As CEO of Fourth Wall Studios in Culver City, California, Jim Stewartson has assembled a team of game developers, filmmakers and technology innovators to create what his company calls the next generation of interactive storytelling.
Since 2007, video game veterans Stewartson and founding partners Elan Lee (Chief Creative Officer) and Sean Stewart (Head Writer) have been developing a new transmedia entertainment platform called Rides, which will be the basis of six new franchises. The format is based around video content that viewers, or players, can experience on multiple devices. But what separates these experiences from a typical game is the level of interaction with the stories’ characters, who break the fourth wall and send emails, texts and even call players to push the story forward. In essence, it’s an alternate reality game (ARG), which blends interactivity beyond the computer screen.
“Rides is a system that was designed to allow us to tell a seamless entertainment experience across all of the different platforms that you use in your normal life,” says Stewartson. “It basically turns your life and your electronics into a movie screen.
The first Ride, Home: A Ghost Story (playable in short form here) is a horror story that focuses on two sisters who are searching for their mother in a home straight out of the reality show “Hoarders”. “You can get a phone call from a character while you’re watching them in a video on your browser; you might get a text message while you’re keeping up with the story in another way,” says Stewartson. “It gives us the ability to synchronize all of these different ways of connecting with people into a narrative.”
Stewartson himself was a pioneer of convergence, creating the first wave of online video games for Hollywood films like Star Trek: First Contact, The Fifth Element, Titanic, The Flood, Lost in Space, and Spawn in the ‘90s. While CTO at Eyematic Interfaces, Stewartson was the technical director and designer for Halo 2’s “ilovebees.com,” one of the first alternate reality marketing campaign.
In early 2011, Fourth Wall Studios finalized a $15 million round of financing from Los Angeles-based investor Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, with access to a fund of up to $200 million to finance individual properties. Over the past four years, the majority of that funding has gone into the technology that’s now allowing the first slate of six projects to move forward. In addition to Home, the studio is developing the dark comedy Dirty Work, the horror musical Zombies!, the adventure Gangster Geeks, the post-apocalyptic Flare and the action-packed Cascade.
“We think of this next generation of content as something that’s going to be intimately connected to the way that we live our lives now,” said Stewartson. “The reality is that over the past 15 years we’ve been rewired to multitask and use different devices all of the time within the narrative context of our lives. You’re doing more than one thing at once, whether it’s watching TV while you’re texting, or talking on the phone while you’re browsing the Web. Transmedia to us is just starting to keep up with that transition.”
Fourth Wall Studios isn’t trying to reinvent storytelling. The team believes that people still want a beginning, middle and an end. Stewartsom compared Rides to amusement park rides, the inspiration for the platform’s moniker. The first Ride will be shorter experiences, but over time they will develop as episodic experiences and even feature-length and game-length stories.
Some people may remember playing Electronic Arts’ Majestic alternate reality game back in 2001, which was the brainchild of Neil Young, who went on to launch the successful mobile game publisher ngmoco. Majestic experimented with augmented reality by having characters from within the game world call players in the real world on the phone and send them emails. Stewartson called Young a genius who introduced a game that was just way ahead of its time.
At the time Majestic came out, the Fourth Wall partners’ former company, 42 Entertainment, launched an ARG called The Beast for Stephen Spielberg’s movie A.I. That project was a prequel to the movie that played out as an embedded story across the internet. It also involved phone calls, emails and a host of new ways that players could uncover new information.
You can get a phone call from a character while you’re watching them in a video on your browser; you might get a text message while you’re keeping up with the story in another way
“These experiences were early versions of what we’re doing now,” explained Stewartson. “We’d like to think that we’ve made more mistakes than anyone else when it comes to this stuff. Over the past 10 years we feel like we’ve accumulated enough knowledge to at least take a pretty good shot at what combination of features in an experience will work for a mass market audience.”
Through working in alternate reality games, Stewartson and his team discovered was that there needs to be a curtain with these games so that people know what is entertainment and what is reality. For a long time, the thinking prevailed that it would be cool to blur the lines between reality and fiction. It actually turns out that most people aren’t interested in that, says Stewartson. When people log in to play Fourth Wall’s first Ride, Home, the first thing they do is decide whether to play the game through the PC or open up the experience to their real life for phone calls, texts and emails.
“If you don’t want the phone call, there’s a button to push that’s going to route it through your speakers on your computer,” said Stewartson. “There’s a big pause button on it so that if you’re going to go have dinner now or just want to stop for any reason, you can do that and you’re not going to have the fear that some random screaming woman is going to call you in the middle of the night. We’re focused on making sure that these experiences are comfortable, predictable and understandable and that people feel that they’re being respected and taken care of all the way through the process.”
When it comes to designing a game, whether it’s a traditional shooter like Activision’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 or an ARG, Stewartson said good design is good design and good storytelling is good storytelling. While the line between what’s a game and what’s narrative is becoming thinner, the gaming experience, whether it’s shooting stuff or interacting with the character, are all just part of the toolset that creators have to draw from.
“Some of the content and properties that we’re coming out with are going to be more videogame-y, as it were,” said Stewartson. “Some of them are going to be much more linear and almost passive. We see traditional video games as a huge part of the pallet of things that we have to work with. We love videogames. We have a game room full of every single system that there is. There’s an endless connection between both video games, movies, TV and all of the kind of traditional ways that people consume entertainment are all inspirations for us as we create our own.”
Moving forward, Stewartson said his team will expand further into alternate reality by making use of augmented reality-enabled devices like smart phones and tablets and says the studio is currently filming its first projects with Hollywood talent both in front of and behind the camera.