The gamemaker tapped Starlight Runner to help it chart a transmedia course
If Ubisoft's latest campaign works out, Sam Fisher's mission will no longer be confined to game consoles.
But before the game maker could deploy the black-ops protagonist of its hit "Splinter Cell" videogames into other media platforms like novels, television and film, it needed the help of Starlight Runner Entertainment.
The New York-based Starlight Runner specializes in transmedia, a buzzy term for a multiplatform approach to storytelling. The idea is to have Fisher's exploits organically play out from Xboxes to graphic novels to possibly the big screen while minimizing any storytelling inconsistencies or lame tie-ins that could mar longtime fans' enjoyment.
The upside for Ubisoft, which released the latest "Splinter Cell" this week, is huge, but the dangers considerable. The list of video game properties that have been able to leverage their audiences into other platforms, particularly film, is a short one.
"It's a matter of finding these kernels with Ubisoft and placing them into a different perspective to remove barriers for a multi-platform while still maintaining quality control," Jeff Gomez, Starlight Runner's co-founder, told TheWrap.
"Patriot Games" novelist Tom Clancy developed the popular "Splinter Cell" franchise, which revolves around Fisher's adventures as he conducts covert operations across various global hotspots. The franchise has sold more than 26 million games worldwide.
Starlight Runner, which counts Sony, Coca-Cola and Hasbro among its clients, spent six months constructing an exhaustive 200-page bible outlining all aspects of the Fisher character and the universe created over a half-dozen games and assorted tie-in novels. The idea was to have a document that Ubisoft's various departments could consult to insure that any new toys or other products were in keeping with the spirit, tone and narrative of Fisher's previous adventures.
It's an approach that analysts and industry-watchers say is increasingly in vogue.
"You're going to see more and more of this idea of unifying a franchise mythology into one fully realized universe," Evan Skolnick, a former Marvel Comics editor and a video game writer and narrative designer, told TheWrap. "As more brands are expanding across different media, it can be jarring if the people who enjoy a particular franchise detect serious inconsistencies. When they do, it gives them the sense that there isn't a master plan and that no one is guiding the ship."
The consequences of getting something wrong can be dire. In 2012, for instance, fans of the video-game "Mass Effect" ripped into a book tie-in that suffered from timeline inconsistencies related to other books and games in the series.
Not only did they take to Twitter and social media to voice their displeasure, they published a comprehensive Google Doc outlining their concerns. In the end, the game maker and the publisher had no choice but to apologize and agree to fix the errors in future editions.
But Starlight Runner's approach goes beyond just plugging up any plot-holes. Gomez said that his conversations with the Ubisoft team also allowed the company to detect an overarching theme that could be a touchstone of the series.
It is a concept that is rooted in what President Franklin D. Roosevelt once dubbed the Four Freedoms. In this case it is called the Fifth Freedom, a guiding ethos that allows Fisher to do whatever it takes to preserve life, liberty and other democratic principles around the world.
"This is Sam Fisher's license to kill," Gomez said. It's an awful responsibility to place on a character. How far can you take that before he begins to erode, to lose his very soul? That becomes a fascinating struggle and one that can play out in games and books and movies."
Fisher's directive may be filled with dramatic possibilities, but other popular video game franchises have failed to make the leap into new mediums. "Resident Evil" has been successful, but other would-be franchises like "Super Mario Brothers" and "Prince of Persia" have been met with indifference or disdain when they tried to make the leap to the big screen.
Some analysts think "Splinter Cell" could avoid that trap.
"This has books and a storyline behind it," Michael Pachter, a video game and electronics analyst with Wedbush Securities said. "Most games make crummy movies, but this has real potential."
The key, Pachter said, is finding the right partners to guide a videogame company through the transition from Silicon Valley to Hollywood. That's where Starlight Runner comes in.