Syfy and Trion look for game-changing future

By Geoff Boucher March 23, 2011

The strange, alien hybrid was born in a beige-bland corporate park just off the freeway in San Diego and, after three years and $25 million in development, it still has no name but it does have a mission — to meld a television series and a global online video game in a dynamic way that will allow players around the world to become proxy members of the show’s creative team and digital extras on the weekly episodes.

“It’s the holy grail and nothing less than that,” says Dave Howe, the president of NBC Universal’s Syfy channel, which would air the still untitled series beginning next year. “To have a television show and open-ended game that becomes a community, that is something that no one has ever done and it would be a game-changer.”

Howe and Syfy aim to take the subscription-based success of online games such as World of Warcraft (which has $1 billion in revenue last year with more than 12 million online, paying players) and meld that model with a weekly, prime-time television show that interacts with the game in an unprecedented way.

The premise of the show and game is not that far removed from alien-invasion movies such as “District 9” — interstellar travelers arrive on Earth and, after a series of unexpected events, they are forced to live among humans, leading to strange new geo-political realities. Earth suddenly has demographics that look like the cantina scene from “Star Wars.” The landscape of the planet too is altered by the aliens, with cities covered in jungle vines or half-leveled beneath frozen tundra.

The television show will follow a small group of characters in this strange new landscape but the backdrop — the battles that rage in distant cities and power struggles — will be determined in a major way by players at their computers and video-game consoles. Players choose what alien (or earthling) tribe they want to belong to and their choices will guide the long-term plans of the show’s writers, who are now led by Daniel Knauf, the creator of HBO’s Carnivale.”

How will it work? Consider the idea of a war film in which the backdrop battle is decided by the players of the game while the specific story of the primary characters in the “foreground” of the show is determined by the screenwriters of the series. Knauf said “the possibilities are so exciting for fans” who will see events on the show reflected in the game and at times see “footage” of their own created characters and their game play used in episodes.

Succeed or fail, the project, which has been called “One World” but will likely reach screens with a different title, is one of the most audacious ventures in the search for the “next” entertainment.

Some are skeptical about the search for crossover properties in general, given the audience disinterest in previous attempts to merge video games and film or television. “The accepted rule is that video games based on movies are usually no good,” points out Jon Favreau, the director of the “Iron Man” hit films, which yielded tie-in games of only middling success. “And it goes the other way too. Has there ever
been a great film based on a video game?”

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” and “Max Payne” are among the latest fizzled films based on the pixel fantasies of the gaming world and adaptations of the wildly popular World of Warcraft and Halo have so far failed to get off the ground despite years of trying.

Still, no less an expert than filmmaker James Cameron, who is a revered pioneer figure after the film-tech accomplishments of “Avatar,” said projects like the Syfy-Trion alliance are on the front edge of entertainment thinkers.

“I think it’s great, the approach of it has a lot of promise — you’re getting real people to invest something in a character that populates the background,” said Cameron, who is not affiliated with the project and was unaware of it before being interviewed for this article. “It’s almost like having an artificial intelligence at work behind the primary story but your audience is the A.I.”

Still, Cameron says television and gaming are such different mediums that finding a harmonious hybrid is a profound challenge. Video games create a world where players can meander while film and television are a journey that is dictated by the creators and defined by plot and character development. “Here’s the problem for all of us: It’s inherently oil and water,” Cameron said. “You can shake it really hard and get it to emulsify but that’s all, at least so far. There’s a fundamental difference between interactive game play and passive
narrative. It’s fundamental. Now you can force them together, you can force a hybrid and I can think of lots of ways to do it, personally. I’d love to have extra 5-10 years of life to do it but I know what I’m best at is telling a story. That’s different than building games.”

The imperatives are different but here in 2011 it’s hard not to notice each medium affecting the other.

In imagery and approach, movies are tilting toward video-games — Christopher Nolan’s Inception” was embraced by many gaming fans, for instance, who felt its multiple
levels of reality was in lockstep with their medium’s sensibilities. Director Zack Snyder, whose dark fantasy adventure film “Sucker Punch” reaches theaters this Friday, has gone even further; has a film where four items must be found and the quest for them is broken up into segments of combat in otherworldly landscapes – a classic structure for video games.

Snyder met with game designers to learn their latest approaches to hyper-real visual effects but, with a chuckle, said it didn’t lead to much. “They said they get everything they do from us and I’m sure you’ll be seeing a lot of games pick up from ‘Sucker Punch.’”

Trion and Syfy, however, are looking for something connected by far more than influence and inspiration. In San Diego, television writers and executives worked side-by-side with game designers to create the entire foundation for this project that Trion founder Lars Buttler calls “the frontier of this new interactive entertainment that will be accepted in another decade or two.”

Erik Storey, the senior vice president of original programming at Syfy, said there was an instant clash of culture for the creative team, that game people and television people were two tribes with different belief systems.

“That was the biggest eye-opener,” he said. “You assume, as you work in a vacuum, that everyone has the same process that you do. With a television show you start with the characters, first and foremost, and build out in this concentric bull’s-eye, into supporting characters and the ancillary characters. We found out quickly that these guys start on the outside — they create the universe and begin on perimeter while we’re in the center. It was a whole different mind-set.”

Bill Trost, lead game designer for Trion, nodded before explaining that the “bible” created for the game had 300-plus pages that map and explain the world with the clinical tone of an encyclopedia or government survey.

“We will have thousands of players and they have to come into a believable environment that they feel invested in. We have to have Genesis thoughts,” Trost said. “What is this world and how did it come to be? We have to invest in the origin of the species.”

The game designers found themselves reined in by the limitations of a television production. Some of their envisioned creatures, for example, were simply too expensive and impractical for a weekly television show. “We needed castable aliens,” Howe said with a wry chuckle.

Tuesday night in New York, Syfy, which reaches 98 million homes, previewed its planned new shows, including Howe’s pricey gamble on the long-simmering project, which has not yet begun filming. Buttler said that for Howe’s gamble to pay off, both sides of the team must create something that stands on its own even as it marches lockstep into the future. “They are not codependent on the other but if you are someone who wants to engage it as a show and as a game, the experience is enhanced,” Buttler said.

 The synergy is certainly enticing. If a television franchise is hitched directly to a paid-subscription online game — and not just in name, but in narrative — the captive audience possibilities are dizzying. However, the project will have to create a mythology that will get a huge audience to invest their time, money and passion and do it fast enough to keep Howe’s new masters at NBC Universal onboard for the great experiment. Howe knows the clock is ticking. “When you do things that no one has done before there’s always a risk to it. We’re in alien territory now.”

Filed under Media Coverage.