Not So Massively: Mourning the wasted potential of Trion’s Defiance

    
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One of my biggest gaming pet peeves is people declaring games “dead” before their time. If you can play it, it’s not dead. This obsession with MMO mortality mostly serves to drive people away from smaller games and thus create self-fulfilling prophecies of doom.

So you’re not going to hear me claim that Defiance — or its virtually identical successor, Defiance 2050 — is a dead game. Both titles are still there, and you can play them. That said, I am not totally divorced from reality. Those games are in a state of stagnation they will probably never recover from.

So how did we get here?

Defiance is, of course, more than just a game. It was originally envisioned as a grand “transmedia” experiment, with a television series launching around the same time as the MMO. I was actually a fan of the show for a while before I played the game.

Both incarnations — game and show — take place in the same near-future setting. Following an apocalyptic war between humanity and an alliance of alien refugees collectively known as the Votans, an event known as the Arkfall radically reshaped Earth’s geography and ecology, creating a New Frontier that is alien and hostile to human and Votan alike.

It’s a great premise, and the people behind it put an incredible amount of work into the world-building. Four entire alien languages were created for Defiance by David J. Peterson, the same linguist who created Dothraki for Game of Thrones.

Even as a fan, though, I’ll be the first to admit Defiance the TV series had problems. It had great characters, brilliant world-building, and some fantastic acting, but it always suffered from identity issues. For the first two seasons, the writers could never seem to decide if it was supposed to be a gritty epic, a character-driven family drama, or a lighthearted space western.

The thing is, it did all of those things well, but the constant shifts in tone were jarring, and it held Defiance back from reaching its full potential.

And then season three came along, they decided they wanted to be Game of Thrones with aliens, and everything went to hell. The show was not given a chance for a fourth season. That can’t have done Defiance the online shooter any favors, but the truth is there were problems long before then.

Of course, people will be quick to point out the vaunted “transmedia synergy” never amounted to much. The crossovers between the show and the game tended to be few and half-hearted.

Personally I think there were a lot of unrealistic expectations around said transmedia crossovers, perhaps even among the people behind them. I was content to simply have the two properties existing in the same world, with the occasional cameo. But certainly over-hyping the transmedia elements was another thing that didn’t help Defiance‘s case.

There were other issues, too. The graphics looked a bit dated even at launch. The game world was a bit on the small side, the content a little anemic. I’m baffled by the decision to launch right at the tail end of a console generation, without launching on the newer consoles (up until very recently with the advent of 2050).

Defiance the game never lived up to the potential of the setting. With over half a dozen alien races in the setting, it’s utterly baffling that only one was made playable at launch, with another added as paid DLC. Yes, playable Volge and Omec would be problematic from a lore perspective, and playable Gulanee would have broken the game if they had the powers Gulanee are supposed to possess, but that still leaves Indogene, Sensoth, and Liberata as perfectly viable options for playable races that were left off the table.

There are NPCs of all of these races, and Sensoth, Indogene, and Liberata are all just humanoids with a different coat of paint, so I truly don’t understand why more of an effort wasn’t made to make them playable. The diversity of the races is a core pillar of what makes the New Frontier appealing as a setting, and the game completely ignored it.

There’s the geographic diversity of the setting to consider, too. The world of Defiance includes the anarchic hell of the Storm Divide, an Antarctica that has supposedly been transformed into a tropical paradise, and a South American continent colonized by the alien Votans, but we saw none of this in the game. Instead we got only the area around the San Francisco Bay, containing a grand total of two biomes: post-apocalyptic, and really post-apocalyptic.

For me, though, the biggest problem with Defiance the MMO was how unspeakably grindy it was. It doesn’t seem that way at first; I was able to play through the whole base game’s story at my own pace, without even needing to do side missions. But after that you hit a wall of the most ungodly grinding I think I’ve ever seen in a modern game, and all of the post-launch content was tuned around being high level.

That’s what drove me away in the end.

Clearly, Defiance had issues from the start. It’s fairly obvious Trion Worlds built the game on a limited budget. Likely it never could have fully realized the sprawling game I imagine it could have been. I do want to believe it could have been more than this, though.

And I’m not saying it was — or is — a terrible game. I had fun with it. If you’ve never played Defiance, I unequivocally recommend jumping in to play through the main story once. The characters are great, and it’s a lot of fun. It just has no longevity beyond that.

And it’s clear by now that things aren’t going to change. I had some hope that the relaunch as 2050 could breathe new life into Defiance, but it’s pretty much the same game, and the rollout of new content has been a trickle at best. My dreams of delving deeper into this amazingly detailed and original setting are never going to be realized.

We now also have the death of Trion and the takeover by Gamigo to consider. I disdain sensationalism, so I’m not about to claim this a death knell for Defiance, but it does add further uncertainty. Atlas Reactor is already preparing to bite the dust since the changeover with sunset planned for this summer, so some concern may be warranted. At the least, I don’t expect the change in management to halt Defiance‘s slow march to obscurity and oblivion.

And that’s what I mourn. Defiance the TV show and Defiance the game both had their flaws, but Defiance the setting was something truly special that deserves to not just survive, but thrive.

It’s a shame it never will.

The world of online gaming is changing. As the gray area between single-player and MMO becomes ever wider, Massively OP’s Tyler Edwards delves into this new and expanding frontier biweekly in Not So Massively, our column on battle royales, OARPGs, looter-shooters, and other multiplayer online titles that aren’t quite MMORPGs.
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Castagere Shaikura

To me, the gameplay was just awful and clunky. It just wasn’t a very fun game to play. It’s one of those games that could have been great though. Trying to explore the world was so bad. The classes were boring too.

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Tithian

I fundamentally disagree with your opening statement.

While it’s true that a typical game never truly dies as long as its playable, this does not apply to MMOs on other online games without a community. Yes you can still sit around in the world as long as the servers are up, but if you are missing out on the core components of the game due to lack of players, then you aren’t really “playing”, just sight-seeing.

Now, on topic.

I actually played quite a bit in the original Defiance, and what drove me away were not the game mechanics but the abysmal technical state of the game and the servers. I got used to the clunky shooting, and the kinda-RPG systems and whatnot. So with the announcement of 2050 I was kinda eager to see what they would do the freshen up the game. The answer was: they did nothing.
1. Graphics were dated as hell.
2. Considering the TV series was cancelled, they did nothing to change the flow of the story and the tie ins. Missions were 100% the same.
3. Shooting stayed the same clunky mess, and cannot compete to the current looter shooters.
4. Technical state of the game was just as bad

and the worst offender:

5. It was technically a “new” game, so you pretty much lost all access to previously earned characters, items, and purchases. And they were selling starter packs to the gullible folk eager to play the “new” Defiance.

Luckily it was free to try, and I bailed after 20 minutes or so.

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Danny Smith

I tried to like it but it felt very much like a designed by committee dev madlibs to try and fart out a moneyfarm. You have loot becoming a big thing in shooters so its a looter shooter… but none of it really feels good. You have ‘arcfalls’ which might change the world in interesting wa- oh its just rift events straight up lifted wholesale and reskinned. You’ve got a rich cast of chara- a goergoues landsca- the game let you drive cars?

It feels like a “wouldn’t it be cool if?” idea brought to fruition only to find out the answer is a stern “NO.”.

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Bruno Brito

Why would i mourn something i knew it was doomed in the first place?

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Sorenthaz

I wish they could do a Defiance 2 but I know that’s not going to happen unless they somehow get some major moolah coming in, which is unlikely as hell considering they just shuttered one game and they have at least one or two others on life support.

Defiance definitely had the potential to be something great but it was plagued from the start with badly rushed infrastructure which killed its ability to really grow in a meaningful way. Part of that could be blamed on SyFy putting a deadline, but also it was just Trion biting off more than they could chew.

I really do wonder what Trion would’ve been like if they hadn’t been in such a rush to get multiple projects out there. If instead they had just focused on building RIFT up to be their longterm success and then went from there instead of being so aggressive in pushing things in/out. RIFT was their only real success out of the disaster that happened between End of Nations (leading to them kicking Petroglyph out and making an in-studio abomination that never lived past alpha) and Defiance, along with suddenly losing the publishing rights to Warface.

Either way Defiance was screwed from the start simply because Trion couldn’t deliver that product in time and they took so many shortcuts to try and make the game work that it didn’t have a foundation to actually build off of in a meaningful way. I really wish they didn’t have to be tied down to that TV show for what amounted to a barely existent crossover (that was completely nonexistent by Season 3), because the game could’ve been so much more.

Also I guess having to be on consoles didn’t help either in terms of its longevity, especially since Trion didn’t want to shut it down on PS3/360.

Defiance 2050 is basically just a Frankenstein’s Creature of what could have been. It’s like a desperate last attempt to make the game generate more money for them because they’re too poor to actually make a sequel.

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terminallynerdy

I tried it back at launch and just found it to be a poor mans looter shooter. It tried tho

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Greaterdivinity

I’m still surprised they managed to find any money for the pretty poor quality relaunch, and that the relaunch was so poor (how they make a game worse at a relaunch is beyond me…but hey, we have Funcom with SWL so it’s not as if Defiance is alone in this regard).

Realistically, I don’t think the game ever had a chance after it launched. Heaps and heaps of problems, extremely loose-tie in with the show, and an average (at best) show. You hit the nail on the head with the shows identity issues, I remember falling off by the time S1 ended for that very reason (and because it was pretty painfully average SyFy content). Without the show to boost it, and I doubt it ever much did, it was just an underwhelming, painfully claustrophobic (holy shit I’ve never seen a MMO launch with such a tiny world) third person shooter.

Which sucks, because they nailed the gunplay IMO, and that’s enough to build from. But without the financial backing to support it due to its poor launch, it never had the runway to meaningfully turn things around.

Still expecting it to limp along for a while before one or both versions are closed down. I feel bad for the folks still playing and enjoying but I had my fill of 150ish hours back when the game launched, dipping my toes in periodically to remind myself of the jank outside the gunplay that kept me from playing. At a certain point, you just have to let something go.

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Jeremy Barnes

Why is this game “not so massively”? I have a hard time recalling much of my playtime, but it was open world with other players? I don’t recall it being severely limited to the number of players in an instance or anything.

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Jim Bergevin Jr

It is a shooter MMO, but it was so poorly optimized. The open world events were at first plagued by the “General Steve” phenomenon, and then after that by the “Vanishing Player” phenomenon, which still is present today.

r1plakish
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r1plakish

I always felt that the game could have been something special if it was owned by a competent studio that was able to make the proper financial and manpower commitment to it. Although I have been having some doubts after FO76 and Anthem turned out to be such massive train wrecks.

As for whether or not it’s dead that’s pretty clear by looking at the recent Steam Charts numbers. It’s hard to imagine any scenario where a F2P game with those kinds of numbers as actually having a pulse. They had a chance to turn it around with Defiance 2050 but instead of cleaning up bugs and replacing the brutal RNG they chose to replace the player progression system and implement a tepid loot system with awkward upgrade mechanics.

The reason that Trion went up in a puff of “WTF” is the same reason that Defiance had so many issues: lack of commitment and mismanagement. Unfortunately it appears that the only commitment that Gamigo is making to Defiance is to bide their time to see if they can make a profit with as little effort as possible. It’s sad but I doubt that the game will survive the year.

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Arktouros

This one was always pretty simple to me. Complete and total incompetence of the development team to understand what their game was.

Special power. Guns. Shield mod. Grenade mod. Loot. Right off the bat you pretty much have a multiplayer Borderlands. But the loot was weak. The first thing they did day one was nerf all sources of loot so the best source of loot was driving around gun station to gun station or to buy gun crates from the cash shop. That’s a bad move in a game where the chances of finding the gun you need/want with the stats/type you need is pretty low. You can’t have a shoot and looter without the loot.

Their progression system was way out of tune. While everyone was crying that there was no game progression I actually got pretty far and found out there was game progression…up at EGO 1500 or 2500 (been a while) or so items started getting additional stats. That’s a lot of game content people have to do in order to see game progression. That kind of plateau of progression that isn’t explained just makes people feel like they aren’t making any real progress cause they don’t even know if there’s a plateau on the cliff they’re climbing.

I mean it was a fun game if you liked Borderlands shoot and loot style games. It really was. It just was horribly managed.