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  • Writer's pictureJoe Hix

How Streamed Game Engine Content Could Fuel The Next Phase Of Transmedia Entertainment


Barry Jenkins

CEO and Co-Founder of Instant Interactive, the Entertainment division of Primal Space Systems

In his 2003 article "Transmedia Storytelling," MIT media professor Henry Jenkins (no relation) argued that the movement of characters, stories and content between film/video and games would make both media types more compelling. He argued that for a given creative IP, this transmedia approach would make both the linear and interactive media more valuable.

But he lamented that the media industries "haven’t done a very good job of collaborating to produce compelling transmedia experiences. Even within the media conglomerates, units compete aggressively rather than collaborate."

He also pointed out that the similarity between digital effects and game engine content created a natural technical pathway to cost-effective transmedia production, even in 2003:

"We have entered an era of media convergence that makes the flow of content across multiple media channels almost inevitable. The move toward digital effects in film and the improved quality of video game graphics means that it is becoming much more realistic to lower production costs by sharing assets across media."

The interactive entertainment, film and video industries have changed in remarkable ways since 2003, when Henry Jenkins described a more effective approach to transmedia content. Below, we outline a few of these changes and suggest how they have created even more compelling opportunities for transmedia entertainment.

Modern Games Can Now Provide Cinematic-Interactive Experiences

Since 2003, the game industry has benefited from an exponential improvement in the quality of real-time graphics made possible by better graphics hardware and advances in game engine software. Modern game engines enable in-game cut scenes that are rendered in real time, often in stunning cinematic detail. In addition, the craft of interactive storytelling has advanced to a degree that allows venerable game franchises such as Call of Duty, Devil May Cry, Gears of War and many others to tell better stories that are more tightly integrated into gameplay. For a growing number of games, such as Life is Strange and Detroit: Become Human, interactive exposition and story discovery are foundational elements of the experience.

In 2016, game engines achieved a transmedia milestone when the film Rogue One: A Star Wars Story used Epic’s Unreal Engine 4 for final rendering of the K-2SO character. Today many of the in-camera digital effects for Disney’s The Mandalorian are rendered in real time using UE4. Animation and VFX studios such as Digital Dimension, Axis Studios, Plastic Wax and others increasingly use game engines and game engine assets to produce impressive animated programs.

Back in 2003, video game software sales ($11 billion) exceeded movie box office revenues ($9 billion) for the first time in history, and the gap continues to widen. To date, more than 150 million PS4 and Xbox One game consoles have been sold, and a new more powerful generation of graphics hardware is less than one year away. Last year alone, 6 million VR headsets were sold, a 25% increase over 2018. Notwithstanding a slow initial adoption, VR has created a promising new platform for deeply immersive interactive experiences.

OTT Streaming Is Driving A Golden Age Of Content

Despite the impressive growth of the video game industry, people still spend more time consuming video (almost six hours per day) than playing games (seven hours per week). The video industry has also evolved remarkably since 2003, when Netflix began mailing DVDs.

Today, the streaming wars are raging as OTT propels a new golden age of television that depends on the availability of vast libraries of on-demand video that would have been unimaginable in 2003. Virtually instant access to pre-encoded video content is made possible by highly efficient CDNs, which intelligently propagate pre-encoded content to a vast network of edge servers positioned close to content consumers.

Emerging Game Engine Technologies Could Enable New Types of Convergent Media Streams

While today’s distributed CDNs can stream pre-encoded video on demand at a very low cost per user, cloud gaming systems such as Stadia require much more centralized and expensive game server hardware. The per-user capital and operating costs of these specialized servers is much higher than the per-user costs of streaming pre-encoded video using CDN servers such as Netflix.

Ten years ago, OnLive proved that while video-based cloud gaming is possible, it's not necessarily practical, largely because it cannot exploit the low-cost CDN infrastructure in the same way that pre-encoded video-on-demand streams can. The same inescapable compression, latency and scalability issues that beset OnLive also seem to be intrinsic to Stadia’s service.

For games and other interactive content to be delivered instantly, and at the highest quality and lowest cost, new methods of efficiently streaming game engine content to game consoles, gaming PCs and gaming mobile devices will be needed. Game engine content streams could potentially eliminate slow game downloads while providing native 4K gaming and VR experiences at full, uncompressed resolution and with no added latency.

Such low-cost, scalable streams could also enable new types of instant interactive programs for cable and OTT audiences. Using this type of content stream, applications such as “Netflix Interactive” or “Disney+ Interactive” (e.g., running on a game console) could potentially allow instant access to interactive versions of animated shows such as Altered Carbon: Resleeved or Star Wars: Resistance. Such programs could allow the viewer to optionally customize characters, discover alternative story arcs, or take up a challenge or quest. This would allow viewers to become immersed and engaged in ways that are not possible with traditional linear or simple branching video such as Bandersnatch.

This type programming would appeal to gamers, who already understand the entertainment impact of interactivity. It could also attract nongamers to engaging new aspects of the story, setting and action that could instantly become accessible within their favorite animated program or digital effects sequence.

By appealing to both “lean back” and “lean forward” audiences, this type of convergent media content will enable new directions in transmedia entertainment.

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