Don't get seduced by adaptations

Bureaucracies have an inherent dislike of risk. It goes against their very purpose. The reason why you organise around a task is to be able to solve that task reliably, repeatedly, and economically.

A key part of accomplishing that is not taking risks.

Organisations, bureaucracies especially, exist to minimise risk. Every organisation that’s still functioning is built with an awareness of the need for risk, because stagnation is itself inherently risky. But when the risks start compounding, organisational norms and values kick in and somebody, somewhere hits the brakes.

“Can’t you just make an adaptation?”

Interactive media is inherently risky for a lot of organisations. Digital production doesn’t fit neatly into their pre-existing production processes. Digital products don’t slot nicely into their business models. The form and structure of your average interactive media project is unfamiliar. The tools are new. The long- and short-term costs are uncertain.

In the face of all of these non-negotiable risks, the natural response of many is to grasp at the one risk that they think they can manage.

(That is, provided they just don’t say no to the entire thing in the first place, which is the likeliest response, all things considered. But let’s assume, for the moment, that you’ve passed that hurdle.)

“It just seems more sensible to work with an existing property, if we can.”

There’s nothing wrong with adaptations and licensed properties. Adaptations have a long history across the various media. Movies, novels, games, TV—adaptation is a well-proven tactic that often inspires enormous creativity. (If you let it, that is.)

The problem isn’t with the concept of adapting and reworking stories into new form.

The problem is with the idea that they are less risky. They aren’t.

They are more risky.

Unless you pay through the nose for a top-tier property, pre-existing properties don’t give you much of an advantage in terms of sales or marketing. If the property is well-known then there’s the risk of over-exposure and a sheer lack of originality. If the property isn’t well known then you may as well be working on something original as far as the audience is concerned.

But the biggest risk of adaptation for interactive media is structural. Adaptation risks locking you into plots, structures and ideas that are simply not conducive to interactive media storytelling. You can work around it but in doing so you risk losing the core advantage of adaptation: a story that an audience recognises and craves while being presented in a way that appeals to those who are fans of the original.

That audience can easily turn on you if they don’t think you’ve done a good enough job on the adaptation. The backlash that an angry fanbase is capable of is ferocious.

Unlike adaptation, original work can build its audience on its own merit. It will be judged on its own quality and originality.

Original work is often easier to work with in interactive media, minimising process risk, because there is less of a mismatch between the structure that the idea requires and what the medium lends itself to.

If it actually works, if the project does take off (unlikely, but possible) then you own all of the upside.

The failure is yours to own both with adaptations and original work, but only with original work is the success wholly yours.

Own your successes. Own your work. Avoid adaptations.

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