SXSW showcases Defiance

Through the history of media, content generally starts in one format, then moves over to another. A book is adapted into a film or TV series, a game spins off from the film of the book. Sometimes films spin off from games, too, such as the Resident Evil series, or spin back to film from the games of the films, as with the questionable Aliens versus Predator and its sequels. Usually, though, this means one format is far better than the other. A significant proportion of games spun off from movies are pretty rubbish, for example, and often feel like cynical cashing in on a popular brand.

Almost never are TV series and games developed in parallel so that their plots complement and influence each other, which could be the root of the problem. With its new series Defiance, premiering across the Western World on 15 April, SyFy is trying a different approach. The project, five years in the making, is as much about the game as it is the TV show. By taking this strategy, the producers hope to make both game and TV series equally compelling, entirely complementary, and presumably comparably profitable, too.

Speaking at a panel at the recent SXSW Interactive festival, representatives of both SyFy and game producer Trion Worlds explained how Defiance is more of a collaboration than anything that went before. They were trying to avoid the tradition of one platform always coming first, so worked on the project together from the beginning, trying to pinpoint which elements would make both successful. So the idea and story were generated by both parties during an ongoing dialogue.

The game itself launches on 02 April, and is a Massively Multiplayer Online title. Both TV series and game are set on Earth in 2046. Aliens called Votans have shown up on the planet, looking for a new home, which has led to a war between humans and aliens. This in turn has caused Earth to be accidentally terraformed, with alterations to the biosphere and geology that are potentially dangerous to humans and Votans alike. So it's a post-apocalyptic landscape, although the fighting is basically over and the humans and Votans are starting to cooperate. However, while the game is set in the San Francisco Bay Area, the TV show revolves around St Louis, which has transformed into a border town called "Defiance" during the conflict.

The earlier release of the game means that it will act partially as a teaser for the TV series. During this initial fortnight, players get to go on missions with the two main TV characters, getting to know their back stories. The game is an Open World MMO, but will include lots of missions and mini-games within it. Once the TV series starts, new missions and Downloadable Content (DLC) appear in tandem with the plots of each episode. For example, in one episode a cyberplague spreads across the town of Defiance, and players have a week between this episode and the next one to find the components of the cure and get these across the US from San Francisco to St Louis. After the next episode, this mission is no longer available.

The cross-pollination has led to constraints in both directions. Where game aliens could, in theory, be any size, for TV the main alien characters had to be humanoid in size and shape, so they could be played by human actors. Alternatively, while the TV producers thought it would be cool to have people riding around on horseback in their imagined future, in the game these would have been easy targets during first person shooter sections. And while the game makers wanted flying spaceships, this would have made it too easy for characters to get around, reducing the effectiveness of some of the TV plotlines revolving around negotiating the newly hazardous terrain.

The project hasn't gone so far as to allow events in the game world to alter what happens in the TV series. The episodes are already wrapped, so the plot developments still go one way, from TV episode to game, even if events in the game world are much more closely tied to the TV plots than with any previous cross-platform franchise. For series two, there are no plans to introduce gaming plots that fundamentally change the outcome of TV episodes. The SyFy producers are too concerned that users will choose outcomes that reduce the dramatic flow.

But SyFy and Trion are planning to be more adventurous with the second season, and will allow some user-generated elements from the games to appear in the show. In particular, player activities during the off season between series will affect the second run, and one player will win an opportunity to be included in the TV version in a much more direct fashion. So Defiance could well be the start of something that really does defy the norm for game and TV series tie-ins. We will find out how well it fares in April.