Virtual bleed to TV

Times Staff Writer

Can two alien cultures coexist in one writers room? Sci Fi is entering a brave new world by teaming television writers with video-game designers to create a franchise that is both a television series and a massive multiplayer game on the Internet -- more than that, the fans who play the game will actually help shape the show’s story arc with their virtual exploits.

“This is the Holy Grail for us, without a doubt,” said Dave Howe, president of the Sci Fi Channel, which has teamed with Trion World Network, an on-the-rise gaming company based in Redwood City, Calif. “This is groundbreaking, and I don’t say that lightly.”

Sci Fi Channel executives are mum about the title of the show and game and their premise, but they do hint that it will be set 80 to 100 years in the future on an Earth that looks very different from today. The team has summer 2010 as the targeted launch; more details are expected to be announced in July at Comic-Con International in San Diego.

Massive multiplayer online role-playing games (a mouthful term shortened to the only slightly better MMORPG) have become a sensation, especially World of Warcraft, which has 10 million subscribers who pay about $15 a month to explore, battle and interact with one another and magical beasties in a land called Azeroth. The game pulled in $1 billion last year, and Legendary Pictures has plans to make a $100-million tie-in film that will hit theaters next year.


Howe said bundling a World of Warcraft player community with a series and an on-line social community is something the Sci Fi Channel has tried to puzzle out for several years.

“A television show that is on once a week isn’t enough. The fans today want the experience to go beyond that,” Howe said. “For example, 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.”

It sounds intriguing, but there are significant challenges. The MMORPG field is already crowded, but no competitor has been able to come anywhere close to Warcraft, which has about 60% of the marketplace audience. Also, the new venture might remind fans of the Matrix Online, an MMORPG based in the universe made famous by the Wachowski siblings’ films. After much buildup, the game fizzled in the eyes of many fans and highlighted the aesthetic chasm between screenplay entertainment and gaming worlds.

The games find their strongest settings in vast and dangerous worlds where any character can have his or her own quest to follow, while an episodic television drama is far more adept at zeroing in on a handful of individual protagonists. It’s the difference between aerial footage of the Normandy invasion and the intimacy of a foxhole monologue.

“That is absolutely the challenge, and it’s an exciting one,” said Adam Stotsky, Sci Fi’s executive vice president of global brand strategy and market development. “Putting these creative people from very different fields in the same room together creates a lot of energy, and there’s strong curiosity about each other’s craft.”

Lars Buttler, co-founder and chief executive of Trion, said that the game will live entirely online and that vistas will open as the television series takes the characters throughout their world. The game will continue to grow, and “footage” of players in battles or other mass gatherings will be incorporated into the series. The TV show will match the game in its look, with a green-screen hyper reality, much like the film “300,” Howe said.

Buttler’s company is partnered with Hewlett Packard and has raised $30 million from investors such as Time Warner and General Electric. He said the focus of the company is to pounce on the concept that discs and downloads are being left behind and that online games are the “clear future.”

The virtual world that pulls in fans of the show will also give Buttler and his team hard data about which characters, settings and story lines stir the most interests. He said that will help the show’s producers bend their story lines to audience tastes -- a notion that might not sit well with some purists who think a drama should be guided by decisions of art rather than market research. Clearly, though, the very nature of television programming is in flux, and Howe said fans have an appetite for a new level of participation and tailored entertainments.

“This will be a state-of-the art game and it will be a strong television show, and watching how those two things interact will be fascinating,” he said.

Early on, Sci Fi planned to take the existing universe of the channel’s signature show, the Peabody Award-winning “Battlestar Galactica,” and launch a series and gaming community through its familiar mythology. But Stosky said the decision was made to start from scratch.

“In ‘Battlestar,’ the fans have a sense of who is good and who is not, which side they want to be on and the parameters and definitions of the universe around them,” Stosky said. “We realized that for us to truly do this in a powerful way, it would be best to start over with many of those questions still hanging.”