Syfy Bets $105m on a TV Series and Video Game [Updated]

Takes big swing on apocalyptic space Western

At the risk of stating the obvious, $105 million is a lot of money. That’s about what Comcast and NBCUniversal have shelled out on the new Syfy series and video game Defiance, a hybrid unlike anything you’ve seen on television. I mean your computer. Wait, make that your PlayStation.

Look, it’s new. It doesn’t fit into any one box in your living room.

Still, $105 million is the rough budget for the project, which includes a staggering $40 million for the TV series alone (for perspective, HBO, the gold standard for expensive TV, shelled out $60 million on Game of Thrones' first season). The balance pays for the $50 million it cost to make the video game, developed with software company Trion Worlds, which shares the financial burden (NBCU owns half of the game with Trion), and the show's huge marketing budget—upwards of $15 million. 

[UPDATED: The budget breakdown for Defiance has been revised per new information from Syfy, which initially provided Adweek with erroneous numbers. Though the overall figure is correct, NBCUniversal bears less of the financial burden than it originally indicated.]

That budget alone indicates just how big a swing Defiance is, not just for Syfy but for NBCUniversal’s whole cable division. Sources say the show, which debuts April 15 at 9 p.m., is being given as high a level of internal promotional attention as Universal Studios’ feature films. “[It’s] top-priority across Comcast for March and April, up there with Fast & Furious 6,” says one insider.

In other words, Defiance had better hit big.

But seriously, what is it? Think of the TV series as the love child of Joss Whedon’s posthumously venerated half-season wonder Firefly and Syfy’s own five-season small-town dramedy Eureka. The elevator pitch: It’s a post-apocalyptic space Western, set 40 years in the future, that pushes all the geek buttons. The show creator is Rockne S. O’Bannon, whose credits include a cult Syfy show from the late 1990s called Farscape. Actors with genre TV chops man this ship: True Blood vet Grant Bowler plays reluctant sheriff Jeb Nolan, Dexter thespian Julie Benz plays town mayor Amanda Rosewater and relative newcomer Stephanie Leonidas plays Jeb’s adopted alien daughter Irisa, who is angry with him for allowing the two of them to get waylaid in Defiance (formerly St. Louis).

There’s a lot more to it than that, including an ongoing conflict among several different varieties of alien and alien crossbreed—the pilot is roughly half introductory whodunit and half future-war background primer. And it’s crammed with expensive special effects.

The video game is a massively multiplayer third-person shooter that features voice work by actors from the TV series; it goes live and will be available in stores April 2. The game also keeps pace with the events of the show, referring to series plot developments as it goes on. The show returns the favor; as your character fights mutants and aliens on another front, your army’s major victories will make an appearance on the show. More on this later.

Syfy president Dave Howe calls the experience “true transmedia,” and though he’s excited about it, he is aware of what’s at stake. “I’ve lost a lot of sleep over this project, as you can imagine, especially since we’ve delayed it twice,” admits Howe. Defiance has been in development for five years—an eternity for a TV series but not unheard-of for a game (although plenty of games get pounded out in a year or two).

That long gestation period helped bring about some unique opportunities. For one thing, the show’s been in development longer than Syfy has been owned by Comcast. Howe says that’s a good thing. “What’s really fantastic is that Comcast and the new owners, even more than the old owners, have made it a big priority,” he says. “They see it as the way this business will evolve—with broadband video game components and a TV component.”

Why is that good? Because Defiance is a lot of different things at once—and each one affords Comcast the chance to make money. Being a TV series, it requires you to have a cable connection to watch it live (Comcast sells those). The series is expected to attract young male viewers, creating valuable ad opportunities (Syfy sells advertising). But it’s also a very complicated video game, which dumps users into a lush world that changes as the series progresses. Without a fat broadband connection, the game’s punishing duels with hordes of other players just won’t be as fun or rewarding. Beef up your Internet bandwidth, worry less about lag screwing up your aim while you’re trying to pick off a college student in Arizona with your grenade launcher (Comcast sells web access, too—branding for its all-in-one package Xfinity is all over Defiance).

Not that there aren’t plenty of chances for Defiance to bite Comcast in the backside. Massively multiplayer online games are notoriously tough sells—they’re usually subscriber-fee-based business models, in which the player buys the game and then pays to participate in the virtual world. Defiance isn’t sub-based, which could be an advantage, but lessens the revenue potential.

Quick sidebar: For every one success story like World of Warcraft, which has 10 million subscribers, there are five games like Star Wars: The Old Republic, a game developed by BioWare, creators of the much-admired Mass Effect games. SW:TOR used an unbeatable license and an all-pro dev team, and went free-to-play after a $200 million outlay and less than a year’s worth of subscriber fees when subscriptions dropped way under 1 million. Publisher EA claims the game made money, but it certainly didn’t meet expectations.

Put another way, it’s one thing to ask for 12 hours of a gamer’s time spread over a few weeks; it’s quite another to create an open-ended product. Defiance hopes to circumvent the drop-off in interest with which most MMO games struggle by tying events in the game to events in the series. The show is set in a dystopian St. Louis while the game takes place around the ruins of San Francisco, but Trion has what the company’s svp of development Nick Beliaeff calls “about a dozen patents protected” around the game’s rendering software. Briefly, most games load up a series of equations onto your computer or console that tell it how and when to draw the world. Some very complex equations allow for changes and movement, while everything else in the world might as well be bolted to the ground.

With Defiance, your computer or game box renders the world, but Trion’s servers can tell anything and everything where to go and why, and it will change across millions (hopefully) of computers around the country and the world. “It allows us to take an asset like an enemy [and] move anything anywhere,” Beliaeff explains. “We can change the stacks on the fly, and it’s all invisible to the players.”

If there’s, say, an earthquake in San Francisco in the show, players can boot up immediately after Trion tells the game, “Hey, there’s been an earthquake,” and buildings and trees will have fallen over or tipped sideways. Even better, if Trion wants to have a tornado rip through the world in the middle of everyone’s game, it will happen.

Jeff Gomez, who did world-building consulting for both the Halo video game series and James Cameron’s Avatar, says that the project’s novelty may be its Achilles’ heel. “This is unprecedented,” he says. “It is by no means easy to do, and I’m personally not certain that it’ll be done well. But I certainly give Syfy and [Trion] high marks for making the attempt. A specific effort is being made to match the story canons up to one another, and that’s noble.”

The development cycle had its speed bumps. In the end, some of the negotiations over the complexity in the game versus the effects in the show were handled as a hostage exchange: You give us jetpacks, we’ll give you horses and nobody gets hurt. “They really didn’t want to do horses in our world,” sighs Mark Stern, president of programming for Syfy—the critters present too big a target for this kind of game. “So the agreement was, ‘OK, as long as you agree to no flying, we’ll agree to no horses.’”

The stakeholders still fantasize about their perfect version. “We wanted flying vehicles, and Mark and his crew were like, ‘Screw flying, it’ll blow up our CG budget,’” grumbles Beliaeff. “So we ended up creating this whole mythology where the Ark ships blew up and that created this low-flying asteroid field that made flying in the world impossible.”

At first, both parties bickered like divorced parents fighting over an only child, but the partnership created some profitable confluences. For example, Trion developed a set design to Syfy’s specs much earlier than a TV show would have. “We had an amazing catalog of art and landscaping,” says Stern. “All those different things became much more vital.” Beliaeff adds that the asteroid field become a brag-worthy feature, rather than a hindrance. “Syfy actually brought in a scientist from [NASA’s] Jet Propulsion Laboratory to explain to us how it could happen,” he says. “So our low-flying asteroid field is signed-off on by a JPL scientist.” That’s some serious geek cred.

They eventually became model parents. ”We didn’t want a scenario where Trion won this argument or Syfy won that argument,” Beliaeff says. “We just wanted to do the best thing for Defiance.” But because of the extra-long development cycle, every part of Defiance had to get done early—casting, writing, design and especially ad sponsorships.

Once again, Syfy had to make something new. “It was very important for us, on this project, to begin to redefine what a show sponsorship looked like,” says Linda Yaccarino, NBCUniversal president of ad sales. She and her team began pitching it as early as January 2012—well before that upfront season, but long after the property had kicked into high gear on the creative side. Yaccarino landed three major advertisers: Dodge, Verizon and Axe. Verizon may not enjoy category exclusivity—the show is so FX-heavy, other marketers may be able to slip in via post-production.

Yaccarino went the extra mile to make sure her clients were getting the royal treatment and would spend accordingly. “Defiance was a very big part of the upfront for the entire cable portfolio,” she says, declining to quantify the sponsorships’ value.

At least one of the sponsors appears happy with his treatment. Mark Malmstead, brand manager for Dodge media, social media and CRM, explains the brand will be integrated deep into both the show and the game, with an emphasis on the redesigned Dart on air and on digital. “We’ve got two Charger police cars that integrate into the programming,” he says. “They’ve been retrofitted to look like…I call ’em Mad Max-type vehicles. There’s an old Dodge dealership that will be one of the settings—there may be an old Dodge billboard that’s crumbling on the side of the road.” The game will have a drivable Dodge Challenger “with pipes and big tires and machine guns” on it. Meanwhile, Dodge is taking the cars themselves around to auto shows and Dodge events to show off their homemade star.

Yaccarino has what she believes is an ideal sponsor here. Defiance is in good (read: young and male) company with the auto manufacturer, including the NFL and the Red Bull Signature Series—two other places where Dodge is spending a lot of money on the Dart.

Francois Lee, svp and group client director at MediaVest, is a guy who knows from this demographic (one of his clients is Xbox). He’s optimistic about Defiance though he cautions that “it’s a huge undertaking.”

To Lee, the whole transmedia approach makes sense: “There’s such a strong story element in games nowadays. It’s not just about going in and playing it.” Lee appreciates the idea of “trying something completely different,” which could draw more young men back to the tube. “I don’t think young men are not consuming entertainment,” he says, “they’re just consuming differently. Instead of watching it on TV, they’re streaming it or watching it on other devices.”

Syfy averages about a 1.0 rating with men 18-49—the network’s big hit with the demo is WWE SmackDown. Syfy’s delivery guarantees for Defiance, adds Lee, are “optimistic but not unrealistic…It’s a premium property, and they’re not giving it away.”

But it’s that story element that worries Gomez: “This is an element that MMO games have not been able to conquer, and that’s why Star Wars took such a beating. In Star Wars, you want to be the hero and save the galaxy, and you can’t. Syfy has taken on a big challenge.” That challenge, he says, is maximizing the player’s contribution. “At the end, you’ve done a small thing that has contributed to a greater success,” says Gomez, “but we all want to be heroes.”

It remains to be seen whether Syfy ends up NBCU’s hero.