Defiance is bridging the gap between TV and games; here’s how, and lessons learned along the way
Disclosure: Trion paid for air travel and a two-night hotel stay. We've talked about Trion's Defiance, and how it blends MMOs, RPGs, and third-person shooters into a fun and capable game, even if it is chock-full of bugs, and how its designs and conventions make it the closest we may get to a Borderlands MMO. Now it's time to talk about Defiance, the TV show, coming April 15 to SyFy.
Here's a little inside peek at what happens during most press junkets: we enter a room, take our seats, watch someone speak about the game in question's features, or watch them introduce a short trailer, or listen through a PowerPoint presentation.
What we don't typically do is sit down to watch a two-hour premiere episode of an upcoming SyFy channel show, produced by a regular director of Battlestar Galactica (the 2000's version), directed by Scott Stuart, director of the 2011 film, Priest.
But such is the nature of Defiance, which crosses the boundaries between TV and games; to have one without understanding the other is to deprive yourself, and that's a hook SyFy and Trion are counting on to bring in viewers and gamers. It's working.
Warning: Some spoilers for the first episode of Defiance to follow:
The pilot episode of Defiance introduces an Earth, 33 years post-alien arrival. The aliens came not to conquer, but escape the collapse of their solar system. At some point, negotiations with Earth to share resources turned sour, thus beginning The Pale Wars. The Arks on which the aliens – collectively known as the Votan – fled were destroyed and fell to Earth, releasing terraforming technology that has made the planet neither completely alien, nor completely home.
Our main characters are Nolan and Irisa. Nolan is a scavenger and veteran of The Pale Wars, while Irisa is a war orphan and Nolan's adopted daughter. Nolan is human, while Irisa is Irathient – one of the Votan races. One of Nolan and Irisa's scavenging runs turns sour, and they flee into the woods. There, they're picked up by a Lawkeeper from the nearby town of Defiance. The two recover from their wounds, but aren't allowed to leave until they've earned enough money.The town is largely supported by two families: the Tarr family, who are a pale and yellow-eyed race known as the Castithans, and the McCawley family, humans who own and help operate the local mine. Graham Greene, who you may know as Kicking Bird from Dances With Wolves, plays Rafe McCawley, the father of the family, while two ladies from Showtime's Dexter - Jaime Murray and Julie Benz - have been tapped as well, so there's a good collection of strong talent.
Unfortunately, the two families have a Hatfields/McCoys thing going on, and a crime is committed, leaving a McCawley and the town Lawkeeper dead. Nolan takes the opportunity as a means to make the cash he needs to leave, but by the end of the episode, he has a change of heart, and is deemed the new Lawkeeper, with Irisa acting as his Deputy.
There's a good number of action sequences, some universe-specific slang – everyone seems to be replacing “shit” with “shtocko,” for example – and even a funny one-liner or two. At one point, Nolan sits down at a poker table to get everyone's attention on him, and when a goon tries to remove him, Nolan elbows him in the crotch, then slams his head down on the table. Nolan calmly turns to the boss of the henchmen and says plainly, “Sorry. He startled me.”
The show feels like a mix of Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, Gangs of New York, and Mad Max. Read over that list and ponder the possibilities. Would you watch that show? I would.
So the show is good, but what does that mean for the game? I talked with Nicholas Beliaeff, Senior Vice President of Development for Trion, to find out. “What enables us to do everything we can, on the show or in the game, is that from the first day, we've been working together to make this happen,” Beliaeff told me. “It wasn't something where the show is based on the game, or the game is based on the show, it's that Trion and SyFy decided making a game and a show that interact with one another would be really cool, and [we've been] figuring out the best way to do it.”
Beliaeff said that in the early stages of planning, SyFy would send Trion scripts. Unfortunately, none of the scripts were, as Beliaeff put it, “robust” enough to support a game, and despite numerous rewrites and revisions, nothing seemed to be putting them closer to that goal.
“Having it happen once or twice, you think, 'Okay, maybe that cup of soup's not your flavor.' Once we got to six or eight times, SyFy started getting frustrated. As they should be, right?” Beliaeff asked me. “They kept sending us scripts, and they were like, 'We're greenlighting the show, we're gonna spend hundreds of thousands, if not a million dollars behind this idea,' and we're like, '...Eh.'”
The problem was that games and television don't just come to people differently, they're made differently. While a video game might spend its early months coming up with an art direction and creating preliminary renders, costuming and visual effects are two of the last things to be implemented when creating a show. Trion and SyFy couldn't see these differences until they sat down, and made it a mission to start speaking on the same wavelength.
“We had this meeting at E3 four years ago, where it was our guys and our art director, the president of SyFy, and the president of creative, and we're trying to get them to sign off on cast-able aliens,” Beliaeff told me. This was where he realized the practicality of casting for a major television show, and the hurdles his team would have to overcome.Original race designs showed creatures in the range of more than 7 feet tall to 3 feet tall, with all manner of protrusions and strange proportions. SyFy explained how difficult it would be to cast characters of such varying size en masse, and that budget wouldn't allow for such complexity in terms of each race's physical aspects. Trion had to go back to the drawing board, and look at what would work for television, not just what would work in their game.
“One of the lessons they shared with us – and this was over five years ago, when Battlestar Galactica was just kicking ass – the big thing they had really learned were the skin jobs,” Beliaeff told me. “The most popular Cylons were the ones with the human shell and not the mechanical ones. It was because you could relate to the face. You could see the emotion and everything else.” When Trion returned and came back with new race designs, all of them were bipedal humanoids, with front-facing eyes and facial features.
Over time, more features changed, and the teams at SyFy and Trion swapped many more lessons. SyFy tasked Trion with the creation of the world's visual assets, since the game needed them before the show would. Trion added cutscenes to the Defiance game, to help keep a sense of continuity to the show.
“We're at the end now, but there's five years of history that have gone into this,” Beliaeff told me. “It's like a sausage factory; we know everything that goes into making the sausage, players are just gonna get tasty, tasty sausage.”
Tune in next week
As we mentioned in our preview of the Defiance game, it's not just visual tie-ins that connect the universe of the SyFy television show with the world of the Trion video game: the two progress through time at roughly the same pace, meaning that an event in one medium can affect the other.
Beliaeff gave an example of a plague taking hold in the Defiance TV show, which would kick off a series of supply runs for players in the game. The following week's episode, the town would receive the supplies, and the players would know they had contributed. But, I wondered, doesn't that mean players are only being given an illusion of agency?
“It's not choose your own adventure. It's not, 'Go in the canyon, turn to page 42; don't go in the canyon, turn to page 68.' I think that's something we wanted to avoid,” Beliaeff said. “We want the players to feel that power and impact on the world, what we don't want them doing is writing an episode. That's not necessarily going to make good TV.”
“That's the myth of user-generated content. Oh, it's gonna be awesome and people love it. Go to any mod community: 1% of the stuff is awesome, and the other 99% is… there. We don't want that. In the end, we want both of these to be top-notch, quality experiences people are going to fall in love with.”
I asked Beliaeff what Trion would do if, say hypothetically, every player of Defiance united in a refusal to advance the plot. You know, just to see what happens, as groups on the Internet are prone to do.
“If you get a playerbase where they go on strike and won't progress the world forward, it's because you made a bad game, or pissed them off,” he said. “Make a good game, and they're gonna have fun. They're gonna want to do it, they're gonna want to see how it plays out, they're gonna want to participate.”