Updated Tue, Oct 23, 2012 by Ethec
Ten Ton Hammer had the extremely rare opportunity to tour the live, working set of Defiance, an upcoming, cross-media, cross-platform SyFy television show and online shooter MMO. After a quick chat with the producers and cast, we had our first look at an aspect of the game we haven't seen before: world PvP.
Walking around a hot set was a new experience for me and even most of the entertainment press on the tour. At one point, Murphy hustled us into the lawkeeper's office while we quietly waited for a street scene to be filmed outside.
The set was huge, even by movie industry (let alone TV industry) standards. Murphy praised the Production Designer Steve Geaghan's ambition, noting that every time a show is cancelled around Toronto, Geaghan would sweep in and appropriate much of it for use in Defiance. The approach works especially well because Defiance itself is a patchwork town, built from the rubble of the old world. The result of Geaghan's work is a sprawling outdoor set that's bigger than some small town commercial districts, with the equivalent of three avenues and two streets.
Many of the structures aren't mere facades - the set crew dresses an interior as needed, then the interior is kept for future use. Only the most frequently used interiors - Kenya's Need/Want Cafe, the residences of the industrialist McCawley and the mayor's office, for example - have been moved inside.
Defiance is described as a rebirth, and it seems that the show is offering cast members a chance at a kind of rebirth too. During a cast Q&A, Julie Benz noted that playing mayor Amanda Rosewater allowed her to play a strong, dynamic woman, a sharp contrast to the somewhat damaged character she played as Dexter's wife, Rita, on the Showtime drama of the same name. Asked about acting against the apparent nothingness of a green screen - a must for many scenes - Emmy-award nominated actor Graham Greene noted that it makes him feel like he's five years old again, living in a highly imaginative world. Greene's role as industrialist is a sharp contrast to his typical roles too, which tend to honor his Oneida heritage.
Speaking of sharp contrasts, in both look and feel, the settings of the game and show offered far more differences than I was expecting. Executive Producer Kevin Murphy invoked DC Universe's Gotham City and Metropolis in explaining how the show (set in a rugged, post-apocalyptic St. Louis) and the game (set in a futuristic, still-apocalyptic San Francisco) can stand alone, but are better together.
Describing the feel as "quasi-western" (and evoking memories of Janestown and Firefly), Murphy noted that the show is centered on the new town of Defiance, with themes like restoration and inclusion, as the surviving human and alien races seek to put their past behind them. The game's setting, however, has more of a gold-rush mentality, as players brave existential threats for their shot at individual reward.
Art Director James Dargie explains it like this: "This is kind of a rebirth period. The races are harmonizing, and areas like St. Louis are flourishing. It's not an urban mecca, but it's a sustainable, functioning city. In San Francisco, we're on the fringe. We have all the benefits of the technology, but we don't have a civic center yet. Players are ark-hunters, trying to find riches and fame. Players don't live in a safe town, which kind of justifies the differences you see."
The contrast between the sainted cities is a big part of the reason Dargie was parachuted in nine months ago. Dargie, with experience in set and character design in the television and games industries, is one of the primary forces keeping the game and TV show visuals in sync.
It's an interesting challenge, given that environments are easier to change on the game side, while character models tend to be easier to create in a live action setting than in a game. "We'll design settings in-game that the show producers look at and say, 'we can't build that, it's too expensive.' With characters, they'll come up with creatures like a six-legged bear, and we'll say we don't have the bones to support or animate that. We can always find a middle ground." In the case of the six-legged bear for example, Visual Effects guru Gary Hetzel noted that the middle ground was using non-articulating insect legs in place of bear legs.
Read on for a hands-on look at Defiance world PvP.