It may not have been immediately apparent to those watching its debut trailer at Gamescom Opening Night Live earlier this year that Unknown 9: Awakening was part of an established multimedia franchise.
That's because Reflector Entertainment's Unknown 9 universe is relatively new, with a book series, a podcast series, a comic book series, and an online collaborative puzzle all having launched this year. According to Reflector founder Alex Amancio, this strategy was his answer to a changing media landscape, where entertainment is more accessible than ever.
"The idea was: how would you go about building an entertainment company if you would forget all of the legacy of the past century, where essentially, to get to an audience, you needed to go through media silos?" Amancio says, speaking to GamesIndustry.biz. "The only way you could reach an audience was through distribution. And to get distributed, you needed to pick which channel you wanted to go with, either film, television, or magazines, etc.
"We have access to an ocean of content. And yet companies are still structured through the lens of the medium, which is the old way"
"But today, the content world has changed a lot. In our hands we have this portal via cell phones or laptops or tablets -- we have access to an ocean of content. And yet companies are still being structured through the lens of the medium, which was the old way of doing it. So what would a company look like if we worked to create it today in this ecosystem?
"In my mind, we live in a world where people want to delve into universes. They want to find a world that they like inhabiting -- Star Wars or Harry Potter or Marvel -- and through that world, they want to connect with characters. So for me, that was the real value. This is what the audience today is looking for. I felt that if a company were to be created today and focused on the universe, rather than the specific medium, that it would be better adapted to today's content ecosystem and what the audience really wants."
Amancio started Reflector Entertainment just over four years ago following work at Ubisoft as creative director on Assassin's Creed: Unity and Revelations, and art director on Far Cry 2. He's since assembled a team of around 120 people for the Unknown 9 universe -- 105 of whom are working on Awakening -- with experience on franchises including Assassin's Creed, Far Cry, Batman, and Tomb Raider.
The company was acquired by Bandai Namco earlier this year. Amancio says that the Japanese publisher was interested in Reflector as a part of a refreshed global content strategy to invest in more Western studios, and specifically those creating new worlds and IPs grounded in the Western market.
A more traditional trajectory would have been for Unknown 9 to start in one form of media, then if it found success, spin off into others. But Amancio says that such an approach might have diluted the efficacy of both Unknown 9 as a meta-story, as well as the individual stories within.
"When a gaming company goes to make a film or a podcast, typically they license it off," he says. "And it creates decoupling. The company is usually focused primarily on its tent-pole product, and then everything else becomes a way to expand the fan base.
"Whereas the way that we're doing this, from the get-go we're thinking of the fabric of the universe as being this living tissue of different characters, timelines, history, and rules that are all canon. We plan each of the different storylines that we're going to explore throughout all of these different media. And because we do it that way, the stories that we tell in a podcast [are written so they are] maximizing what podcasts do well; the stories that we're telling in the video game are maximizing what that medium does best."
"When a gaming company goes to make a film or a podcast, what they do is typically they license it off. And it creates decoupling"
Though Unknown 9 plans to branch out over multiple media formats, Amancio wants all the stories to be self-contained, so that fans don't feel pressured to jump from, say, the game to the podcast if they don't really care for podcasts. There will still be a progression of story "cycles" with a new meta-story at the heart of each, but Amancio also wants to avoid making fans feel they've missed the boat if they jump in after a lot of content has already been established.
"In Harry Potter, people started reading the books, so they knew that they would like the film. But I would argue that the most recent generation -- my daughter knows there are books, but books are certainly not the way that she entered that world. She entered it through films. She's come into it through a whole different channel.
"The only thing we care about is: are we making a good book? And if we're making a good book, and it's written well, it caters to a book audience. Then if somebody reads the book [and loves the world]... if 5% of those of those people go from one to another [installment in the franchise] and you multiply that, then for every product we're going to have something that is going to take off."
Though few details have been shared about Unknown 9: Awakening yet beyond its initial teaser, Amancio confirms the game is a third-person, narrative-driven action-adventure title. Like the rest of the Unknown 9 franchise, he says, it's very important that the game ultimately tells a good and meaningful story.
Amancio feels that the industry still has a lot to learn about how games can tell stories in a unique way, but he has a philosophy that he thinks Unknown 9: Awakening will begin to brush up on -- and that he hopes future games in the franchise will fully realize.
"I really do believe that we're still in the infancy of learning how to tell stories within this medium, because it's such a complex medium," he says. "And I think that there's really two different ways of approaching narrative in a game... One is truly systemic -- you build a world that is full of small systems that are very simple, but they stack together."
As an example, Amancio describes an experience he had in Far Cry 2: while hunting down an enemy; a Jeep suddenly drove in behind him, it hit a rock, flew into the air, fell, caught fire, and the fire then spread, ultimately killing the target he was following in the first place. He still loves telling this story, "because there's so much weirdness in it."
"The other kind of storytelling is the one that I think Assassin's Creed is closer to, where we're letting you loose in a city, but we're giving you specific missions and we're bookending them with cinematics that are moving the story forward," he adds. "And I think that when we're able to marry those two approaches, and make the transition between one and the other completely seamless, that will be close to the full potential of what we can reach with the video game medium."