Sci Fi Channel creating hybrid TV series and MMO

The Sci Fi Channel plans to air a TV series that simultaneously plays out as a massively multiplayer online game, the Los Angeles Times reports. This pairing of television writers with game designers will allow fans of the series to influence its story arc through their own actions in the virtual space. David Howe, president of the Sci Fi Channel, said, "This is the Holy Grail for us, without a doubt... this is groundbreaking, and I don't say that lightly."

The large and dedicated player communities attached to various titles in the MMO space are appealing to the Sci Fi Channel. "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," according to the Los Angeles Times. The Sci Fi Channel's desire to tap into the MMO market led them to work with Trion World Network, a California-based game company with some major investors standing behind it. The hope is that together, they will achieve a first in interactive entertainment: create a hybrid television series and online game, where players affect or even determine the direction of the show. If successful, this will stand as a milestone in the history of both television and games.

Hard details about the interactive show are scarce, but the Sci Fi Channel confirmed that the setting is 80 to 100 years in Earth's future, and that there will be some drastic differences between this setting and modern-day Earth. Whether this suggests the potential for utopian or post-apocalyptic settings is unclear at present.

Initially, Sci Fi planned to integrate online gaming with a television show through its highly-acclaimed Battlestar Galactica series, but the idea was scrapped in favor of starting over with a clean slate. Adam Stotsky, Sci Fi's Executive VP of Global Brand Strategy and Market Development, said, "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... for us to truly do this in a powerful way, it would be best to start over with many of those questions still hanging."

Free of the canon of multiple seasons of a pre-existing series, the creators will have a great deal of creative leeway in putting the show together, potentially offering both active gamers and passive viewers something in one package that they've never had before. Howe explained further why Sci Fi is branching out into gaming and virtual worlds: "A television show that is on once a week isn't enough. The fans today want the experience to go beyond that... 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."

Howe's statement confirms that collaboration on the interactive series will not only be between the writers from different creative and production backgrounds; the players of the game themselves will also drive the storyline forward. Gamers will not simply assume passive roles in the interactive show; to some extent, they're truly a part of it -- participants as well as observers. The game will be entirely online and new 'vistas' will open up for players as the television storyline progresses. Not only that, footage of players in-game will actually be used in the series; the look of the TV show will match that of the game via "green-screen hyper reality," not unlike the film '300.'

Lars Buttler, co-founder and chief executive of Trion (as well as former Vice President for Global Online at Electronic Arts), shed some light on how this union of television and gaming will play out. Player action and interactions in the game will provide the Trion team with, "hard data about which characters, settings and story lines stir the most interests." That knowledge will be conveyed to the show's producers, who in turn will bend the storyline to suit the audience's tastes. However, the Los Angeles Times comments, "that might not sit well with some purists who think a drama should be guided by decisions of art rather than market research." Still, Howe believes that the Sci Fi Channel is offering fans something that they want -- a new level of participation and tailored entertainment.

On the gaming side of the venture, Trion World Network has partnered with Hewlett Packard to raise $30 million from major investors, including Time Warner and General Electric. The Los Angeles Times piece claims that, "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 interactive show is tentatively scheduled for a summer 2010 launch, but more details may be revealed in July at Comic-Con International in San Diego.