Defiance is the next MMO from Trion Worlds. It's a sci-fi action MMO styled after their first game, Rift. But there's something even more weird about it: the game is going to be tied into a TV show running in parallel on the SyFy (hnngh) channel. We got to see what this cross-media complication actually means at Gamescom.
[Roving reporter Dan Griliopoulos was left behind after GamesCom and is wandering somewhere in Europe. For those keeping track, today he's near the ominously named Lago D'Isola.]
Your mum* is watching telly. She is watching a B-grade science fiction show on SyFy, the home of (denigrative comment on highly-popular channel excised due to punitively-strong British libel laws – Ed.) The phone rings, she answers. It's you, buddy! “Mum”, you cry, voice bubbling with joy, “Mum, they're talking about me on TV. On SyFy! Right now!” She gasps in disbelief, almost spilling her Lapsang Souchong; “You... you're bloodkilla254?” She forgives your behaviour at Aunt Prunella's funeral and reinstates your place in her heart's affection / her will. The Earth detonates in a burst of happy flowers.**
This, thanks to Defiance, is a plausible scenario, though I estimate that the chance of you being one of the handful named on TV is probably going to be about 1 in 300,000, given recent MMO initial purchasers. (I'm not sure about the planet-flower-explosion either.) Y'see, Defiance is a cross-media entity; it will be both a multiplatform MMO and a TV science fiction show on SyFy, set on an Earth that's suffered fifty years of internecine warfare and the appearance of an alien ark carrying multiple invasive species. We'll get to what the game actually consists of in a moment, but crucially characters from the TV show (set in St Louis) will be able to say “Hey, I'm just popping down to San Francisco, to y'know, hang out, visit the Apple store, and defeat an alien menace likely to destroy civilization as we know it”. They'll then appear in the MMO world (the San Francisco Bay Area) and players will be able to go down to the train station, meet the character (presumably an NPC) and adventure with them.
The TV show will launch simultaneously with the game globally, according to the hyper-polished presentation dude, whose name I missed in an amazing example of shonky journalism; “The TV show and game will develop side-by-side. They're two windows in the same universe. For example, if there's a disaster, the sky turns red and rains acid rain on the TV show, you'll see that happen in the game.” The hour-long weekly TV show will reference in-game events, in particular the previous week's quest; it might even name-check people who are particularly high-achievers – leaderboard-heading PvP players or players who found every secret in the game.
“If the St Louis cast are sitting around in a bar saying 'hey, did you see the game last night?',” says Presentation Man, sounding increasingly like he should be on The Shopping Channel or QI, “the game they're talking about is the PvP one you took part in. Games are great at delivering action; TV is great at drama; now we can combine that to give you a meaningful story and meaningful accomplishments.” Meaningful to the extent that you can affect the actual plot? “We're not intending to allow players to kill the main character in the TV show.”
Having got the structure of this article completely arse-about-tit, let's talk about the actual game now, m'kay? The MMO is a science-fiction shooter, set on an earth over-run by alien creatures that arrived in an ark. Now, I can hear that sharply-drawn in breath from here; this is no Tabula Rasa, indeed it seems much closer to Trion's previous MMO, Rift.
Indeed, whisper it, this may well be a SF-skinned Rift. Design-wise, it's a mish-mash, a jungley-Fallouty-Warhammer 40K, sections of modern human civilization mingled with the various species brought on the ark. Take, for example, the appearance of the Arkfall large scale public quest we saw. Arkfalls are sections of the destroyed spaceship tumbling to earth, appearing as a falling star. In this case, the star-crystal landed and then great Tyranid-style claws rose out of the ground, representing a different burrowing alien race seeking to claim the rewards contained within.
Players, human or alien, entering the area automatically join the quest, and fight against a range of smaller mobs seeking to acquire the ark crystals as well as destroy the claws, before the main mob (in this case, a squat alien giant) spawns; functionally and structurally, the area is identical to Rift's rifts; polished but already a bit tired.
As we saw in this section, the combat isn't complicated or unduly sticky – it seems quite agile, reminiscent of Global Agenda and faster than Planetside, though a little bit light at the moment. “It's not just a run and gun shooter – it's a persistent open world.” explains Basil Exposition, “It's seamless, without loading screens, meaning you can walk from end of this world to the other without loading.” You can duck, roll, melee, shoot and so forth; it's designed to be usable by anyone familiar with a shooter. Players also unlock special powers as they level up, such as super-speed and invisibility – the usual stuff. It also sounds like it has open PvP; at any time you can either ally with a passer-by or attack them.
Some enemies seem to take their inspiration from Starship Troopers, insectoid creatures of varying sizes and agility, but mainly mouth. Others are humanoid cyborgs; the explanation entity explains that “they've modified themselves so much in search of alien technology that they've replaced their hands with drills or their arms with pick-axes.” Personally, I think this is a classic sign of light SF, of designers not thinking things through; why would you ever remove an irreplacable tool that allows you to manipulate several objects, ie the hand, for a single blunt tool? Duh. Anyway, we watch these cyborgs attacking a garage called the Tar Pit; walking near the garage automatically gives you a quest to help out Rosa, the owner, which the players do, by killing lots of cyborgs..
Though the game is going to be on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360, we were assured that they have no plans to let the three platforms play together. We saw the demo on all three platforms for GamesCom; on the consoles it's a twin-stick Gears of War style, control system, but on PC it's somewhat changed. “On PC, we've made accommodations for the more precise interface and better graphics the PC has.” says that guy again who, if you’re reading, I liked to say sorry to for missing your name. That was a lovely suit you were wearing.
The story is being written by the delightfully-monikered Rockne S. O’Bannon , the head writer behind the B-grade SF shows Farscape, SeaQuest, and V, and the movie Alien Nation. Yet, though SyFy is producing the show, it's not clear yet whether they'll broadcast it, or someone with a bigger reach, in more territories. “It's likely that the TV show will be available, not just online, but also in the game itself, in a building called the Defiance theatre.” Demo Dude says. “We want to make sure that you can catch up to what's been going on in the story.”
“I very much doubt that you guys are going to see anywhere in this show another persistent, open-world, massively multiplayer shooter like this.” Well, maybe not, but they're coming; Planetside 2 and Firefall to name the most exciting two. Defiance seems like a more traditional MMO than either of these, on the face of it, and I can't pretend I'm excited about either its plot or the Rift-style gameplay; but the TV series tie-in and console development could, potentially, be huge – if there's enough crossover between the global SfFy demographic and WoW/Halo players. Trion Worlds are betting that there is. They could be right.
(* Not actually your mum, but a fictional instatiation carefully calibrated to represent the potential average mother of RPS’s given demographic, derived from survey data and from Kieron hacking into all your computers when his mighty X-brain is bored and wants lols.
** You see how careful I was to avoid your mum jokes? I have total respect for your mother. And, y'know, sympathy.)