Will the console MMO revolution be televised?
The chief unique selling point of Defiance was announced long before the title or any other details about this massively multiplayer action game were.
A joint project between ambitious online gaming startup Trion - which recently scored a hit with its first game Rift - and the Syfy TV channel, the game would offer a science-fiction universe in two live media simultaneously. Events in the TV show would influence those in the game, and vice versa.
As it turned out, there was an even more audacious claim and unlikely link-up for Trion to make when it came to finally unveil Defiance. At E3 last month, the game was demoed to press and industry live on two consoles, a PlayStation 3 - and an Xbox 360.
Since I started covering MMO games as a journalist half a decade ago, I've lost count of the number of times a console game has been promised but failed to materialise. Age of Conan, APB, Star Trek Online and Champions Online were all said to be up and running on Xbox 360, but early, confident statements about their availability on consoles had been withdrawn with red faces by the time the games launched. It wasn't a tech issue, we were told, before executives muttered something about business relationships into their beards.
Other projects like Huxley and The Agency languished in development hell for years (before being canned, in the latter's case). It wasn't until this year, with the launch of Sony's own DC Universe Online on PS3, that the halting steps made by Final Fantasy XI in bringing massively multiplayer gaming to a console audience were consolidated upon.
Sony has proven its commitment to this style of gaming, then, and it's perhaps not the platform holder's fault that the PS3 version of Final Fantasy XIV Online is still AWOL - that game has deeper problems. But it was Square Enix who came out and said what everyone else was thinking: Microsoft wasn’t interested in MMOs.
"Are Trion brave, stupid - or do they know something we don't?"
Although the two companies had partnered on FFXI, Microsoft was no longer prepared to compromise the "closed environment" of Xbox Live in the way that MMOs require, Hiromichi Tanaka told me at E3 last year. "We couldn't come to an agreement."
It wasn't a surprise when, at E3 this year, Sony announced CCP's Eve Online spin-off, Dust 514, as a PS3 console exclusive. And yet, two days later, here is Defiance running on an Xbox 360 before my eyes. Are Trion brave, stupid - or do they know something we don't?
"We are very, very much developing a console shooter, it's our key priority," the Trion rep demonstrating the game swears to me. "Microsoft was in the previous presentation. They were pleased."
What's changed? Trion will only hint that this "revolutionary game" will have a "revolutionary business model". It adds that Defiance will not be cross-platform, with the PC, PS3 and Xbox versions having separate servers.
We'll have to take it on trust for now. At least Trion has earned a little trust - unusually for an MMO developer, it is not yet in the habit of promising more than it can deliver.
Rift, a generic fantasy game in the EverQuest and World of Warcraft mode, surprised everyone by launching on time, fully-featured, technically polished and fun to play. Although the company is still learning how to manage server populations, the game has been a notable non-flop - perhaps the only one since WOW established its dominance.
It shouldn't be a surprise, then, that Trion's second in-house game (it's also publishing Petroglyph's MMORTS End of Nations) appears to be Rift crudely mated with Gears of War.
Nominally set on Earth, near the San Francisco of the far future, the foggy countryside spattered with colourful alien vegetation I see in the E3 demo looks strikingly familiar. (Granted, there's a rusting hulk of what appears to be a Toyota Prius over there, in place of an S&M inn.) The player characters, though, are bulky, armoured space soldiers, manipulated with twin-stick shooter control schemes, and the camera snaps tight over their shoulders when they aim.