Case Study: Bolton Storyworld

Client: University of Bolton
Date: 2011 to 2016

Think of Bolton Storyworld as the “X-Files” set in Bolton UK, made by students, delivered onto multiple devices and media platforms.​

Bellyfeel worked with the University of Bolton for 5 years marshalling students, resources and cutting-edge technologies to create a ground-breaking interactive media experience that provided:

Practical learning

Work experience

Performance skills

University recruitment

Freshers week engagement

Global reach

Local business outreach

Thousands of people in Bolton and around the world interacted with the story and 120 students worked on the project.

Bolton Storyworld won the Learning On Screen premier award (best project of the year) in 2016 beating out BBC, Channel 4, Open University and various other UK Universities.

BACKGROUND

Previously, Krishna from Bellyfeel was a consultant to University of Bolton in 2009, helping create a degree course in media production with a focus on multiplatform and interactive delivery.

Following on, Bellyfeel were invited to preliminary discussions in the media department about a new project that would involve students in creating an online multiplatform soap opera – provisionally entitled “Here and Now”.

Requirements

The University wanted to create an engaging media experience that students would work on as well as consume, and in doing so they would learn how to write, produce and deliver onto multiple media platforms.

At these early meetings Bellyfeel presented various of their own interactive works in progress and examples of other ground-breaking media from around the world. This led discussions towards ideas with interactivity at their core, distinct social media features and elements of transmedia expansion.

Stage 1 – Here and Now in Bolton - 2011/12

Bellyfeel’s initial work on the project focused on taking the ideas of Anna Zaluczkowska, the department head at the University, and turning those ideas into actionable plans.

We brought in our ongoing market research into audience technology and comparable projects. Then we engaged hundreds of students at the University in a survey about their uses of technology and media interests.

It was significant at the time that social media use was still climbing and the rise of smartphones was changing user behaviour dramatically.

Our outputs at this stage were:

Audience research

Full interactive story treatment

System specification for web and mobile delivery

Detailed budgets

We were all set to go but as the start date drew closer it began looking like the project might not happen at all.

- UNSUCCESSFUL FUNDING -

The initial funding that was being requested by the media department was unsuccessful and it looked like the project would be delayed for at least a year whilst funding was reapplied for.

At Bellyfeel we are firm believers in creative action being far more effective than money in launching stories into the world.

We setup meetings with Anna and urged her to set the project in motion in a no-budget approach. The students could start writing the storyworld using Facebook and other social media channels to introduce characters and test story elements with the audience.

This approach had a fantastic impact. A writers room was setup and the story began in earnest on social media channels. Students immediately saw their audience respond to their characters and ideas.

" Working with Bellyfeel is always exciting and I don't think this project would have worked so well without their expertise. They are a perceptive, thinking, challenging and talented group of people, open to new ideas and who have their finger on the pulse of digital developments. "
Anna Zaluczkowska
Programme Leader Media, Writing and Production - University of Bolton

Early Visual Ideas

Stage 2 – Bolton Storyworld – You are the Story - 2012/13

The writers room worked on a wide cast of characters and a narrative spanning 10 scripted episodes with many different interactive offshoots and extra media.

The name “Here and Now” was brought into question and Anna hit the nail on the head by suggesting it be retitled to “Bolton Storyworld”.

Bellyfeel monitored progress of the students and fed back via tutors and occasional project meetings. The story on social media was engaging and unusual. Some students believed the characters in the story were actually real. It was an exciting creative period in the project development.

As momentum built up funding begin to appear to help manifest the story in a bigger way. But disaster struck.

- THE UNIVERSITY BANNED THE PROJECT -

Amidst some confusion between real life and fiction, someone in the University management team caught wind of this unfolding unique story and accused the media department of failing to do due diligence on ethics and privacy issues. Grave concerns were raised and the project was shutdown.

Thankfully, Anna and Bellyfeel had all bases covered on this front and we were able to help her by quickly supplying media proof and stats that presented not only that we had all ethics issues covered in triplicate, but also showed the real benefits of what was occurring in the story as the live elements unfolded.

There is an upside to every problem and in response to the ethics issue the University showed increased support – increasing funding AND championing the project on its own media channels.

Students who were involved with the project were buoyed and inspired by the ethics issue. They already had ownership of the story and project but now they felt the impact of having visibility on their work.

Things started to get really interesting…

" I love the idea. But can you make it work? "
Justin MacGregor
Tutor at University of Bolton

Pimp My Nose live event and Early BSW Music Video

Stage 3 – B to the O to the L… Geo-Bolton – 2013/14

Funding enabled large scale shoots in and around the University. Over 120 students were involved and the media produced was used as course work on their media degrees.

Bellyfeel maintained involvement as advisors, feeding back on the story and running new audience research. In addition, we began creating geo-locative media elements for delivering the story and working with the games department to use work from their students in the story.

- MEDIA CHAOS -

There was an incredible amount of media and interactive elements being created within the storyworld of the project. There was some excellent material but with no one responsible for the detail it was going to be problematic to put the story out in a cohesive way.

Anna commissioned Bellyfeel to be transmedia showrunners for the project. It became our responsibility to take the existing story and media and put it into a deliverable form that would be released over Freshers week 2014.

We went back to the drawing board and tweaked the story created by the students. We instigated new shoots involving the best students from the existing project team. New technology was created. We brought in Conductrr as a delivery technology.

In a surprising twist, we commissioned a Diorama (with a call to action to the story) that took pride of place in the refectory, showing the opening scene from the story which takes place in… you guessed it – the refectory…

" With the help of Bellyfeel we built a community around the media courses that took the form of a production company in which staff and students worked together with the aim of creating new forms of storytelling. "
Shaz Kerr
Tutor at University of Bolton

New Shoots and New Technology

Stage 4 – Freshers Week – 2014/15

The story was released in October 2014 using Conducttr to sequence serialised episodes and interactive transmedia content. Students connected via email and SMS to the main story, and social media was also used to engage the audience.

There were no significant problems at this stage apart from reservations about the project poster and a particular tagline – which we believed to be just right, but the University had issue with…

“Are you crazy enough to study media at Bolton University?”

But it was a constructive disagreement, and nobody fell out!

Following the Freshers week story, in the lead up to Christmas 2014 we continued the story with a live event.

Actors from the story took the story forwards into a fake money-making seminar for students featuring an exciting new twist in the plot and lots of audience interactions.

" I couldn’t asked for a better project to focus on in my final year. I loved writing to the storyworld and as the project developed I just kept getting more involved. I lived and breathed it. "
Lee Robinson
Student at University of Bolton

First Freshers Version

Stage 5 – They laughed when I said there were Aliens at the University – 2015/16

The University and the media department: Anna, Shaz and Liza (Justin had left in the meantime) were very pleased with the outputs and the project.

At Bellyfeel, being instrumental in a media experiment that is used for engagement, marketing, recruitment and entertainment over multiple platforms is exactly what we like to be working on.

We employed one of the best students from the University, Lee Robinson at Bellyfeel for the next few years.

It was quite a surprise when early in 2015 we were asked if we wanted to continue the Bolton Storyworld project, could we do more with it?

The University had some budget and wanted to run it again in Freshers week 2015.

At Bellyfeel, we couldn’t see the point of just replaying the media, so we took a deeper dive into the storyworld. With Lee on board as the main writer, plus 3 new students: Jade, Liam and Nathan – we set about turning the story into something way more immersive and gamified, specifically for smartphones.

Using Conductrr we again used the format of a serial (delivered via email and SMS) but with more depth and mystery. The whole experience was expanded and gamified, We commissioned more media and reemployed the same actors (pus a few new ones).

In addition to the central experience we developed more ways in to the story and more content for social media.

- STORY & INTERACTIVITY -

The problems at this stage were largely story and gameplay based.

They were worked through using our internal development techniques and expertise. Much testing was done. Many days and weeks were devoted to getting things just right.

When the project launched in Freshers week there were over 2000 students interacting with the story and thousands more players interacting around the world.

" Each iteration of the project was successful in its own right and students got a lot from working on the project but the last version was much more wide ranging, polished and professional and that why it resulted in such success. The students and lecturers learnt from their mistakes - its such a good way to learn... "
Anna Zaluczkowska
Anna Zaluczkowska ​
Programme Leader Media, Writing and Production - University of Bolton

Freshers Version #2

THE END

In its final output, Bolton Storyworld was selected into the Seattle Transmedia and Independent Film Festival competition 2016.

Bolton Storyworld was also submitted to the Learning OnScreen Awards 2016.

In all honesty we thought we had a good chance of winning our category – but you never know do you?

Surprisingly, the project won, not just in its category, but across the board as the best project of the year, beating many larger institutions and organisations.

“ It is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before – it’s a film, it’s a game, it’s social media, it’s puzzles, text messages and live, it’s everything you can think of – it totally blew us away… ”
Ian Wall
Chair of Learning OnScreen Awards Judging Panel, 2016