On a terraformed Earth in 2046, 33 years after the Votan arrival, a human and his injured, adopted alien daughter are taken in by the inter-species residents of a frontier town. In the background is a deteriorated Gateway Arch of the former St. Louis. Today, it’s called Defiance.
So begins the television component of Defiance, a daring transmedia experiment—the first concurrently developed, crossover TV show and video game that’s been five years and a reported $100 million in the making. Both chronicle a post-apocalyptic clash between humans and aliens known as Votans, who fled their destroyed solar system. The show premieres April 15 on the Syfy network. The massively multiplayer online game (MMO), developed by Trion Worlds, launched April 2 and takes place in San Francisco.
The project was tricky on numerous levels—storytelling, production, technological, and business. Creatives faced crafting worlds and characters consistent and workable in both media, and structuring them as independent experiences while migrating storylines and characters back and forth. Human actors limited the look of gaming characters, while coding complexities limited the look of TV scenarios. TV contracts required pre-negotiating gaming rights and motion-capture acting fees, and gaming engineers faced the maddening task of programming the game to work across multiple platforms.
"There were a lot of growing pains trying to make this world work in a physical universe and digital medium," says executive producer and showrunner Kevin Murphy. "We had to make the world events consistent. If we establish something in one, we can’t have a character show up in the other and make up information that’s not true."
Both SyFy and Trion had to work through opposite development processes, forcing the TV producers to think about the look of the world and characters years earlier than usual, and gamers to design around human actors and tight CGI budgets.
"We really started tunneling at opposite ends toward each other, says Mark Stern, president of original content for Syfy and cohead of original content for Universal Cable Productions. "The Trion folks build their sets before they know what their script is. We’re not thinking about script or wardrobe till a month or two before we start shooting. Our aliens needed to be human size; in gaming you can make them any size. Horses and water are easy to have on TV; but hard to render in gaming. So we had to set clear ground rules on both sides."
"Early on, the TV side doesn’t really think about what it’s going to look like; they care more about the characters. We have to figure out what it looks like early, because we have to build a gigantic world," Trion senior producer Rob Hill told IEEE Spectrum in an interview on Defiance game technology. "We had to figure out what the TV folks could do physically that was also cost effective. We could build a character with a bunch of arms, but they couldn’t do a four-armed character every week. They didn’t like main characters with masks or helmets in the game, because they needed to see those actors’ faces on TV."
In some cases, Trion’s long lead time benefited Syfy. "Trion had pages and pages of conceptual art," says Stern. "We brought in our VFX supervisors and production designers earlier than we normally would. They cherry-picked the designs that worked for them, instead of having to generate all those sketches themselves. It was incredibly efficient; we’d never had that luxury before."
Later, time became a much-appreciated ally after original showrunner Rockne O’Bannon left last year to oversee his other new show, the CW’s Cult (which was cancelled last week). When Murphy stepped in, he and his team realized the continued storylines "were not really flowing the way they wanted them to," says Stern. "They were able to go back to the pilot before it was shot and retool the story and dynamics. It was nerve-racking. There was a moment where we said,`Are they really going to do this?’ But after a two-hour conversation where they pitched the new pilot and we saw the vision, we said, `We gotta go with that.’ "
Murphy changed the protagonist from the longstanding Defiance sheriff to the new arrival in town, and his daughter from adorable to badass. "I wanted to see characters make mistakes, so I made Defiance much newer," he says. "Originally, the show had a more procedural bent to it and was less of a serialized drama."
Apart from the scripts, the producers and writers put together together a 300-page bible and wiki on the Defiance culture, history, religions, and languages and appointed mythology coordinators on the TV and gaming sides to maintain consistency between worlds and look for crossover opportunities. (They’ve also made a similar e-guide available for viewers and players.)
"In every episode, we want to have at least one major event where something goes from the game into the show, and from the show into the game," says Murphy. "Game players do not affect the plot of the TV show. It’s more like a project of the week, where you amass certain items that will help Defiance get what it needs by the next episode. In return, you and your team get loot or better weaponry, things you need in a video game."
For example, in one episode an alien doctor discovers a lethal contagion in Defiance. In the game, she reaches out to her counterpart in San Francisco. The players then undertake a series of missions to help the San Francisco doctor create the cure in time for the next episode. In another, an alien character disappears from the TV show for a few episodes. In the interim, she’s appearing in the game, where she gathers important information about the lead character—which she uses upon her return.
Murphy added further texture and grounding by hiring planetary physicist Kevin Grazier as science advisor and linguist David Peterson to craft plausible alien languages. Often, their observations became story elements.
It was Grazier who suggested the Votans come from a binary star system to enable enough planets in their solar system to facilitate intelligent life. When early key art depicted the Gateway Arch sporting a dramatic break at an angle too steep to keep standing, Grazier’s reaction to the blown engineering prompted a plot point about humans reluctantly asking aliens to use their technology to fix the arch.
"When Kevin’s brain melted out of his ears, we figured, `OK, let’s make that a story,’ " laughs Murphy. "Their contributions were really instrumental to the creative process."
Peterson developed three alien languages, alphabets, and even a card game with fonts, symbols, and pronunciations that reflected their culture and home planets.
"I’d get these weird questions like, `What color is the sky on the Castithans’ planet—could it have been red?' " says Murphy. "There were liquor bottles and menu boards in the Defiance bar written in alien and human languages. Everybody really got into it."
Click here for a peak at the first 14 minutes of the pilot.