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.

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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.

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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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