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“Defiance” is a highly anticipated TV series/video game crossover project from Syfy and Trion Worlds with the game being released today, April 2nd, and the show premiering on April 15th.
To celebrate the game’s launch and to help whet your appetites for the debut of “Defiance” on Syfy in just a few more days, we have the highlights of a conference call with the executive producer/showrunner for the series, Kevin Murphy, and Trion’s vice president of development, Nathan Richardson.
Q: Could one or both of you fill us in on how this all started?
Kevin Murphy: I’ll jump in on that. It’s been five years in the making. About five years ago Dave Howe from Syfy and Lars Butler from Trion got together because Syfy had made a large investment in Trion, and they were looking for a project to do together. So they looked through the various properties that Syfy had in development and settled on this sort of a world. It took five years of development to get the video game up and running, which is not unusual for a video game. It took that long to figure out how it would work as a television show. I came on board the project about two years ago and kind of got us over the finish line in terms of the shared world.
And the big idea really was about, “How do we create a big universe with two distinct portals that would allow you to enter that world?” And by creating a new world, it gave you sort of an infinite sort of number of permutations of ways to tell stories and ways to find characters.
Nathan Richardson: Yes, also part of it of course is that it’s happening in two different geographical locations so that instead of the problems you have with licensed games and licensed shows, in that they’re usually restricting each other, and also of course selecting the right kind of world and intellectual property that actually fit for both mediums, both parties are actually quite free to tell pretty compelling stories.
Kevin Murphy: Yes, what’s really special about this is that, unlike an adaptation, rather than one intellectual property being iterative of the other, the game and the show are equals. And because they were developed together, the mythology is seamless.
And whenever there’s something that serves the needs of the game, we work it into the mythology of the show. And if there’s something that’s important for the show, the game works it into their mythology. And that allows for a better gaming experience and a better, hopefully, television viewing experience.
Q: When you’re putting all of this together, how do you draw the line or tell where the line is between what’s going to be strictly game-focused and what’s actually going to make it on the TV screen, and then what’s the conversation like in terms of how those two are going to play off of each other?
Kevin Murphy: Well, one of the things that we learned early on that we needed was a way to keep the mythology of the game and the mythology of the television show up-to-date and current because we were having real trouble communicating. At Trion they would do a big beautiful bible of everything that was going on in the game, and we would use that as a reference. And we would pull something out – like some creature or some political figure – and they’d say, “Oh sorry, that’s not it anymore; we took that out.” And they would have the same frustration with us.
So we created the position of a “mythology coordinator,” who serves as kind of an editor between what goes into the game and what goes into the television show and helps define connections. And they make sure that there’s nothing we do in the show that contradicts the reality of the game to make sure that when we do an episode with hellbugs in the television show, we’re being accurate as to the biology and what they look like and how they breed and what the various subclasses of hellbug are. Everything we’re doing is exact so when gamers watch the show, they really have a feeling of recognition that this is the same monster they’ve been having fun fighting and killing in the game world. Nathan can speak to this, too, but that’s really been a big help in terms of keeping everything straight and keeping everything unified.
Nathan Richardson: Yes, I think that the way this is actually happening is that we have this repository – the world in its entirety – but it’s also simply talking quite a lot together, to say the least.
Kevin Murphy: Yes, we’re on the phone at least about 9, 10, 11, 12 times a day.
Q: It’s a big challenge to create this franchise of a game and TV show; why did you decide to do both things at the same time?
Kevin Murphy: The big reason is because no one’s ever done it before. And one of the big challenges, as we move into sort of what many people are calling a “golden age” of television and of gaming, is people are really looking for [things like] second screen applications and experiences. So the idea here is to take that idea of a second screen presence and build it into the DNA of the actual project. And I think that creates a form of entertainment that is not available elsewhere. And I think that with so many great games and so many great television shows on right now, creating something that sort of cuts through the clutter and noise is something that no one has ever seen before. And that’s one of the reasons I was attracted to be involved with the project because I love this particular challenge of figuring out how to make it work.
Nathan Richardson: Yes, it’s definitely the challenge, and people often ask, “Why would you try to start a new franchise?” and think about it that way, but if nobody starts trying to kick off new franchises, new intellectual properties and worlds, we’ll be watching Call of Duty 9 and Rambo 13 in a couple of years. And for me that’s not a very compelling future.
So everybody is trying to find and figure out, “What is the new form of entertainment which is going to be interesting to people?” and this is one approach. I believe it’s a good approach. It’s risky of course. That’s the reason why people haven’t taken it on. But I think we’re going to be doing some amazing things.
Q: What was your biggest challenge in creating a project like this?
Kevin Murphy: I think the biggest challenge is figuring out each other’s nomenclature and process. Coming into this, I didn’t know anything about how a video game is put together. And I think on the Trion side they didn’t have any idea of how a TV show is put together. For this sort of television, you’re breaking the story maybe six weeks before you actually go before a camera, which seems really, really fast. And I think it was a little shocking for our partners at Trion when they were saying, “Yes, well, we don’t know that because we haven’t gotten to breaking that episode yet.” And then it’s suddenly, “Okay, now we’re breaking the episode. Sorry, we shot it.” It just seems incredibly lightning fast.
Every single thing that is in the game has to be lovingly created and digitally rendered. It’s very difficult for them to make a small change. So when we would call and say, “Oh, can you just maybe tweak this one thing or this one look or this one color,” they would look at us like, “You’re crazy.” And then we realized, “No, I guess they really can’t.” And that educational process for me was the biggest challenge.
Nathan Richardson: Yes, it’s very much that understanding because like we’ve just gone through in some of the previous questions, they rely a lot on actually learning about each other and how we actually do things…With a game, there is no pre- and post-processing as such. We are always creating the full 3D assets. That takes considerably a lot of time, especially when you have a lot of terrain, like recreating parts of the San Francisco Bay area.
But secondly, I’d also say that one of the challenges, especially for me coming into this, is creating a game which is not only just a game. It’s a massive online game on Xbox, PlayStation 3 and PC, and they’re all connected together. This is the kind of mild insanity that intrigues me.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about the original languages created for this show?
Kevin Murphy: David Peterson is not only our language creator, but he’s also our cultural consultant on the show because he really has a mind for that sort of nuance. And from his perspective you can’t create a realistic language without knowing a lot about the culture of the language – the language creators. David Peterson, prior to “Defiance,” is best known for creating the Dothraki language on the HBO series “Game of Thrones.” And this presented an even bigger challenge to him because the Dothrakis on “Game of Thrones” are illiterate; they don’t have any written form of their language.
We asked him to not only create a spoken version of Irathient, but also a written version, and a spoken version of Castithan. He’s also done Indogene, and Liberata is a work in process – we don’t use that as much. But at this point, last time I checked, we were at 1,962 Irathient words and counting.
And there are complete rules for grammar, syntax, verbs, and irregular verbs; there’s an 150-page orthographic document that he’s created. And along the way there are things he’s created in terms of what our alien cultures are and who they were on their home world that I don’t even completely understand. Like every now and then when he was creating the Irathient language, I would get this weird phone call from David, and he’d go, “Is it okay if the Irathient home world sky was kind of red?” “Okay, David, sure.” “Great, that’s going to make everything work.” And I had no idea why a red Irathient sky made the language work, but I know that David knows, and that’s what’s important. So any time we have a question about culture, we ask him. He created the Castithan caste system, which are called liros, and all of that is all in that magnificent brain of his.
So that’s really how we do it day-to-day, and Nathan could speak to how they do it in the video game. But in the show we basically write in English and [highlight] it and say what it is we want the character to say. David chooses the appropriate language and then makes up the words and the syntax and then adds it to the overall vocabulary. And the languages get bigger and bigger and grander and grander.
Nathan Richardson: The way that we do it in the game itself is not to the same extent. It’s more that we pick up individual [words], swearing and stuff like that, from different languages, which adds a certain type of flavor to the conversations that are happening in the cinematics in the game because obviously you aren’t required to know caste to be able to play the game.
Q: Can you talk a bit about how the different designs for the various alien races came about?
Kevin Murphy: Well, when we were first figuring out the races for the pilot, we had the initial ideas that came from Trion, but then because we could only have so many races that are CGI just because of the limits of the budget and the limits of technology in terms of acting, we knew that we were going to have to use flesh and blood actors. So we really had to look at, “What can we do that’s cost-effective?” And some of the decisions about how the aliens look, like for the Irathients, we decided that we would do most of what they do with makeup and we would use a forehead prosthetic. And so that affected the way Irathients look in the game. Of course in the game you can do anything because it’s an entirely digital domain, but that’s a case of the game sort of cooperating with us.
For the Castithans, we decided we would settle with contact lenses. And we did a lot of experimentation with makeup to make them glow, but they don’t actually have any latex. The Sensoth and the Liberata are very expensive suits so we see fewer of those aliens. And the Indogenes are also very expensive because they’re an entire latex head. But we really had to look at, “How do we make it not look like rubber suits?” We looked at the way that we were painting the latex to make sure that it didn’t shine under stage lights. And all of this had to get sort of reverse engineered into the look of the game. And this is a case where the game [designers were] incredibly generous and wonderful teammates in kind of adapting to our needs.
On the other hand, one of the other things that we did was appropriate the Volge from the video game for the pilot. And they appear in a couple of other episodes. But what we discovered is, when you put them in a photo-realistic environment with actual flesh and blood actors, they looked a little too Buck Rogers, they didn’t look grounded. So Gary Hutzel, our visual effects supervisor, did some tweaks to the design and then ran it back with the folks at Trion. And happily, the folks at Trion really loved what Gary did, and so they incorporated those changes into the design of the game.
I think we ended up with something that was better than we would have come up on the TV show on our own, and it was better than the original first pass that Trion had, and the gamers are the beneficiary of that sort of cross-pollination of the artists.
Nathan Richardson: This is one example of where getting to know each other and going back and forth like that example with the Volge, it ended up being a much better result in the end so that was kind of a pleasing surprise for both of us I guess.
Q: We know events that happen in the game and on the show are going to cross over somehow, but I assume when you buy the actual game that there’s an endpoint. So if somebody finishes the game right away, how do they still get that crossover content?
Nathan Richardson: I’ll jump in first and say there’s actually a couple of angles to that question because the game is based on a main storyline of course, which is telling the story and getting you immersed, but it also has so many other different aspects of the online aspect, which provides much more longevity in gameplay. What happens there is that we have the crossover elements between the show and the game, but there are also live events happening in the game itself when it all continues. So you’re still affecting the world itself even though the show has actually finished its last episode. What happens essentially in the game is material for actually what would happen in Season Two. So the number of opportunities that we have to actually work with how we play the game and how we work with Season Two is essentially too many options.
Kevin Murphy: Yes, one of the things that’s really exciting now that we’re going through the process of beginning to think about the shape and form of Season Two is now that the game is actually up and running and the TV show is up and running, we’re now going to be able to really plan things for Season Two that we can be setting up because a lot of the game is being created as we go along because it’s constantly changing and there’s new levels and new missions being introduced. So that’s something that we’re really looking forward to because as we move forward, we’re able to really make the convergence between the two even deeper and more meaningful as we get into Season Two.
Q: As far as crossover is concerned, how much crossover will there be during the first season from characters in the series into the other city in the actual game?
Kevin Murphy: There’s a fair bit. I’m going to be a little coy about it because I don’t want to lay it all out and create a situation where we have spoilers, but we are passing several characters back and forth in both directions.
If you imagine that there’s one circle that is gamers and another circle which is television viewers, where they intersect, those are sort of our super-fans, our people who are going to immerse themselves completely in the world. And what we want to do is create an amazing experience for all of our immersive super-fans, while at the same time making this enterprise accessible to the people who are just interested in the television show or just interested in playing the game. And hopefully over time we intrigue them and tickle their curiosity and get a bigger and bigger sample and create more super-fans. But to do that we have to be very, very [tricky] in how we go about creating our crossovers because we have to make sure that when we do a crossover element, one side doesn’t feel that they’ve missed a chapter or feel frustrated or think, “I can’t enjoy this television show if I’m not also playing the game so I’m not going to bother watching the television show.”
Nathan Richardson: Yes, I also think that “crossover” simply is a very good descriptive word for it because we literally are crossing over the storyline back and forth between certain elements there. And it’s important to emphasize that you don’t have to play the game to watch the show. The individuals on each side won’t be without context for you.
Q: During your presentation at South by Southwest, Nick from Trion Worlds mentioned that there were a number of compromises that were made in terms of translation from the video game to the TV series and vice versa. He mentioned, for example, that originally the TV series wanted to have everyone on horses. But for a first person shooter, having people on horses is pretty much a moving target. I wanted to ask what other compromises did you make in order to make this project really effective?
Kevin Murphy: Flying is one example. That was something that could have been cool in the game, [but] for us to do that my fear was that it would make everything feel a little too Buck Rogers to have flying cars. So we decided that we were not going to have that. There is a Stratocarrier that you enter the game in, but it crashes.
Nathan Richardson: Like Kevin was saying, flight was one of them. And we are even still now exploring, like when we were thinking, “What do we actually have in our expansions to ‘Defiance’?” because you have an aggressive schedule of expansions post-launch. So we have planting of seeds. We’re asking ourselves, “Okay, what could actually fit here?” and then we also have to take into consideration what could – with the show – merge well together and actually create more compelling stories. When we look at how we want to move the game forward, whether we’re doing crossovers at that point in time or whether we’re just thinking forward, we don’t want to paint ourselves into a corner. So it’s a relationship like every other in that you have to be well aware of each other.
Q: With regard to vehicle and equipment design, do the live action people mostly do that, or is that done from the game first and then they go into the live action side?
Nathan Richardson: It’s from both. The vehicles come from both sides. With the television show, you would like to at least base them on something that’s currently available or close to, which you would modify. We don’t have that restriction inside the game, of course; we can go pretty much everywhere. But in terms of which one is more contributing, I think it’s pretty similar even though the reason that people see less in the TV show is simply that it’s a different type of story that’s being told. In [the game] a lot of your travel is vehicle-based. So we have everything from quads up to trucks and stuff like that. Some of them we actually have made ourselves. A good example is that in the pilot the car that Nolan and Irisa are driving didn’t exist in the game itself, and it’s actually just being finished as we speak.
There are restrictions [though]; for example, you will see that we have Dodge Challengers and stuff like that. And that’s not just because they’re good partners and sponsors; it’s because it fit very well with the universe because you want to have a certain amount of alien, futuristic views of it, but you also have to have a certain amount of familiarity to the world.
Q: Will there be DLC that goes back in time to deal with, say, the earliest days of the Pale Wars?
Nathan Richardson: No, they aren’t planned. We are very much going from the perspective that you are turning a living world which moves forward. And we’re not going to time travel, at least not for now. So no flashbacks [in the game].
Kevin Murphy: In the TV series, though, because the past does have a big effect on the characters, we do have a number of episodes where we go back and visit moments from the past, things like that.
Q: Do you know for a fact or have any timetable for when there will be a soundtrack release for “Defiance”? I’m a big fan of Bear McCreary; did he score the game as well?
Kevin Murphy: Yes, he scored the game. And yes, our hope is to do a soundtrack. There’s not a specific release planned, but Bear has actually created a lot of music for this. And he’s also created pop songs. And he’s created pop songs that are in the various alien languages. [In] the pilot when the Castithan teenagers are dancing, that “Groovy” song that’s playing is a Bear McCreary original composition that he wrote and recorded. That will be on a soundtrack album… Music is a huge character in the show. And there’s a lot of Bear McCreary music. There’s Bear McCreary covers of popular songs that we’ll be hearing. So it would be a crime against nature for us not to have a soundtrack album because it’ll be awesome.
Q: How many episodes or seasons has Syfy committed to for the television show?
Kevin Murphy: They’ve committed to Season 1, and we are now in the process of [putting together] story breaks for Season 2. But we won’t actually get a Season 2 pickup until after the first episode has aired. And we expect that you will probably get word of it around mid-May.
Q: Not to jinx you guys or anything, but if the TV show doesn’t last more than a season or two, how will that affect the game?
Nathan Richardson: [As we’ve said,] if you watch the show, you don’t have to be playing the game to get the entire context. That’s a business decision for both of us in terms of that we are not inherently tied to each other on that level. The thing is that, like now we’re going through Season 2 even though it’s not fully green-lit, what we’re doing is still compelling storylines on both sides. And the moment that we’re green-lit, because I have no doubt in my mind of course, that preparation work and all the stuff we’re doing now will be fully contextual still and relevant and immersive.
Q: So the game would continue on?
Nathan Richardson: Yes, absolutely.
Q: There have been a lot of TV shows about alien invasions, some successful and some not. What makes you think that “Defiance” is going to be a success?
Nathan Richardson: We have more aliens, and some of them love each other.
Kevin Murphy: What’s sort of unusual about this is that it is not simply an alien invasion show. This is really more of a melting pot immigrant drama in that these aliens, the Votans, seven different races, don’t necessarily like one another. Back on their home world they may have been enemies; one race may have conquered the other. They came together out of necessity because their own solar system was about to be destroyed, and it was, “Come together or die.” So we are in a world where old millennia-long prejudices exist within the Votans. Humans are now in the mix. And everyone’s got shared history, shared alliances, shared cultures. And it’s really about, “How do you get together in a new world with all of these different perspectives and musical and cultural perspectives?” So that’s very different from an alien invasion show or something like “Falling Skies.” And we’re hoping to kind of stick out. I think “Falling Skies” is a perfect show, and two of our writers (Bradley Thompson and David Weddle) actually worked on “Falling Skies.” But we’re trying to do something that’s kind of in a different sandbox. I think doing something different is the best way to be successful with an audience. So that’s the plan at least, and I’m sticking to it.
The series stars Grant Bowler, Julie Benz, Stephanie Leonidas, Tony Curran, Jaime Murray, Fionnula Flanagan, Mia Kirshner, and Oscar nominee Graham Greene. “Defiance” is directed by Scott Stewart (Legion, Priest) and written/executive produced by Rockne O’Bannon (“Farscape”), Kevin Murphy (“Desperate Housewives,” “Caprica”), and Michael Taylor (“Battlestar Galactica”). Kevin Murphy serves as showrunner. Defiance is produced by Universal Cable Productions.
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