“Everyone designs who designs courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred conditions.” Herbert Simon, The Sciences of the Artificial, 1996 , 111
One of the driving intentions behind Crafting Intangibles is to share and discuss narrative structures and perspectives that resonate with who we really are. It is understandable that we think there are interactive narrative structures out there we should use if we’re serious about being successful. We are repeatedly told that the Heroe’s Journey, conflict, competition, and winning are all essential to good design and sales. That is what writers and designers have been doing for decades, and it is what audiences and players want, right? But they do not appeal to all audiences and players, and writers and designers alike. We need to design from ourselves, otherwise we’re just producing shadows…that speak to the shadows of others. We can have success, and be authentic in our practice at the same time.
I continue to reach out and dig deep to find structures and processes that allow my themes — that have nothing to do with power and domination — to flourish; and welcome a gestalt of narrative and game modes rather than a siloing parts of myself and my team. Indeed, structures are a way of organising the mind, and so affect us down to our core. That is why the event, Crafting Intangibles, is also an experiment in format (running an global indie conference). I changed my mind, and so all I do is changed.
In this post I share my reflections on the content and format of Crafting Intangibles, now that the videos are released for all to view. The reflections are based on my own observations, conversations, and survey responses. Yep, I sent out surveys to people who bought tickets, attended the events, and also to people who knew about the event but chose not to purchase a ticket or attend. I did this because wanted to hear from people that committed to the event at various levels (paid and unpaid), as well as those that chose not to engage. I reveal their (anonymous) responses below.
Reflecting on Content
I am happy to say that there are a lot of talks in this collection that will assist in stretching, enlivening, and guiding creatives. The talks:
- Challenge the idea that interactive projects need to have constant interactivity. This view is unfortunately common with young creatives (in part due to the way they are taught), and ones who have fallen into the trap of seeking recognition of their artform through excluding traits that are similar to other artforms. The quickest and easiest way to get people to recognise difference is to deny similarity, which is also the surest route to misunderstanding. It is a short-term win for a few, with a long-term loss for all. We have talks that show how all interactive projects have non-interactive moments, and how to design for them.
- Focus on the early structural part of narrative design, instead of the player-facing elements such as dialogue and choice. Anyone who works in narrative design knows there is a whole lot that happens before (or as well as) dialogue. There is, however, an uneasy leaning towards discussing elements that players experience rather than what creatives do. We all go through a process of discovering an artform and learning about it from the outside in. We see actors of films before we know about a grip. The same process happens with interactive projects. So it is understandable there is more information about the elements both the creative and player share understanding of. But there is much more beyond that surface. We have talks that privilege the earlier stages as a way to counter-balance knowledge, including talks on experimental tools and exercises we can use at these stages.
- Discuss existing and possible structures that are beyond a single hero journey. There are times when the single hero structure is relevant and helpful, but it has mistakenly become the prototypical structure for narrative design. Not all projects are about a single person, a single protagonist or player. And they certainly should not be about a person who initially rejects the call to adventure. We have talks that show successful multi-protagonist structures, and structures that are about being a non-hero.
- Show how what we ask players to do affects their physicality and psychology, and how there are more humane options available to us.
- Ways to work within the constraints of siloed environments. How do you work with existing processes? So at the same time as stretching us in new directions that are actually closer to who we are, we also look at ways you work with processes that don’t recognise who you are. All stages of change need to be addressed. We have talks that look at ways you can help others understand what we do and how to work together. We have talks that help you make better projects by using emotion design, iteration and environmental storytelling.
- Champion weaving yourself, and others, into your projects for more fulfilling experiences. When we avoid who we really are, our projects appeal to others who are also avoiding who they really are. Indeed, there are successful projects out there where the creative hasn’t intentionally connected themselves to the process or the product. That doesn’t mean their work is meaningless. It is certainly meaningful and sends messages. But those messages are from the lips of those who live an unconscious existence. The wheels will keep spinning with the worst of the world. We have talks that explain why and how you can invest yourself into your creative life.
I could tell from conversations during the event, the tweets, emails to me afterwards, and the survey results, that others got a lot from the content too. Here are some quotes from the surveys and emails:
“Thanks again for putting together such a superb program.”
“I’ve never attended an interactive writing focused event before and had no idea what to expect. I was blown away by the variety and quality of the speakers and loved the conversations that it sparked. Really affirmed that writing for games is an area I want to pursue professionally! To have such an international event held up the road was super exciting and the innovative approach you took with the pre-recorded speeches was phenomenal.”
“Thank you for putting on such a brilliant event.[…] I got a lot out of the speakers and weekend in general. It was fun and inspiring to be around such creative thinkers.”
“The idea of having so much insight and experience gathered together in one location is something no person should skip. […] I think it’s an outstanding idea. Very happy with how it turned out.”
“Extremely valuable. A melting pot for the future of narrative design. A useful transdisciplinary exercise for other professionals.”
“The speakers broached interesting topics in ways I hadn’t considered them and were really thought provoking, opening questions and contemplation on these ideas.”
“I took down a lot of notes and plan to watch all the videos. I hope a lot of useful information soaks into my brain.”
“I loved the mix of talks — some were the ones I really wanted to hear, others were talks I wouldn’t normally attend — but the combination was the powerful aspect of this event, access to a rich range of different perspectives was really well done.”
Are there things I would change? Are there other people and talks I wish were involved? Of course there are plenty more people that could have given talks as well. There are plenty of people I know and ones that I don’t that I would also love to give talks. But more on this in a moment. For now I want to move to the biggest area of change or learning: the format.
Reflecting on the Format
I took a big risk with the Crafting Intangibles format. It hadn’t been done before, and this unfamiliar design trait we know could dissuade attendees. It ended up working really well, with some tweaks needed, and did also suffer from people not understanding what the format is. Let me explain what I did.
Now, everyone is familiar with conferences. You go to a location, and hear from speakers flown in from around the world. If you’re in the room, you’re all privy to what they’re saying, and share your thoughts and photos on Twitter. Some conferences also stream those talks. So those online can at least watch and engage with the conversation at the same time. There have also emerged events that are purely online, such as Freeplay’s Online Festival (which I participated in — thanks Dan!), and the Power Up Digital Games Conference. Both of these examples (there are plenty of others), are purely located on the web. Most people are familiar with this concept too. So you can have conferences at locations, you can have those locations streamed online as well, or you can have purely streamed conferences. They are familiar to audiences in that order too.
But Crafting Intangibles wasn’t any of these. Why? Why didn’t I go with new content in a familiar format? Isn’t that the rule with innovation — you have a good dollop of the familiar to ensure uptake? Well, I had three event design constraints: I didn’t have the budget for a local event where I could fly speakers in, the funding I had required me to have a local event, but I also didn’t have the budget to stream all the talks around the world (you’d be surprised at the cost of getting the right tech & operators to guarantee streaming from a conference location).
So I came up with a crazy idea:
- I’ll pre-record the speakers from around the world, and upload them;
- I’ll then schedule the talks, and have everyone around the world press play at the same time;
- with the speakers on Twitter during and after their talk;
- with pre-organised venues for shared-viewing parties with MCs;
- along with some live speakers at one of the venues.
For the people that took the chance and attended the event (either paid or unpaid), it worked. These are some of their comments about the shared-online-viewing format:
“I like it. It’s the first of it’s kind i’ve experienced and it gives you access to multi-national speakers with an indie feel.”
“I love how accessible it is, particularly for students and other folk who have limited funds for attending in person.”
“I love the ultra-indie idea and also the fact that you got interesting people to talk about interesting things (rather than just get “names” that do vanilla topic).”
“I like it. I like the idea it does not have to be a huge thing, like PixelPower or something very expensive. I like it a lot.”
“I thought the structure worked really well — particularly that, unlike other conferences, it ran on time, without too much empty space between talks. I attended Bar SK, and during that time between talks as we discussed what we had seen, I was also able to check Twitter and join the conversation there.”
“Almost perfect. Great access. Twitter accessibility to speakers was wonderful as it connected us despite the pre-recorded videos.”
“I really appreciated the format, and thought it worked well.”
“I was surprised by the format. I had intended to only go to the first day but came away with so much information that I didn’t want to miss out on day two as well, so in that sense I think having day one as a teaser/incentive to purchase day two worked. The price was perfect too.”
What did I discover about this format?
- You can have a lot more speakers, from different countries. There is no way an indie could afford to have this many speakers from so many countries at an event. But this model means you can go wider and therefore potentially have more diversity. After seeing the need for more discussion time (see below), I would either ask less speakers or have some speakers for the shared-viewing experience, and have the rest online for asynchronous viewing.
- You know before-hand what the talks and topics are like. This can help with curation and to plan ahead for activities. However, as I mention below, I needed to schedule according to timezone rather than topics. But knowing ahead meant I knew how to transition between the speakers. This also meant I could script and pre-schedule all the tweets of quotes and comments during the talks.
- You need to give feedback to the speakers before the event. Everyone needs a feedback loop. At conferences, speakers are used to seeing the response to their talk in the faces and talks with people. But when the talk is recorded before the event, with one person as your audience, there needs to be a proportional response. That is easy to do because of course you’ll enjoy the speaker’s talk. But make sure your recording time includes talking afterwards. I thoroughly enjoyed my chats with the speakers, and because of technical obstacles had to chat with some of them a couple of times.
- More work upfront. Events are always months of work before-hand. But this approach takes it up quite a few notches. It does take the load off the running of the event, and reduces the amount of assistance needed though. The work was primarily me, and my sub-contractors. I didn’t pay myself, but even if you did it would work out cheaper than having lots of assistants at the event. I was able to spread the work over months around my full-time job, rather than needing funding to take time off.
- Most Industry, Arts and Writing Organisations aren’t supporting interactive writing-specific events. I approached a few organisations and funding bodies and only one came back with a grant: Screen Queensland. This wouldn’t have happened without that grant. Responses from others places boiled down to interactive writing not being a priority to put money into. It wasn’t the nature of my event, but an event dedicated to interactive writing rather than a panel within more traditional writing. They will support with promotion, but won’t put money into it. There is still a long way to go.
- Global shared-viewing means curating to timezones. It is impossible to make the viewing times friendly for every timezone. So I split the days to privilege certain parts of the globe, and always including Australia in that equation. Because I wanted to make it possible for the speakers to be in Twitter during their talk, I scheduled all the USA speakers starting from the East Coast to West Coast on Day 1 (daytime in Oz), and European speakers on Day 2 (afternoon-evening in Oz). The Con of this approach? Some survey respondents criticised the event for only having American speakers. They didn’t realise there was another day and that the talks were curated according to timezones.
- Activity prompts at the end of each talk are a helpful strategic curation device. I asked each speaker to give an exercise at the end of their talk related to what they’re been talking about. These activities make sure the speaker is always passing on something attendees can do with the information. It grounds the ideas. It also provides an exercise for education environments. I underestimated how much people would want to converse after the talks and so we didn’t end up doing all the exercises. But they are there for use in different contexts, and could be included in the initial event with more time.
- You need much more time for conversation between the talks. I was trying to fit all the talks into the timezone schedules, but it ended up cutting off lots of discussion. Unlike a local conference, where there may be 5–15 minutes Q&A at the most and then the next speaker, we needed more. Part of the reason was the design of the talks, but also the juxtaposition of local and online conversations, and just the nature of online conversations. It takes longer to converse with people in the room, as well as online (with the speakers being online being a draw).
- You need to manage both local and online conversations. I provided all the MCs talking prompts and exercise ideas. At my local venue, I provided conversation prompts, and I pre-scheduled tweets that mention the speaker’s Twitter handle. I asked the volunteers to post about the talks using the hashtag (#craftyint).
- You need to train them to not treat Twitter as a backchannel. One thing I didn’t anticipate was people treating Twitter as a backchannel. I mean, of course they did. That is how it is used all the time at events. But that is because the speaker is usually on stage when they’re chatting. For this event the speaker was right there. I found some commentators didn’t adjust their language accordingly. I was too busy taking care of other things to jump on it on day 1, but I think you need to train attendees to this new schema.
- The event had higher value for the customers than access to the videos. I’ll explain how I discovered this. I needed another income source beyond the grant I received, and so I set a small pay-to-watch fee ($15). The videos were placed behind a password, and everyone was told the videos would stay behind that password for 2 months. I did this because I ultimately wanted the videos to be freely available to everyone. But I needed a business model, and so what I was offering as value was early-access and the shared-viewing experience. But when I sent out surveys to people who were interested in the event but chose not to get tickets, they said something that confused me. Some of the survey respondents said that they didn’t get tickets because they were away on the weekend of the event. Didn’t they know the fee gives them access to the videos to watch whenever they like? Perhaps some didn’t, and some saw the event as more valuable than early-access.
- Shared-viewing parties are critical to event uptake and satisfaction. Given the event-driven value of the videos, shared-viewing parties definitely brought in the most interest. They also provided a rich atmosphere for attendees to converse and share the experience with. I arranged one before-hand with Bar SK. Originally it was going to be an exhibition, but my time and money budget shifted it to a viewing-party. Louis was awesome in supporting this. I was going to offer a licensing model for viewing-party kits upon launch. But decided it would be an over-reach. I designed to facilitate it, but didn’t force it. Better to respond to interest. And interest did come, but last minute. I didn’t have full control over the venues and the MCs by that point. But they were offering the venues and their time and so I totally took it up. I gave all of them an MC kit with instructions and advice, and sent them the videos to play from a desktop at the locations rather than stream. I didn’t want to make them administer tickets, and so I made them free with a request for people to purchase tickets. A small amount did, and some did after that day so they could access the rest of the videos on the second day (the venues were only for Sat). A couple of the viewing-parties were at people’s houses, which is a great way, too, of experiencing the talks and conversations. I definitely like this model. Though technically I didn’t end-up breaking even on these.
- For experimental formats, you need provide all the information at every touch-point. Some of the survey respondents criticised me for only having American speakers (which isn’t the case), some said they weren’t in Australia and so couldn’t attend the event (even though it was also online), some thought there were only one day of talks (when there were two), and some didn’t realise the ticket gets you access to all the videos. All of this information is on the website, but most just looked at a Facebook post, or a Facebook event.
- As indies, it helps to utilise platforms that can boost your reach. This is why I chose to use Medium instead of hosting a website, and I chose to use Twitter instead of Discord. Each of these have systems that push the event further organically.
- Now that it has run, more people understand the format. There was always going to be confusion about the format because it was so different. People read over things through the lens of the schemas they know. That is why I had to answer so many questions, and that is why so many didn’t get the event format — even though the information is on the website. I continually changed the text according to the way people were interpreting it. Now that it has run, the people who attended understand it now and they will explain it to others. But it will still take time for it to become familiar.
Reflections on Social Media Promotion
The biggest uptake came from my early personal social media posts, social media posts by others, and industry newsletters (my really helpful promotional partners: Brisbane International Game Developers’ Association, Emerging Writers’ Festival, and Queensland Writers Centre).
“How did you first hear about this event?”
53% Social Media
12% From a friend
One of my biggest epiphanies of practice that I’ve had in the last few years, is to stop viewing a creative project as an object. I speak about this in an academic paper I wrote recently, and it influences my current thinking about cross-media design.
It broke my heart a bit to see my posts about this event ignored by colleagues. I thought, aren’t they excited about it? And they know how the algorithms work, if no-one *likes* posts then most people won’t ever see the posts. So the posts are not being ignored by all, just the important first people who saw them. But then I asked myself what am I really trying to achieve? I remembered something important. I am less interested in you letting me know you are interested in my work, than I am about you actually getting something from it. I try design for impact from the actual work, rather than the impact of anticipation of it.
Christy-a-year-ago probably wouldn’t have understood this, but I would prefer to see you at the event than you spending energy telling me you’re interested in coming to it a million times. Go off, do you thing, live your life, make your things. I haven’t created this event to have you spending all your time confirming over and over that it sounds good. I have created it to affect who you are and your projects. Attention confirmation isn’t part of that equation.
This is what is backwards about social media algorithms. People have to continually perform interest. Indies rely on it. We need our colleagues to like and retweet so our work reaches more people. But impact is what you really want. So then the idea is that people share after they’re experienced your work. Word-of-mouse as they say. But impact isn’t always a public thing, especially catharsis. A personal transformation isn’t necessarily for spreading publicly.
So I then stopped worrying about what was happening in social media, and thought more about the people that had already signed-up for the event. Interestingly, I found that the speakers and those that had already bought tickets were the ones that shared the most posts. They were excited and wanted others to join them. That is more powerful than any post from me anyway.
But I also do think part of the reason for the lack of social media support from colleagues was some were offended I didn’t ask them to speak. There are tons of people all over Australia and around the world I know that could easily have been included, and I did plan to keep conducting interviews. But it is not financially viable. I’ve done this event unpaid and at a (small) loss. I do this in many parts of my life so it isn’t unusual. But I don’t think I will be doing it again — I’m personally taking a break from doing service work and spending more time on my creative life. And now I have more tools to do that, thanks for organising this Christy! *pats self on back*
But the big thank you to the speakers, MCs, volunteers, sub-contractors, sponsor (Screen Queensland), venues (SAE Creative Media Institute, Bar SK, ArtShine Industries, and Jane’s house), and Promotion Partners (Brisbane International Game Developers’ Association, Emerging Writers’ Festival, and Queensland Writers Centre)! :)
Overall Survey Results
During and after the actual event, tweets, emails and survey results shows that others got a lot from it too: