The wasted potential of Defiance’s transmedia contests

With Season 3 of Syfy’s Defiance only a month away, I find myself thinking back to Season 1’s ‘Play the Game, Join the Show’ contest – which took place way before I even discovered the show or its tie-in MMO.

Seeing their character written into canon must be a dream come true for a lot of MMO roleplayers. There probably aren’t that many RP-inclined ark hunters on Trion’s Defiance servers, but I’ll bet those that were there sat up and took notice when the contest was announced.

The premise was simple enough: win the contest and your character would land an on-screen role in Season 2. It was a fantastic shot at rewarding the playerbase, and with something far more exclusive and prestigious than any in-game shiny.

Of course, I never stood a chance myself – Defiance contests are open only to U.S citizens. But the idea of a player-centric game/show crossover, that went beyond the ephemeral 5-second cameo of the previous one, excited the roleplayer in me. So I followed Season 2 with bated breath, waiting to see what Trion and Syfy would do with the opportunity they had.

I don’t know what the winner themselves thought – and, in fact, I don’t detect any buzz around the topic at all – but as a viewer, all I saw was wasted potential.

1. Your character, or your character’s name?

In the first place, it wasn’t the winning character joining the show. It was a background character bearing her name – hardly the same, especially to a roleplayer.

The contest’s in-game grind (more on this below) was only the beginning. It was Trion’s elimination round, meant to weed out all but 10 – who were then presented for public voting with backstories penned by Trion staff.

And that wasn’t even the end, because the highest-voted 5 were then subjected to hand-picking by the Defiance showrunner himself.

The whole thing was one big ‘judge’s choice’ scenario, gated by a popularity contest where you had no way to better your chances – since the backstory tagged to your character wasn’t even your own. And to even earn your way into that cheapest of contest formats, you had to commit to weeks of grinding. Which brings me to…

2. Qualifying by quantity, not quality

To even make it to the public vote, players had to be one of 10 to “complete the most Major Arkfalls within the contest period”. For those who haven’t played Defiance, that means burning rubber all over the game world, chasing down random encounters, and jostling with dozens of other players to repeat them to the power of a big, fat n.

The problem with such a criterion should be immediately obvious – the folks with the most time to play, win. It instantly puts anybody with a full-time job in the dust, and how much of the gaming population is that?

Maybe this was intentional, a demographic-driven choice. But grinding as a qualifier seems little better than using length of service to measure an employee’s worth to a business. It proves only one thing: who played more. Not who loved the Defiance franchise more, or spent more on it, or had more to contribute to it. Simply who clocked more time clearing arkfalls in a stipulated few weeks.

But all this, I might still have overlooked – had Syfy done something good with the winner. Only they didn’t.

3. The most badass… bit part ever

When Alethea, the lucky winner, failed to appear after more than half the season, I began to think Syfy was saving her for an epic reveal close to the finale. After all, speculation was rife that she was to be the ‘canonical’ ark hunter, the one every Defiance player was playing, which meant a tantalizing wealth of crossover potential with the show’s leads.

How mistaken I was.

When she did turn up, it was a cameo, and one with no reference at all to either her in-game counterpart, or the legendary badass of Trion’s backstory. In fact, to anyone who didn’t know of the contest that put her there, she was just another bit part with a name and a line of dialogue.

This one move trivialized the contest and all its proceedings. After all the time sunk into grinding, the life breathed into players’ creations with those (admittedly well-written) backstories, and the year-long wait for Season 2 – just this?

The law of low-hanging fruit at work. ‘Join the show’ in its most literal meaning. Joining not as a supporting cast figure with a fleshed-out role, or even as an unseen plot element. Just as a throwaway reference “hey, there I am! Okay, show’s over.” Little better than the result of the last contest, which put its winner’s face on a wanted poster gliding past the camera.

Of course, many would argue that Defiance’s runners have their own vision for the show, and giving attention to ‘fan fiction’ characters does not compute. But that’s just it: the Alethea on screen is not the Alethea from the servers! From the moment she appeared in the voting gallery, she was no longer her player’s creation. So what’s wrong with putting slightly more meat on a character that’s already the producers’, in all but name?

It remains to be seen if the playerbase’s representative gets any kind of love in Season 3. If not if this is the limit of Defiance’s vaunted transmedia initiative then more’s the pity. The vision of realizing the full potential of game-to-show crossovers will have to be somebody else’s to fulfill.

I for one would hesitate to invest in any such contest that not only denies me any sort of creative input regarding my character, but uses him or her as a one-liner extra!


One Response to “The wasted potential of Defiance’s transmedia contests”

  1. […] between the Mordrem and Defiance‘s arkfalls, I immediately thought of Trion’s ‘who grinds wins’ […]

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