One of the spring's biggest shows is also its biggest MMO
[For a glimpse at Defiance (the game) and its new PvP modes, check out our recent preview and return here for a look at the TV series. Also, MEBTWK]
“Four years ago, both we and Syfy knew we were going to do this, but we were like, ‘How the hell are we going to do this?’”
Rob Hill, senior producer at Trion Worlds, is standing on the terrace of the Park Hyatt hotel in Toronto, Ontario. The sky is overcast and the air is freezing. This was supposed to be Defiance’s big coming out party, but it’s starting to feel like a reminder that winter is coming. That time of year when TV productions in Toronto come to a halt and game designers work more than sleep to make a spring release happen. One can say, Defiance is getting it from both ends.
Depending on who you ask, Defiance is a desperate grasp at keeping science-fiction relevant or a glimpse at the future of the genre. One thing that can’t be argued is that Defiance is the most ambitious project that both Syfy and Trion Worlds have undertaken.
Syfy is throwing an unprecedented amount of money at the TV production, building a 51-building studio lot in Toronto. Trion (Rift, End of Nation) is developing its first multi-platform release, a massively multiplayer third-person shooter that attempts many new ideas within the online space. If coming to grips with a new genre isn’t enough for Trion, having to be congruent with the TV series is sure to provide the developer many restless nights. But, right now, it’s time for the easy part: Showing off and discussing the game.
“Both of our CEOs have been meeting for quite a while, and they came to the conclusion that this transmedia thing -- that’s what we call it -- could be big on both sides. So, we, from day one, worked with Syfy on how we were going to do this,” Hill says. “We need to find a way to meet both of our needs, but it wasn’t one before the other.”
Bringing two mediums together to occupy the same universe is something that has been lightly attempted before with Shiny’s maligned Enter the Matrix, Syfy’s own Red Faction: Origins TV movie, and other projects best forgotten. An MMO needs tons of different stories for quests, but Syfy wants to focus on telling a few intimate stories. A game needs tons of creatures to fight, but a high enemy count doesn’t make for great television -- or, in the very least, affordable television. Both parties are trying to avoid the pitfalls that have plagued similar projects in the past.
Visual effects supervisor Gary Hutzel is tasked with one of the more difficult jobs: He needs to make a game look as good as a TV series while not keeping it from playing like a (good) game. There are many things game designers lean on that are counter-productive to designing a TV series, such as using color to indicate visual information to the player. Vivid colors are applied to immerse the player and limit frustration, but these same vivid colors make for unrealistic TV that breaks immersion for viewers.
“For me the key element was that Trion was creating an action-adventure game and my job is to make it real,” Hutzel says. “To bring it into the real world and make those characters something that you don’t just add onto but also something that you can come to the show and see ‘Oh yeah, that’s how they would look in real life!’”
As a result, Hutzel is working closely with Trion to make compromises on both ends that make sense. If a six-legged creature is too hard to animate in the game, the developers give the creature insect legs instead. In some cases, enemies and characters won’t appear identical. Colors in the game may be more vivid, while the show goes for a more muted presentation. The goal is to avoid confusion and disassociation, while making Defiance work as a game and show.
“Early on, I called what I was doing open architecture design for the show,” Hutzel says. “Even if we don’t have an immediate plan for the game, let’s design everything we do for the show so it flows smoothly across development of the game."
Although I got the sense that Syfy is leading the fiction of Defiance, unlike most videogame tie-ins, Trion is not playing second fiddle. The MMO-focused San Diego studio has taken some smart precautions to distance itself from the show, such as moving the game’s location to a different city. This allows events in the show to appear in the game at a later date and vice versa. An otherworldly "razor storm" or alien invasion can arrive in the show with an appearance in the game, in the following month. Considering the distance between St. Louis and San Francisco (where the game takes place), the gap in time makes sense and builds immersion.
“We want to have these crossovers be impactful. If they sat on top of each other, we would have to make them constant and we can’t make them constant,” Hill says. “We need that buffer space between.”
Razor storms and hell bugs are neat, but Defiance is a show about characters. Though MMOs have broad appeal, storytelling isn’t one of the genre’s strengths. Defiance seeks to change this by weaving a story that is complete on its own but also provides players with deeper insight on the history and motivations of characters in the TV series. For example, the opening mission introduces Nolan, a Han Solo type wandering the badlands, who gives the player a rifle and artifact that can be deadly in the wrong hands. When the Syfy series premieres two weeks after the game’s release, players will see Nolan, the show’s main character, deal with the aftermath of this action in the game. The experience is an additive one, not supplementary.
“The game is a MMORPG and therefore a basic world. It continues to exist even when we stop shooting. You need one of these worlds to stop so that we can reseed, reboot, and re-synthesize,” Grant Bowler, who plays Nolan, says. “That becomes seamless on your end but on our end it gives us an opportunity to see how events fold and unfold in the game. We re-engineer so it is a congruent universe in the show.”
The experience for the cast has been a unique challenge, as well. Before Nolan ever walked onto the St. Louis set, he walked into virtual San Francisco. Or, more accurately, he walked onto a green screen wearing a motion capture suit to make character stances and deliver lines.
“That’s a very odd thing for an actor, because I walked in and the mocap guys and Trion guys were like how, “How would your character do this?” Bowler says, with the energy and enthusiasm you'd want from an action hero. “I dunno! We’ve never done it!”
If letting Trion take the first step in directing actor performances is not an indication that Syfy is making a gamble, a tour of Syfy’s studio lot for the show serves as clear evidence that the niche cable network is going all-in for Defiance. If not one of the most refreshing sci-fi premises for the network since Battlestar Galatica, it certainly matches its scale and ambitions. The massive set houses most, if not all, locations for the series, with buildings added to before being featured in new episodes. From the oak tree in the middle of a whore house to cargo crate homes stacked outside, every corner of Defiance’s set is brimming with detail, color, and personality.
“I think what’s wonderful about the creation of the town is that you see history repeat itself. It’s almost like a mosaic of different time periods and different wars and different cultures all coming together,” actress Stephanie Leonidas, who represents one of seven alien races on the show, says. “In a sense, this town is timeless. For me, it’s almost feudal. There is something extremely dangerous in that and extremely sad and mysterious.”
Stop me if you heard this one before: Defiance takes place in a post-apocalyptic America where cities now reflect the Western frontier, resources are scarce, and cars have roll cages. But, here’s where things get interesting: Earth now houses seven different alien species with different motivations and histories. While Earth is drained of resources, it is also under constant threat of terra-morphing machinery that drastically alters the landscape it touches. St. Louis, where the show takes place, may be a wasteland, but Las Vegas is now an island with rich vegetation and dense jungle. And, of course, there are weird, wild beasts for TV stars to run from and gamers to chase.
The show’s art and costume department work within the set. David Peterson (Game of Thrones) created three languages for the series, one of which already has 3,000 words. The fiction is so deep that the writers at Trion and Syfy share a private Wiki system so that they can always be on the same page. It took Halo several sequels and novels to build up a mythology so dense, but Trion gets to play within this world from the start. Despite early rumors that players would be able to directly influence the TV series, Syfy’s producers have made a firm stance during the set visit that this will not be the case. However, Hill is confident that Trion will have more freedom to experiment in season two, by including more drastic player choices and highlighting specific characters in story sequences (though, it was unclear if this would be limited to in-game cutscenes).
“The TV show is not choose your own adventure […] We know what we are doing in the TV show. This is about creating great satisfying drama,” executive producer Kevin Murphy says, during one of many panels throughout the day. “These two experiences holistically create a larger experience. If you’re a gamer watching the show, you’ll go: “Oh wow! So that’s where that went?”
During a cast Q&A session, Gowler says that the game is complete on its own; it can be played without ever watching the show. Another cast member shouts, “Don’t say that!” It gets the biggest audience laugh during the panel. Underneath the laughter is the reality that Syfy and Trion must face soon enough: What happens if one succeeds while the other fails? Will players flock to Defiance amidst the arrival of a new Grand Theft Auto? Will viewers stick with a show, as Game of Thrones and other geek favorites comes back to air?
After Toronto’s relentless winter comes and goes, we’ll have some answers to those questions. Whether there are positive results or not, Defiance will likely be remembered as one of gaming and televisions’ most ambitious moments and it couldn’t have happened without the other. At least, initially.
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8:30 PM on 03.07.2014