If someone asked you to quickly think of a video game that was based off of a movie, or TV series, it would most likely instantly invoke unpleasant thoughts of hatchet jobs such as Super Mario Bros, or Street Fighter. Iconic video game franchises that someone tried to cash in on and in the process created a terrible port to the silver screen. Conversely it is equally challenging to find a good video game that is a direct port of a movie or TV show (if you can actually think of one let me know in the comments below). The techniques that work well to convey a story on one medium do not always work well for the other. When I first learned that Trion was working together with Syfy (a division of NBCuniversal) in a joint venture to simultaneously develop a video game and a television show I was more than a bit skeptical. Earlier this week; however, I was afforded the opportunity to walk the set of the TV show and get hands on time with the game to create a more informed opinion.
Defiance has been in production for approximately 4 years. This means years before Trion had one of the smoothest launches in the history of MMO's with Rift, and was still an unknown in the market place, they had already been hard at work on Defiance for over two years. It also took the team of Syfy and Trion a few tries to get the idea right for what they wanted to create. Trion was not convinced that any of Syfy's shows already in development were suitable to do a game tie-in. Syfy knew they were not interested in doing a high fantasy show, and with Rift already in production it would not have made sense for Trion to make a competitive product to their flagship IP. Syfy also knew they wanted to make a show with guns. Trion at this point had an inkling that they wanted to make a shooter so the two ideas clicked. After a few more concepts and several different scripts for pilots Trion and Syfy finally settled on Defiance to be the IP they would work on.
The TV show Defiance is a character driven drama set in the frontier town which bears the show's namesake. Defiance sits on what was modern day St. Louis, MO. Instantly recognizable in much of the show's artwork, and distinctively St. Louis, is the Gateway Arch. I asked Executive Producer Kevin Murphy why set the game in St. Louis, "It's right in the middle of North America, and I always loved the idea of the Gateway Arch. It was the gateway to the west and it took them many many years to actually get it built.... You are doing a show that is essentially, it's an immigrant drama, a melting pot drama, St. Louis is a really great place to convey that. The idea of moving forward from what is safe and what's known unto what is the great unknown of the American west.... So that's what I like about it."
In addition to being Trion's most ambitious project to date this is also Syfy's biggest, and most expensive production ever. I was unable to pin them down on an exact figure, due to that being considered proprietary information, but I was told that I could roughly calculate set costs at $100 USD a square foot. The set we sat in for a QA panel with the cast, which will be seen in the show as Defiance's local pub, was about 2000 square feet. That places one set out of about 6 we saw in the $200,000.00 USD range. That does not even include the back lot where the outside of the town of Defiance was built. There is easily millions of dollars tied up in this Toronto lot alone, and it looks great.
Not only was Earth damaged in an intergalactic war it has also been terraformed with alien flora and fauna. While the Arch still stands it has been badly damaged and the rest of Defiance is unrecognizable as the modern St. Louis. One of Defiance's grandest sets is the pub. As you can see in the image above the bar is centered around a tree that has branches with bulbs at the end that glow. As we made our way through the back lot we saw a number of buildings that were constructed out of old shipping containers. One of the recurring themes throughout the settlement is that you find buildings and everyday items made out of materials that would have survived a war. Not a lot of new things are being built at this point, just salvaged and repurposed.
Syfy also went the extra mile to make sure they got some of the finer details right, and these details only enhance the immersion factor. The first one that jumped out at me on the set tour was the map inside a metro link car (light rail system in St. Louis). This map had all of the correct stops. In fact the map looked like it had been taken right off a car that is currently in use.
Syfy also brought in David Pearson to create Alien Languages for the show. David has not only created one alien language for the show but he has created three written and spoken languages, Castithan, Irathient, and Indogene. Each of the three have between 1000 to 2000 words in their vocabulary. In addition each language also has their own unique characters for their alphabet as well as entirely unique grammar and sentence structure. Creating these languages was not as easy as taking an English word out and just substituting a Castithan word in. David was also responsible for creating the Dothraki language on HBO's Game of Thrones. And while it may seem trivial to some to go through the process of creating a language, much less three languages, for a TV show it only adds to the authenticity of the overall experience.
The game portion of Defiance takes place in San Francisco, another US locale with its own iconic landmark, the Golden Gate bridge. Both of these landmarks are used to help keep the players and viewers grounded to the fact that even though this is now an alien world it is still Earth. The game takes place at the same time as the TV show. In fact the opening few missions of the game set the stage for the pilot of the show. We see why the main character Jeb Nolan, (Grant Bowler, True Blood) is headed east from San Francisco to St. Louis and how he obtained the crystal he has in his possession. It is plot lines such as this that will tie the show and the game together. Things that are pervasive in the game, such as Arcfalls, may not be seen in the show but their presence will be felt. We were also told that the outcome of events in the game could be seen in the show come season two. Kevin Murphy did go on to explain that while events that took place in the game that could have impacts seen on the show we would not see any individual players actions in the game carry over to the show.
Syfy and Trion have also worked collaboratively to get the feel for the world of Defiance just right. One of the details that Syfy took Trion's lead on was the roofs of buildings. You will notice that most buildings in Defiance (unless they are a container) have a curved roof. This is also true in the game. Gary Hutzel, VFX supervisor for Syfy, also relayed a story about the collaboration between Syfy and Trion to create the Saberwolf. Originally the Saberwolf started off as more of a six legged bear. Trion balked at the idea because it would have been very awkward to create a creature that walked with six legs because of the way it would bend the spine. After going back and forth and bounce ideas off of each other the created a large mammal with a wolf like face but ended up having six insect like legs. This allows the animal to scoot around without having the swaying spine issues. This made sense for Trion and Syfy and the Saberwolf was born. The ability to render outfits in the game also had an impact on costume decisions made in the show.
A week ago if you would have asked me to categorize Defiance for you I would have called it an MMOFPS, but Trion is trying their best to get that tag put to rest. Trion refers to Defiance as a MOS, or Massive Online Shooter, and this has a lot to do with their design philosophy for the game. According to Senior Producer Rob Hill Trion set out to make this game a great shooter first. In most FPS games you have a campaign mission that you play through (maybe) and then you hop into multiplayer. Defiance aims to give the shooter gamer what they want and more. Trion wants to provide a great shooter experience complete with headshots that end with gory one shot kills. Trion also aims to provide a competitive PvP experience but instead of that taking place in instanced maps it will take place in the open world and is called the Shadow War. Players will participate in the Shadow War alongside everyone else. If you are not involved with the Shadow War you can continue to play through the PvE experience safe from harm from your fellow players (but you can watch and laugh as they kill each other). Like any good shooter Defiance also has hundreds of guns that will be able to collect, but you can only have two equipped at one time to hot swap between. You will still be able to carry additional weapons in your inventory that you can change your load out with from the character screen. Grenades are a supplemental item and can be carried and used in addition to your two primary weapons.
Trion is not satisfied with just making Defiance just a great first person shooter though. Trion has fleshed out Defiance with all the current trappings that make a modern MMORPG. When you kill creatures or complete missions you will earn experience points. At certain points you will gain an ego level. When you gain levels you will also gain skill points that you can spend to modify certain attributes of our character. You can increase your avatars survivability or make yourself more proficient at dealing damage. Currently most of the abilities appear to be passive in nature.
Like Rift before it Defiance also will feature a lot of dynamic content events. In Defiance these events are known as Arcfalls. Arcfalls are debris from defunct spaceships that are breaking apart in orbit around Earth and these pieces are falling to Earth. Since these pieces of spaceship may contain materials to repurpose or contain alien technology they are considered very valuable. You will find Scrappers attempting to salvage Arcfalls and it is your duty to prevent that from happening. These Arcfall events also scale in difficulty based on the number of people that are participating in them. The more difficult they become the better the quality of loot you will find as well.
Defiance also has your more traditional story quests that move you around the map. One thing you will notice is that it is a bit different from WoW or Rift is that most of these quests are inclusive in nature. If you and a person are on the same step of a quest and are not grouped but there is a yellow circle on the map you will both work towards completing the same objective as long as you are inside of the yellow ring. No longer will you have to go free five villagers and show up at your quest objective only to wait for the villagers to respawn because you were the third person on the scene and two of them have already been freed. Then you free one and the people that were there before you are forced to wait. In Defiance if you showed up and four where villagers were already freed and you freed the fifth, congratulations to everyone in the area, you have all completed the quest. I think it is a great trend for games to encourage players that randomly encounter each other through their play session to help each other out instead of griefing one another for quest spawns. There is a third type of quest as well that you will find scattered through the countryside. You will approach a giant sparking object and it will have a task for you to do that is usually related to the story quest in the area. These are a great way to earn additional experience and items as you progress through the game.
Defiance will be released on X-Box 360, PS3, and PC. Even though the game is being released on consoles it still looked extremely good on the PC. While Defiance is a multimedia experience and Defiance the game is a multiplatform game, it will not be a crossplatform game. The technology does exists and Trion has been able to make it work but due to first party restrictions players will be limited to playing the game with other players on their console of choice and PC players will be able to play with other PC players. Defiance with also launch with a M rating. This rating might seem a bit odd for MMORPGs but it is pretty much the standard for FPS. This just further demonstrates the philosophy of Defiance being a shooter first. This M rating also allowed Trion to create quest text that would make a sailor blush.
Trion and the Syfy channel have definitely set themselves up for a one of a kind task. Collaborating to create a game and a television show that weaves together in order to establish a vibrant world that each piece on their own could not accomplish seems almost a fool's errand. But this would not be the first time Trion has taken on such a challenge. Their flagship IP Rift is set to receive their first major expansion after only 19 months of release, and within that 19 month window Rift has already undergone 11 major patches providing numerous content updates and the introduction of new in game systems to enrich the player experience. That is unprecedented in today's market. I think if any game company out there is up to the task of making a project of this magnitude a success it is Trion. I look forward to spending more time with the game as it approaches open beta and so far I'm very impressed with the way it plays. What I first viewed as little more than a gimmick has now shown to be the beginnings of a great game that can stand on its own merits as well as a TV show that could be a new hit for Syfy. Defiance is scheduled to be released on April 20th, 2013.
Questions, Comments, Concerns, General disagreements? All are welcome and encouraged in the comments below. You can also harass Rob on Twitter or friend him on Facebook. Rob also hales from the real St. Louis and is saddened at the loss of his beloved Busch Stadium in the post terraformed Defiance.