NewTeeVee Pick: The Guild

brigitte_headshot.jpgWhen Cartman and friends jumped into World of Warcraft for an episode of South Park last year, it garnered huge buzz, even winning an Emmy. A WoW-themed truck commercial uploaded to YouTube earlier this month has already attracted an amazing 1.6 million views and counting. So clearly there’s a huge potential audience for MMORPG-themed videos. Given that Warcraft, Lord of the Rings Online, and other fantasy RPGs boast a total player base of nearly 20 million worldwide, this should come as no surprise. And yet other than a few one-off examples, TV networks have been reluctant to develop crossover content for online gamers.

Felicia Day had this problem when she wrote The Guild, originally intended as a half-hour TV pilot about a mismatched team of online fantasy gamers who squabble (and flirt) via voice chat. An established professional actress (she had a recurring role on Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Day is also a hardcore gamer. “Actors don’t have a lot of control over what they get hired for,” she told me. “So I decided to do something that was mine, that made me laugh.” Unsurprisingly, when she showed it around Hollywood, “[P]eople loved it, but said it was too ‘niche.’”

Rather than shelve the script, Day and her producer partners shot the pilot themselves and put it on YouTube. A blogswarm of gamers took the number of views for the first episode (embedded below) close to the one-million mark, and the next two episodes garnered around 375,000 views each. Not a gargantuan audience, but enough to be considered competitive with something like G4, the cable TV network for gamers. (Last February, despite a vastly larger production budget, G4’s primetime viewership averaged a remarkably pathetic 125,000 a night.)

The Guild’s popularity isn’t all that surprising. As the focal character, Felicia Day is appealingly geeky while vulnerably girlish — think a redhead Sandra Bullock with DIY cred. As written by Day, the episodes have snappy dialog and engaging, clearly defined characters that gamers will easily recognize but devoid of jargon to the extent that non-gamers won’t be left in the cold. “I didn’t want it to be so obscure that people who didn’t play MMORPGs would be turned off by the ‘inside’ nature of the material,” she told me. (Leeroy Jenkins it is not.)

And while it would have surely boosted its audience, the show neither makes a reference to World of Warcraft, nor features machinima of actual gameplay, as the South Park episode did. “The copyright issue alone was daunting because all those gaming companies are very choosy with what they approve,” Day explained. “And ultimately, the show is about the characters, not the game, and I didn’t want 3-D graphics to cut into our storylines.”

So far, the mix is so appealing, the The Guild’s fans have effectively become its financiers. On a whim, while the production team was looking for company backers, they put up a donation button on the show’s web site.

“The response was very surprising,” said Day. “The next two episodes, which will be released in November, were entirely funded by PayPal donations of fans, and a little gap funding from an advertiser.” Since then, they’ve been approached by a couple other would-be sponsors, and are open to production deals. But a hardcore audience so engaged they’re willing to donate enough to finance future episodes is a tricky waltz.

“We’re still feeling offers out. We’re being very careful to protect our fanbase and keep having fun making our show,” said Day. “Online video is the Sundance of our time, it’s where people can take risks with material and find their audience.”

At the moment, those risks are paying off:

“A lot of our [fan] comments start with ‘I never watch TV…'” Day said. “If I were a mainstream network, I would be worried by that.”

Wagner James Au is GigaOM’s games editor. He also writes New World Notes.