Defiance and the challenges of transmedia storytelling

We speak to Syfy's Mark Stern and Trion Worlds' Nicholas Beliaeff about the upcoming MMO shooter and the accompanying TV series.

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On April 2, Rift developer Trion Worlds will launch a new project five years in the making, an open world, multiplatform MMO shooter developed alongside a global television series on US network Syfy.

Defiance is set in the San Francisco Bay Area in a futuristic time period where Earth been dramatically changed by alien terraforming. The TV series will take place in St Louis.

The open-world online title will launch on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC on April 2, while the accompanying Defiance TV show, which will change its storyline based on the game, will debut on April 15 on Syfy.

We caught up with Defiance creators Mark Stern, president of original programming at Syfy, and Nick Beliaeff, vice president of production at Trion Worlds, at the 2013 DICE Summit to talk about the challenges of transmedia storytelling and giving audiences an altogether different kind of experience.

This idea of doing a game and a TV show at the same time, and having one feed off the other: what's the benefit of this kind of partnership? Is this how all content will be consumed in the future?

Mark: I guess the benefit is bringing in a new audience for each of our respective platforms. So we get the gaming audience, and Nick gets the television audience. It's also about extending a mythology and watching it evolve organically between platforms.

What did you learn from each other and each other's medium in the process of making Defiance?

Nick: I don't think we would have done Defiance if we weren't working with Mark and Syfy. Once they began filming the pilot for the series, just seeing the images of the world really hit home, and at that point in time, we did not have an in-game cinematic engine to be able to do cut-scenes. But once we saw how great everything looked on screen, we decided we needed cut-scenes in the game, and it inspired us to develop the technology to allow us to do that. So we ended up with over 120 movies because of that. There's a way the show communicates with its audience; for us, it's a powerful mechanism that we wanted to replicate. We hired people we didn't plan on hiring, and we built technology we had no plans of building, but in the end we have a better game because of it.

Mark: For Syfy, it's been good to learn a whole different process of working in another creative discipline. I think people assume that television is easy, especially genre television, and I think I had some of the same misconceptions about games. It's just pixels--how hard can it be? But I really got schooled on exactly what goes into making a game, and Trion proved me wrong.

How much collaboration was there between Trion and Syfy? Where did it all start?

Nick: We didn't work in the same space, but we never shut the communication off. A few times, we let it go astray and when we checked back in, it was clear we had each gone off in a different direction, so we had to go back to the start.

But by the time Mark and his team got to the point of writing episodes, they were exposing us to the scripts and engaged us in conversations about what was happening, which was necessary to make sure we were on the same page.

Mark: When we first came up with the idea, we had a huge conversation to work out the mythology of Defiance, the rules of the world, the characters, and so on. Then each team went away and built their stuff; we were working on the pilot episode for years while Trion was working on the game. We'd have periodic check-ins, but it wasn't really until the last 18 months that things really ramped up and we started working more and more in tandem.

Nick: No one was prepared for this way of working because it hadn't really been done before. If you look at all the development we'd done with Syfy up to that point, it was really a handful of people on Mark's side, but we were growing our core team from 10, 15 people to 50 and then to 100, and so the majority of the stuff that you could actually see and play was all happening at our end for a really long time. So we were feeling a little bit like we were in the leadership seat.

And then we saw the first daily and thought, "Shit, this just got real". And then Mark and his team were blazing ahead, and we had to play catch-up. Each team was motivated by what the other was doing.

So who came up with the idea for Defiance first?

Nick: The idea of having a game and a show that would interact with each other started with Syfy. We had this relationship with them through our corporate parents, so it was natural to be introduced to one another and scope out if it could be a working relationship. When we were developing concepts, we took in a lot of the initial world-building and pitched it back to them, and we ended up with Defiance.

What's the pay-off for the audience with this kind of transmedia project? What do they get out of it?

Nick: It's a completely different approach. Both the game and the television show will move together. As a game developer, we want the benefit of a tie-in with this top-notch TV show, where it can bring in a new audience for us and give the people that play our game an added element.

Mark: The gaming audience is an untapped market for us. That's a hard demo for us to tap into, and with Defiance, we found a way in. The good thing is that both game and TV show operate separately, as well as together, so as a consumer, you can live in one world or the other, or both.

Nick: There's also the creative challenge of attempting this kind of project. We both want our respective projects to do well--it's important that we make a good game and that Mark and his team make a good show--but we also want to see if this will work on a larger scale and what will come of that. We're interested to see how audiences will react.

How will the game and television show feed into each other over time?

Mark: We'll send characters from the series into the game world and have all sorts of crossovers of big events, and some subtle ones, too. So for example, audiences may be introduced to a character with his or her personality in the game, and then see them later in the show and already know their motivations, etc. Or there might be a character in the show with a small episode ark that later moves into the game and has a bigger part to play.

Nick: And then comes back to the show.

Mark: But the whole thing is timed. So we know the show's schedule. It's not like the episode ends at 9:05 p.m. and at 9:06 p.m. the game reacts. It's a North American and European simultaneous launch, so there's a time shift. So some things are rubber-banding, but other things, like bigger story arcs, which will play out in the show and players will have a week to catch up before the game reacts.

Can you tell us a bit more about the game, and how the gameplay will work?

Nick: It's very broad in terms of what you can do. There's a mission arc that takes the player through the season one story; but there are also a bunch of side missions, which are optional; different levels of content; heaps and heaps of co-op missions; challenges that you stumble upon; mini-games; and so on. There will be thousands of players in this open world. We also have specific co-op maps and special rewards for people who watch the show and play the game.

Mark: Yeah, like for example, one episode of the show deals with a particular enemy type, and anyone who watches that episode will immediately know how to defeat that enemy type when it appears in the game a week later.

What are your expectations with Defiance? Are you leading the way towards a new type of format and breaking new ground?

Nick: We're definitely breaking new ground. We've gone through this five year journey to make Defiance, and I don't think this is something that everyone can do. You really have to be dedicated. To have two different companies work together towards the same goals…well, that's not normal business.

I think we're doing something neat, and I hope we open the door for other people to do similar sort of things, but I don't think this is going to become a model by which everyone will work in the industry because you have to have the will to do it.

There's definitely a move towards more multiplatform, multi-screen games, and even in television, audiences are demanding more and more interactive content. So there definitely seems to be potential for more of this stuff in the future.

Nick: Exactly. And even if people don't necessarily follow our example step-by-step, they can at least take a step back and look at what we did, and examine how their way of doing business might allow them to do a similar thing. Change is good, and it's going to lead to a better way of doing things in the game industry.

Mark: Hopefully Defiance and everything we've built around it will become an inspirational tale, rather than a cautionary one.

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31 comments
Xmediapeppers
Xmediapeppers

Defiance adv campaign is strictly focused on the transmedia side of the project: 'watch the show, explore the game. change the world'.
But transmedia is not something worthviewing in itself...the story is generally the thing an audience cares about,and moreover the way the story is being told...these are crucial elements for the success of a franchise, more than the transmedia storytelling technicalities...i think it's a little bit toughtless focus the communication campaing on these aspects, probably most intriguing for those in the industry than for gamers or syfy audience...
imho

AncientDozer
AncientDozer

Maybe. But I hope to see more than just events and characters cross over. What if there's a prominent guild (that role plays) or what if a player becomes famous? What happens if there's a really clever inside joke that goes around?

What if the players try to create a new world government through politics of fighting?

What if one faction gets significantly more players than the other?

Eragon55
Eragon55

Borderlands meets Halo...I'm in. 

ObxChillin
ObxChillin

See how well this MMO will be on the 360. If it runs good il buy it.

Double_Wide
Double_Wide

As long as it come free to play (of course with microtransations), I'm still excited about it

OurSin-360
OurSin-360

I bet this is why Alpaha's and sanctuary got cancelled, wonder if Warehouse 13 will get the same treatment now since they seem to be dumping money into this instead of keeping up with the good shows they already had going. 

USAPATRIOT21
USAPATRIOT21

I'm just happy that they're trying something bold and different with the crossover. I'll give it a shot

nick-nikol
nick-nikol

Not interested. The game looks like a POLITE HALO 1 BUT ON THE OTHER HAND WHO KNOWS GOD WORKS IN PECULIAR WAYS. THIS ISN'T MASTER CHEF YOU KNOW!

MJ12-Conspiracy
MJ12-Conspiracy

I've seen some footage of the game, it looks like MAG, IDK, I just dislike competitive MP anymore, Free 4 All, Team DM, CTF it's all been done before and honestly it's boring anymore.What i wouldn't mind is coop like Borderlands where everyone on your team has abilities that help out. 

As far as the show goes, I'll give it a shot but I'll be surprised if it's good....SYFY [dumb name] hasn't impressed me in awhile. 

Rooten
Rooten

I'll watch the TV Serie for sure, it looks interesting but the game, I don't know. I tried both beta 1 and beta 2 and I was not that impress (on PC). I think the gameplay was boring and AI sometime was a little bit stupid. (yeah its a beta, they need to fix thing, etc). Beta 3 is coming I guess in March, so will give it a third try and I will play the game when it will be release, and again I'll see there if I will still play or not. (I played some beta that s**ks in the pass and when the game got release, it was awesome, so we never know). Multiplayer was fun. Anywais I'm waiting for both, the TV series and the game and will see if I love it or not ;)

Adavanter
Adavanter

I have mild interest in the show and zero interest in the game. Here's hoping one of them is worth my time. I feel bad for all involved if this is a flop. That's a lot of money/jobs lost.

JamDev
JamDev

I'm sure the TV series will be cheesy as hell, but game looks like it might be fun.

666NightsInHell
666NightsInHell

Trion should bring back End of nations development better, everyone is sick of brainless fps and this one was very bad when im tested, super bugged, hardly launched, ugly looking characters, deaths without animation, just splashes, i not believe in syfy, their movies is trash,dont know any good yet!

P.S.

Trailer is stupid and cheap!

Sarijon
Sarijon

if the actors 'acting' is an indication as to the game play then this looks dreadful!

Pierce_Sparrow
Pierce_Sparrow

So, I've been playing the beta and now alpha for a while and this game is a ton of fun as it already is. The action is fantastic, as is the gameplay. It's active 3rd person shooter, so no auto attacking stuff. Not really an rpg in the traditional sense, as there's no real rpg elements, but you have a ton of weapons to find and use. The vehicle aspect is also fantastic. The story is really good and very interesting as it's a sci-fi story told through cut scenes with great voice acting and very interesting characters. It reminds you of the best kinds of sci-fi TV shows. The co-op is pretty great as well and closely resembles Guild Wars 2 in being able to just jump into a battle with other people. So, basically, if two people go to the same area to complete the same mission, you will both be able to help each other out in firefights. The mission isn't shared, but you can go into combat with each other. Overall, I am very eager to see if this project succeeds, as this is the first RPG in a long time (excluding Guild Wars 2) that has me interested. It's a lot of fun so far and the ideas behind the content being continuous due the show and game intertwining is pretty damn cool. I should also mention that all the places in game are real world places, if that interests you. Living in the backyard of the San Francisco Bay Area, it's pretty cool to be fighting in an area I know of and have been to. Anyway, if anyone gets the chance to play the beta do so. I know the game doesn't seem like much, but it really is a ton of fun to play.

sirdukefillion
sirdukefillion

this looks awesome unfortunately I missed the beta event I got invited to so i have no idea if its fun or not (well at least in its current state). 

pitosga
pitosga

Well, at the very least, they've merit in trying. Pioneering is admirable, especially when the richest studios steer clear of the creative route.
That said, I'm not expecting much. But certainly hope they succeed.

jessie82
jessie82

first thing i thought of was APB and if its anything like that i dont have any high hopes

samrvdman
samrvdman

I have such high hopes for this game, I really think this whole MMORPG 3rd person shooter, mix between fallout/borderlands/ post-apocolyptic themes/and like APB or other MMO's could be fantastic, all the trailers have looked great. Unfortunately, I think the marketing of this game has been horrible. Everyone should be pumped for this game, especially if it gets good reviews, but every time i talk to someone about it, they look at me and say, "never heard of it"

JLCrogue
JLCrogue

This could potentially be a great game. I want to pre-order it so I can play the beta and get that "exclusive" content, but I did that for the original APB because I had high hopes for that game... and I regretted it.

LpcWarrior
LpcWarrior

Hope the game is as good as they make it sound. 

Poodger
Poodger

This is the first i have heard of this. I think the idea is unique and very cool, but it also seems very vulnerable to flopping.

MagikNesquik
MagikNesquik

@nick-nikol stop talking about halo bf3 call of crappy or other s*** like that its a fantastic mmo free to play with amazing coop big war games up to 100 players with npc's screwing everything in the middle of all this !!! U OR EVERYBODE ELSE NEED TO KNOW MORE ABOUT THIS FANTASTIC GAMES !!!

WolfBladeKK
WolfBladeKK

It stands for science fiction if you didn't know and it used to be abbreviated as Sci-Fi.

edgie18
edgie18

@666NightsInHell If you've beta tested this then why have you called it a fps, when in fact its a 3rd person shooter not first.

AncientDozer
AncientDozer

@WolfBladeKK 

And.a s he said, it's a dumb name. Just like Radio Shack trying to rebrand itself as "the shack" but failed.