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.
Quiet on Set!
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.
Contrasting Settings: St. Louis and San Francisco
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.
Defiance World PvP Preview
The Defiance cast had a show to shoot and we had a game to play, so it was back to the hotel and a swanky rooftop demo area for some quality time with the game. I sat down with an attractive female character that could have been modeled on Julie Benz and took a look at my abilities.
Though the Sausalito playfield is intended to fall somewhere in the middle of the game (one of its five mammoth playfields at launch), my character's abilities were fairly limited, with only basic equipment and no ego point enhancements (buffs and debuff abilities, such as enhancing run speed). That suited me just fine for a fast introduction.
The character - we'll call her Amanda in homage - was packing an assault rifle, a holographic decoy ability that works on players and AI-controlled enemies, and the handy ability to summon a zippy four-wheeler (or quad) anywhere. I immediately did so, and it was shades of Farcry or GTA as I splattered some raiders, flourescently accented enemies that could have stepped out of Mad Max's highlighter factory, on the way to a mission.
Missions are repeatable, and players get new missions by interacting with a prismatic cloud (for lack of a better description) near mission objectives. This one had me and my closest 12 demo-mates assaulting a raider farm to shut down their generators and destroy their weapons caches. Little did I know that this was all just a warmup for world PvP, but fortunately I did discover a sticky grenade launcher sitting in a crate at the farm, an elegant weapon that came in very handy later.
Senior VP of Development Nick Beliaeff had us kick off world PvP, which was as simple as joining a queue. To my surprise, a 4 second countdown phased us into the exact same zone with nary a loading screen. The difference: the map had nominally fewer AI enemies, two teams of perhaps fifteen each, and (in lieu of missions) three capture points. I hopped on my quad, dodged a teammate traffic jam, and set out for objective A. The location was well chosen, nestled in a combination greenhouse / solar farm with plenty of cover opportunities.
Since this was the initial blitz, I easily captured A and set out for B, but soon spotted a handful of enemy players heading for A. I doubled back, ran over one unfortunate guy on foot, but discovered a QA ringer (one of a handful on each side) toting a hellbug gun, who made quick work of me with nasty little bugs that could hone in around corners. I respawned nearby (you have a choice of spawn points depending on what your team has captured), and decided to change my tactics. Outing my decoy as I swept in, I loaded up the capture point with sticky grenades and waited for an enemy to return and finish the cap. Hitting the reload button blew one enemy halfway across the map, but her teammates discovered my hidey hole and put me down. As in any online shooter, sheer numbers usually decide the encounter.
I picked up an Xbox controller to see how the game played with these ancient instruments of gaming, and though the keyboard and mouse felt more natural to me (being a PC gamer through and through), I didn't embarrass myself and even managed a kill or two with my thumbs and trigger finger. Nick reminded us that the game is not only multi-platform - playing on PS3, X360, and PC - but will be cross-platform as well, meaning that players on each platform will play with (or against) each other.
Time ticked down, and a defensive approach (capturing two points and defending them well, rather than going for all three) seemed to work well. Victory was ours, and my fifth place finish (just behind the QA folks) didn't shame my family. We returned to the PvE map, and Nick immediately spawned an arkfall nearby. The experience was extremely reminiscent of Rift, with waves of scrappers spawning - drone scrappers, boss scrappers, all pretty scrappy. Close-quarters dynamic events perhaps work better in a melee & magic game than a shooter, but the experience was fun enough. No rewards came as a result of winning the event - perhaps itemization is still a work in progress - but with six months to launch and a fun, functional foundation for the game, Trion has plenty of time to flesh things out.
Defiance's two hour season premiere will air in April 2013, with the game slated to release two weeks prior. Syfy has gone all-in with the IP, and is deep into production in the show's ten episode first season without airing a pilot. Ten Ton Hammer will continue to cover Defiance as the game nears its groundbreaking release next year.