Hollywood, games biz unite around ‘Defiance’

New TV series, game reveal creative difference between industries

While J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot and Valve Software are planning to develop films around the developer’s “Half-Life” and “Portal” franchises, Trion Worlds and Syfy have a warning for them: It’s not as easy as it looks.

At the D.I.C.E. Summit on Thursday, Syfy president Mark Stern and Trion’s VP of production Nick Beliaeff talked about the collaboration of their companies for the upcoming TV series and game “Defiance” and the changes both had to make in their operational procedures.

Discussions between the two started more than five years ago, when Syfy sent over a collection of scripts for shows like “Eureka,” “Warehouse 13” and “Sanctuary.”

“It just wasn’t deep enough for us,” Beliaeff said. “That’s when we had the moment that we realized if we approach things traditionally, we were going to get the traditional result. If you look at a licensor-licensee relationship, the product suffers. We didn’t want to do that… so we had to change our approach.”

The result was invasion-themed sci-fi series “Defiance,” debuting April 15, and a massively multiplayer online action game, bowing beforehand on April 2, that were created from the ground up to share a mythology and cross over their storylines. The project has been promoted at events like videogame confab E3 and last summer’s Comic-Con in San Diego.

“We have 13 episodes,” Stern said. “We go off the air for sometimes nine months or more and a way to continue that storytelling was compelling to us.”

Getting there was tricky. When developers came to Syfy to show off their new water physics — typically an “ooh, ahh” moment in game development — Stern lifted a bottle of water and said, “Yeah, we can do water too… We just film it” (“It was humbling,” Beliaeff said.)

There were also debates about show and game elements. For instance, Stern wanted to add horses to the show and game, since the show has a frontier aspect. The developers balked at that, since it would make the game less fun based on their graphics engine. They countered with a suggestion for flying vehicles — which Syfy vetoed.

The size and shape of the aliens also proved problematic. Syfy needed characters that were castable — not too big — but Trion needed design commitments to move forward with development. It came to a head in June 2009.

“We gave them this lineup and said, ‘We need you guys to commit,'” Beliaeff said. “We’re going to put this effort into them, and you need to sign off now.”

“I was terrified because we had a basic pilot script, (but) we didn’t have wardrobe,” Stern said. “It was a big unknown.”

To help smooth things out, the companies created the position of a mythology curator, who was responsible for keeping both sides up to date on proposed changes. By the time production began, everyone was on the same page, say the executives, and it became less about the differences in development cultures and more about focusing on the show.

Stern said: “Each team had their eye on the goal, which was ‘I’m going to create the best game or TV series, period.'”