Production Mythology, Release Reality: Syfy’s Defiance
While Syfy’s science fiction series Defiance has a narrative mythology rivaling that of its generic predecessors, it also has a production mythology. Framed as a five-year journey for Syfy and developer Trion Games, the series and its companion video game—a massively-multiplayer online shooter releasing on Xbox 360, PS3, and PC two weeks in advance of the series’ April 15th premiere—represent a huge investment into transmedia storytelling for a channel that has sought new ways to merge its science fiction genesis with business models they believe could draw a larger audience. While showrunner Kevin Murphy was on stage at this month’s Syfy presentation at the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour to discuss his plans for the series, Syfy programming executive Mark Stern was also there to reflect on a process that he has overseen across both media.
As with narrative mythologies, however, production mythologies are works-in-progress: much as long-term storytelling goals are vague early in a show’s life, the future of any kind of production strategy is incredibly uncertain. This is particularly true in the case of such a unique production culture, one where the precarity of television production—driven by a flawed Nielsen ratings system—is merged with a video game industry where costs are steadily rising as competition only grows fiercer. While Defiance’s development as an instantaneous transmedia franchise is a novel case of convergent media practices, its success or failure will have to contend with distinct challenges facing the series within and between its two industrial contexts. In this post, I want to specifically focus on how the expectations placed on both television serials and big-budget video games at the time of their debut intersect with those challenges, before moving onto how the perceived audiences for these different media threaten Syfy’s synergistic business strategy in a future post.
From a storytelling perspective, Defiance the game will serve as a prequel to Defiance, taking place in San Francisco rather than St. Louis and giving those who play the game the opportunity to interact with two of the show’s characters as they seek out an object that plays a role in the television narrative. According to one of the game’s creative leads (who I spoke with at press tour), players will have the opportunity to play through an initial story arc with a beginning, middle, and end in addition to smaller side missions and “events” scattered throughout the online world; players will then have the opportunity to follow that story onto the television series, their collective actions seeming to have an influence on the series’ storytelling. During the series, more content will be released to reflect story developments on the show, providing a constant link between the two narratives.
Of course, Murphy acknowledged during the series’ TCA panel that this interactivity would be an illusion, as production realities would prohibit any gameplay from adjusting story arcs in season one. However, it’s also illusory because the game and the series cannot be fully integrated given that not everyone who watches the series may want to play the game, or vice versa. It’s preferred for users to enjoy the two narratives simultaneously, but neither narrative can be designed in ways that require this, a common concern with transmedia properties that are also expected to stand alone as independent media products within distinct markets.
Defiance has more value when it’s experienced as a cross-media narrative, but that’s not necessarily how critics or journalists will evaluate the franchise. When Syfy presents Defiance to reporters and critics who cover television, the game is a novel idea that adds value to the production. However, based on the rather small number of journalists and critics I observed taking advantage of the demo stations made available during a Syfy-sponsored cocktail event during Press Tour, it is unclear how many of those who cover the Syfy series in advance of its premiere will have played the game to get the “full” effect (or who would even have access to the hardware necessary to do so). Meanwhile, the game has been covered for almost two years by video game journalists without any access to the television show, which may in fact be in the title’s best interest. Licensed games have a poor reputation, and although Defiance is more ambitious than your average licensed title the association is still considered a red flag of sorts. Video game journalists aren’t primarily interested in exploring the television series, focusing instead on whether the game alone is worth the investment of “typical” video gamers.
I will explore what “typical” means in part two, but this pre-release separation of the two properties raises a key question for me: how does this operate as a business model once the show and game are released? Are successful Nielsen ratings enough to prop up low sales of the game? Is a high Metacritic rating for the game enough to justify financial investment in the game’s future if the television show’s ratings are lagging?
While you don’t quite “cancel” a video game like you do a TV show, the promise of ongoing content is not necessarily a guarantee. While Trion has planned out new content to be released throughout the show’s first season, they have revealed no details on how users will get this content (including whether or not they’ll have to pay for it), or whether the game itself will come with a monthly fee typical for PC MMOs (and how such a fee would carry over in some way to the console versions). If the economics of the game don’t work out, there’s no promise a second round of content would arrive during a second season, or between seasons; if the game performs poorly on a particular console, meanwhile, it’s possible development could be focused on a single platform moving forward, leaving a section of gamers out of the story.
This uncertainty is not abnormal within the television or video game industries, but the interconnected nature of this venture only adds to its complexity, making their appeal to certain audiences an important discussion, albeit one for another post.