Look around the current environment of science fiction and fantasy entertainment. There’s the sprawling Marvel Cinematic Universe, DCEU, and Star Wars franchises, CBS All Access’s (sorry, Paramount +) growing suite of Star Trek projects, and shows that introduced us to wonderfully complicated worlds like Game of Thrones or The Expanse — which hold the promise and potential for additional stories somewhere down the line.
It’s an enormously different age from the TV world a decade ago, when the massive Avengers crossover was just over a year away, and Game of Thrones was just starting to blow up water cooler conversations. In that time, there’s been a shift in thinking, as studios begin to look at shows less as discrete units that they can sell to an audience, and more as a larger package of intellectual property. The massive growth in streaming video has helped speed this along, as places like Amazon Prime Video, Disney+, Hulu, Netflix, and others recognize that a consumer’s ability to watch things on demand means that they can offer up pieces of a story across various platforms.
Obviously, there are precursors to this: Star Trek and Star Wars each exist in a big shared universe, while shows like Stargate SG-1 branched off into spinoffs that crossed over at various points. They helped pave the way for the franchises that we see now, from Netflix’s The Witcher (soon to get a prequel and animated shows), The CW’s massive Arrowverse (which has approximately a gazillion shows and counting), Disney’s Mandalorian series (soon to get a couple of spinoffs), and HBO’s Game of Thrones (soon to get a bunch of animated and live-action prequels). WarnerMedia is also betting that audiences will stick around for spinoffs to Batman, Dune, and The Suicide Squad, greenlighting shows that’ll stream on its streaming platform, HBO Max.
This environment came to mind when I came across an interesting bit of news that flew under the radar last week: Game developer Trion Worlds announced that it was sunsetting its MMO shooter Defiance and Defiance 2050, which was part of an ambitious collaboration between it and the Syfy Channel, which launched a companion science fiction TV series in 2013, which lasted for three seasons before it ended.
The series and game were designed from the onset to complement one another: events in the TV series would percolate over to the game, and vice-versa. While there’s no shortage of video game tie-ins for various science fiction shows, this was a novel, expensive experiment, and one that never quite paid off.
Work on the cross-platform project began back in 2008. MMO games were enjoying a moment with the massive success of Blizzard’s World of Warcraft (this environment was instrumental for another eventual story — James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse), in which thousands or millions of players could log on to explore a shared digital world. As The Wall Street Journal reported ahead of the series’ launch, popularity could equal lucrative, as players could pay for better weapons and goods. Trion had found some success in that field, generation $100 million with its game Rift in 2011.
The WSJ noted that the economics for television shows can be rough: science fiction is expensive for television, and unless a series proves to be popular enough to get multiple seasons and enter syndication, its lifespan will be short. In this case, should the show and game prove to be popular, it could unlock a new path for this sort of production.
The story begins in the year 2013, when Earth is visited by an alien civilization known as the Votans (made up of six different species), who arrived in a fleet bearing refugees from their destroyed solar system. Earth was to have been their new home, and they were surprised to discover that it was already inhabited.
What resulted was a series of conflicts: war between humanity and the Votans caused a considerable mess in orbit, and the deployment of Votan terraforming equipment began to radically remake Earth into something strange. The war devastated Earth, and after it ended, the survivors began to pick up the pieces and take stock of what remained, and started to rebuild, creating the perfect environment for western-styled, post-apocalyptic adventures. On Syfy’s side, they brought in Rockne O’Bannon, who had created the cult-favorite sci-fi series Farscape, and who had worked on shows like Alien Nation, SeaQuest, and The Triangle.
The WSJ outlined that this development process was complicated: television writing and game development are each very different beasts, and the two companies had to work closely to ensure that they were working in the same direction. That wasn’t easy. The game developers wanted air battles, but that was too expensive for the TV series, and their initial attempt to create “rollers” — ground vehicles — proved to be too challenging for the production to safely use. The project ended up having to share a considerable amount of information between the two, eventually bringing on a “mythology coordinator,” who had to maintain a sprawling database to keep the stories consistent between the two platforms. It was also a big risk, costing north of $100 million, a staggering amount of money at the time. And if either project failed, it could tank the entire initiative.
In 2011, Trion announced its first games — Rift: Planets of Telara, End of Nations, and a third, untitled game, which would eventually be revealed as Defiance. All three would be online games that would take advantage of the growing migration to online gaming, and took advantage of a new style of gaming service, where Trion would distribute its computing power across servers in a new way.
That summer, Trion and Syfy revealed Defiance at that year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) and highlighted the groundbreaking nature of the project: “It's a groundbreaking coming together of a TV development team and a game development team to create the first truly immersive, 24/7 interactive story that bridges online gaming and the TV world in a unique way," said Syfy President Dave Howe at the time. What they were unveiling was a singular property that would play out at the same time between platforms, with players getting to experience the story in a very new way, even potentially influencing the direction of the TV series. The show’s characters would appear in the game as well, although both stories would take place in two different locations — San Francisco in the game, and St. Louis in the TV show.
Meanwhile, the TV series as moving along: Syfy brought on Scott Stewart (best known for directing Priest and Legion) to direct the series, and cast Grant Bowler, Julie Benz, Tom Curran, Jamie Murray, and Stephaie Leonidas for the show’s lead roles, and began production in Toronto in the summer of 2012. When the first teaser for the series debuted in October 2012, “something new” was the theme: not only would it be set in a new version of Earth, but it would represent a new way to follow the story when it debuted in April 2013.
By the spring, the first reviews were mixed. The series brought together a number of familiar tropes and characters, and reviewers for io9, The New York Times and The Hollywood Reporter noted that it was entertaining and highlighted its potential, although noted that there was a lot to take in. (I thought it was a decent start to the show, and that it held a lot of potential.)
The story followed a veteran, Nolan (played by Bowler) and his adopted daughter Irisa (played by Leonidas), as they find a safe home in the town of Defiance (on what used to be St. Louis) after spending some time in the wilderness as scavengers. Nolan’s brought on as the town’s lawman, where he spends his time working on keeping the peace between humans and the various aliens, all of whom have their own allegiances, motivations, and schemes.
The game wasn’t as well-received: The NYT noted that the graphics and mechanics didn’t hold up to other games, and that it was pretty buggy. Still, both the show and game brought in audiences: pulling in more than a million players and a second season renewal. Season 2 debuted in 2014, and was renewed for a third season. Trion was also making some changes: it shifted the game to a free-to-play model, and continued to release updates and new storylines for its players. However, by season 3, the ratings for the series had begun to decline, and Syfy ultimately pulled the plug in the fall of 2015.
Despite the show’s cancelation, Trion said that the game will continue, and in 2016, released a new version called Dark Metamorphosis, which would continue the story that would tackle a new threat to Earth. Despite the show’s cancelation, the game’s project lead, Carble Cheung noted that while they worked collaboratively, the world “has always been conceived to exist independent of either medium be it the TV show, the game or whatever else we came up with. Simply stated, the show had to focus on what was good for the show, the game had to focus on what was good for the game.”
The game continued on, but in 2018, Trion announced that it was rebooting the game with a new version, Defiance 2050, set two decades after the event of the original story, in which the studio would update the graphics and player experience, while keeping many of the same maps and missions.
Interest in the game seems to have begun to decline, however — there were new online shooters gaining more attention and users, and in 2020, the studio began closing down some of its servers: first the Xbox 360 iterations, and last month, announced that it was shutting the entire game down on April 29th, 2021. “This decision was not an easy one to make. We concluded that both games could no longer sustain themselves,” Trion said in a statement.
In doing so, it brings its big experiment to a close.
If the goal was to build a brand-new franchise that would build season after season on the Syfy Channel, and millions of gamers to Trion, the collaborative was a novel experiment that never quite paid off for either.
While the series started out as a fun ride, it always felt a bit like a throwback to the days when the network was running endless episodes of Stargate SG-1, Farscape, and Andromeda — entertaining and mostly good shows, but a model that was feeling increasingly out of step with the direction of genre television at the time. By the time the series debuted on Syfy, we were already seeing the beginnings of a major shift in television: HBO was eating up audiences with its serious and expensive take on George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, while other networks were following in the same model, like with The CW’s Arrow, History Channel’s Vikings, the BBC’s Orphan Black, Starz’s Outlander, and Netflix’s House of Cards — all fairly strong character dramas that felt relevant to audiences.
Netflix’s House of Cards also sparked a major turning point for TV as well: while Hulu had been around for a couple of years (allowing audiences to stream TV shows on demand), Netflix was taking the first steps into streaming original content for its subscribers, something that it’s scaled up dramatically in the years since.
But while Defiance had an interesting world and characters, it felt a bit goofy alongside something like Game of Thrones, or even Syfy’s other big hit, Battlestar Galactica. On the gaming front, 2013 also saw the release of a new and gritty take on Tomb Raider, The Last of Us, and Batman: Arkham Origins, and we’d seen new entries in the Mass Effect and Halo franchises the year before. In a lot of ways, audiences weren’t looking for what Syfy and Trion were offering, and there were a lot of shows and games that were dabbling in the same spaces as Defiance, but doing it better. Additionally, over on Facebook, reader Yudhanjaya Wijeratne weighed in with an additional detail: the game’s consistent lagginess caused some considerable problems.
Indeed, after Syfy canceled Defiance in 2015, it picked up a series that was more in that premium mindset: an adaptation of James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse, which felt more in line with competitors like Game of Thrones, along with a couple of other space operas, Dark Matter and Killjoys, which straddled the line between throwback space opera and gritty drama, as well as a dark and serious urban fantasy drama,The Magicians, based on Lev Grossman’s novels.
While I enjoyed Defiance when I watched it, I struggled to remember exactly what had happened when I came across the news that the game was being shut down. Rewatching the pilot episode and reading up on some of the plots over the show’s three seasons, and it’s pretty clear why the show didn’t really catch on, and why it hasn’t really become a cult classic either (as opposed to something like, say, Farscape) — it’s a series of cookie-cutter tropes thrown together, a show that exists only because it was a storytelling experiment, rather than a show with characters and a story that felt like they had something to say. It just wasn’t a memorable experience.
A story’s success has to be earned, and while it’s often hard to figure out precisely what makes up the secret sauce that attracts viewers, a key component is solid characters who are able to operate in an impactful way within their stories and worlds, and an element of relevancy for viewers. I never quite got the sense that Defiance was able to do that over the course of its run in the way that Game of Thrones or The Expanse were able to.
That’s a bit of a shame, because the experiment remained an interesting one: telling a story across platforms in real-time. I’m endlessly fascinated by this sort of transmedia storytelling, where different parts of the world are explored across mediums, like comics, games, books, movies, TV shows, and more.
What I think this highlights is that it’s an enormously difficult undertaking: getting a successful TV series up off the floor is hard enough, and getting to three seasons is even harder (it’s certainly a testament to Syfy and the show’s creators that they were able to get to that point), but throwing in the complexity of a bigger shared universe is even more difficult.
I do think that we’ll see similar things happen in the future: the massive consolidation between media companies obsessed with synergy makes it feel like an inevitability. Disney’s demonstrated that sharing a world across mediums, whether it’s space opera or superheroes, is doable and if done right, you can really reap the benefits. But in order for that to succeed, creators really need to tell a good story with solid characters, a compelling world, and real stakes, providing a solid foundation from which they can continue to build further upon, whether that’s spinoff novels, video games, comics, or movies. Hopefully, the next experiment will work out and give viewers and readers a new world to immerse themselves in.