The 2013-14 Upfront

Syfy Bets $105m on a TV Series and Video Game [Updated]

Takes big swing on apocalyptic space Western

That long gestation period helped bring about some unique opportunities. For one thing, the show’s been in development longer than Syfy has been owned by Comcast. Howe says that’s a good thing. “What’s really fantastic is that Comcast and the new owners, even more than the old owners, have made it a big priority,” he says. “They see it as the way this business will evolve—with broadband video game components and a TV component.”

Why is that good? Because Defiance is a lot of different things at once—and each one affords Comcast the chance to make money. Being a TV series, it requires you to have a cable connection to watch it live (Comcast sells those). The series is expected to attract young male viewers, creating valuable ad opportunities (Syfy sells advertising). But it’s also a very complicated video game, which dumps users into a lush world that changes as the series progresses. Without a fat broadband connection, the game’s punishing duels with hordes of other players just won’t be as fun or rewarding. Beef up your Internet bandwidth, worry less about lag screwing up your aim while you’re trying to pick off a college student in Arizona with your grenade launcher (Comcast sells web access, too—branding for its all-in-one package Xfinity is all over Defiance).

Not that there aren’t plenty of chances for Defiance to bite Comcast in the backside. Massively multiplayer online games are notoriously tough sells—they’re usually subscriber-fee-based business models, in which the player buys the game and then pays to participate in the virtual world. Defiance isn’t sub-based, which could be an advantage, but lessens the revenue potential.

Quick sidebar: For every one success story like World of Warcraft, which has 10 million subscribers, there are five games like Star Wars: The Old Republic, a game developed by BioWare, creators of the much-admired Mass Effect games. SW:TOR used an unbeatable license and an all-pro dev team, and went free-to-play after a $200 million outlay and less than a year’s worth of subscriber fees when subscriptions dropped way under 1 million. Publisher EA claims the game made money, but it certainly didn’t meet expectations.

Put another way, it’s one thing to ask for 12 hours of a gamer’s time spread over a few weeks; it’s quite another to create an open-ended product. Defiance hopes to circumvent the drop-off in interest with which most MMO games struggle by tying events in the game to events in the series. The show is set in a dystopian St. Louis while the game takes place around the ruins of San Francisco, but Trion has what the company’s svp of development Nick Beliaeff calls “about a dozen patents protected” around the game’s rendering software. Briefly, most games load up a series of equations onto your computer or console that tell it how and when to draw the world. Some very complex equations allow for changes and movement, while everything else in the world might as well be bolted to the ground.

With Defiance, your computer or game box renders the world, but Trion’s servers can tell anything and everything where to go and why, and it will change across millions (hopefully) of computers around the country and the world. “It allows us to take an asset like an enemy [and] move anything anywhere,” Beliaeff explains. “We can change the stacks on the fly, and it’s all invisible to the players.”

If there’s, say, an earthquake in San Francisco in the show, players can boot up immediately after Trion tells the game, “Hey, there’s been an earthquake,” and buildings and trees will have fallen over or tipped sideways. Even better, if Trion wants to have a tornado rip through the world in the middle of everyone’s game, it will happen.

Jeff Gomez, who did world-building consulting for both the Halo video game series and James Cameron’s Avatar, says that the project’s novelty may be its Achilles’ heel. “This is unprecedented,” he says. “It is by no means easy to do, and I’m personally not certain that it’ll be done well. But I certainly give Syfy and [Trion] high marks for making the attempt. A specific effort is being made to match the story canons up to one another, and that’s noble.”

The development cycle had its speed bumps. In the end, some of the negotiations over the complexity in the game versus the effects in the show were handled as a hostage exchange: You give us jetpacks, we’ll give you horses and nobody gets hurt. “They really didn’t want to do horses in our world,” sighs Mark Stern, president of programming for Syfy—the critters present too big a target for this kind of game. “So the agreement was, ‘OK, as long as you agree to no flying, we’ll agree to no horses.’”

The stakeholders still fantasize about their perfect version. “We wanted flying vehicles, and Mark and his crew were like, ‘Screw flying, it’ll blow up our CG budget,’” grumbles Beliaeff. “So we ended up creating this whole mythology where the Ark ships blew up and that created this low-flying asteroid field that made flying in the world impossible.”

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