UPDATED 11:31 EST / APRIL 10 2013


The Social Failure of Syfy Channel and Trion Worlds MMO Defiance

It’s been a week since Syfy Channel and Trion Worlds released the much-hyped massively multiplayer online game Defiance for Xbox, PS3, and PC. As an MMO, it’s nothing new to the sphere of shooters that are also role playing games, what makes it different is that the game is connected to a Syfy Channel exclusive TV show of the same name. While video games consistently arrive that are aftermarket gimmicks for TV shows (basically digital merchandizing) this is one of the first MMO games that is being produced simultaneously with television.

Trion Worlds is a world-class MMO maker who made their bones with Rift and it shows in the graphics and gameplay of Defiance; however, after the beta their servers just couldn’t handle the influx of customers and the hype generated by Syfy Channel’s marketing campaign. Much like many online games, it’s proven important not to pre-order (because it wouldn’t work in the beginning anyway.)

Server issues aside, the game has problems with connecting people that may take UI changes and thinking about the community to resolve.

Release week issues plague Defiance and customers with difficulty

The most glaring problem that Defiance suffers is the failure of the voice and chat system and this greatly amplifies the social issues within the game is with how release week has caused dramatic problems. Trion Worlds is already on record apologizing for the issues as they try to fix them (via Massively). This is already giving players an idea that the game was developed primarily for console: with voice chat at the forefront and text chat in the background.

Once the game itself is technically gorgeous with fairly good graphics, pretty colors, and firework FX. It’s a fun game to play—but due to the failure of the chat system, which works only intermittently, it feels barren and unpopulated even as other character wander past and shoot hellbugs or mutants with their guns. Some reviewers have joked that they prefer it this way, eschewing Barrens chat (a reference to the notorious World of Warcraft zone) for golden silence but for anyone social it’s a wasteland of footsteps and the staccato echo of gunfire.

This problem will most likely be fixed and people will start chatting in the PC chat system and over voice on consoles; but the social problems don’t stop there.

First, player names don’t appear by default above the heads of cooperative players. Not only does this make them difficult to discern from the enemy. It also means there’s little way to know you’ve run into the same comrade again later on in the game—fought your way through a hellbug encounter with a few people? If you never placed your reticule over them to see their names you won’t know that you ran into them again later at an arkfall.

Second, when people chat their message doesn’t appear in a talk bubble over their head. Holding a brief conversation with someone in the working chat reveals that you can’t tell if they’re across the zone or standing right next to you. A big way that people connected in games such as City of Heroes and World of Warcraft was that when people interacted in the virtual world via the chat, their characters displayed speech bubbles that identified them as the speaker: this meant that people could gather around them and interact “in person” in the game.

Third, the chat system is a pain-in-the-arse to actually use. It lacks commands, has limited emotes, and provides scant other forms of social-to-graphical interaction that many MMOs have installed in order to provide a lifelike social experience to players. Defiance is as antiseptic socially as it can get: other players are there, they move, cooperate, and shoot things but beyond the way they look and how they behave (with their guns) its difficult to connect to them.

The chat system fails to connect players and arkfalls alienate rather than gather

Trion Worlds is best known for their high quality MMO Rift that introduced an innovative way to pull players together in common cause: dynamic world events fittingly called “rifts.” These events involved tears in the magical-dimensions of the MMO world and took a player to open them and a group of players working in concert to close them. They appeared on the world map and could be seen from a distance. This is the spiritual ancestor of the “arkfall” in Defiance.

My first arkfall was an astonishingly fun experience. From the beta, thirty people converged on a giant hellbug hive that had lurched out of the ground, a strange bristly-red alien creature shaped like a tower, with four hydra-like heads that spewed fire. I and the other ark hunters ran the edges, shooting the mouths, and fighting off hellbugs that rose from the ground. It even had stages that involved shooting at a “symbiote” that flew through their air and looked like a wasp on too many steroids. Once it ended, the hellbug hive and the crystals nearby exploded into pillars of bright light with firework-awe graphical and sound FX.

Now, however, without a working chat system arkfalls are a bizarre mute free-for-all involving a lot of shooting, exploding, and eventually scattering to the wind. Not only do I not know who is with me at the arkfall, I don’t know if I’ll ever see them again (see: no player tags over heads by default) and since nobody communicates (see: broken chat system) and because it’s impossible to tell who’s communicating (same) once we part ways that’s it.

Defiance produces the sense of being alone in the crowd.

This is the opposite of how MMO games should work when generating a sense of community. It should be possible to make friends, gather together, and become part of a living, persistent universe. Trion Worlds has built an amazing world for Syfy Channel and populated it with NPC TV characters who gain celebrity status because the rest of the world is covered in laconic, flat affect, anti-social deaf-mutes with guns.

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