‘Defiance’ Project Is Part TV, Part Videogame – and That’s Part of the Problem

Syfy spending $40 mil for a new series, and ponying up half of the roughly $60 mil to enter gaming arena at the same time

'Defiance' Project Is Part TV, Part Videogame - and That’s Part of the Problem

Defiance” is an apt title for a venture that defies the traditional programming playbook.

Weeks before the TV series bows on April 15, cable channel Syfy and developer Trion Worlds (maker of the popular Rift franchise) will launch a companion massively multiplayer online game that features the same characters and setpieces from the show, while expanding upon its storylines.

As networks seek new ways to keep audiences glued to their programming, asking viewers to switch from a series to a computer game and back is a risky proposition — as is Syfy spending $40 million for a new series, and ponying up half of the roughly $60 million to enter the gaming arena at the same time.

But even if the TV half of “Defiance” is Emmy brilliant, the business model for its MMO component is fraught with a different kind of drama, to say the least. Super-Data CEO Joost van Dreunen believes it will be a tough task for San Diego-based Trion, given that the current MMO market is saturated, forcing publishers to compete for a finite gamer population.

In addition, the monthly subscription model that made MMOs a hot category for 15 years has cooled. For every outsize success like “World of Warcraft” there are many other flameouts — some of which leveraged Hollywood intellectual property to ill effect.

Electronic Arts and Lucasarts struggled to find a large fanbase in 2011 after spending $150 million on “Star Wars: The Old Republic,” the most expensive game ever created. To help boost numbers, they made the game free to play last year, relying instead on the sale of virtual goods to generate revenue.

“Defiance” also has eschewed the paid subscription model, but will charge $60 to $150 for the game.

Trion also has to make sure that “Defiance” launches without the glitches that have turned off many a gamer to other product bows. EA’s reboot of SimCity is the latest to suffer from a technological stumble right out of the gate.

“Star Wars” was at least a presold intellectual property; “Defiance” has no such built-in brand awareness, forcing Syfy to spend more to promote “Defiance” than any show the network has aired. It’s been hyped everywhere from E3 and San Diego Comic-Con to this month’s SXSW in Austin, Texas. It’s also getting promotional help from Syfy parent Comcast, which is plugging the property across all its channels.

The question, ultimately, will be whether all that’s enough to deliver critical mass.