Gamification: When two tribes go to work

Defiance, a new television show, will have its plot shaped by what happens in an accompanying online game and vice versa. Is 'gamification' the future of entertainment? Phil Boucher finds out

Anyone with access to an Xbox, PlayStation or internet-based game account knows there's one universal truth about video games: they do not translate into good movies: and movies do not translate into good games (alright, apart from GoldenEye).

Yet this is about to change. Deep in the heart of San Diego, California, a joint project between NBC Universal's SyFy channel and Trion World games aims to create a form of entertainment that is equal parts TV show and game.

Launched in June 2012, it could alter the way we enjoy traditional screen entertainment in all its forms by turning the whole experience into something far more collaborative and interactive.

"It's the holy grail and nothing less," says SyFy president David Howe. Provisionally titled Defiance, the premise of the project rests within the familiar sci-fi boundaries of a future Earth that's populated by humans and a race of marooned extra-terrestrials. The initial 10- to 12-episode TV aspect will focus on characters plucked from this imaginary world and detail the angst and moral confusion that comes from living with such a nightmarish jumble of geo-political and social conflicts.

Meanwhile, online gamers will be able to enter the exact same world by playing on either the alien or earthling side and creating characters that populate the wider society. This, in turn, will help to provide some of the narrative undercurrent for the TV show. So should the leader of a vine-covered city be toppled online, it may later be mirrored in a writer's script.

"You are basically a participant in the same fictional universe that the TV characters participate in," explains Lars Butler, CEO of Trion.

Titanic director James Cameron has likened this to "having an artificial intelligence at work behind the primary story, but your audience is the AI" and in pursuit of this "holy grail", SyFy and Trion have already invested three years' work and the best part of £20m.

Yet they are not pursuing some altruistic, utopian dream, as hard-nosed finance underpins the entire venture – not least, the access NBC will gain to the vast, £55bn gaming community.

"If you look at the whole billion-dollar gaming market, roughly half of the titles are sci-fi fantasy," explains Howe. "Five of the top 10 mega-hits in video gaming are also sci-fi fantasy."

Howe believes that SyFy is perfectly placed to tap into this world because it already has a viewing audience that is both technologically savvy and familiar with Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOG) such as World of Warcraft and Rift. More importantly, he says it's also an audience that is "driven by stories that they want to live in 24/7." So the aim, quite simply, is to create a virtual realm that is more beguiling that the physical.

"This hobby of yours can then influence and be part of your entire life," adds Butler. To achieve this, Defiance will be connected to every screen-based consumer device imaginable, so that gamers can delve into the world at any time, anywhere. It will also carry live video and broadcast links to Facebook and YouTube and provide live Twitter feeds with automatic picture taking, so the physical world can learn of your gaming achievements as they happen. At the same time the game will be monitored 24 hours a day by a "mission control" in California to enable the developers to ascertain the most popular areas and inject elements that improve the experience. This will then be fed on to the writers of the TV show, ensuring that the screen drama and on-line content is as tailored to the Defiance audience as possible.

"The world is on a server and any connected device is a window into this world," adds Butler. "So, in a way, the TV show is an enormous window into this world as well."

The developers intend to blur the boundaries between the virtual and physical worlds yet further by exploiting the most powerful emotional driver of modern society: celebrity.

"It is so important to players in a multiplayer world, that what they do is recognised," explains Butler.

"So everything we'll try, from Facebook and You Tube integration to trying to integrate an entire TV show, is basically to extend the reach and allow our players to become celebrities – not just in the game world, but also within the real world."

In Defiance this could see players featured on the TV show, or their major achievements announced by an actor in front of a viewing audience stretching from California to New York, with Western Europe soon to follow. "It is the coolest thing gamers could ever be rewarded with," suggests Butler.

Here, discussions are underway between UK developer Mudlark Games and a terrestrial broadcaster to produce what Mudlark's founder, Toby Barnes, describes as "a number of different game elements that can be added to what are traditionally very mainstream linear broadcasts".

The vast majority of TV companies, film studios and advertising agencies also have some form of games research department beavering away behind closed doors. Like SyFy the aim is to create a form of entertainment that works on a variety of different levels under the banner of transmedia. They're inspired by the success of US TV show The Booth At the End. Created as a collection of 62, two-minute webisodes linked to an online game, the show is based around the workings of a mysterious man who sits in a diner and offers to solve the life problems of total strangers in return for a Faustian pact, which encourages them to perform a morally corrupting deed. It has proved so popular that FX has now turned the concept into a series of 20-minute TV episodes that come with a range of associated games on thebooth.fxuk.com. These enable gamers to wrestle with the same moral conundrums as the TV characters and, through links to Facebook and Twitter, explain their moral reasoning for, say, shooting a total stranger. A further Facebook game enables players to actually meet "the man" and embark on missions in cyberspace.

While this obviously stops a long way short of the all-encompassing aims of Defiance, it has proved that an on-line game can be successfully linked to a TV show in a meaningful manner.

"The consumer is elevated from the status of passive viewer to the status of active participant," explains Butler.

Yet Defiance and The Booth At The End account for just a tiny fraction of the ways in which gaming is encroaching into our physical lives. Thanks to smart phones and tablet computers, developers have created an array of mass-market game apps such as Farmville and Angry Birds, which appeal to gamers of all ages and genders.

This includes location-based games set around the concept of photographing a certain destination (Appysnap), or simply sharing the experience of having made it there (Gowalla). Others strive to tackle the repetition of adult life, by encouraging you to earn virtual rewards for cleaning your house (Chore Wars) or your daily commute (Chromaroma). Some even aspire to solve real problems, by encouraging you to address the water shortages of sub-Saharan Africa (Urgent Evoke) – with funding from the World Bank dangled as a prize for the best idea.

From recycling to conserving home energy, voting and filling in your tax form, there is literally no aspect of modern life that is not reflected in a game somewhere. And with Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) tipped to replace digital in the future, it is virtually inevitable game culture will increasingly define how we relate to both screen media and the physical world.

David Howe adds: "Very few hit movies have spawned successful games because they have been perceived by the audience as lower in quality, largely because the creatives working on the movie didn't work on the game.

"We want to come at it much more smartly, with co-development across the various platforms so that when we green-light something, it is because we already know there is a desire for it across both the platforms.

"After all, a screen is just a screen, is just a screen..."

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