Netwars/Out of Ctrl is a sprawling cross-platform media project about the global rise of cyberwarfare, combining pulse-pounding fictional narratives and sobering nonfiction research to bring the mounting dangers of cyberterrorism vividly to life. Equal parts commercial venture and publishing experiment, Netwars/Out of Ctrl features an interlocking selection of media components that include an ongoing series of e-book and audiobook thrillers in multiple languages, a TV documentary, fictional Web and TV series, and an interactive graphic novel app.
Netwars offers an innovative and dynamic approach to storytelling, though its impact on U.S. consumers seems muted by the proliferation of its many parts and the lack of a coordinated marketing campaign. Although the transmedia project features a series of books, Netwars is really centered on the TV documentary and the Web series, both of which launched in early 2014. The two series are produced by Filmtank, a Berlin-based film production company that also developed Netwars: The Butterfly Attack, the interactive graphic novel app.
The TV documentary, Netwars/War on the Web, is a nonfiction examination of the growing dangers of cyberwarfare. The 52-minute documentary features a well-known former German hacker, Felix Linder, who is able to easily breech the defenses of a German power plant during a “stress-test” scenario set up to probe the plant’s security (he now works as a cyber-security specialist). The accompanying five-part Web series, Netwars/Out of Ctrl, features an ominous and nameless lecturer (the actor is Nikolai Kinski, son of famed German actor Klaus Kinski), who offers a chilling, fact-driven monologue on the vulnerability of the world’s digital infrastructure to individual and state-sponsored hackers. His character, the Salesman, is a shadowy cyberterrorist who also appears in the e-book and graphic novel.
In an interview from Berlin, Michael Grotenhoff, a Filmtank executive producer, said Netwars is “a long-term project and an experiment. This is new for us.” Grotenhoff said Filmtank was looking to produce a different kind of documentary project: “We wanted it to be emotional, to touch people. People think [cyberterrorism] is something far away, but everyone is affected.” After the documentary and Web series launched, Grotenhoff said Filmtank brought in the German publisher Bastei Lubbe to help produce Netwars, a series of e-book thrillers that dramatize the real events examined in the documentary. The Netwars e-book series (The Code and Down Time) are available to U.S. consumers via all the major e-book retailers, including Amazon, B&N, Kobo, and the iBooks Store.
Bastei Lubbe also assisted Filmtank with assistance on The Butterfly Attack, an interactive graphic novel that shares the TV documentary’s main theme: a staged cybersecurity stress test on a power plant becomes a real attack, hacked by unknown forces who wipe out the power grid of a European city. Both the Netwars e-books and the graphic novel—which has a slick array of interactive features—are designed to lure readers to the multimedia project.
“We decided to combine the documentary with traditional books,” said Grotenhoff. “People need something they know and understand, such as books, otherwise [a project like this] can be hard to bring to market.”
Helmut Pesch, head of content development for e-publishing at Bastei Lubbe, said that the publisher oversaw the production and distribution of the e-book. Filmtank provided the conception and technology for The Butterfly Attack graphic novel app, with help on distribution from Bastei Lubbe.
“The TV documentary was created with experts, and it is very accurate. But it can seem dry,” said M. Sean Coleman, a London-based novelist, producer and screenwriter who wrote the Netwars e-books and graphic novel. “Most people think cyberwarfare doesn’t affect them. So we discussed how we could use fiction to make it real to people,” he said, during an interview from London. Coleman interviewed the same cyberwarfare experts featured in the documentary, in an effort to create a “hybrid of fact and fiction,” for the e-book and graphic novel.
Pesch said the Netwars e-books are divided into separate “seasons,” or series, consisting of six episodes, with each episode about 20,000 words. Season 1, Netwars: The Code was first published in English May 2014. Season 2, Netwars: Down Time, a sequel, began in January 2015. The books are written in English, Pesch said, and translated into German and Chinese. He added that Season 1 of Netwars was collected in a mass market paperback edition in Germany, though it’s unclear whether there will be more volumes to come.
The Netwars e-book series are sold through all the major online booksellers. Pesch said his house deals directly with major e-tailers to supply its e-books and also works with distributors such as OverDrive to get the books into libraries. Netwars e-books are also available through the subscription service 24 Symbols. Pesch said Bastei Lubbe was in talks with other such services, specifically Scribd and Oyster, in addition to more e-book retailers.
The audiobook version of Netwars “is selling well—the e-book series moderately so,” Pesch said. He explained that the demand for e-books, “in Germany in particular, is still much lower than for printed books.” But he also said the Netwars project offered Bastei Lubbe access to the U.S. market. “America is a new and exciting market for us, which we have to take on in a different way than our home market Germany.”
Although the Netwars project shows off the creative promise of transmedia—reconceiving franchise properties in new forms in different media formats—it also shows how such a multifaceted international project can overwhelm its own producer. The marketing of Netwars’ diverse parts can seem a bit chaotic. Though Coleman said “the publisher is happy” with the Netwars e-books, he also said the popularity of the project “is hard to gauge.” Netwars, he said, “grew organically,” adding new aspects, such as the e-books, seemingly on the fly. “[Netwars] is new and difficult and needs a show runner. Aspects of it need to be more connected,” Coleman said.
Grotenhoff acknowledged the “experimental” nature of the Netwars project. “We’re inexperienced at this kind of project, but we’re happy with how its working,” he said, noting that the project has received several commendations. The Web series was the winner of an Interactive Innovation award for Visual Media at this year’s SXSW Interactive, the annual tech festival in Austin, Tex., and was a finalist for another innovation award in the privacy and security category. In addition, the Netwars e-book and graphic novel were awarded a 2015 IBPA Benjamin Franklin Silver Digital Award.
“It’s been a bit of trial and error, but it’s changed our storytelling and we’re going to do more projects like it,” Grotenhoff said.