I was reading an article on the front page of the New York Times today and saw a banner ad above it. It was for Defiance, the new transmedia project that’s a TV show on the Syfy Channel and online game from Trion Worlds.
As we were warned by the producers, Defiance is going to be inescapable. If you’re breathing, you’re going to hear about it. NBC Universal heavily advertised the television series pilot, and it seems to have paid off. The show drew 2.7 million viewers on Monday, and it was the most-watched scripted Syfy premiere since 2006.
A marketing juggernaut
The stars, like Grant Bowler (Nolan), are on the talk-show circuit. And Defiance earned a lot of “social exposure,” as measured by Syfy. I thought the opener was good, but I said it was no Game of Thrones. In fact, the premiere of Defiance outperformed Game of Thrones on its own premiere day. Syfy hasn’t had a show this hot since Eureka, and its second-screen tablet app posted its best day ever with the debut. The digital stats in terms of uniques, page views, and visits are stellar.
Meanwhile, the massively multiplayer online game has scored 6 million hours of playtime since the launch two weeks ago. I’ve poured around 10 hours into it myself. This transmedia — or a story that is told in more than one medium — has to be considered a success in terms of its ability to grab attention even though it appeared on the same day as the Boston bombings.
Can it last?
But the nagging question remains for me. Was it worth it? Will it last? This $100 million-plus project (the budget for both the $70 million game and the TV series with its 12 episodes) was in the works for more than five years. It occupied the time of hundreds of game developers and show creators.
In my view, the show is good, and the game is good. The cast is talented, and the special effects are respectable. But they weren’t outstanding. And with so little time on my hands these days, I won’t give a lot of time to entertainment that is just good. On TV, especially on Monday nights, the show doesn’t have a ton of competition. But when it comes to games, I have endless choices now.
That’s why the launch of the game was particularly important, and it is bad news that it had a lot of hiccups. A lot of players complained that they couldn’t get into the game. Trion took down the Xbox 360 and PC versions for part of Monday due to problems with a patch. You would think that after five years of planning, these technical issues wouldn’t happen. But it seems on par with the launch of major games these days.
The question is whether the TV show is good enough to keep the players interested even though the game’s launch could have been better. The next TV episode comes on April 22. The show will be critical in determining the fate of the transmedia project. If the audience grows — thanks to word of mouth and the ubiquitous marketing — the franchise could still be a hit.
Trion appears to understand what is at stake. When I took a couple of nights off, Trion sent me an email saying it wanted “to make amends for some of the tech issues at launch.” It gave me a bunch of virtual credits to help my progress in the game. Trion said it was “working around the clock to deliver a gaming experience that exceeds fan expectations.” It said a massive patch was coming to improve server and client stability and a bunch of other fixes.
That ability to fix problems shows the company is willing to invest in the game as an ongoing service. I am glad for that, and it may make me stick around for longer.
Players themselves appear to be strongly engaged, according to player statistics gathered by the gamer social network Raptr. In the first week, the average Defiance player on the PC played for 15.1 hours. They played for 2.2 hours each session, and played 6.8 sessions during the week. Xbox 360 player stats were similarly strong. In the second week, play time was 14 hours, 2.2 hours each session, and 6.3 sessions per week. Those are strong results that show no sign of weakness.
So, how does it play?
For those who have seen just the TV show, it may be worth it to wait until the game bugs are squashed.
I share many of the same feelings that my fellow GamesBeat writer Stefanie Fogel expressed in her initial impressions. The standard enemies in this game are really stupid while bosses are impossibly tough. On Metacritic, a review aggregator, the game has a weak 63 out of 100 score, and it’s gotten weaker as more reviews come in. (The TV show has a rating of 55 out of 100.)
The game is different because it is a third-person shooter where you can level up in many different ways. It’s not your typical role-playing game in that respect. The dynamic events can spice things up, creating big headaches — and opportunities to collect a lot of loot — where there weren’t any before.
My view is that the story of the game is compelling enough to keep you playing. You have to protect an important (but arrogant) scientist and his work from falling into the wrong hands. And you have to unravel a mystery in parallel to the mystery in the show. I’m not going to argue with people who say the story is terrible, like in a B movie. But I have to admit that it’s why I have continued to play.
Some nice touches make the game fun. The third-person combat is fast-paced and entertaining. Like with Borderlands 2, you have all sorts of ways to level up your character, weapons, vehicles, and special abilities. The open world gives you a ton of choice on which missions to pursue. You can follow a straight path on the main missions or deviate into side missions. And it’s easy to get around. You can press a single key on the keyboard to call up your vehicle, and then you can jump into it and zoom off to your next destination. You aren’t doomed to walk through the cool future landscape of the Marin headlands.
But there are also drawbacks that tell you the game has been five years in the making. Like Electronic Arts’ Star Wars: The Old Republic, the 3D graphics look like time has passed them by. The facial animations and the outlines of the bodies aren’t as smooth as they could be. Offline games still look a lot better.
And the experience isn’t all that good. I have had to replay some missions as well because the game wasn’t smart enough to figure out that I had already completed them. Some of the missions are difficult enough to get my blood flowing.
But other tasks are so difficult for the level of my character that I wish I had some gigantic gun at my disposal to take care of the problem. Those are the missions where I enjoy having a human companion to help me. Others are way too easy, with enemy A.I. that are incredibly easy to outflank. The balance isn’t there.
The dynamic events, where lots of human players converge on a single alien incursion, are fun to join. Dozens of players can converge on a single area and band together to stop the attackers. You feel like you are working toward a common goal, and you don’t have to worry that those players are going to steal your loot. I also like the fact that, when I’m driving down the road, there is no way I will hit another human player’s vehicle. I just pass right through them.
But each of these dynamic events plays out the same, and they don’t seem to be connected to the story at all. That’s a lost opportunity to make the missions more meaningful.
I know there is a connection to the TV show and its characters. By playing the game, I can become steeped in the lore of the show. But the connection seems too loose right now. I understand that both the show and the game have to stand on their own and attract fans who will enjoy one but not bother with the other. But there should be more rewards for those who both watch the show and play the game. I hear these are coming, but I don’t want to put 30 or more hours into the game before I figure out if it’s worth it.
I’m not your classic massively multiplayer online (MMO) fan in that regard. I am impatient. For this game to be a success and to generate a payback on those five years of investment, it has to reach people like me and convince us to stick around not just for a couple of weeks but for a number of months. Right now, I don’t see myself doing that. I just want to solve a mystery or two and then escape.
But I’ll give Trion this much. There’s room for improvement. The game can be polished. If the company is holding back anything on the experience for later on, it should consider releasing it sooner rather than later. This game isn’t doomed. But it has to be fixed.
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