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Aliens and humans struggle to co-exist and survive on a fallen Earth; that’s the premise of Defiance, a new series premiering on Syfy (s CMCST) Monday, April 15th. But the world of Defiance is a lot bigger than just a TV show, and has already technically begun: Defiance first came to life on April 2nd as a MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) available on Xbox (s MSOFT), Playstation (s SNE) and PC.
The game and show have been pitched as groundbreaking transmedia, thanks to how they have been designed to complement each other and build out the world of its characters. And digging into the way both elements have been created to co-exist, it’s hard to deny the potential in the approach.
Syfy and game company Trion Worlds began collaborating on Defiance in 2008, when parent company NBC Universal made an investment in Trion and the two sides began discussing how they might work together.
“We definitely knew that we wanted to create something that would live beyond the television screen, something that would live in different platforms,” Syfy head of original content Mark Stern said, adding:
“But the pilots we were showing them were’t helpful to them from a game perspective, so we really had to start with the ground up. We started trading ideas back and forth until we came up with the concept for this world that was really interesting to both of us, and went from there.”
The biggest challenge, according to Nick Beliaeff, senior VP of development at Trion Worlds, was Trion and Syfy learning to work outside of their normal pattern. For example, he said, “We needed to know in 2010 who they cast because we needed to be able to build playable characters. But at that time they had just one writer on, no production staff — not even the people who would do makeup and costume design.”
The collaboration came together, though: Five years later, the result is a sprawling game universe populated by at least a half dozen alien races, and a series headlined by a cast including Grant Bowler, Julie Benz, Mia Kirshner and Fionnula Flanagan.
“There’s no question that having this very rich, diverse and deep world and mythology, part of the requisite for the game in particular, was really helpful for the series,” Stern said. “There are details that have been worked out that you would never have had the chance to do with a normal show.”
A few examples of how the show and game work together (it’s hard to detail exactly how the game and show work together without some minor spoilers, so apologies): In the opening minutes of the pilot, we meet Nolan (Bowler) and Irisa (Stephanie Leonidas), who have obtained a strange gem — a gem you helped them acquire in the game, as one of the very first missions.
Also, one episode of the show will end with a virus outbreak — over the following week, players of the game will be able to create a vaccine. And one character will be first introduced on the show, then will escape to the game world mid-way through the season.
Plot points like these, plus details like wardrobe, character design and music (the latter of which was created for both experiences by Battlestar Galactica composer Bear McCreary) are meant to blend the two experiences together, rewarding viewers who participate in both: “We’ll alter the game every single time an episode is on the air,” Beliaeff said.
It also, in an interesting twist, rewards those who don’t time-shift their viewing of the show, as game elements are timed to the airing of episodes. “We want to incentivize people — not force them. But if you watch it live while playing the game, you’re going to get more out of it,” Stern said.
Key to keeping the two components separate but collaborative is geography: The show takes place in what was once St. Louis, while players of the game roam around a post-apocalyptic San Francisco.
“We first started out thinking it would be awesome if they took place in the same city — we thought the whole Defiance universe would take place in the Bay Area. But as we developed that idea further, it became problematic,” Beliaeff said. “So we placed them close enough that communication is easy, but travel is difficult.”
Another interesting difference between the game and the show is its rating — while the televised Defiance is in line with Syfy’s other programming (which rarely exceeds a TV-14), the game has been rated Mature for “Blood, Drug Reference, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, and Violence.”
That difference, according to Stern, is by design. “[The show] is going for a broader, older demo, but [the game] is going for a younger and more male-skewed audience,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to pull more of that younger demo into our channel and push older audience into the game.”
That’s the real hope of Defiance — while all of these elements are interesting, the only ones who will really get to enjoy them are those who participate in both parts of the story.
Trion did not provide sales numbers for the game, but Beliaeff did say that they received replenishment orders from Wal-Mart (s WMT) and GameSpot in the first week, and sold out of their Xbox (s MSFT) inventory. “We’re smiling,” he added.
It’s now down to Monday night’s television premiere, but either way, Defiance has been a learning experience for both teams. “It’s just been fascinating to see these creative elements cross over and learn what it takes to build an successful interactive MMO. That’s been educational on all sorts of levels,” Stern said. “Not only are we going to be able to use all these elements to launch a potential season two, but we’ll also hopefully be able to apply it to new properties.”
Right now, the writing staff for the show is breaking stories for a potential (not-yet-greenlit) season two, while Trion works to create more content for after the show’s season finale. “We’ll certainly be lighter on our feet with season two than we were with season one. It won’t take us five years,” Stern added.
It’ll take a while to see whether this level of cross-platform storytelling makes Defiance better than your average sci-fi drama. But it definitely makes it bigger.
Disclaimer: I was previously employed by G4, a division of NBC Universal, but had no interaction with Syfy.