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This story first appeared in the April 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Syfy is welcoming a two-headed baby into the world. The NBCUniversal-owned network in April is launching Defiance, a risky experiment in transmedia that pairs the most expensive series in the cable net’s history with an equally pricey massively multiplayer online (MMO) video game. Each can be enjoyed on its own, but NBCU, which has invested close to $100 million in Defiance, needs both sci-fi fans and gamers — two fickle groups — to show up in big numbers to justify the expense.
“No one’s ever attempted this before,” says Syfy president Dave Howe. “It’s been a big learning curve for us, as you can imagine.”
Defiance took shape in 2008 when Peacock Equity Fund, an NBCU venture focused on digital startups, bought a stake in Trion Worlds, makers of a popular MMO called Rift. Syfy, which has sought to become a genre player since its 2009 rebrand, was a logical place to launch a synergistic effort, and after several false starts, the project — a postapocalyptic Western set 30 years after seven alien races land on Earth — was born.
If the experiment pays off, each element will fuel interest in the other; conversely, if either side proves lackluster, it runs the risk of tarnishing the brand’s other half. “Even if the show is awesome, it’s hard to get these games right,” says gaming analyst Jeremy Miller. Case in point: 2011’s Star Wars: The Old Republic, a $200 million MMO, was forced to waive its subscription fees after players abandoned it in droves.
Defiance isn’t quite that pricey — the game cost about $60 million to make and market, which NBCU split with Trion. But it still needs to sell millions of units, priced at $60 each (which includes a lifetime subscription), to break even. Not helping matters: The game’s April 2 launch was glitchy, with long lag times and frequent server crashes, prompting Trion to post a message online assuring users that fixes were on the way.
Then there’s the TV play. With no major stars — Defiance‘s most recognizable faces are Julie Benz (Dexter) and Grant Bowler (Lifetime’s Liz & Dick) — the 13-episode series, which debuts April 15, is relying on big marketing and a Monday night pairing with Warehouse 13, Syfy’s most popular show. Howe won’t reveal ratings targets, but it’s clear he needs numbers closer to AMC’s The Walking Dead than recent Syfy efforts Alphas and Eureka.
Howe says Defiance will be given time to succeed. “Steve Burke is a big cheerleader of this,” he says of the CEO of NBCU, whose parent company is Comcast. “This project makes sense in the marriage of content and distribution. The game is obviously broadband-hungry, which from Comcast’s perspective makes total sense for their broadband business.”
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