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June 14, 2024
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Why Bandai Namco is betting big on Unknown 9’s transmedia universe

Why Bandai Namco is betting big on Unknown 9’s transmedia universe

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Unknown 9 is not the first video games IP to launch with a transmedia strategy, nor will it be the last. But it is perhaps the most ambitious the industry has seen in some considerable time.

The series is the brainchild of Montreal-based developer Reflector Entertainment, which Bandai Namco acquired in October 2020. While Reflector had already released an Unknown 9 comic, a dramatised podcast, and a novel before it was purchased, the story will truly kick off with the launch of action-adventure game Unknown 9: Awakening, which launches on consoles and PC this summer.

Hervé Hoerdt

But the game is just one part of the story. Reflector Entertainment CEO and Bandai Namco Europe’s chief content officer Hervé Hoerdt says the transmedia releases are crucial pillars for this new IP – to the point where the studio even has small teams dedicated to different types of media.

“What we’re trying to achieve here, for the first time ever I think, is a full story world,” he tells GamesIndustry.biz. “It’s a universe and a meta narrative that spans over one century. The output is across nine different media, and it’s multi-layered. You can buy the book and enjoy it as a standalone, but you will discover there are some hidden things. There are some codes in various media, and then we’ll reveal on a website the links between those various media, and people will just go crazy seeing the overarching story.”

Unknown 9 centres around the titular group of immortals, two secret societies competing to gain their knowledge, and the Fold, a parallel dimension that grants certain individuals supernatural abilities in the physical world.

Across the game, novels, comic, and podcast, the story spans from the 19th Century up to the present day, with easter eggs, recurring characters, and hidden messages linking them together (which already have their own fan-made wiki).

Awakening, the first game, is set in 1908 and focuses on Haroona (played by Anya Chalotra, best known as Yennifer from Netflix’s The Witcher series), a woman with her own Fold-based powers who is seeking revenge for the death of her former mentor.

While each Unknown 9 release can serve as an entry point, Awakening is the central pillar. Reflector had originally planned to release more transmedia products in the run-up to launch, raising awareness for an independently developed IP, but Bandai Namco opted to pause everything until the game was ready.

In fact, Hoerdt tells us that not only has Awakening been delayed during that time, it has also been rebooted; while development began a long time ago, in his mind the work started again in 2020. The impact of COVID plus a “talent war in Montreal,” as he puts it, have contributed to the long wait for Unknown 9’s story to fully begin.

“It took us some time, but it’s only been three years since the acquisition,” he observes. “I’m not denying anything that happened before, but we put some processes in place, we put in some strategy, and I’m super happy and proud of what we’ve done. More importantly, I’m even prouder of what we have today because today we have a fantastic studio.”

Storytelling across different media is not unheard of in video games; Assassin’s Creed, for example, continued the meta narrative from Black Flag, Unity, and Syndicate in its comics. But Hoerdt argues that when an IP is already established in one medium, such as games, additional stories are “closer to licensing” than what he considers to be true transmedia. And this method, he adds, is far more challenging.

“The amount of content we’ll give away is mind-blowing. Elden Ring is hundreds of hours. Unknown 9 is 15 hours, but if you want to go through all the transmedia content, you’re getting close to 100 hours”

“It takes more time to start because you need to envisage the full story cycle, the full lore, all the content, and then you spend a lot of time making sure everything is consistent,” he says, noting that Reflector employs a full-time story architect to oversee consistency. “Each and every piece of transmedia is exciting and can stand on its own while getting people who are discovering the other layers excited as they see the full aspect [of the story].

“You also need to invest in teams, talent, and with scope on the outside because there’s a lot of knowledge you can’t have internally. And you need to invest in marketing, on top of the game and everything. So the challenge is creative, but it’s exciting and it’s bringing a more in-depth gaming experience. Because you’re not just doing a game. You’re exploring the lore inside out and what you put in the game is part of it… I find it more rich, to be honest, doing it this way. It’s a challenge, but not in the sense that it’s difficult.”

There is always a risk to transmedia endeavours: the cost of entry. While fans may want to know every aspect of the overarching story, they may not have the disposable income to buy a video game, three books, multiple graphic novels, and so on. Nonetheless, Hoerdt remains confident that the entry fee will remain low; Awakening is “not going to be a €80 game” and most of the transmedia content is free.

“People will find their way through the universe via the game, and the book is [the only other thing] you need to pay for. So they can get into the lore, the narrative, the plot, and the podcast depending on their appetite and so on.”

He adds: “The amount of content we’re going to give away is just mind-blowing. Elden Ring is hundreds of hours. Unknown 9 is like 15 hours, which is nice, but if you want to go through all the transmedia content, you’re probably getting close to those 80 to 100 hours.”

Unknown 9’s overarching story will be told across comics, novels and podcasts, but the games will be the central pillar and the main entry point

Hoerdt points to the fact Bandai Namco acquired Reflector as an indication of how invested the publisher is in delivering the full Unknown 9 story, including all the transmedia elements: “Buying a company is not just a one-off, it’s not just about their first game. It’s about our plan for the next ten years with five games.”

He adds that the games will not only serve as the central pillar of the story, but also help to fund the transmedia efforts: “[We’re] expecting the game to be the money maker and cover part of those other costs. But it’s not an objective in itself.

“Our goal is to engage with 3.5 million players – we’re not talking payers, we’re talking players, the people who we want to engage in this universe and this IP, and then hopefully this will be successful enough for us to have a second story cycle and a third. That’s the long-term vision.”

“Buying a company is not just a one-off, it’s not just about their first game. It’s about our plan for the next ten years with five games”

With five games planned over ten years, it’s safe to assume Reflector has the next decade mapped out for Unknown 9. Hoerdt tells us that each game will have a development cycle of approximately four years, which also allows for some flexibility based on the response to Awakening and the transmedia elements. And there are questions the team will be continually asking as they consider how to move forward.

“Is [a story] going to bring in more people? Will there be conversion towards the game? Are those people more engaged? Are they becoming ambassadors? What we’ll do is six weeks after release, we’ll have focus groups and so on, and we’ll get that feedback on what they want to see.

“We’re not talking about the second iteration, but we already have pillars and a story. We’ll be progressing slowly depending on the feedback from consumers – that’s super important.”

For all the grand ambitions of five games in ten years, combined with transmedia products telling an overarching story that spans a century, Hoerdt emphasises that Unknown 9: Awakening is Reflector’s debut game and the company is determined to “underpromise and overdeliver.”

Finally, it’s worth taking a step back and looking at how Unknown 9 fits into Bandai Namco’s wider strategy. While the publisher has established itself in the fighting genre with properties like Tekken, action RPG with Elden Ring, Japanese RPG with the Tales Of series, and horror with The Dark Pictures Anthology, Hoerdt believes Unknown 9 is the release that will finally help the company stand out in the highly competitive and ever nebulous ‘action adventure’ space.

“We analyse all the market segments and work out where we do and don’t want to compete, and the biggest segment where we want to compete is action-adventure,” he explains. “There are others we don’t want to compete in – we don’t want to do first-person shooters or sports, for instance, because of the barriers to entry.

“Unknown 9 and the purchase of Reflector is to address this biggest market segment. We know it will take time, and we know it’s a very divided segment – either you have a big game that is a hardware seller or in an established franchise, or you have games that are perhaps niche, and you do first try and you adjust, you listen to player feedback, and then you make your second one better, and so on.

“Having an action adventure [game] is not only tackling the biggest market segment with the best potential sales, it’s also a very cool tool to transmit our brand image and awareness. And this is what we’re also doing when we think about transmedia and mobile.”

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