Everything You Need To Know About Defiance
Defiance is on the way to PS3, 360, and PC in early April. In advance of the game’s release, we talked with Trion Worlds’ senior producer Rob Hill about the game. In an extensive interview, he offered us a wealth of details about the game and the wider Defiance universe. Our interview is lengthy, so we’ve split it up into specific sections so you can jump to what you want to learn about. Hill discusses the background of the Defiance franchise (directly below), how it compares to other MMOs, storyline introduction, the experience of playing the game, various central game systems, and finally, details on the game's platforms and monetization. Enjoy!
Game Informer: Tell me about your role in the project. What’s your title on the project, and what are you working on day to day?
Hill: I’m the senior producer, and I’ve been with the project since the very beginning, one of the founders of the San Diego studio. I was also the chief liaison between the development team and Syfy in general, whether it be the network, or their production team. I was one of the people on our side that helped make sure that these things were moving in sync, particularly from the game development side, and also the chief guy to help educate Syfy on how games are made and what’s important for games, particularly the massive online games that we make, and also learn what their process is so I can, again, make sure that this stuff is moving together in sync and we’re doing things they can do, and they’re doing things that are important for us. So that has been my day to day for, oh, four and half, almost five years. I was also was in charge of managing the game team, particularly early on when we were much smaller, and then help make some of the creative decisions and drive those from the game side as well.
Has the hard and fast release date of April 2013 been a challenge for you all?
Absolutely. Particularly when we were at Comic-Con. I don’t know if you were there, and saw the gigantic Defiance thing on the Marriott, that was 10 stories tall and had our date on it. It was pretty clear that, ‘OK, yeah, we really got to do this.’ And we have to make sure that we’re in sync with Syfy while we do it. So yeah, it’s definitely unusual. You always try and set a date, and you always base decisions on a date that you set, but sometimes things don’t necessarily work out as you expected, but we’ve had a lot of success with making what we consider the correct decisions for this project and for the Syfy guys.
What are the major things that your team is working on right now?
Getting into Sony and Microsoft’s submission process is a major thing. Also continuing to refine the crossover events that we are having at various times during the television season. And also since we are a buy the box, play the game non-subscription based game, working on the various points that we want to release other content, even outside the series crossover stuff. So that’s kind of the point that we’re at right now.
I’d like to ask you about the origin of the Defiance franchise. Were you approached by Syfy after development of the game began?
Hill: We started work early on, but one of the things we were really looking at is that Trion has investors in NBC who own Syfy, and so we looked at NBC properties. We were really looking at doing something that had this core idea to it of working with a property back and forth. But what we discovered early on was the existing properties just weren’t big enough to support a massive online game because television shows are usually very focused.
So it came to a point where, apparently, I wasn’t there, but our CEO met with their CEO, and they started talking about, ‘Yeah, we’ve been looking at these properties, they aren’t really working for the scale of the game we want to make,’ and somewhere along the lines they come up with the idea of, ‘why don’t we just start a new one?’. Just start from scratch. They understood that when you’re making a game off an existing property, you have to make sacrifices to fit within that property because, as I said, television shows, and movies in particular tend to be very focused. So you have to fit within those rules, so we said, ‘OK, instead of trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, let’s build that hole that fits both sides,’ and that’s really what the genesis of it was.
How long ago did those conversations start?
At the very beginning; well over four and a half years ago.
So at that point did you know that you were aiming to do kind of a more action oriented shooter?
Not right away. We thought, ‘OK, so it’s Syfy channel, they do Syfy shows.’ They currently had Battlestar Galactica going, which had a lot of space action, at least. And so we kind of moved along the lines of, ‘Okay, so if it’s going to be futuristic, we’re going to want to have guns, and guns in games we’ve played in the past, particularly massive online games, were typically, I’ll stand in front of you, you stand in front of me, we’ll use hot keys ‘til somebody falls over.’ And we just felt that that wasn’t necessarily compelling gunplay. It didn’t really sell the idea of gunplay. And that’s when we started looking at action games and shooter games.
[Next up: How does Defiance compare to other MMOs on the market?]
Comparing To Other MMOs
What makes Defiance different from other MMOs?
I think the moment-to-moment game mechanics are one of the big things. Typically, massive online games have you standing there, you target something, and you hit hot keys until one of you falls over. This one requires you to actually aim, and aim well, and movement is also very important. Keeping things between you and the enemy, constantly trying to be on the move – that is something that we’ve been getting a lot of great response with, was, ‘ wow, this actually feels like a real shooter, not like any of the MMOs I played before.’ So that’s what we really started, and really focused a lot of attention on, because if that wasn’t going to work it was going to be very difficult to sell people on the rest of it.
What makes it like other MMOs? What are the MMO staples that you’ve opted to keep in place that you think are important for the genre?
I just think the scale, the fact that you’re in this world with a lot of other people around you. That sense that I don’t know that person but that guy is kicking butt. I really want to get in a group with that guy so that we can go off and kick butt together. Okay, now we’ve played a lot together, we’re going to join a persistent clan on the server and build those social bonds that you don’t necessarily do within games in shooters as they currently are. There’s a lot of out of game tools that you can use to maintain those kind of social relationships, but really, having that mass scale, coming across strangers and giving them tools to, within the game, keep those relationships going are what is really strongest with the massive online games. That’s what makes them so successful, I believe, and maybe not paying off as much on their end with the moment-to-moment combat that we’re trying to do.
Whether in the MMO space or elsewhere, I’m curious if there are games on the market that your team has looked to for inspiration.
Well, at the time, not really. I mean, we’ve looked at all sorts of games that had some shooting mechanics, Global Agenda, and those things, early PlanetSide, but the difference with those, particularly when we initially looked at them, was PlanetSide was originally just player-versus-player. It still is with the sequel. And Global Agenda was a very instanced space. We really wanted to reinforce the large scale of the world and the people in it, so we didn’t want to go as instance spaced as that. We wanted you constantly stumbling across people within the world so that you can really have an opportunity to start grouping with them, sticking with them, and put them on your friends list and get a clan going – all the things I said before we felt was really important to have in an open, persistent world with tons of people, and that really wasn’t there.
But we did look a lot at different shooter games. How do these things move, what weapons feel good, what enemy AI does. The tricky part was those don’t do the mass scale stuff we were talking about, so that was a heavy learning process, to figure out how you build a world like this with shooting mechanics like we have, where you can kill things at pretty extended ranges if you want to if you’re equipped properly. And how do we make it so that if they decide to converge 30 people on a single space that they’re not just wiping it out; or being way overpowered if you don’t have that group of people. The core was really looking at the shooter games that existed. Honestly, we looked at a ton of stuff: anything from Red Dead [Redemption], to Borderlands, to even Gears [of War], or Call of Duty. We looked at a ton of stuff. We looked at a ton of different stuff, and really tried to focus on what we thought each of them did well to kind of try and make something new, not just direct copies of all that.
[Next up: The storyline behind this new science fiction game world]
What’s the basic rundown of the setting and the storyline of what’s going on in the Defiance game?
We discussed early on with Syfy ideas that we have had, and they gave us some things like, ‘OK, what about this? It will work better for the show.’ And then we went off and wrote this bible about the Defiance world and how it got formed, and again, refined it more with Syfy. Essentially we’ve approached it along the lines that they were very interested in building a world that had very familiar elements. But at the same time we had to build a world that allowed players to explore it. In other words, we couldn’t build earth because it’s not necessarily exploration at that point. So we really came up with the idea of building a new earth, but usually how you do that is you blow it up. We found a way to do that in a way that would allow us to not just be post-apocalyptic brown, or gray, or anything like that.
So, essentially the concept came up of aliens immigrating here from a solar system that they had to flee. And coming here, they didn’t come as conquerors, because we also didn’t want to go down the alien invasion route. They came here just to migrate and find a place to live because it’s the only place they found, and on their way they realized that we were already here, modern-day humans.
They didn’t know that when they left their solar system. And there was multiple alien species that band together to build these giant arcs to come to this planet, but when they got here they weren’t necessarily welcome, because again, we were already here, and we were populating the planet pretty heavily.
So they negotiated rights for colonization with the governments, because the governments really wanted to take advantage of the technology that the aliens had. And things start going back and forth and negotiations happen.
The people who were going to be displaced by the colonization started to rise up, and at some point one of the alien ambassadors gets shot at the UN, and this kind of brings some chaos and instability on both sides. A war starts – what we call the Pale Wars. The fighting goes on and on, and not just between humans and aliens, but between humans and humans, and aliens and aliens, because they weren’t all getting together. Eventually what happens is these arcs that are still in orbit get sabotaged, rain down on earth, their terraforming machines get started, and essentially start terraforming the planet, and because of the wars, and because of this event, governments are gone on both sides, and so it’s essentially a new world, and we’re in a period of regrowth.
It’s not totally post-apocalyptic, Mad Max, or anything. And because of all these new things that appeared with these colonization machines of a cross between earth and Votan stuff, the aliens and humans had to start learning to live together to survive all these new things that were threatening them. And that’s the primary history behind the world of Defiance. The game itself takes place in San Francisco, and San Francisco is really kind of a frontier town, or frontier area. There’s really no specific town in our area of San Francisco, there’s a bunch of different ones. And basically people are coming to San Francisco from other areas that have survived, particularly the East Coast, and trying to take advantage of the opportunities there. And that’s essentially our gold rush for San Francisco.
And so this organization called the Earth Republic, who is also is in the show quite a bit, have this caravan that comes out, which carries the players. The players are under the employ of somebody to try and find hidden alien devices within the area, and then they get caught up in this big series of events that happen, and that’s the beginnings of the story.
What little I know about the show so far is that among the ensemble cast of characters that they have, there are two main characters in the form of this human man and his adoptive alien daughter, right? Are those characters in the game as well?
They appear at the launch of the game, but there’s a period of time where the player can go on missions with both of these characters within the Bay Area. And then when the show starts, which is a couple weeks later, we actually have them leave the game with an artifact that the players helped them find. They then appear in the show, having traveled from San Francisco to St. Louis, and actually use this device which helps solve a problem within the pilot.
I was curious what the timeline was because it seemed weird that in the show the characters are in the St. Louis area, but I saw them at the beginning of the game in the San Francisco area, so I didn’t know how that worked out.
We will be staying in sync like that. And when something happens in the show, and something had to disappear, it appears and shows up in San Francisco, and vice versa. We want to keep that timeline in sync, and that’s really one of the things that’s unique about this. In other games, TV shows, and movies, they cross back and forth the whole time, and there’s this hidden timeline in the background, but we’re actually evolving over the period of the season with the show itself.
[Next up: How it feels to play the game]
Playing the Game
I wanted to go into a little bit more detail about the ways that you’re hoping to see those interactions between the show and the game play out once they’re both kind of started. Can you give me an example of like, what you’d maybe try to do there?
We knew the show couldn’t constantly change from week to week in a dramatic sense. We knew that it would be difficult to try and build a game that did that; it might just confuse the players, because one of the things that’s important to know is that you’re not required to watch the show and play the game to get a good experience on either side.
So we didn’t want to do that much in depth. We just felt that we’d confuse one audience or the other. We do have larger events that appear at various times, that if you are doing both, you will get a greater understanding of what the heck’s really going on, and then we have more subtle things that would appear more often that players will be able to go, ‘OK, I know who that character is, because I’ve experienced them within the game.’ Me, I play the game, I know what’s going on. The rest of these guys on the couch who don’t, I’ve got this kind of inner understanding of what’s going on. So that’s really how we approached those kind of tie-ins. But you will be seeing some situations where a character leaves the show and comes to the game, leaving the show as a person that’s not to be trusted, and comes into the game, gets redemption, goes back into the show, and is redeemed. They’re actually a different character when they come back than when they left, but still make it understandable for the people in the show that, ‘OK, yeah, that person must have had an experience somewhere,’ and even have him talk about it a bit. That changed their character, and now this is who this character is.
How are you approaching server populations and playing with friends? Is there concern about players clogging up story missions and everybody being together?
You may have noticed that there was no server select screen. That’s important. The other thing is we do break up some of the more important story places into a phase. This could be a smaller phase or larger phases depending on what the event is, or what the story mission there is. But this doesn’t mean that I run into one and it’s just me because I just ran into it and I don’t have a group. We actually let strangers pop into these things until it reaches its cap. So we do maintain that, ‘Oh, I don’t know who this guy is, but he’s helping me out within this area,’ without having to worry that 50 people are going to converge on this and it’s going to be a half a second encounter.
But a majority of the world does not do that. So I don’t know if you saw one of the random events of the arc falls, the things that fall from the sky? Those are completely open, so if 100 people decide they want to converge on it, they can do it. And I don’t know how many you got to play with, but, for example, we just did a stress test, and I was in one with 40, I believe. And we scale those based on the amount of people there, but we also scale the reward so you want other people there. While we scale the difficulty to support a population of that size, you really want that size because you’re going to get much more out of it. So it’s a mixture of those two types of things that really allow us to let people continue the storyline without getting completely interrupted, but at the same time having these larger things that players can really experience on a larger scale.
How transparent is that? Let’s say I’m playing with a buddy who I want to be able to play with. Am I going to have the choice to kind of freely hop over into his phase if I want to, or is it more just the game takes you where it’s going to take you?
If somebody’s on your friend list they have priority. If somebody’s on your group they automatically come in. If they’re in your clan there is another similar rule set. So it’s transparent for you. If you’re by yourself and you run in, other people can come in, right? They just show up. But if you’re in a group in particular, you’re going to pop in, and your group’s going to as well. And it’s all seamless, by the way. There’s not loading or any of that kind of stuff; it all just happens.
Can you explain a little bit more about your approach to dynamic events? Would you say the main approach to those are arc falls?
The arc falls tend to be the larger group conversion sort of things. Essentially what an arc fall is, just to give you some context here is I mentioned that the arcs rained down, they got sabotaged, exploded, and rained down.
They’re still pieces of this thing in orbit, and they contain valuable minerals and technology and that kind of stuff, and periodically they fall down. They fall down onto the entire planet, actually. It’s not just the Bay Area or Missouri, St. Louis, and that’s what you experience. So, hellbugs, for example, they don’t come from the arc falls. They’re actually showing up there – they’re subterranean – they’re actually showing up there to try and consume the minerals. That’s what they use for their breeding, but you want that stuff. So they’re trying to stop you, you’re trying to stop them from consuming the thing, and that’s where the conflict really comes in.
Beyond that we also have what we call emergencies which are essentially things that are just smaller events. For example, you could roll up on mutants attacking a merchant, and the emergency is rescue the merchant and you’ll be rewarded.
Those are always there. They’re there sometimes and not other times. Another one could be this convoy got ambushed and they’re being held down by mutants. Take out the mutants, rescue the convoy drivers and you get rewarded, and that event isn’t always there either.
So we have the larger ones which are like the arc falls, then we have the smaller ones which are really scattered out all over the place. So we have a little of both of the dynamic content.
Do you have a limit to how many players you allow into a dynamic event?
Not for that type of content. They can stack it up as much as they want. There’s another aspect that’s large scale like that too, and it’s called the Shadow War. It’s competitive multiplayer essentially. It happens in the open world, so you decide if you want to compete in the Shadow War; it’s completely voluntary. And you get placed on one team or another, and we start spawning capture points on the existing map, and the idea being you want to capture the points until you fill your tickets. And then you win and then obviously you can get rewarded, but the unique thing is as more and more people go into the Shadow War, we spawn more and more of these capture points, and we scale it up to 100 people. The other part is that you’ll see vehicles spawn that don’t normally spawn unless there’s a Shadow War going, so it’s like three-man vehicles, one with a rocket launcher in the passenger seat, one in the back with the minigun, and so those aspects are also new to this kind of event.
The interesting thing is, is that we don’t put you in a separate phase or anything like that. The base population of NPCs are still there, so you’ll be competing with them as you’re fighting each other, as well as other players running around watching you do this so they can decide, “Ooh, well why are those guys shooting at each other? It must be a Shadow War.’ And then decide they want to join and compete as well.
So it’s not like a PVP arena – it’s literally just a part of the game world?
Yup. It’s layered on top of the content that’s already there.
Do those move around or are they consistently particular locations in the world that will have those conflicts happening?
There are particular places in the world because we wanted to make sure that we were picking areas that were fun to fight in, but we picked a lot of areas. No matter where you are, if somebody is starting a Shadow War, you will probably find it. You will see it on the map so you can actually decide to go to it if you want to.
And you just opt in or you don’t? So you could be running around and not have to worry about getting shot, it that’s not what you wanted to do?
Exactly. The real focus early on is there are a lot of competitive multiplayer shooters. We really wanted to stress the cooperative nature. And that’s the part I think that really makes Defiance unique is that there really isn’t a cooperative shooter on this scale. All of our stress tests, and beta tests, and alpha tests, have been on PC right now, so they get it. They understand what a massive online game is. I think once the console players really start to get their hands on it, it’s going to be an experience where they’re just like, ‘Wow, I didn’t even know you could do this. I’m just used to shooting other people, and maybe having a four-player co-op experience.’ This is hundreds of player co-op. I think they’ll really be surprised and impressed.
[Next up: What fundamental game systems drive Defiance?]
What is the EGO system?
The EGO system is something that Von Bach Industries builds. It’s a fairly new technology. It’s essentially an AI that’s implanted within your body, and it gives you multiple things. It’s sort of how we explain the HUD. Basically, the HUD is coming from this EGO, but it also can impart, as you bond with it over time, it can also impart powers onto you, and those are the powers you probably experienced within the game. But it’s not a widespread technology. I mean, even though all the players will have it, because they all work for Von Bach, it’s not a widespread thing in the world. It’s a very unique technology, but it also a communication device so people can contact you. That’s how we do some of the missions. And the EGO can make you situationally aware. For example, she’ll tell you when an arc fall is close, or maybe when a Shadow War is going, or that kind of stuff. So it’s essentially a sentient AI that’s been implanted.
What kind of weapons can players expect to encounter in the game? How important is gear to the game’s concept?
Gear is very important. We try to support all sorts of gameplay styles for our weapons, and our powers, so we have sniper rifles, shotguns, automatic weapons, but we have some other more unique ones like a grenade launcher that sticks to things and you can detonate it when you want to. We have another one called the BMG, which is essentially a chain lightning gun, so you hit a target with it and it will chain to other enemy targets around it. But it also has a secondary fire which will actually heal players, and not just friends or people in your group, it will heal anybody that you’re aimed at. So it plays a great role as a support weapon because we wanted to be able to have people enjoy the game without being the best shooter player in the world.
So we put a lot of support abilities like that. We have tons of different grenade types, whether they’re bounce grenades or sticky grenades, or stun grenades. There’s many more than that, and then we build hundreds of variations off of each type.
How about character progression? How does the game approach leveling?
It’s called the EGO rating. Over time by doing missions, doing side missions, competing in arc falls, Shadow War, emergencies, all that stuff, the score will be going up. And as the score does go up you will be getting more perk points. The perk grid is basically where you get your powers and then branching off the powers gives you improvements – you’re better at shooting stuff from behind, better at shooting stuff from below, when your shield drops you can run faster. All these kind of things stem off the base powers. You’ll be able to keep upgrading those and getting more and more of those so you’ll have more options, and basically more tactical options. But also the guns themselves improve. Basically you either will add an elemental effect to it, or another slight effect, like now that you’ve progressed this far in this weapon type, you have less recoil, faster reload, bigger clip, all that kind of stuff. And even on top of that you can modify the weapon itself so you can find parts that you can stick on the weapon which visually show up, but also modify stats.
It’s not like your typical massive online game where it’s this very, very steep leveling curve. It’s much more shallow, and the reason we did that was we wanted players to constantly be able to play with or against each other, and be competitive.
So an early EGO rating player, you could still stand a chance against somebody who’s got a character that’s more advanced?
Absolutely. Particularly if you’re more skilled. If they can twitch better than the other guy, yeah, the chances are they’ll take ‘em down.
Talk to me a little bit about the end game for Defiance.
A lot of it right now is our co-op matches. They are essentially instances, and you can redo those in part. And those are very story driven missions that you go in with groups. It’s also the ongoing access to the Shadow War and the progression you have there, and the arc falls, and the emergencies, and you can redo what we call encounters so, when you were doing some of those missions you would come into a space and you’d see these tips on top. You can redo those over, and over, and over again. So you’re not locked out from doing that content as you go. And plus, all the show stuff that we’re doing, all of the downloadable content that we’re doing, all of that plays into end game replayability.
Would you say the Shadow War is kind of the central PVP conceit of the game?
It’s the overworld one. I also should have mentioned we do have arena based player-versus-player as well.
In terms of the organized PVE stuff, you said, did you call them cooperative maps? Is that what they’re called?
Yes, that’s what they’re called, and it’s essentially a four-player instance that you go through, and they’re very story driven. They can be very difficult depending on what EGO rating you’re at, and you can redo those to your heart’s content to get new rewards every time.
You wouldn’t have to wait until your EGO rating hits a certain point or something like that?
We do unlock them based on EGO rating.
[Next up: How is Defiance monetized, and how does the MMO work on different platforms?]
Platforms and Monetization
How is simultaneous release on multiple platforms being handled? Do players on different platforms play together?
They have to play separately per platform; first party wouldn’t allow us to do cross platform.
Got it. Are you going to be able to do all the major patches on consoles that are coming to PC?
Yeah, there is a differential in time on going through the first party’s certification process but as far as bandwidth if you mean getting it to clients; we host that on our site. So once we get it certified we handle the patching. There is really no limitation to what we can put on.
So if I’m playing 360, I would put my disc in and if there was a new patch, it would connect up to the Trion servers and get that patch that way?
Yup, once you go through Xbox live or PlayStation Network, you connect to us.
The other challenge that we’ve heard about with console MMO’s has been demands console makers have made about how things are monetized and their cut of things. Has that been a challenge for you all?
That’s always going to be there whenever you’re on a dedicated console, but we feel that the player base, particularly for shooters on both of those platforms far outweighs any of that. And we expect to get a lot of people playing this game because there’s a lot of shooter fans and this is something that we haven’t seen. So it’s going to be a very unique experience for them, that I don’t think they are really expecting as much as they’ll find.
Can you tell me about how the game is monetized?
Hill: A lot of what we do is boosts; we don’t sell powerful weapons, we don’t sell faster vehicles necessarily, and we don’t sell better shields or grenades or that kind of stuff. Outfits or helmets or hats or headgear or boosts, so if I want to get somewhere faster so that I can get my ego-rating up faster, I can decide to purchase that. If I wanted it for my group, I can decide to purchase that. If I wanted it for my clan, I can decide to purchase that. So that’s a lot of the stuff we are really looking at under the micro transactions.