your foresight. All the best to you for your amazing effort.

    Elle Moss
    Woodstock, New York

  4. Posted April 30, 2010 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    Hi Ian,
    I’ve been pitching a transmedia story for years (without knowing the term transmedia).

    It opens storytelling to boundless opportunities.

    I’ve established facebook profiles for my characters (Thelonius Cat,
    Theodore Deer and Theophilus Eagle) to interact with readers. Through a
    group called Bainbridge Arts (I live on Bainbridge Island in
    Washington State), they’ve been snarking with other members and
    between themselves and myself. The Cat is the alleged co-author of my
    “novel” The Return of the Superbas. However, Superbas is just one part
    of the story. There’s a second novel I’ve yet to introduce which
    features the animator who created The Cat, et al.

    I wrote this second portion (The Magic Circus) as a screenplay after
    discussions of the concept with Gunn Films (they did Adam Sandler’s
    Bedtime Stories). However, as I was writing the screenplay, the story
    took on a life of its own and it became clear it was much more than
    a screenplay. It’s part graphic novel, part screenplay, part animated
    cartoon with characters that exist and talk about themselves via
    social media in “real” life. The animated cartoon is a third level of
    detail as the plotline mirrors another novel of mine, except the
    characters are rodents instead of humans.

    As you say in the article, monetizing this content follows audience
    development. Like you I’m hopeful that someone within the industry
    will recognize the potential inherent in such stories. In the
    meanwhile, we build the audience.

    Thanks for the article. Great stuff.

  5. Ian Harper
    Posted May 1, 2010 at 7:39 am | Permalink

    Many thanks, Elle and Jeff for your kind comments and may I wish you good luck in your work.

    One of the fascinating things about developing this series is seeing how educators have pounced upon it. There is a real need for high quality web 2.0 materials in the classroom. Our provision of downloadable education packs based on the series (and available free from the site) is a response to that need…and now we are seeing new start teachers setting out with multimedia skills. They have a framework on which to develop exciting lessons using such rich media.

    This seems to me to be the crucial thing. Today’s students were born into a rich media world; surely this fact sets the standard. We have many comments from teachers who say they cannot get their students to read from books, not at any price. For them, our reading-from-the-screen experience bridges the gap towards traditional literacy whether in print or in ebook form.

  6. Posted May 3, 2010 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    i postponed reading this article for a few days because I wanted to first clear my mind of a project my company and I are thinking about, which is a form of your transmedia idea. This is just a wonderful way to involved both readers who love to read and yet are looking for the newer ways in which stories can be told. At this moment, Sullivan Street Press is looking more at the adult market for this type of storytelling. Not for any type of overall philosophic reason but because that is basically who I write for.

    But it would be great to find a way for our press to figure out how to help in the development of these types of projects. I actually went to an Apple store to see if their business people would talk to me about this and they were decidedly uninterested at this moment.

    Oddly, that freed me to be a bit more creative in my own mind as to what we could do. Now it would be good to study what your company is doing and see what we can learn from it.

    Thanks for this article. It was great.

    Deborah Emin, Publisher
    Sullivan Street Press

  7. Posted May 4, 2010 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    Hi Ian I am fascinated by the beauty and ‘discovery’ wonder of Alice thank you to Kate and Chris.

    As I read this article it struck me suddenly that your story is our story-I wouldn’t wonder that you are also catalysing a trajectory of stories that will burst forth whose storyline content or structure point to a larger story. Alice’s inter dimensional shift from 2d-3d-4d? The story, the tools, the format, no doubt you can add to the metaphors- in making this product I bet you’ve encountered this multidimensionality over and over like a fractal narrative?

    I like that ‘Alice’ parallels too our collective consciousness around the capacity of games to engage learners.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if science reveals/accepts our multidimensionality very soon…?

    It’s like you are foreshadowing the public consciousness. Perhaps soon something will happen that will enable us all to collectively know? I’m excited perhaps overly so. Time will tell.

  8. Ian Harper
    Posted May 5, 2010 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    Hi Deborah,

    Good luck to you and your colleagues at the Sullivan Street Press in your multimedia adventures. I feel sure that this kind of audiovisual experience will be attractive for adults too.

    This reminds me of a comment from an early fan of Alice in her seventies who said “I just like to leave the windows open and listen to the music.” One of the often overlooked joys of this kind of interactive experience is that it is self-pacing. Unlike watching a movie or listening to an audio book – both of which you can only start/pause – with works like Alice you can spend time at various points and indulge in that moment for a moment or two longer. Or as in the above case, maybe hours. It makes for quite a different feel and contributes to the sense of a multitasking environment – why not have a snack, Skype a friend or send a tweet while you are watching the picture develop and while you are listening to the music? It is all part of experiencing the environment of the story.

    This pacing is most easily observed where we see Ming’s Chinese paintings develop. You can watch these for ages and you will never see the same picture twice. It works with the puzzles and games elements too.

    I look forward to seeing your production one day. Do put me on your list and let me know.



  9. susan
    Posted May 5, 2010 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    What a terrific way to reach this audience (and many others) in this medium. Thoughtful interaction, not you standard click/drag/enter. Truly wonderful – from someone who has been wed to print story telling for quite some time. Looking forward to more!

  10. Ian Harper
    Posted May 5, 2010 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    Hello Ruth,

    It was inspiring to read your take on our work….crikey (can I say that?) I had to read it a couple of times to figure out where you were going with it.

    The reference to fractals is thought provoking…there is something in the development of Alice’s world, its Emergence, that reflects that growth you see on images of fractals blooming.

    I like the analogy to the the collective consciousness and how this is gradually awakening through game-like learning. I don’t know whether it holds true but I certainly welcome that idea.

    Life isn’t like the episodes of a TV series where they are all 30 minutes long and they have the same characters in similar situations. We are aiming to “grow” the story (within the confines of the environment) just a we all grow through life. Wouldn’t it be intriguing to grow up alongside Alice at school and then check in with her later on when you are at college – the same Alice but older. She has moved on…as you have.

    Thanks a lot…hope to share more on the multidimensional developments along the way.

  11. peter
    Posted May 10, 2010 at 12:39 am | Permalink

    Great article, Ian. Lots of thought put into this project.
    I am looking forward to your “Billion Pounds Result”.
    I know that this cutting edge project is worth that.

  12. Posted December 11, 2011 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    Your site is really cool to me and your subject matter is very relevant. I was browsing around and came across something you might find interesting. I was guilty of 3 of them with my sites. “99% of site managers are guilty of these five HUGE errors”. http://is.gd/FDoL2T You will be suprised how simple they are to fix.

  13. Posted January 2, 2012 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    This looks like a very interesting way to use media to tell a story. It seems very distant from that of an actual book though. It seems many in the publishing industry is hesitant to grasp anything out of the box digitally. I hope you guys are having success with it!

    We’ve recently released our debut transmedia project, the Immersedition, with a YA series titled The Survivors by Amanda Havard. Ours very closely resembles a book to keep those true book lovers interested but also includes the transmedia aspects with original soundtracks, characters that tweet (and access within the app), Google Maps, history, fashion, and more… over 300 touchpoints in all throughout the app. It’s definitely a new way to read and interact with a novel, all within it’s app.

    As the series (and other projects) progresses, we’ll be producing more Immerseditions. I’ll keep up with Inanimate Alice as you guys go forward! Much luck!

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  3. […] Alice Born Digital: How Transmedia Storytelling Becomes a Billion Dollar Business May 4, 2010 siobhanoflynn Leave a comment Go to comments via publishingperspectives.com […]

  4. […] An article in PublishingPerspectives.com by Ian Harper himself: Alice Born Digital […]

  5. […] experience as producer of the transmedia storytelling project Inanimate Alice (which I described earlier this year on Publishing Perspectives), transmedia storytelling is the perfect bridge from conventional- to […]

  6. […] to this project far exceeds the six-figure sum that has been spent thus far.” In the same article he mentioned that the series completion will demand another investment, pushing the overall budget […]

  7. […] Harper, producteur du projet, explique dans cet  article que « le budget du projet dépassera de loin l’estimation initiale. » Il précise qu’il […]

  8. […] Harper, Ian (2010), Alice Born Digital: How Transmedia Storytelling Becomes a Billion Dollar Business, Publishing Perspective, Retrieved from: http://publishingperspectives.com/2010/04/alice-born-digital-how-transmedia-storytelling-becomes-a-b… […]

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