Defiance and the future of gaming: Nathan Richardsson interview

Ahead of the launch of Syfy and Trion Worlds' MMO Defiance, we spoke to its executive producer about the future of gaming...

Videogames based on movies, television shows and comic books are nothing new, but what the Syfy Channel and MMO developer Trion Worlds are attempting undoubtedly is. Called Defiance, it’s a true multimedia crossover, with characters and events in the forthcoming sci-fi television series tying into those in Trion’s third-person shooter. It’s an ambitious idea, and one full of storytelling possibilities – and one of the new ways of creating and selling games that is only just beginning to be explored.

With this in mind, we spoke to the Defiance videogame’s executive producer Nathan Richardsson, not only about his forthcoming online shooter, but also about what he sees as the future of gaming in general. Here’s what he had to say.

So how did this joint venture between Trion and Syfy come about?

Syfy were wanting to go into this transmedia experience, an IP that could be sold in multiple mediums, essentially, because there’s lots of potential there – not just in terms of massive storytelling, but in terms of revenue.

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So what happened was Syfy and Trion started working together in terms of figuring out how to make this work. They started going through all these IPs that they could expand – Syfy had something like Sharktopus, which maybe wouldn’t be so good for this! They ended up creating a new IP simply because we have to have a clean slate. And also, the IP had to lend itself to being told in different mediums quite easily, so it’s getting that freedom, but also an IP that works in games, and works for television shows. So here we are with Defiance.

So then it was decided to do it on a massive scale. The game itself, right now, we have 150 people [working on it]. The television show, the production quality is pretty goddamn good. But also, in terms of scale, it’s larger than Syfy’s Battlestar Galactica, so I’d say both sides have commitment to the concept itself, but also they believe that the way we tell stories is going to evolve in the coming years – and in this case, we an online game and a television show tied together.

I think when this has started, and people really see what’s happening, and how it’s done, I’m hoping that more people will go this route. Because there are immense possibilities in telling a story that is interconnected through multiple mediums. 

How will we see, as the series and the game develops, these characters and stories cross over?

Most of the DLC will come out during the airing of the first season of the television show. You’ll have parts where the storytelling hands over between the game and the show, so you’ll have an event that happens on the television show, which will then trigger on the game side as well. So that then goes back and forth in terms of telling the story, but what happens is that, once the series has ended its first season, is that we continue the story, with dynamic events and so on, within the game itself. That also ties in with season two, both in the game itself and the TV show. Then we tie it together even more.

So you have the first crossovers happening during season one of the television show, then you have the opportunity for players to determine what happens in season two, and taking the story forward. It’s really using both mediums and both worlds to make a larger, more compelling story that players can affect in some kind of way.

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Is it a balancing act, though, because not everyone watching the TV series will play the game and vice versa.

You don’t have to. We’re doing this joint venture, but we’re also making a standalone game that can stand on its own two feet, and the show itself can also do that. Even though we have events that make it a bigger experience, we don’t necessarily have to do that. You can play the game, and the dynamic events are explained, so you’re not missing out. The same is true of the TV show, which is that you don’t need to know what’s happening in the game, but it’s given context.

What’s the biggest technical challenge you’ve had so far in this game?

Well, early on we have the challenge of developing for three different platforms at the same time. But what we’re seeing right now, though, is that online gaming is a huge challenge in and of itself. When you have the PS3 and the Xbox and PC, and you have to deliver content fast, and also manage the business model itself, put together, that’s a large challenge. Individually, it’s not technically difficult, but it’s more the number of moving parts we have to deal with.

Again, Microsoft and Sony have great gaming systems, but their purpose, in a way, wasn’t to be some massive online gaming platform. Even though they had internet connectivity, that didn’t mean that people went home and actually plugged them in. So there are so many things that are in place now – the platforms have evolved, and we ways of updating the games. We have different models on consoles which allow for added revenue streams, which online games need to have. Sony and Microsoft have been great in enabling that – it’s not just Syfy saying, “We want to do this”, they’ve said, “Let’s figure out how we can help you do this.” So it’s all the moving parts that have provided the challenge. 

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Does that mean you’ll be producing Defiance for the next generation of consoles?

We haven’t made any announcements on that, but that’s certainly where we want to go. For us, the new generation is essentially another platform. It’s a question of knowing how we’re going to use them. It’s still going to be Defiance, the same game, so it’s more of a challenge to say, “What is Defiance on the PS4? What does it look like?” But this is an opportunity to reach an audience, so of course we want to be there.

You’re selling Defiance as a full price game, but there’ll be microtransactions, too, is that right?

Yes. It’s sold as a full price game, and you’ll have everything you need to play it. But then what you have over time, are opportunities to buy individual items from the store. You don’t have to – you can play the game just fine without them. Then you’ll also have DLCs, expansions essentially, that we’ll release throughout the year. But these DLCs have a large free component with them, so everybody gets them, essentially, but there’s also a paid component which you’ll unlock. So you’ll get new features and content just by playing, but then you’ll have the option to add more features and abilities to your character, being able to play as another species, and so on and so forth.

It’s taking that aspect from online games, where they’re continuously evolving, applying that to the retail chain there, but giving you more choice over how you pay and how you play.

We’re at an interesting crossroads, aren’t we. As well as the next gen being a few months away, we’re also seeing greater diversity in how games are funded and produced. What do you think the future of gaming is? Is Defiance it, do you think?

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Yes and no. I think the gaming landscape is changing tremendously. I’m a big fan of indie games. I think we see most of the innovation happening in there. I’m not such a large fan, though, of large stars going on Kickstarter and funding their games. I think they have other avenues, and we should be giving new and upcoming stars the chance to use it, and not be competing with the big names. I’m not saying that their ideas aren’t applicable or not good enough, it’s just that we have a lot of talent out there that is unfunded, and should get some of that limelight.

I also have my doubts about the huge investment up front, retail-driven games in the future. I’m not going to say they’re going to die – I think they’re going to hang around for a long time. The pricing might change, and there might be the odd tweak during development, but long term, you’ll see that there’s going to be an array of business models on games.

People are saying that free to play is the future; it isn’t. It’s just one more business model we’re seeing. Freemium isn’t free to play – they’re different business models, essentially. Then you have different types of game that fit best with different models. What’s happening is competition is getting pretty hard. You’ll see – and you’ll continue to see – companies putting a huge amount of money into a free to play game. That kind of defeats the purpose of going free to play, because you want to put out feelers and try to see what picks up – let’s try this, and see what happens.

Instead of saying, “We’re going to put $60 million into this” like you would a retail game, but instead make a free to play game, you’ve essentially played the same kind of vicious cycle that big retail games have today. I don’t think that large ventures are going out; I simply think that, in order to get through, they’re going to have to do something radically different from massive sequels or simply doing the next generation of that same genre.

There’s only so many times you can perfect the same thing. At some point, you have to diversify more. 

Annual versions of FIFA, for example.

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Exactly. I’m sure they’ll be doing fine, but they’ve also started looking into their business models, and how they can change things. So things are changing, and the industry should have seen by now how many game studios have killed themselves in the current model, and should be thinking, “Let’s do it different somehow.”

Do you think the philosophy of games has changed over the past few years? Games were once products, but now they’re a service.

Absolutely, yes. It’s coming from a number of directions. One is how developers create their games. The process is now more iterative. They used to make games in a very serial way at the start, and almost didn’t have a playable version until shortly before launch. Now you expand upon it, and test new features. It’s fine to course-correct, but you course-correct early on, so it doesn’t cost a fortune to fix. Then you open up for alpha or beta, to get more customer feedback.

So what you essentially have in the end, as the game, has been tried and tested, so you know what you have in your hands. You’re not just putting stuff out and hoping for the best. So there’s a certain philosophical change there.

It’s also the case that people have started thinking that playing a new game is more of a conscious decision. They’re saying, “I have a certain amount of time, is this game interesting enough? Does it look as though it’s going to evolve and continue, and become more and more fun? Is it going to expand?”

I need to be sure that, if I invest my time in this, it’s not going to be thrown away after two weeks. I want to know that it’s a worthy use of my time, that it’s not just going to disappear. So there’s a sense that it’s not just money I’m investing, but time. And if you are prepared to invest your time, the money involved doesn’t matter that much anymore, but saying, “I’ve been playing this game for 60 hours, so paying $5 or $10 doesn’t really matter.”

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That’s the kind of ratio you’re looking at; you pay a little bit of money here and there over time, but it’s nothing like a $60, $80, $100 upfront investment. Sure, in the end, you might have to spend $60, but you’ve been playing it for a year.

So yeah, I think there’s a big change. Even in terms of people playing free games, they can go in, and they can go out. Getting them back in is such a huge challenge, because there’s so much choice. Every time you go onto Facebook, there’s another game.

I think the landscape is changing, and I don’t think anyone can predict what is going to happen, but I think the most dangerous option is to do the same thing again and again, and expect a different result. You have to start differentiating, and trying something new. There are lots of things you can do. Let’s not hop on the bandwagon and start saying that free to play is the saviour of mankind. There are lots of things that are good, which you can try out. 

Do you think there’s a certain amount of suspicion surrounding microtransactions?

Yes, yes. I think what’s happening there is that the word microtransactions has so many connotations to it. There are so many stories attached to it. But this model is considered the norm, for example, in Asia. But I think that it comes down to the type of game, game design; it has to be part of the game you’ve paid for. When you start designing a game, you have to start thinking about the business model. Certainly, it’s affecting it, but I think people will accept it when it’s a natural part of the game, and you don’t want to feel like you’re being exploited, essentially.

So finally, how would you describe Defiance? What’s its unique selling point, do you think?

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It’s an open-world game, it’s a third-person shooter, and then we add the massive aspect on top of it. So we leverage the open world, that massive scale that adds a magical dimension to it. We believe that playing with more players, where the gameplay makes it so that being among more players is beneficial, that’s good, and that’s something that people like.

So far, our research and data, from alphas and everything, says that that’s what we’ve done. So, yeah, a massive, open-world, third-person shooter is how I’d describe it.

Nathan Richardsson, thank you very much.

Defiance is out on PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 on the 2nd April, while the series will air every Tuesday from the 16th April.