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"Pure play" not working anymore, says Defiance dev

Trion Worlds' new hire Nathan Richardsson talks about SyFy collaboration and creators needing to worry about more than just the game

While at CCP, Nathan Richardsson worked to integrate two separate MMOs in the same universe with the RPG Eve Online and the shooter Dust 514. For his next trick, the developer is taking the integration theme up a notch, as today Trion Worlds announced that Richardsson would be joining the company to oversee development of Defiance, the studio's new MMO shooter being created in tandem with the SyFy TV series of the same name.

As Trion's vice president of development and executive producer on Defiance, Richardsson will be responsible for managing the working relationship between the game's development team and SyFy. He will be reporting to Nick Beliaeff, senior vice president of development.

Defiance is set to launch on the SyFy Channel, PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 in April of 2013. GamesIndustry International this week interviewed Richardsson to discuss progress toward that multiplatform release date, the difficulties of cross-media collaboration, and the future of MMOs.

GamesIndustry International How has your previous experience prepared you for Defiance?
Nathan Richardsson

I think I'm fortunate enough to have been with great people doing online worlds and before that, product development in another service industry. I think a lot of that experience is applicable to what we're trying to achieve with Defiance. I would though also say that the most important thing I learnt is that the most important thing to survival is the ability to adapt, be able to respond fast to change.

"In the end it's just like any relationship... sometimes, someone has to give and someone has to receive."

Nathan Richardsson, on working with SyFy

You can throw a lot of buzzwords around, lean development, agile, rapid prototyping, kanban, evolution (sorry for the aging buzzwords) but when you look at it, a lot of what we did at CCP and what happened in the telecommunication industry, it was all about responding to change. Be that your customer or your environment--or simply yourself.

In this picture, you shouldn't forget things such as predictions, data driven decision making and old school gut feeling but that's worthless if you can't respond to what you see fast enough. That bus will still hit you even if you see it coming.

GamesIndustry International What do you anticipate to be the biggest challenge of making an MMO that ties into an ongoing TV show?
Nathan Richardsson

That's living together. There is so much history and tradition to take into account for both parties, even just the different ways of producing the content. We have a lot of ideas, different ideas, wonderful ideas but they don't always fit. So it's picking and choosing and not everybody is always happy with that.

For Season 1, we're also doing a lot of things that have never been done before on this scale but already we're saying, "Hey, wouldn't this be cool," and we're all like, "Wohoo!" But we have to keep ourselves in line because it simply isn't possible yet. However, we have the luxury of moving that to Season 2 and prepare with enough lead time for the next batch of shenanigans, even changing how we produce things. As they say, one revolution at a time.

Expect in-game events to start shaping the TV show in Season 2.
GamesIndustry International How will you handle situations where doing what's right for the TV show and doing what's right for the game might be in conflict?
Nathan Richardsson

This has already happened and what we do is we look at the impact and timing. When the television show is airing, we have a lot of investment in a certain timeline and experience and there, we often chose to adapt to the TV show.

Outside that initial airing of the show, there is a lot more freedom in the timeline predominantly driven by the game which is now in a mode where it is determining what happens in season 2. In the end it's just like any relationship, you always try to have all parties be at the front all the time but sometimes, someone has to give and someone has to receive. Funny how the world works like that.

GamesIndustry International It's especially common for MMOs to be delayed. How confident are you of hitting the April 2013 launch of the TV series?
Nathan Richardsson

This industry in general isn't exactly accustomed to fixed-date projects but I'm very confident as Defiance has already been in development for many years. We're in Alpha, we're running on PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 and about to enter our Beta period. We have a lot of levers to adjust scope on features and content and I believe that our challenge won't be hitting the date but making sure we hit the right levers so that we are on time and that it's a great experience. We have a plan, we have more and more visibility, and we have room to respond to change.

GamesIndustry International If something happens to the show or the MMO, could one exist without the other?

"The 'massive' online genre is certainly not on the decline but I think the term 'MMO' very much is."

Richardsson, on the changing face of online gaming
Nathan Richardsson

Absolutely. Even though we have great plans and huge ambitions, we aren't ignorant of the investment we're both doing and the risks involved. Both can exist without the other since if you think about it, it's all an evolving timeline where us and players are affecting it in different ways. The fact that more-- or less--parties will be able to affect the timeline is built into the strategy. So, mildly insane, certainly. Oblivious, no. Well … mostly, no.

GamesIndustry International So this is a world where St. Louis is full of character-driven drama, but San Francisco is home to nothing but gangs of heavily armed people shooting each other endlessly. How can you make these two scenarios feel like they fit together tonally?
Nathan Richardsson

It's actually an integral part of them fitting together that they are in different locations. On one end, you have the new frontier where San Francisco is kind of the Wild West while St. Louis is a more established township and the foundation for the future. Part of the intention was also to have freedom of creativity for the players and the storyline respectively, especially when we move forward and expand the game to new areas, which we'll be doing regularly all year. We didn't want to constrain ourselves from the beginning. It sounded like a good idea at the time.

The show's visual style is intended to be a striking combination of the familiar and the alien.
GamesIndustry International The Old Republic switched business models in a hurry and Mists of Pandaria became the first World of Warcraft expansion to see declining sales from its predecessor. Is the MMO genre on the decline?
Nathan Richardsson

I think it's very dangerous for us as an industry to look at those examples alone. They are very different and distinct in their nature and we could name other which simply outright failed but I wouldn't put it down to business models alone. They all had the choice to do things differently. The "massive" online genre is certainly not on the decline but I think the term "MMO" very much is. It's getting less and less used, there is a certain stigma around it and from that perspective, you would probably associate very strongly the Old Republic and World of Warcraft with the more traditional "pure subscriber MMO". But just look at the new genres popping up which are absolutely massive, they just aren't that traditional RPG-esque persons in metal tights that walk around searching for happy endings.

That being said, I don't think anybody would mind having the sales of Mists or the opportunities of being Star Wars but I think there is a bigger picture here which people are missing and that is that the "pure play" isn't working anymore and people have to differentiate. And that means creating the game, the service, the distribution, the operation, the business model … everything, together, not as afterthoughts.

"The 'pure play' isn't working anymore and people have to differentiate."

Richardsson, on the need to focus on more than just the game.
GamesIndustry International What business model will the Defiance MMO use?
Nathan Richardsson

We'll be providing a number of choices for the customers so you choose if and how you pay for things. Exactly in what manner remains to be seen as we're still changing some factors and responding to feedback. It's going to be a hybrid business model though, that much is certain.

GamesIndustry International Defiance was announced as coming to the Xbox 360, PS3, and PC. Given where we are in the console life cycle, the difficulty of making an MMO at all, and the atrocious track record of MMOs announced but never actually arriving on consoles, why does it make sense to target the 360 and PS3 for this?
Nathan Richardsson

So, besides being mildly insane and loving a challenge, I think Trion decided early on that it wanted to crack the nut of "massively multiplayer" on consoles. A lot of companies are trying and we believe the one that gets it will open up for a lot of new opportunities on console in general.

The life cycle in itself isn't a problem. I can easily see us creating clients for the new consoles that simply connect to the same universe and play on. For us, this is more mediums, more platforms, and simply allows for expanding on the Defiance experience.

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Brendan Sinclair

Managing Editor

Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot in the US.