Instead of Lindsay Lohan, Janis and Damien from Mean Girls are explaining the social hierarchy of North Shore High School cafeteria to you, right in the palm of your hand.
It’s a cartoon version of Janis and Damien, and you’re an avatar of yourself, weaving your way through a mobile storytelling experience. When it comes time to choose where to sit, the app gives you a choice, and with that choice you’re off on your own storyline, a new adventure courtesy of storytelling app Episode, that plays like a choose-your-own-adventure tale for the digital age.
Kim Kardashian: Hollywood may have opened up the world of personality-driven mobile gaming to the mass market, but Episode wants to pioneer a native mobile storytelling format that lets everyone in on the idea of creating a visual story on their phones, not just the mean girls and Kardashians of the world.
“This device and a lot of people who grew up entirely with this device are used to getting to be the star and center of their stories,” explained Michael Dawson, head of Studio for Episode. “It feels like the next wave of entertainment will be an active entertainment world. Passive entertainment doesn’t fit with this device.”
In the quest to turn people into Episode creators, step No. 1 is to build them into Episode consumers.
“It’s a new format, just like the novel or the sitcom are a format,” said Dawson. “The best storytellers are the ones who’ve consumed a bunch of stories written in their preferred format.”
To train those storytellers, the app relies on tested brands and personalities to develop Episodes. In addition to Mean Girls, which will continue with a sorority-themed sequel on the app this year, the company has also partnered with Demi Lovato for her own Episodes. They share a percentage of profits based on Episodes read with these creators, and build a base.
To date they’ve had 2 billion episodes read on the platform, which Dawson calculated is 38,000 years of viewing content.
The goal for Episode is to cater to a creator class of storytellers. Over 4 million people have signed up to write episodes, using a scripting platform that feels like a stripped-down version of Final Draft. It’s a way to manipulate avatars to act out a story.
“In the long run my hope is our very best stories come from our community,” said Dawson. “I want to create our JK Rowlings and our John Greens.”
One such Episode star is Genevieve Marshall, whose popular Dripping Mascara series has generated over 3.75 million reads. Before Episode, she’d never shared her writing.
“I have always enjoyed playing those choose-your-story games on the App Store during downtime at work or commuting,” wrote Marshall, a 21-year-old medical student, over email. “On one of those occasions, I found Episode in mid-2014, back when there were only about 30 or so stories on the app. I played it religiously and was very intrigued by the ‘Start Your Story’ tab. I had been writing stories for years, but had never publicly released any of my amateur work.”
Now she’s got a budding fandom, with a healthy 22,000 Instagram followers checking in for homemade trailers about her work. It’s empowered her to think beyond just Episode creation.
“One of the most beautiful things about Episode and its vast community of readers and writers is that your stories evoke millions more in response,” she wrote. “I have made relationships with thousands of people all over the world. I have a responsibility to my Mascarette family because they have been there for me, cheering me on every step of the way in this awesome journey developing from a closet writer into someone who is seriously working on a real novel.”
Episode is aiming to share the wealth, following suit of other successful creator platforms like YouTube with ways to pay its stars. If a creator hits a threshold of Episodes read, they get a payment for each.
“We want to set it up so if we win, they win,” said Dawson. “We want to set it up so they can afford to make this something they can spend their time on.”
One area where Episode is cautious is fanfiction. Digital storytelling around fandoms has occurred for years, and a chance to make visual representations of favorite pairings could be a draw for Episode. But because of partnerships with celebrities and media properties, Dawson said they take down fanfiction. Dawson maintains it’s an infrequent occurence.
Going forward Episode is focused on a fully mobile experience (for now, the creation of a story requires a web-based platform).
“I think people underestimate how much Gen Z is a mobile-only generation,” said Dawson. “11 percent of [Gen Z] check their phones in the shower. YouTube was created in a generation before smartphones, and in this generation there’s such a big difference. You can touch the screen, but you can’t interact with your favorite TV show or book. We’re creating a format that allows you to have an active entertainment.”
For hopeful creators, Marshall encourages them to just “do it” and start creating.
“Nowhere else can you so accessibly [sic] and reliably achieve your dream of being a ‘director’ and author,” she wrote. “To be quite honest, this was a dream, passion, and skill that I forgot I even had until I started writing again on this amazing app. It’s truly remarkable, and I just can’t imagine my life without Episode.”