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Comic book software touted as marketer's dream

Software package allows users to create, share digital comic books based on content providers' movies, games. Images: Creating comics

By the time the new Jack Black movie "Nacho Libre" opens on June 16, its fans will have already had more than a week to create their own versions of stories based on the film.

That's because Paramount Pictures is licensing Planetwide Games' Comic Book Creator software, an application that lets users quickly make their own digital comic books by dragging and dropping text and images into a template, and making a "Nacho Libre"-branded version of it available to fans on Thursday.

Comic Book Creator

Paramount is not alone. Already, online games publisher Sony Online Entertainment and the National Geographic Society have signed on to license their own versions of the software, and Planetwide said it is in talks with at least one rock 'n' roll band interested in giving its fans a new way to indulge their fantasies.

And that means that fans of the online games, movies, magazines and, possibly, music produced by Planetwide's partners will be able to add all the Bam!, Pow!, Zoom!, hyperbolic thought bubbles and cartoon explosions they want to the stories they create.

"It was sort of a no-brainer for us (as) this is something our players will get a kick out of," said Gregory Short, Sony Online's director of Web presence. "The key features for us that were attractive was, one, that it is very easy to use, and the second thing we liked was that there are so many different ways that you can export what you've done."

According to Mark Politi, Planetwide Games' vice president of marketing, the Comic Book Creator was originally aimed at individual players of online games as a way to give those players a method for crafting original stories based on their in-game characters and the games' plotlines. The company is still selling a standalone version of the software for $30. Users upload many of their creations to the Comic Book Society Web site.

Letting fans build the brand
But in recent months, Planetwide has seen virtue in partnering with marketing companies like Paramount, Sony Online and the National Geographic Society, as well as others that have yet to be announced. Those involved tout the value of the software as a way to leverage a brand in an unusual way--one that puts creative power in the hands of users and fans.

"For us, the Comic Book Creator will allow kids, and families in general, people of all ages, to utilize the product to engage them in the storytelling that National Geographic is all about," said John Dumbacher, senior vice president of licensing at the National Geographic Society. "It's a new way of engaging kids. The product specifically allows us to have entertainment with substance to it."

So far, Sony Online's version of the comic book software is the only licensed one available. It currently includes about 300 art pieces for online games "EverQuest," "EverQuest II" and "Planetside."

But in July, said Short, SOE will release new art packs that will include as many as 3,000 new art items, including many brand-new renderings of creatures from the games. And by including that art with players' own game screen shots, art creations and even digital pictures, Short suggested, the number of story combinations becomes limitless.

As such, Short said, SOE hopes its players will upload their comic creations to a community site where others can then view and rate them. By doing that, he added, the company can create a new sense of community involvement among participants.

"People will be able to see comics and comment on them," he said. "We're trying to create a whole community around the comic software. It's a different way to present things than the traditional way. In our industry, people are into comics and superheroes. It's about Sony Online providing community tools above and beyond what other companies are providing people."

For the National Geographic Society, the comic book software (click here for free download) will mean extending its unique mix of content--be it photographs of rain forests or penguins, or images of dinosaurs--to users of any age.

Politi said the National Geographic project, which is planned for release this fall, will have several components. One will be based on National Geographic's children's magazine, and another will focus on content for adults.

For Paramount, meanwhile, the comic creation software is described by a "phenomenal product" for helping to promote "Nacho Libre."

"The software is intuitive and inspires the creators themselves to share their works," said Sandi Isaacs, Paramount Pictures' vice president of interactive. "I chose the Comic Book Creator as a product for this movie because the filmmakers and talent had produced the most hilarious assets I had ever witnessed in a movie and I wanted to engage our fans in the experience. A benefit of the Comic Book Creator software is we can enable people of all ages to actively participate versus having a passive experience with the content."

Meanwhile, according to Politi, Paramount is bucking one customization trend by not be allowing its users to include their own text or images in their "Nacho Libre" comics.

Marketers at Paramount "weren't interested in doing customized word bubbles," he said.

Isaacs said that's because allowing users to add in their own content would dilute the "Nacho Libre" brand. "If the product is themed 'Nacho Libre,'" she said, "it should maintain the core of the brand. Otherwise it would be a generic brand not associated with the movie."

But SOE, the National Geographic Society and, presumably, many of Planetwide's future corporate customers, are likely to give users the ability to do just about anything they want with the comic creation software, which allows users to output their work in PDF and JPEG formats, and as Flash flip books.

"The value-add for a marketing company," said Politi, "is that they can take their brand, be it a video game or a film project, and allow the fan base of a company's product to be the online advocates for that brand."

In any case, the companies that are licensing the software are clearly hoping that their own customers will enjoy using it enough to pass it on to friends and family, and, especially, get their kids involved.

"It's one of those rare products," said Dumbacher, "that is incredibly fun and engaging to do, and at the same time kids can learn while they're having fun."