Looking Back at the 2019 Immersive Design Summit

Now that we’ve cleared out the Tension issue, it’s worth taking a look at the Immersive Design Summit as a whole. I haven’t really attended an event of this nature in years; the closest I’ve come was a panel at Montreal’s C3 in 2017. (Though I have done a few of my own talks and workshops in that time — certainly not as many as in 2014 or so, at the height of the transmedia scene.)

The TL;DR is that I’m a bit sad that the immersive design community is falling into a lot of the same hyperbole as the old transmedia and ARG scenes did, but on balance I came away energized and ready to do some of the kinds of indie work I’ve put aside in favor of writing flat prose over the last few years.

There were some moments that really troubled me — starting with the opening session where a white woman encouraged the entire conference to engage in “spiritual trespassing,” otherwise known as religious appropriation, complete with an exercise in connecting with one’s “power animal.” Using this as a conference ice-breaker was extremely disrespectful both to people with a sincere shamanic practice and to attendees with another existing religious faith. This made me significantly more guarded about the following sessions and speakers.

What followed was a lot of the kinds of salesmanship that burned me out back in the day. Sales pitches, basically. I agree that immersive and interactive experiences are great and powerful! (The new buzzword appears to be “transformative,” make a note of it.) But the need to puff up the significance of an arts scene to attract partners, investors, press; that encourages a style of hyperbolic prediction that is both laughably overblown and transparently false.

No, not all people crave immersive experiences, and even the ones who do don’t want them all of the time. No, not all retail outlets are going to be transformed into immersive wonderlands, nor should they. And — this one is tricky — even among the subset of people who are interested in an immersive experience some of the time, not all of them are going to be attracted to the same aesthetics and emotional dynamics. You can’t be all things to all people, and in fact it’s not hard to make something that isn’t for anybody but you, it turns out. As always, the devil’s in the details.

There were also some tremendous highlights of IDS, though alas large swaths of it are sealed under FrieNDA. The second day in particular brought a hard focus on how we can use our creative works to create cultural change, which is long a subject near and dear to me. Long-time readers will be familiar with my stance that everything you do is a part of shaping culture, whether you mean for it to or not. There is no such thing as “just entertainment.” It’s really heartening to see the immersive community is already so focused on the possibilities for improving the world.

I won’t go over the whole thing session-by-session; I plan to link specific videos of the sessions I loved most with a few comments when they’re up (uh, if I remember.) But in particular, Sean Stewart’s talk single-handedly reminded me of what I fell in love with almost twenty years ago, in that fateful moment that changed the arc of my life and is why I’m writing this and you’re reading it. Cynicism fell away from me in that hour and left me new again.

The work we do can matter to someone, somewhere. And that’s enough.

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So Long, 2016

It's that time of year, friends. As this neverending year winds down and the nights become long and cold, I like to turn inward to take stock of where I've been and where I'm going.

This is not an awards eligibility post; more a summary of all the things I've done this year, so I can remind myself that it was more than Witcher 3 and K-drama. Technically this is my second year of eligibility for the Campbell Award. But I firmly believe that ship has sailed for me, and I urge you to look elsewhere. I'll have more to say on that when awards season begins in earnest.

New Stuff

So here's what I did in the Year of the Trashfire, 2016. First: releases! I didn't write all of this this year, but this is the year in which these things were launched into the world.


These are all novelette-length, but they're each episodes of longer serials published by Serial Box, which I co-author with two incredible teams of other writers.

Bookburners Season 2 


Shock and Awe

ReMade Season 1



Memories of Arcadia

Season passes and individual Serial Box episodes are also available in audio and ebook format on their website and in the iOS app.


This Lucy Smokeheart tie-in is a choose-your-own-adventure style romp published and distributed by Choice of Games.

The Daring Mermaid Expedition (Google Play, iOS, Kindle, Steam)

Middle Grades

The long-awaited interactive book for ages 8-12 where the reader is a part of the story, saving a magical circus from doom.

Circus of Mirrors


This year saw the start of my Metagames column at Strange Horizons, and stellar human Chuck Wendig kindly gave me his keys to talk about some things, too.


Fitness Games

Video Games are the Best Art

Playing at Good and Evil

Discord in the Symphony

Pokémon Go and Staying Power

Conflict and Consensus

Terrible Minds

Throw Everything at the Wall

The High Goddamn Responsibility of Fiction

Podcasts and Speaking


The Cultures (co-hosted 52 weekly episodes, on LibSyn and iTunes)

Guest Appearances

StoryForward Podcast: Ethics and Immersion

StoryForward Panel: Storytelling for Social Good (video)

PurseStrings Radio

I was also on programming at Confusion, Readercon, and Worldcon in Kansas City. I met Tim Powers, co-paneled with David Brin, and established myself as a person with many, many, MANY opinions about self-driving cars.


I'm very proud of the work I did for a little activation for Handmaid's Tale at NYCC, and another thing that is... still pending.

Personal Stuff

This year has been a trashfire for national political reasons, and I lost easily weeks of my life to paralysis as I watched it burn. But my personal life has also been, ah, somewhat complex.

The year began and is now ending with drawn-out child health concerns—the kind that end up requiring multiple rounds of scans and IVs and ER visits. It turns out that dealing with a potentially serious health issue your child is having is even more stressful than having such a problem yourself. Who knew?

I had a young adult novel go on sub, and when it didn't get picked up, we decided to sit on the manuscript for now. Sad, but them's the breaks. It's a persistence game. Worse, though: the long-term project I'd been working on ran out of funding and shut down without shipping anything, which has been disappointing on many levels. In the aftermath, I went after a job I was really excited about and landed it but ultimately declined, with regrets, because it wouldn't have paid enough to live on.

It wasn't all bad. My older child entered high school. We went on a cruise to the Bahamas and it was utterly glorious! We did some massive improvements to our house, refinanced our mortgage, and wound up much better off for it. I spent some time with some amazing people in person and in private chat.

I also wrote some short fiction. And I wrote a little bit of two different novels, but didn't finish any. I've been feeling really terrible that I didn't manage to write a novel of my own this year. That's my baseline goal in every year: write a book. But looking over this post in draft, everything I've done and everything that's happened to me, I'm starting to remember why that didn't happen. It really hasn't been all Witcher 3 and K-drama, has it?

What's in 2017?

I like to end these things on a positive note. And positive always means: the future! So what do I have cooking for 2017? First off, there are new seasons of Bookburners and ReMade to look forward to. I'm also writing a little more short fiction and I'm confident some of it will be published next year, even if it means sending it up my own self. 

I've done a little games writing that you'll get to see in 2017, too. I have a nonfiction proposal out; I'm thinking about Kickstarting a new season of Lucy Smokeheart. Oh, and maybe I'll write a novel for real this time. Or the other novel. Or both novels!

And I'm volunteering for the NYCLU. Because, while this isn't a political post, politics have indelibly shaped this year. And if I want future years to look even better, I'm going to have to work for it. Same as it ever was, right?

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2015: So That Happened

Right. 2015! Dang. Just DANG, you guys.

While writing this post, I couldn't get over how much I've fit into twelve measly months. Things that happened in September already feel like they were a year ago, and last January might as well have happened in 2010. Or maybe 1999.

This has been an eventful year, to say the least. A year of spinning plates (and breaking some.) A year of oh-god-make-it-stop, please let me have two boring weeks in a row. Isn't that a thing? Don't people soemtimes have whole weeks where nothing very surprising happens? Months, even? I could swear I remember a time when life was like that.

Basically 2014 was a corker, and then 2015 decided that had looked like fun, so it kept up the pace. 

Work's Been Great

Let's start with the easy stuff: I'm not sure I've ever had a better year, professionally. Not even in the award-winning years. 

The big, big thing: I made my novel debut with Revision, which has been received better than I could possible have imagined. I got a few short stories and such published. And Lothian Airsoft, my ongoing client project, continues to sail along.

I also finished Lucy Smokeheart's Daring Adventures, at long last. And I polished off The Daring Mermaid Expedition, too -- a Lucy-world game/interactive novel that will be out in a matter of weeks. (OMG!)

I got a new agent! I sold A Creator's Guide to Taiwan! I went to World Fantasy Con and Phoenix Comicon! I taught a transmedia workshop in Austria, and briefly visited Vienna and Russia!

And perhaps best of all, I wrote a whole new book -- The Luck Eaters, née Felicity, which will be going on the market in a few weeks. And I also wrote a couple of novellas, which you'll be hearing more about before too much longer.

I knew it was going to be a red-letter year, but I didn't realize just how bright a red.

Personal Stuff Is More Complicated

But as lovely as the year has been professionally, my personal life has been characterized by... disruption, to put it kindly.

I came into January recovering from pneumonia, a process which was slow and not fully complete until this summer when I got some amaaaaaayyyyyzing new asthma drugs. (So amazing, in fact, that I now have an amount of energy I last saw in my late twenties.)

Then we figured out I have a kidney stone which is just going to sit there aching me for... probably ever. So I have that going for me.

We've pretty well concluded that my younger kid does not, in fact, have glaucoma, but my older kid has suffered bouts of mysterious and undiagnosed abdominal pain since April, which has been stressful for all of us. I'm spending easily a dozen hours a week dealing with phone calls and appointments for my sick child lately, because American healthcare freaking sucks.

We bat mitzvahed our daughter the same month Revision came out, which was wonderful and touching and we are simultaneously bursting with pride and so, so glad it's done. 

We got a new washer and dryer! Which was great except for the part where our new washing machine then broke for two full months before we could get it replaced, much less repaired. Along the way it leaked and damaged my laundry room walls and floors, and repairs are a work in progress. *looks at calendar* No seriously, the contractor says he might come by tomorrow. Or the next day.

But I didn't have skin cancer, not even one time! So that's nice?

Onward to 2016

The thing I've learned from 2015 is that too much going on in your life is hard, even if it's all great stuff. So my hope is for 2016 to be much more boring.

I need to finish up edits on The Luck Eaters in the next few weeks. And then The Daring Mermaid Expedition will be out -- and Circus of Mirrors, too. We'll be talking about those novellas! Maybe even Lothian Airsoft! I'm going to go on a cruise, which I've never done before! And maybe snorkeling, which I've also never done before! I might even sell The Luck Eaters to a publisher, and I hope to write at least one more book in 2016 -- and two is better. 

So 2016 looks pretty packed out of the gate, and my chances of a boring year aren't that great. But maybe I can get a boring month? Let's call if for March, OK? March, you're on notice. You'd better not let anything happen at all. Because jeez do I really, really need a break.

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So How Was 2013?

It's the time of year when the idle mind drifts toward the past year's accomplishments and failures. This has been a strange year for me; I feel like I've taken enormous leaps forward in some respects, and lost ground in others. I guess that's fair, since 2011 and 2012 were both pretty big for me. They can't all be big.

So call this a fallow year, perhaps, getting the spirit ready for new growth in the new year. One can hope.

I Did Some Projects

It's no secret that the curious intersection of games, story, community management, and marketing in which I do most of my client work has had a shaky year or so. That's been visible in my pipeline of paying client work; the flow of work dried up unexpectedly at about this time a year ago and never fully recovered. It's been a pleasant break from always doing four projects at once, to be sure, but a little rush of when-it-rains-it-pours would be welcome for my bank account right... about... now.

That said, I'm pleased with the client projects I did in 2013. For one, I made forays into the fashion industry this year -- I helped out the Diesel Reboot project which was nominated for a Mashable Award. And I got to do a little workshopping at Glamour, which was lovely.

My biggest project for the year, though, was probably The Walk -- a co-creation of Six to Start and Naomi Alderman, for which I had the joy of doing storylining, character creation, early drafts and additional writing. The game will launch in just a few days, and I'll have a little more to say about it once that's happened.

A project from 2012 finally launched, too: the GE Wonderground project went up in the spring. (...But seems to be gone already. Ephemerality, eh.)

Which moves on to my next point: this was another big year for evaporating projects and unsuccessful pitches. Early on, a simply marvelous project in the beauty industry that had seemed like a sure thing -- even to the point of sending across a deal memo for me to sign -- fell through at the eleventh hour. And a pitch for an extension of a TV show I desperately wanted to work on wasn't greenlit, either. I have regrets; both of these projects would have been stellar if they'd been built out. Alas.

Well, there's always something else, right?

Indie Work Ahoy!

I've been saying for years I want to focus harder on making and shipping my own work. That's the silver lining in that slow pipeline -- this year I finally started to follow through. To that end, Lucy Smokeheart is my flagship accomplishment for 2013. Not in terms of money, really (though $7700 in Kickstarted funds is nothing to sneeze at, as far as publishing goes!) But I feel those creaky wheels start to turn. You cannot build an audience without shipping work.

Lucy has been tremendous fun to write. It's also been a difficult project for me, as far as setting my own expectations at a reasonable bar. I'm used to working on a scale of audience a couple of magnitudes bigger, so while Lucy's been a success by the benchmarks I set myself up front (earning about as much as a genre novel advance in Kickstarted funds) I haven't really seen the steadily growing flow of additional sales I'd hoped for.

The readership also hasn't formed much in the way of a cohesive community, and by and large hasn't been especially excited and talkative about the project (at least not anywhere I've seen). This leads me to the conclusion that it is simply not as awesome as it needs to be. I am of course committed to finishing the Lucy project no matter what, but I'm newly riddled with insecurity regarding whether I got what it takes, etc., etc. 

In other independent work: you may or may not remember my talking about Felicity throughout last year. At the beginning of the year, my agent was shopping around Felicity, and apparently got some interest -- but editors wanted to see a complete manuscript before biting. To that end, I've started writing from the outline. This is going much more slowly than I'd prefer, but publishing is a slow game and requires nerves of steel.

Appearances and Speaking

I made a conscious choice to do much less punditing this year. In total I only appeared at five or six events, and only attended a couple more on top of that. I feel like speaking about transmedia and marketing has been actively taking away time and energy from doing the work I want to be doing, and from spending time with my family. I don't want to become the person who talks about stuff but never does it anymore.

Some of the engagements I was getting were increasingly making me uncomfortable, too. The applications of transmedia in a B2B situation? Not what I'm here for, not what I'm good at, and trying to squeeze into something like that was starting to make me feel dishonest.

...That said, it's plausible that my pipeline was thinner this year because I did less speaking, so I may have to reconsider that for 2014. 


I started a podcast called The Cultures this year with dear friends and colleagues Naomi Alderman and Adrian Hon, so that was nice! It's been a lot of fun to carve out a space each week for thoughtful conversation about religion, science, art, how to live a good life, and so on. I'm delighted to do it, delighted we have some listeners, and in general it's been a lovely experience all around.

I'm doing a little goofy eBay art project called Letting Myself Go, just... because.

I redesigned my website. Isn't it pretty?

Oh yeah, and I had cancer this year? So that happened. I have some thoughts regarding that, but... I think I'm going to put that into another post.

For 2014

So what do I want out of 2014? What are my plans, what are my wishes?

On the practical front, I have a client project in the works right now, but the time commitment and time frame are still a little up in the air. So I might need to hustle. Now my kids are both in grade school, I'm contemplating whether the timing is right for me to finally get a real actual job; a little predictability would be pleasant, and I'm absolutely dying for a project where my involvement is measured in months, not weeks. I'm not convinced, but at the very least I'm much more open to that conversation than I have been in years. Either way -- if you'd like to work with me, as always, drop me a line

For Lucy: I keep on keeping on; I'm even working on a secret proposal for a thing related to Lucy which will hopefully come to fruition at about the same time Lucy concludes, in May or June. (Though we'll see; writing time and scheduling being what they are, it may hit end-of-year instead.) I'll let you know more once I'm a little more confident it's going to pan out.

That vanishing beauty industry project also left me with a story concept I love to pieces, and I may try to get an animated transmedia series produced. A huge undertaking, but I do really, really love the story, so... I just need to get the ball rolling, for right now.

Finally: I parted ways with my agent a few months back, so now I'm officially looking for representation for SF/F genre work. In particular, I have that novel about The Wiki Where Your Edits Come True I'd like to sell. If you are an agent or you're on good terms with an agent and you'd like to introduce me, by all means, reach out. On the other hand, if I've done an honest job of shopping and haven't found an agent by, say, June, then I'm going to find another way to get it out there.

Annnnd I guess that's about a wrap on 2013. A year marked by uncertainty. Here's to being sure of ourselves in 2014, eh?

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Glitch, Fourth Wall, and Perplex City

Two companies doing work I admire have announced in the last few weeks that they're closing their doors on projects I love: Fourth Wall Studios, creator of Emmy-winning Dirty Work; and Tiny Speck, creator of quirky Flash MMO Glitch.

In neither case is the company itself shutting down. They're both conducting a pivot, as the Silicon Valley lingo goes. Fourth Wall will focus on developing its technology platform and get out of the business of original content. Tiny Speck will pursue chat technologies it developed... not games.

Neither company is continuing the work the founders meant to do when the company was formed. In both cases, nearly all of the staff have been let go.

I know what these teams are going through. I know exactly what this is like, in fact. Five years ago, my employer Mind Candy did its own pivot, switching from making the edgy, pervasive treasure hunt Perplex City to a children's puzzle game. Mind Candy was the rare pivot that was a runaway success: the project they pivoted toward was called Moshi Monsters, and the company is worth hundreds of millions of dollars now. But that wasn't my doing, and I don't have advice or insight for the people who are staying behind.

I have quite a few things to say, though, to the staff at these companies, about how to get through these coming weeks and months. And for other bystanders like myself, I have a few thoughts about this sad story and why it keeps happening. Because in every case, it's the same story.

Once Upon A Time...

...there lived a team with an amazing idea. They formed a company, then lobbied and received venture capital. O joyous day! Then they went out to build their dream with it: A risky but innovative and beautiful new kind of entertainment. The work attracted a loyal and ardent audience. The project was highly regarded by critics. It was clear the company had made something very special.

But it was also a little inaccessible to newcomers, and that loyal, ardent audience wasn't really big enough to justify all the money from that investment. A wider, more mainstream audience, though long hoped for, never arrived.

After two or three years, the company just couldn't afford to keep things going any longer. And everyone was sad that this beautiful, creative thing would pass from the world.

The end.

It's heartbreaking, that's the only word for it. It's heartbreaking as a fan -- I attended Glitch's final shutdown party late last night, and more or less cried myself to sleep after. But as sad as it is for the audience, trust me, it's orders of magnitude sadder for the creators who spent years, literally years of their lives pouring their deepest selves into building a magical thing, only to have it taken away in the end. Not to mention the, you know, sudden need to find a new job. 

But wallowing in misery, while it offers its own comforts, doesn't ultimately help anything. So let's move on.

Without a Net

For the former staff of Tiny Speck and Fourth Wall: It's going to be OK, I promise. If you start to freak out about it, you don't have to take my word for it; go look for yourself.

The nice thing about working on a critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful project is that you still have all that glory to bank on. And if you weren't, say, the CFO, nobody will hold lack of revenue against you. In fact, you may find your late and lamented job unexpectedly opening doors for you two, three, five years in the future. 

In the meanwhile: Give yourself room to grieve. You haven't lost a person, but you've lost a dream, and that can hurt just as much. The first few weeks are the hardest. Be kind to yourself, whatever that means to you: spend more time around people you love and less around people you don't. Eat nice things. Take bubble baths. Hit the whiskey, but not too hard.

If you're like me, it'll be a year or so before you start to remember the joyful parts more. But it will happen.

Don't despair that your best work is behind you, because that's only true if you stop working now. Know that you made one amazing thing, and that means there are inevitably more amazing things in you. Keep going. Fourth Wall: Spread into the studios and networks, and change the face of Hollywood. I know you can. Tiny Speck: Go Glitchify all of the games. They need a good dose of emergent, collaborative whimsy. In being struck down, you have become more powerful than anyone could possibly imagine.

And let me know if you need a shoulder to cry on. I don't even care if we've never met before. It may be hard to find people who understand exactly what you're going through right now. I'm here for you.

But Why?

And now on to the lessons-learned part of the post.

Once or twice might be a coincidence, but the same story three times is a pattern. And I bet if you looked hard, you could find many, many more examples of this same story playing out. So... why? Why do smart people and good intentions and an amazing product keep flaming out this way?

Putting on my pundit hat, I'd say the answer is this: venture capital is toxic to a creative enterprise. 

The reason that people go for venture funding in the first place is to get the money to build a bigger team and a bigger project than they could otherwise afford. Some dreams -- RIDES, for example -- would be harder and slower to build without a big injection of funding. But I'm here to argue that's not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes a leaner company built on sweat and shoestrings is the better bet for the long haul. I think this is doubly true when the company in question has a creative output.

Investors bring problems. One is the need to answer to a higher authority. A funder will always bring new interests and expectations to the table. But few venture capitalists are going to have the savvy regarding storytelling or experience design, and may not recognize the difference between their own taste and objective truth. (Not to say that's what went down in any of these three cases -- but it's a significant risk to the company's output.)

When the party's over, a venture capitalist is looking to make money. Usually on a particular timeframe; usually in a particular quantity. A VC wants to get in and cash out, and no critical acclaim or special community or innovative experience is going to change that. So accepting venture capital puts a ticking clock on your success.

A massive injection of capital can also provide creators with a false feeling that an immediate revenue stream isn't necessary. Consider the case of Glitch: The only way to give the company money was a subscription, which only came with questionable benefits -- extra teleportation privileges, and credits to spend on in-game clothes and house customizations. Now that there are art books and music for sale, many wallets have been opened anew. Fourth Wall Entertainment never had a visible revenue stream at all! Perplex City had its puzzle cards, the board game, and so on... but abysmal distribution outside of the UK. For people in most of the world, you'd have had to spend as much on shipping as on merchandise, which wasn't exactly an easy sell.

And even Perplex City didn't do a lot of the things I consider no-brainers now for scraping up revenue from a creative venture. If you're making media, you should also make sure you're selling t-shirts, art prints or posters, plushies, hard-bound books, jewelry, music downloads. Embrace the philosophy of the thousand true fans, and continually produce a fresh stream of new reasons for them to give you money.

Look at Penny Arcade or MS Paint Adventures, who have taken this kind of organic growth and ruthless monetization and turned themselves into bona fide cultural phenomena. Don't leave money on the table. Just don't. And consider only building as much as you can stand to build out of your own pocket to begin with. Bootstraps and duct tape. If you only commit your own resources to the project, then the only one who can decide when the show is over is you.

Not All Investment Is Bad 

Even if you don't think you can make the project of your dreams without investment, venture funding isn't the only game in town. Consider the case of Zombies, Run!: A successful crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter, which led to a great product that people will pay money for. That money led to expansion of the company and the Zombies, Run! product line, even more expansion of the fan base, and to all appearances, a stable revenue stream. It's the picture of successful organic growth.

Crowdfunding may not be for everyone, you say. It's hard and scary, and the outcome is uncertain. But consider this: If you can't conduct a successful crowdfunding campaign, there is a strong possibility that you're making something nobody wants. Or something that you can't explain well enough for people to understand why they want it. Or that you can't market well enough for people to hear about it even if they did want it.

And in all three cases, it's better to find out before you've spent months or years of your life building something -- because if any of those things is true, you won't be any more successful with the product launch than with the Kickstarter. 

There are a thousand reasons that companies fail. Bad marketing or bad management, bad luck and bad timing. Sometimes it's down to interpersonal conflict, legal drama, sometimes the core vision simply wasn't very good.

But for companies to fail, even after building a thriving community, or winning awards, or getting industry kudos for innovation... a tragedy, yes. But with slower growth and more modest expectations, arguably a preventable one. It's OK to make something that isn't the next Star Wars or World of Warcraft -- and that shouldn't be anyone's benchmark to begin with. Success can come in all sizes... not just the big fish venture capitalists are hungry for. 

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