On June 5th, the web comic Backward Compatible ran a strip detail what the execs behind the Sci Fi Channel’s TV show/MMO program are really in for. Read the strip first to see it in it’s full glory (Warning! It’s full of leet speak and gaming subculture grammar). Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Obviously, BC is taking the extreme view here that the players in the game will become the ‘stars’ of the TV show, complete with appropriate grammar and ‘spelling’. But it does point out that relying on the players for the story is probably not a good idea. Even in the existing MMOs today (World of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings Online and others), most people don’t care a whit about the story, preferring to quest and grind through monsters with their friends. In other words, it’s a social thing. The writers of the show will have to take the actions in the game world more as a guideline than a rule, otherwise they’ll end up with an incomprehensible mess of a story.
David Howe, VP of Sci Fi said, “A television show that is on once a week isn’t enough. The fans today want the experience to go beyond that..” And this is true. Look at the communities that have arisen around shows like LOST and Heroes. Clearly there is a need for more access to the show than what fans get once a week. But is a persistent game world the way to reach out, grab and keep fans? How many people who watch these shows are going to want to go online, login to a game, then play around? Even with gaming becoming a more acceptable form of entertainment, most of the people who watch TV aren’t in to gaming. However, if there’s a niche audience for gaming, it just may be part of the audience who watch Sci Fi in particular, and science fiction in general. Still, who go through all of the bother to play when you could go to a forum, post a message or a few replies, then go on your way?
However, there will be a small group of gamers who will be interested enough to give this a go. Count me as one of them. David Howe further explains, “we can tell them that there will be an alien invasion at a certain place in the game, at a certain time, and to be there with all their friends and be ready. The outcome depends on them. And then that battle will be part of the universe in the show.” Now that is interesting. Events in the game will have a lasting impact, not only on the game world, but also in the series as well. I believe that this type of world changing events have been attempted before, in Asheron’s Call if I remember right, but it’s never really caught on. The problem being that most MMOs have several instances of the game running on different servers, each with its own players. There’s no guarantee that events will play out the same on all servers, which then leads to quickly diverging storylines. If Sci Fi does this right, and there’s nothing here to say they know what they are doing gamewise, this has a chance of working. I’d expect a relatively low fanbase for the game, which equates to one server. From that, it would be easier to create these type of story events for people to participate in.
But the key is doing this right. The company doing the programming, Trion World Network, doesn’t have any MMOs currently running. From what I can tell, they are just starting out. Now, the typical MMO takes years to produce. I don’t see Sci Fi wanting to wait that long for a companion MMO for a series. This leads me to believe that what we’ll get is a bare-bones attempt to capitalize on the TV show and the hype surrounding the integration. And how, exactly, will the MMO be designed to allow players to influence the TV show? Let’s say, in the example above, everyone shows up for the alien invasion and are successful in defeating the would be robot overlords. Is that content now null and void? How long did it take to create and test the invasion? Is it worth it to go through all the development for what is, essentially, a one-off? Or will the content still be there, but the results from only a specific time will influence the show? How far in advance will the writers and programmers need to think to come up with ideas so that those ideas can be developed, tested and placed in game? I see the TV quickly outpacing the actual world.
Couple those questions with Sci Fi’s less than stellar reputation for original programming and you can color me skeptical. I’m not sure how this can work out efficiently and in a timely manner to actually work. Now, maybe Trion will be able to pull this off. If they can, it will certainly be something new and interesting for fans of TV shows. Which leads to another question: Will all types of shows benefit from this type of fan interaction or is it only a specific few?
Another area of questionable integration is time frames. As alluded too above, MMOs are not nimble beasts, able to change on a dime. Everything is done with deliberate speed as you don’t want new content or bug fixes to adversely affect the game. TV shows are under tight time schedules, sometimes the final cut of a show isn’t even ready until hours before airtime. Trying to force an MMO to run at TV speeds is a huge technical challenge I’m not sure can be overcome. At least, not without architecting the game’s infrastructure in such a way to support that. No MMO is designed that way now, which means branching out into the unknown and developing a new way to design, implement and create an MMO. All of this means time. Lot’s of it to iron our the bugs. Which means, if Sci Fi wants this done on a reasonable time scale, compromises will have to be made, which means bare bones, which means less appeal.
I’m still skeptical that this can be done in any usable way, but I’ll be keeping an eye on it. It could be a really cool mixture of TV and gaming.