At this year’s E3 2011, game developer Trion Worlds and American cable television channel SyFy Channel announced the co-production of an MMO tied to an upcoming science fiction series: Defiance. Trion Worlds may be a bit of an ingénue to the MMO scene but they’ve proven they’re no dilettante with their highly ranked pay-to-play MMO Rift: The Planes of Telara; and Syfy Channel is no stranger to online gaming, let aside television programming. Together they’re planning a highly adventurous conquest of a space that has been relegated to after-the-fact or gimmick MMOs developed only as a sort of afterthought for movies and TV series.
The academic MMO community tends to spit up most games into two broad categories addressing player reach and interaction with the plot: theme park and sandbox. Most games tied to movies and television properties fall into the former—and in many ways the term “theme park” for MMOs is something of a pejorative. Sandbox play games often generate far deeper, more interesting, and better written worlds—such as World of Warcraft and Rift—but that takes a great deal of time and energy and often an entire team or company dedicated to it. Most theme park games suffer from a lack of content and a experience curve that ends up leaving all but the most casual players crying with boredom after a few weeks of play.
Looking at the press releases on the matter, it looks like Defiance will be an MMOTPS (third-person shooter) providing a persistent, living world, with high quality visuals. Just looking at the screenshots cultivates the appearance of very mature and vibrant art direction—and even the portions that are supposedly taken from the television series ape an emotional response to an Earth changing through alien invasion. By maintaining highly customizable characters, weapons, armor, and an underlying curve of progression to give players a sense of place and achievement, Trion Worlds could stave off boredom long enough for Syfy to save the day from theme park ennui.
Because this is a property tied to a television series we expect it to be something of a theme park MMO more-so than an active sandbox game; however, there may be a number of ways to escape from the pitfalls of the theme park MMO and the connection to an ongoing Syfy series may bridge those gaps. By and large, one of those gaps happens to be content expansion and event schedules. Television episodic content schedules would greatly enhance this experience if Syfy and Trion Worlds are capable of developing and expanding the MMO alongside the series (and allow players to play through episodic content across a timeline so that they can experience old content before they meet the new.)
As a result, as things are happening during the week of the release of a particular episode—say even a season finale—the game itself could produce events, effects, and content that would build on the episode’s content and give the players a second experience based on what they watched. The great dismissal of the television show happens to be that they’re not interactive, they take us away from the world to immerse us in theirs without taking any of our input; this is not so with the MMO. Massively multiplayer games at their core are highly social and interactive experiences for all involved.
The MMO could also tell stories about lesser-seen characters who don’t get much screen time but are beloved by the viewers anyway. It could be used to develop entire lengths of narrative that aren’t explored in the television show due to them falling on the cutting room floor or simply a lack of inches on the reel to expose them to the audience. It will allow players several new dimensions to explore and engage the plot, characters, and world of the show that a television cannot provide.
There’s no news currently if Defiance will be free-to-play; but if it’s not, both Trion Worlds and Syfy Channel will be shooting themselves in the foot.
Certainly, the sheer weight of numbers that Syfy Channel can drive to an MMO will make up for any subscription fees or failure to update content alongside the show. If both of these media giants fail to utilize what they’ve got right in front of them to the fullest extent that they can, I will be very disappointed. With a rapid, outward-developing content schedule that paces itself with the television series we could see the emergence of a new type of MMO gaming.
Or we’ll just end up seeing a technically savvy and beautiful theme park game crushed under the boot heel of mediocrity.
We know where my vote is.