by Andrew Yoon, shacknews.com, May 22, 2012 6:00AM PDT
"Defy everything you know about conventional storytelling." I can't recall the number of hyperbolic statements I overheard at a recent preview event for Trion Worlds' next MMO, Defiance. The word "revolutionary" was thrown around quite a bit, and as with any self-proclaimed revolution, I was skeptical.
Unfortunately for this jaded writer, Defiance is revolutionary. The upcoming MMO shooter developed by Trion Worlds isn't a game "based on" or "inspired" by Syfy's upcoming new show--it's being built as an integral part of transmedia story. While many properties have attempted convergence between cinema and gaming, the persistent world of Defiance offers an opportunity to create something genuinely new.
Defiance is both a new game and a new TV show. It's a world where, after decades of war, humans and aliens coexist in a devastated, terraformed planet. The show follows the lives of characters in St. Louis, while the game focuses on the struggles of a post-alien invasion San Francisco. Because both the TV show and game run on a schedule, their stories can intertwine immediately, with characters from the show appearing in the game and vice versa. In many ways, Defiance represents Syfy's desire to have people move away from DVR and Netflix, and remember an era when new episodes were events worth tuning into. "It's true appointment viewing. If you're not watching on a Monday night when we air Defiance, then you will miss that storyline that's referenced in the game," Dave Howe, president of Syfy, told Shacknews in an interview.
The synergy between the two extensions of this universe is certainly novel, but there are clear logistical limitations as to what's possible. TV shows are filmed months before they air, so is it possible for events in the game to affect the show in a meaningful way? The answer is "not really," as the producers are unlikely to shoot alternate scenes and throw certain outcomes on the cutting room floor due to decisions players make in the game. Rather, the nods to players will be rather minor. For example, if John "XboxLover87" Smith is the first to complete a specific mission in the game, he might be namedropped by one of the characters in the show. However, the producers are hoping that bigger game decisions will impact the storyline of a season two, when the show goes on hiatus. "For season two, we're cautiously optimistic and confident that we'll be able to be more responsive to stuff in the game," Howe said.
The transmedia vision for Defiance is certainly impressive, but how is the actual game? The game is an ambitious undertaking, even without the ties to a potentially ongoing TV series. Developed by Trion Worlds, Defiance the game is a MMO shooter, meant to feature thousands of players in a persistent world--across all three platforms. Amazingly, I saw the game running not only on a PC, but on an Xbox 360 and a PlayStation 3 as well. Players won't be able to play against each other, however, as the platform holders won't open up their gated community to other networks. It's an incredible technical achievement--but that's about it.
As a shooter, Defiance is certainly competent and fun enough, but nothing truly spectacular. It's easy navigate the environment thanks to the ability to summon a buggy at the press of a button. However, encounters against AI enemies are rather standard affairs. There isn't much depth outside of running, gunning, and throwing the occasional grenade. One instance we were thrown into had us collectively fighting a giant insect boss that could summon minions. With a huge amount of HP, it became a bit of a chore, emptying clip after clip into the boss' glowing, obvious weak point.
While it's unlikely to take players away from Call of Duty, "fun enough" might be all fans really need, should Defiance take off as a show. The quality of the game won't necessarily determine the fate of this online world. Instead, it's the business model that will ultimately attract players. Will this be a boxed product? Will it have a subscription fee? Will it be free-to-play? Unfortunately, I couldn't get an answer from Trion. Given whatever plan they choose needs to meet the requirements for PlayStation Network and Xbox Live, is free-to-play even an option? "If you look at what Trion did with Rift... and what we're doing with End of Nations, we don't really have religion about one business model or another," Trion's Nick Beliaeff told us. "What we decide for Defiance will make a lot of sense."
Defiance will be available on PC, Xbox 360, and PS3 in April 2013. Season one of the show will air over twelve episodes next year on Syfy.
Watch the Shacknews E3 2012 page to follow all our coverage of this year's show. This preview is based on a hands-on demo shown at a pre-E3 event.