One of the grand experiments in all of gaming is going even more experimental. Trion Worlds is announcing today that its Defiance massively multiplayer online game is going free-to-play this summer. If enough people join and purchase goods via microtransactions, then the shift to free-to-play could revive the fortunes of the game and boost demand for the SyFy television show that accompanies it.

Defiance has been a commercial disappointment, launching last year to poor reviews after five years of development. But it has a shot at a revival as season two of the TV show begins this summer. Trion Worlds has kept plugging away at it, improving the game experience and making it more engaging with downloadable content, said Scott Hartsman, the chief executive of Redwood City, Calif.-based Trion, in an interview with GamesBeat.

“It is time to open the game up wide to bigger audiences,” Hartsman said. “It has a much better focus.”

In shifting away from “buy-to-play” fees, Trion is moving in step with the inexorable trend of gaming. Free-to-play has taken hold as the preferred model for consuming games in social, mobile, and online titles. Only a handful of online games, like Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft, are able to continue charging for subscriptions. Defiance required an upfront purchase, and then most content in the game was available for free.

Defiance had some huge advantages as it was jointly developed alongside a major SyFy TV show. The show was a hit, but the game was buggy. It was also confusing as it combined genres like an MMO, role-playing game, and first-person shooter. The game didn’t generate the kind of audiences that everyone expected, and it triggered some big management changes such as the appointment of Hartsman, who headed the development of Trion’s first fantasy MMO, Rift. Hartsman said Rift’s move to free-to-play has paid off enormously. Other Trion games are also going free-to-play.

Hartsman said that the process of converting Defiance to free-to-play has been easier since Rift already made that transition and Trion learned how to do it right. He said that the DLC helped sharpen the game’s focus on huge dynamic events, where hundreds of players gather in one area to fight giant bosses. The events are dynamic because they are sort of like tornadoes. They can touch down on any part of the game world.

Hartsman isn’t saying how many people are playing the game, but he acknowledges it has gone through a pivot.

“The amount of ambition in the original game gave it an identity issue,” Hartsman said. “We hammered it with DLC and shifted it toward massive player-versus-environment dynamic events. That paid off.”

In Defiance, the story centers on a Wild West town where the survivors of a post-apocalypse earth gather together. Alien and human races coexist in the town, and they team up to deal with monstrous threats. They constantly search for powerful alien technology that is essential for survival in the online world. The online game is set in a different town, and it evolves as a service, with a separate storyline that occasionally crosses over with the TV show.

Defiance goes free-to-play on the PC on June 4. Trion is targeting July 15 on the PlayStation 3, and it is still discussing details about the Xbox 360 release. New players will be able to play the entire Bay Area storyline, original end-game content, and future missions completely for free. ¬†Players who purchase a new box or digital copy of Defiance will get bonuses such as a grant of 1,000 Arkforge, a game currency that is redeemable for resetting weapon mastery or upgrading a weapon’s power rating.

They will also get four character slots, five weapon loadouts, up to 75 Ark Keycodes, and 70 inventory slots. They will also enjoy 30 days of Paradise Patron status (which boosts skills, reputation, and other features) when Defiance begins its free-to-play service. Players can also get a 10 percent store-wide discount on things like boosts, costumes, and lock boxes.

Most of the things you get with the payment can be earned in the game by playing, but they take time, Hartsman said. In-app purchases are aimed mostly at convenience, cosmetics, and fun. It is not going to be a “pay to win” game, he said.

“In-app purchases are optional,” he said. “There are no tricks or traps. When you pay money for something in the future, we want you to feel happy. Some companies put up a brick wall where you have to pay to advance further. Others make you pay to make the hurting stop. Here, when you buy a thing, you know it has value. That is the model we used with Rift.”

Meanwhile, SyFy is readying 13 new episodes of the TV show, and it is also doing webisodes as a prelude to the season two launch. The game’s storyline will cross over with the TV show in the coming weeks. In the latest twist, the world of Defiance will be rocked when the hope of Tranquility, the first Earthling-Votan hybrid on record, lies dying in Eren’s emergency facility. As players track down the half-human and half-alien crossbreed’s medical history, they will discover other forces are working to cover them up for a dark purpose.

Defiance has limited competition coming from games like Bungie’s Destiny, but Hartsman said Defiance’s MMO-shooter hybrid is unique.

“We are the only standing entry where you have massive battles with hundreds of people in an open world,” he said. “That is the thing we hung our hat on.”


Above: Defiance

Image Credit: Trion Worlds