That’s the idea of Fourth Wall, the interactive “event” company formed by three of the founders of 42 Entertainment, makers of Microsoft’s famous “I Love Bees” alternate reality game to promote “Halo.”
But they’re aggressively looking to start producing their own original content and are starting to connect with partners for just that purpose.
The Fourth Wall guys are currently working with “Wanted” director Timur Bekmambetov to develop a multi-media project called “Nano.”
“Their art form is like research and development for new and exciting products,” Bekmambetov said of their collaboration, “helping me to find a way to combine film language and the game world and install them in our real world by using film language in the game world to create an alternative reality.”
sat down with the Fourth Wall team – chief designer Elan Lee, chief
creative Sean Stewart, and president and executive producer Jim
Stewartson (That's Stewart and Stewartson working on the "Eagle Eye"
project on the bottom left) – at the Game Developers Conference in late
March to talk about their company, their goals and their new form of
Ben Fritz: Tell me a little bit about what Fourth Wall is and how you guys got started.
Elan Lee: Well, with these two fine gentlemen and two other friends, we founded 42 Entertainment, that created what was sort of known as the world’s first alternate reality games.
We really started to get our feet wet in what this new form of storytelling could be. How it works, how you engage with an audience, what to means to tell stories on the Internet.
When we did that for a few years, we decided if ever there was a time to start a company that is solely devoted to continuing that evolution, to taking that next step in a new form storytelling, this is that time, because we've got some much knowledge and so much experience.
Jim Stewartson: The other way that we like to put that is the Internet -- and by Internet I mean your cell phone and your email and everything -- the entire electronic sphere around you wants to tell stories, just like the movie camera wanted to tell stories.
BF: In a different way than you were doing at your previous company?
JS: We spent many years throwing essentially rock concerts. Very large, real-time, elaborate
experiences that were really cool and really fun for the people who were involved with them.
Our new company -- 18 months old now -- the basic idea is to take the rock concert and figure out, “What’s the album? What’s the content version of that so you can have these experiences any time, so they don’t go away on the date of a future release?” They can ultimately be monetized.
So, we think of the format and what we’re building as a genuine new entertainment format, one that sits between moves and video games.
If you think about the format like video for example, you can use it for marketing, there’s a TV model that has advertising and sponsorship revenue. And there’s the major motion picture model which is pay-per-play.
We’re exploring all of those business models, but our main goal is figuring out that format and really understanding -- based on the experience that we’ve had in the past -- how to speak to those people, to the mass consumer in a way that’s more active and more personal than passive entertainment, that doesn’t require trying to figure out how to move a 3-D character around a virtual world with a molded piece of plastic, which is traditional video games.
We’re all gamers, by the way, so we love video games, but we think there’s a really, really important untapped market in between.
Sean Stewart: Just to build on that a little bit, people ask us all the time, “What is the future of storytelling and what is the future of Internet-based entertainment?”
Up until now, the best attempts to define that
have been, “Hey, let’s take really big movies, shrink them down to the
size of a postage stamp, and put them on a Web site and call that
That’s not quite right.
If you think about the Internet, that’s so underutilizing it, as we’re all starting to become more and more and more aware. If you think about the Internet as this massive, interconnected series of utilities that you and I use every day -- we use Web sites, we use our phones, we use SMS, we use Twitter, we use all this stuff --the future of Internet-base storytelling is a system that takes all of those systems and plugs each thing into each other, into the next element.
For example, think about every big story you’ve ever liked. Any good movie, any good TV, any good book – they’re a series of scenes. Scene one is in the office, scene two is in the car on the street outside, and scene three is in the house. Whatever it is, it’s just a series of interconnected scenes.
The future of the new evolution of this form of media -- the kinds of stories the Internet wants to tell --are the same exact kinds of stories, but split up across those interconnected networks.
Scene one is on your computer -- you watch something cool there. Scene two is on your cell phone, because the next moment a character on the screen in front of you picks up the phone to make a phone call and the cell phone in your pocket starts ringing. So, scene two is happening on your phone and scene three might be email, scene four might be over Twitter, and scene five might take you back to your computer. And round and round it goes, plugging all of the elements of your life into each other in order to tell a story across your very life.
BF: But it’s still media, in that the same story is being told to everybody?
Fundamentally, stories are stories and people want to know what the end is. During the course of experiencing a story, it can either be a wholly passive experience -- which is already movies and TV -- or it can be video games, where I think we all know it’s very, very challenging in that format to get good storytelling.
So, what we’re doing is figuring out the interface in between, and that interface is using all the elements of your life as the interface. You already know how to use your cell phone and you already know how to use email. You don’t have to figure out how to connect the experience of the story with the interface to that story, because we’re using the things you already know.
What we’ve been doing when we started our company is building up both a design and a technology platform for doing that. You’ll see “Eagle Eye” and the experiences that we’ve built for “Watchmen,” for Warner Brothers and for NBC for the TV show “Kings” are doing exactly what I’m describing, which is taking your phone and your email and your browsing and interactive video, and connecting all of those things into a story that feels like your life.
SS: And how cool is that, right? Instead of just visiting a world, or just passively viewing it, you get to live there. We all get really excited about that.
EL: We all know the scene in which boy meets girl, and then the girl goes into the bathroom and talks to her girlfriend and says, “What do you think?”
It’s kind of cool if boy meets girl, and then girl texts you and says, “What do you think? I think he might be cheating on me with Susan.” Or alternately “I need help defusing this bomb, depending on what kind of story you’re going for.”
Say you’re doing a spy story. In a traditional movie, maybe you’re watching someone try to defuse a bomb and either he does or he doesn’t. He clips the blue wire or the red wire. But we can tell a story where he calls you on the phone and says “Man, I need to know: blue or red?”
BF: So then it’s an interactive story.
SS: Interactive, but not branching. I just don’t want to confuse it with what I was worried you were talking about, which is “Is this a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure?’” and that it’s very much not.
EL: It’s not the thing where we say “Oh, this movie has three different endings, and the user gets to choose which ending it is. As it turns out, and we’ve done experiments here, that’s not very satisfying.
People want to know how actual the story ends, so we are telling them a story. But in telling them that story, we’re bringing them into the world.
BF: But then if you’re making choices, won’t that impact where the story goes and what the ending of the story might be?
SS: Imagine a series of gates. "Here’s the start of the story, here’s the end of the story" – this is how a movie works. In a video game, the model is, "Here’s the start and it might go absolutely anywhere."
For a good story, it’s got to start here and it’s got to end here. There are these key scenes in the middle that we have to take you through. But along the way, you might go through here, or it might even branch again, but they’re always going to take you back to the scene.
You might define how you get from here to here, but we’re always going to take you along the key scenes because there’s a good story to tell and we need to make sure we tell it.
JS: “Macbeth” is not really improved if you get to have the audience pick how it ends. But it’s kind of fun to nonetheless be able to have a conversation the night before the battle with Macbeth or the guys hunting him.
SS: If I’m used to my phone only being a device of personal communication and all of sudden it’s not what I think of it to be – what’s really important for stuff like this is that the user feels at all times like they’re in control.
Movies, TV, and even video games are really good at this. When you’re done, you know where the off switch is. When you have to go to work, you know where the pause button is. When you’re talking to a friend on the phone, you know how to hang up. If any of those devices were missing that mechanism, you’d never used them.
We don’t want to describe this at all as something missing that mechanism. What we’re talking about here is a game mechanic that allows you the user to be in full control.
You want to get phone calls? Realistically, anyone playing this for the first time is not going to put in their phone number. What they’re going to say is “Earn my trust. Let’s form a relationship. I’m going to play your game -- earn my trust.” So, the game says, “I don’t have their phone number because they didn't give me their phone number. That’s fine, because I’m going to pipe all that audio in through the computer screen.”
Once you have a really cool experience with this new kind of storytelling mechanism, you say “That’s awesome! The next one, I want to see what it’s like if I start getting phone calls!” Now you enter your phone number. You have that control, and now the game starts calling you.
JS: It’s a very fundamental premise of our company. A lesson that we’ve learned many different ways in the past is that there’s a curtain, there’s a great line between what’s reality and what’s entertainment.
There’s often this kind of urge that people have to blur that line, and there’s a certain amount of coolness that goes on there. But ultimately, if you really want this to be a mass market thing, if you want your mother-in-law or your spouse or people who are not automatically going to do something that feels slightly dangerous, you really need that curtain there to be very clear what’s on one side of it and what’s on the other.
EL: There are always people who say, “I think the idea that someone might call me day or night and then show up at my house and put me in the trunk of a car is awesome!”
But realistically, that’s a very small percentage.
BF: In video games, any new device, any new hardware always get sold through some compelling piece of content, some exclusive piece of content, right? There must be a story that you can tell that’s better or different than what’s going on, that’s better than any movies or books that you can see, that’s going to make you want to try this.
SS: Two part answer: First one is, the first time we ever did anything like this was the Spielberg movie “A.I.” The sort of protagonist, if you will, the person who you’re following was a young woman named Liah. She would write everyone playing the game every week. You’d get sort of any update. This was before people even blogged a lot. This was like being on her blog.
During the course of the narrative, the grandmother who raised her died. And the next day after writing, I woke up and checked my inbox, and there were 400 condolence emails. That was a huge light bulb moment for me.
Nobody ever wrote Scarlett O’Hara and said, “Sorry your house burned down! Hope it works out with Rhett!” because Scarlett lives in a book. But Liah was as real to these people as their cousin in Cleveland. She had email just like you had email. She had a blog just like you had a blog. In some sense, you were more in her world, and I thought, “Wow!”
BF: You thought she was passing the Turing test?
SS: She was totally passing the Turing test! They know it’s a game, but it feels much more personal.
The Internet is capable of delivering huge amounts of content. Just like every other technology we see in entertainment, it gets more and more layered. Stage plays become operas become movies with scores and everything piles on.
Honestly, on your iPhone or your browser, you’re never going to have a car chase scene quite as cool as sitting in a theater, watching it 100 feet wide. However, the opening of the “Freefall” experience for instance -- where your phone rings and someone says “Here is what you’re going to do” and oh my God, it’s you --there’s a level of sort of personal, visceral, connection.
The name of our studios is 4th Wall Studios -- we’ve managed to thin that membrane along the way, as were’ putting you in much hotter, closer contact with the character and the action than you are normally.
I’m a novelist. I love novels. I will always love books, but there are things I can do writing for this format that I just cannot do writing a novel.
EL: You ask, “It’s got to be a good story to really launch this?” We’ve worked with some of the biggest studios in Hollywood on both the TV and motion picture side. And that’s awesome – we’ve done phenomenal work that we’re really proud of.
But at the same time, we’re also out there pitching original ideas, and that’s really exciting for us because that means we get to start writing content that is custom built for this new form of media. As we are allowed to continue to innovate in that field, we actually do get to evolve storytelling for the Internet. And that is really exciting for us.
BF: The way you described the “Eagle Eye” project to me was one person alone for 10 minutes. But sometimes, or often, would this have a social element?
SS: What we believe is that you have to start with the single player experience. Because this is so new and because this starts out a very foreign thing, you have to fall in love with it yourself first. Before you’re going to go out and make friends and talk to people, we really want to nail that part.
We just did this project for the movie “Watchmen” It’s an awesome experience. The character Rorschach calls you on the phone and you literally have an interaction with him. The things you say, he reacts to and the computer starts updating and you never even touch your keyboard.
It’s this crazy, magical amazing experience that has a ramp to it. It starts out easy, then it gets harder and harder and harder. Never impossible, but enough so that people started their own user groups, their own chat forums , their own community boards to discuss the game. “Hey, have you guys figured out his level?” and “How do we get past this?” and “What did you see here?” That’s the start of community and we certainly encourage that.
We designed it intentionally so that people would talk to each other and want to collaborate. But as we move forward and as we continue to innovate in that spaces, that social element becomes more and more important, especially once you get past the 10 minutes mark. Once you want to build a longer experience, you really need the crowd to start entertaining each other.
Later on, I went back and wrote a book called “Cathy’s Book” that used a lot of these same principles, but it was a book! It had a phone number on the cover and if you dialed the phone number, you actually get Cathy’s voice mail. If you visit the Web site, they’re real and if you write the email addresses, people write back. But fundamentally, it’s a book.
That book is an international bestseller because it’s been bought by 15-year-old girls in Wal-Mart. We need to be making stuff that regular people who are not Web 2.5 enthusiasts can get and enjoy.
BF: When this is marketing and you’re working with “Watchmen” or whatever, I have to wonder if there is anybody doing this who hasn't seen the movie? What purpose is it serving for your client?
JS: That’s an excellent point. Again, that speaks to fundamental premise of our company. “I Love Bees” was a very big, very successful campaign and we’re very proud of it. I think it did great work for Microsoft. But the vast majority of people who experienced that were “Halo” fans.
The experiences we’re building now are designed to spread beyond those boundaries. Of course, the first people who are going to be interested are the people who are already fans. But if you build an experience right, if you design it right, if the format is consumable by normal people, then it spreads beyond. And it has.
In the experiences we’ve built, it’s been really clear that that basic premise works. Are the first people who notice it and get excited about the ones who are rabidly following the content already? Absolutely. But it spreads very quickly and rapidly and wide beyond it.
BF: Do you guys believe these should be stories in and of themselves always, or do you want these to be properties that should extend into every media?
SS: I think the answer to both sides of that question is yes.
There are some stories that are going to work across a variety of versions. Going back to book guy, it is a truism that great books do not make good movies. In fact, the more perfectly they’re designed for one format, the harder it is translate them into another.
To make a good 10 minute experience, there’s almost always, in any long form content, there are moments or scenes or interactions that you can deliver really powerfully in this kind of personal, second person storytelling where you are the target. Is this the way that you’re going to be experience “Moby Dick?” Ehhh….
My guess is that over the next five years, it is my strong supposition that we will build some thing that have really good legs outside this format, and we will build something that you just could not do any other way.
BF: Do you still like to call them ARGs [alternate reality games]? Or do you guys not like that term, or have no opinion?
EL: Here’s the thing about ARGs: The thing we build are not alternate, they’re not reality, and they’re not games. (Laughs.) Otherwise, it’s a great term.
JS: For what it’s worth, what we call our platform is rides. Think of a roller coaster.
BF: Is that what you think it has the most in common with, like a theme park ride?
JS: A roller coaster had a beginning, its fun in the middle, and it has an end. And in the middle, there are twists and turns and unexpected things happen. So that’s what we call our platform -- that’s why we call these experiences are rides.
BF: And how do you make money off of all this?
JS: What we’re tying very hard to do, and what we’ve had some success in, is figuring out how to spread it, how to make it compelling to people who are not internet achievers, as it were.
The first thing that needs to be done is to be able to create that format that people are either willing pay for, or are going to spend enough time on it that a sponsorship or advertising model works. One thing we do know is that these experiences are extremely sticky terms of average amount of time people during one of these experiences. There is a huge amount of time they spend inside one of these experiences. And by definition, that’s a monetizable amount of time.
If somebody’s spending ten minutes on a Web page, on their phone with very ,very close attention, then you can see obviously how that would work.
SS: We have several -- in fact, quite a lot -- of fairly detailed approaches to this question. But at a high level, Jim said something really smart when we were starting this conversation a year and a half ago.
He said, “Look, this is a format. It’s video.” You can make commercials with video. You can make TV shows with video, which are free to the consumer and sponsored by other people’s money. You can make feature films with video, which are a long form and have high production values and which audiences actually pay for themselves. Any way you can monetize video, you should be able to monetize rides.
BF: A lot of people have been having a very hard time with that.
JS: I guess part of the premise that we’re maybe arrogant enough to think that we have some experience with is: A lot of what people are doing is trying to fit other kinds of content, shoehorn that into the bottle of the Internet. What we’ve been working very hard at is to figure out what the native form to the internet is, what is the way it wants to tell stories? And that’s going to be a more compelling, stickier, and therefore more monetizable experience.
This is also not the sort of thing you can download and pirate. This kind of experience requires tying all kinds of systems together and requires a very specific way of delivering the content. Those are both valuable propositions this format brings to the table.
BF: Is this technologically really hard to do? Is your advantage going out and assuming this has become of interest to the world and that you have a great technology plan that’s really hard to replicate? Or is it that you’re really good storytellers?
SS: We do not expect, nor want to be the only people in this business.
Our value proposition is all those things. We understand the design issues of this, I think, we can credibly say better than anyone. We understand the creative challenge, and I think that we’ve proven we can create great content with our own content and with other people’s IP.
And also, technologically, it’s nontrivial to figure this stuff out. There are voice recognition systems and you’re tying in SMS and email and phone systems and interactive video. Understanding all that stuff and putting it together, it’s a technology platform that we’ve been working with since we started. That’s definitely an advantage that we have.
The fundamental platform for synchronizing all these different elements of your life and turning it into a narrative is technology that we’ve developed
EL: You can usually get people to buy or understand the blue sky idea. But it is nice to be able to say, “And oh, yeah… it’s built!
(Interview condensed for space. Thanks to Adam Templeton for help transcribing.)