Many of us still remember waking up early on Saturday mornings to catch the latest episode of "Captain N: The Game Master" or rushing home after school to watch "The Super Mario Bros. Super Show!" (or if we were lucky enough to be watching on a Friday, "The Legend of Zelda"). While these shows weren't exactly something to write home about, it was certainly exciting to see some of our favorite Nintendo characters come alive in the form of a cartoon. In the last few years the wildly popular Pokemon games have spawned a long-lasting TV show and more recently, a Viva Piñata TV series was launched side-by-side with the game, in what was a moderately successful cross-marketing strategy (the kid's show is still running today and the game posted slow but steady sales, developing somewhat of a cult following). Clearly, there's some precedence for games to become the basis for a TV series, but these have all lacked one basic element that all the games required: interactivity.
So it is with some interest that the LA Times reports that Sci-Fi channel is teaming up with Trion World Network to create (simultaneously!) an MMO and a TV show based on it. Sci-Fi channel president Dave Howe says that it's the "Holy Grail". A subscription-based MMO and a successful television series that are able to successfully leverage each other could certainly be a potential windfall. However, while the details are somewhat scarce at the moment, from what I can glean, there are some major hurdles that this joint venture will need to overcome.
To begin with, with few exceptions, most of these TV shows have been targeted at kids, showing up either in Saturday morning or after-school cartoon blocks. This has certainly been the case for the most successful ones, such as Pokemon. While there is certainly a wide range of ages who play MMOs, according to at least one survey, the average age of MMO players are is in the mid-twenties. That certainly doesn't fit the current mold of success.
"For instance, how drastically can choices and outcomes in the game alter the TV show?"
I'm not sure if I was the only one, but I had assumed that the show would somehow be based in the game engine itself. While it's not entirely clear, this description sort of implies that they will be meshing live-action with in-game footage. It's hard to imagine how something like that could really work in a realistically dramatic fashion. It will be interesting to see if they will be able to overcome this obstacle without eliciting unintentional laughter from the audience they're trying to reach. Computer graphics have come a long way, but I'm skeptical of how the in-game footage will look right alongside, or even in the background, with live-action characters.
There's also the small problem of a little game called World of Warcraft. With over 10 million active subscribers, it controls an impressive 60% of the MMO audience. However, the recent and surprising success of Age of Conan (who knew so many people were so interested in a property whose greatest exposure probably came from a nearly 30-year old movie?) indicates that there is still some opportunity in this realm. Given the chance to actually shape the outcome of a nationally viewed TV series, many MMO gamers may jump at the chance ("Hey Mom, my avatar's on TV!").
"... but these have all lacked one basic element that all the games required: interactivity."
More likely, the in-game situations will only alter slight things within the TV universe, but this would probably drastically undercut a major reason why people would want to play and watch the show in the first place. It would be like giving several choices to a gamer throughout the game only to find out in the end that none of those choices affected any outcome in the game anyway. In other words, that would probably frustrate the very people that they're trying to attract. The remaining attraction of the game and show would be to simply see if you can get your avatar on to TV, and it's questionable whether that could actually sustain interest.
The Sci-Fi channel and Trion are introducing something intriguing here, but whether it's the "Holy Grail" for them, for TV viewers, or for MMO fans is something I'm certainly not so sure about. They're currently aiming for a 2010 release, so they have still some time to prove me wrong.
As co-editors of A Link To The Future, Geoff and Jeff like to discuss, among many other topics, the business aspects of gaming. Game companies often make decisions that on their face appear baffling, or even infuriating, to many gamers. Yet when you think hard about them from the company's perspective, many other decisions are eminently sensible, or at least appeared to be so based on the conditions at the time those choices were made. Our goal with this column is to start a conversation about just those topics. While neither Geoff nor Jeff are employed in the game industry, they do have professional backgrounds that are relevant to the discussion. More to the point, they don't claim to have all the answers -- but this is a conversation worth having. You can reach them at