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SyFy’s Defiance television show and Trion World’s online game are in the home stretch after five years

I’ve seen the pilot episode of Defiance, and I’ve previewed the massively multiplayer online third-person shooter game. Both are launching this month as part of a huge collaboration between NBC Universal’s SyFy network and venture-backed game company Trion Worlds. And I’ll be honest. The content is good, but I still don’t know how this one is going to turn out. These two properties will share a common fate. They’re both going to succeed, or they’re both going to fail.

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The magnitude of the gamble is unlike any other “transmedia” project involving both TV and game versions of the same entertainment property. The Wall Street Journal reported that the development costs alone on the video game are $70 million. That’s not hard to believe, considering Trion has raised more than $150 million and it has a team of 150 working on the game. Over five years, it’s easy to see how payroll costs alone could hit that number. Another 150 worked on the TV show at SyFy, and they all had to coordinate.

The story is set on Earth in the year 2046. It takes place after a massive alien ship, the Ark, crash lands on Earth. The aliens are seeking a refuge as they flee their own planet, but they make a mess of Earth. The ship terraforms the whole place, and it dumps seven unwanted alien races to live or fight among the surviving humans. The aliens brought with them a new resource, Gulanite, that everyone wants to control in a kind of gold rush. The game’s version of San Francisco is in  a state of warfare. In Defiance, the races are living together in an uneasy truce.

The game launches on April 2 with a huge amount of publicity from NBC Universal and its owner Comcast. Players will become immersed in the game and, hopefully, become attached to the lead characters Joshua Nolan and Erisa during a two week mission. They will start in the Marin County headlands and work their way down to the Golden Gate Bridge, where the player will feel a “Planet of the Apes” moment at seeing the ruined state of the iconic bridge, said Nick Beliaeff, senior vice president of development at Trion Worlds, in an interview with GamesBeat. The game is one of the only ones that works across the PC, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360 platforms.

defiance show“We’re so excited this labor of love is about to see the light of day,” he said.

An intriguing pilot

After two weeks in the game, Nolan and Irisa will leave San Francisco and drive to the St. Louis arch, which is also in a ruined state after an alien spaceship crash lands on Earth. In the town of Defiance, where the TV show takes place, the aliens and humans are trying to live together. The movement of the characters from the game to the TV show is what transmedia theorists call a “touch point.” It’s a place where the fans of one medium could cross over and become fans of the same story in another medium. It is the hook to draw us into Nolan and Erisa (pictured right, Nolan played by Grant Bowler; Irisa played by Stephanie Leonidas). The touch point can work in either direction. It can pull the TV fans into the game or vice versa. If it happens right, like with the Harry Potter films and games, it’s a gold mine.

“We’re not binary when it comes to entertainment,” Beliaeff said at a recent event in Las Vegas. “We have touch-points. We don’t care how you get into Defiance, through the TV show or the game. We just want you in Defiance.”

The TV pilot is finished and set for its debut on April 15. Altogether, the first season will have 13 episodes. Some are done and some aren’t, said Michael Nankin, directing producer at SyFy, in an interview with GamesBeat.

You can play the game without ever watching the show and vice versa, but as TV series goes on, some characters will leave the show and transition into the game. Global issues affect both worlds, as the show is set in St. Louis and the game is based in the San Francisco area. The sci-fi show has the flavor of a western, but Nankin describes it more as an immigrant drama. The pilot has some slow parts, but it drew me in. The acting was good, the story had tension, combat, and comic relief. The show also set in motion a number of mysteries that will unfold in future episodes. I liked the episode, but I can’t say it’s going to hold my attention for a whole season in competition with so much other entertainment. It has a large cast and is tightly woven for a two-hour episode.

trion defiance 3So how is the game?

But the game, by definition, is non-linear, with hundreds of hours of content and enormous territories for the players to roam over. You can run around on foot, but more likely you’ll want to ride an all-terrain vehicle. I’ve played the game several times, watching it move from an unpolished state to nearly finished. Last week, I played the version that players will see.

In the third-person shooting game, you can take on a wide variety of roles, including medic and machinist. I walked into a battle as a machinist with a sniper rifle and a machine gun. The graphics in the PC version look a lot sharper than on the consoles. But titles like Crysis 3 definitely look better.

I happened to materialize in the middle of a bridge. I tried to ride over it, but faced a roadblock by a bunch of mutants. I retreated and used my sniper rifle against them. They were not particularly hard to kill as they stood out in the open. But they did have a nasty habit of scooting to the side whenever I had them in my gun sights. The artificial intelligence was limited but passable. While one set of mutants fired at me, another would occasionally rush me with the mission of slicing me in two.

At a distance, the combat is quite satisfying. I certainly could have used more accurate and more powerful guns, as only the head shots or chest shots seemed to take the mutants down. But up close, the fighting is tricky. There are some slight lags in the experience, and that makes it hard to hit the enemy when they are charging you. It is not nearly as polished as a shooter as titles such as Uncharted 3: Among Thieves, or Call of Duty: Black Ops II. The question is whether gamers will put up with something slightly less than that in exchange for the benefits of the MMO. I did see some rather strange bugs, like invisible obstacles that made my ATV get stuck, including once in mid-air.

The benefits include social play. Beliaeff said the game will feature thousands of players at once, often teaming up to deal with events where they have to take care of various alien threats. Sometimes, “arc falls,” or big pieces of the alien ship, crash down to Earth. This creates a battle for the resources in the wreckage. The more players play together, the better the loot when they achieve their goal. That encourages teamwork. The story sequences are also meant to hold your attention as you go out on directed missions.

I played a little bit of player-versus-player combat, which you can do in certain sections of the map. It was, of course, much harder to stay alive. But it was a reasonably good experience. The game is good, but it isn’t the most outstanding thing I’ve played. MMOs are typically a step down in quality from single-player games, and this one looks no different. I’ll have to reserve judgment until the final version actually comes out, but I’d have the same concern as I do about the TV show. There is so much competition for my game time now, and there is no smartphone or tablet version of this game (at least not yet).

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The road ahead

The development process isn’t over yet. Beliaeff said the team had completed its first-day patch and the content update that happens at the start of the TV show. But the team is also heavily involved in creating the content to go with Season 2 of the show. Nankin said he believes that the second season will go a lot smoother since the first season was a complete experiment in collaboration.

The intricacies of the production were fairly terrifying. The game team had no qualms creating characters and content with green outfits. But the TV crew shoots scenes with green screens in the background, so that they can insert special effects or sets through a digital process. That means they can’t use green outfits, Nankin said. Little things like that had to be learned along the way. That meant a lot of compromising.

The whole leap of faith was result of a connection between Lars Buttler, chief executive of Trion Worlds in Redwood City, Calif., and Mark Stern, president of SyFy.

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Stern said that the companies found each other while Trion, which was just a year old at the time, was raising a round of funding from media partners. NBC Universal invested in that round. The idea of doing a transmedia property with a game and TV show combined came up. Stern’s team sent a bunch of scripts, some of which became good TV shows later.

But Beliaeff said that the scripts for the TV shows were too thin. They could work for a half hour of entertainment, but Trion needed a deep and complex story that could last for hundreds of hours.

They came up with separate territories for the show and game. The show is set in St. Louis, where political intrigue is the norm. The game is set in San Francisco, where combat is the reality.

As the game reaches its launch, all of the resources at Trion are being directed at it. That’s more than 500 people.

The good thing about the collaboration is that everybody in the game and TV audiences will hear about this show, given the publicity plans. And that means everyone is going to be there to cheer its success or watch it go down in flames.

Check out the latest trailer for the game below.

Defiance demo trailer from VentureBeat on Vimeo.

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