If you don’t think a massively multiplayer online role-playing game can be sexy, then you’ve never seen Felicia Day sing “Do You Want to Date My Avatar.” The music video–which is a promotion for the new season of the online sitcom The Guild–hit number one on iTunes after its debut last week, and has accumulated over 2 million views on YouTube.
So what is the show about? The Guild follows a woman’s virtual life with a group of friends in an MMO similar to World of Warcraft and how it spills into her personal life. The series manages to tightrope walk the fine line between making fun of people who live their social lives inside of video games, and making their lives actually look like fun. The Guild has garnered almost 6 million downloads on Xbox Live, another 2.5 million on MSN, and 3 million on Zune. Add the 2 million from official site WatchTheGuild.com, and about 12 million views on YouTube, and you’re over 25 million views. The DVDs for each of the two seasons continue to rank in the top 20 comedies on Amazon.
Felicia Day, besides playing the protagonist, is the creator of the show, producing and writing every episode. “I work as an actor in Hollywood and I got to the point where I was kind of bored of the opportunities I was getting,” she says. “I decided I wanted to write something.” Why that particular subject matter? “They always say the first thing you should do is write what you know. All of my life I’ve been a gamer, since I was like six years old. And I just recently had come off of a bad addiction to World of Warcraft. So I wrote a half hour pilot.”
Friends in the industry told her that the subject matter was too niche for Hollywood. A friend convinced her to do it for the Web, “because that’s where the people you’re talking about are, where the people who would like your show are.” The first couple of episodes were funded out of Day’s pocket. The story would’ve ended there, if not for the fans. “We put a PayPal button up and people actually donated for nine months to keep the show going and finish season one.”
The fans did more than donate a few bucks, “The community started forming around us because we couldn’t do everything ourselves,” says Day. “We needed some art done so we would just post on the Web site, ‘Hey does anybody want to help us out and do some art for us? Help us out and do some special effects that Felicia Day wrote that we can’t afford to do.’ And we still do that.” It is hard to imagine a network television series creating such a symbiotic relationship; imagine fans of CSI paying for the show, and pitching-in on the production as well. The Guild‘s initial success, and thus it’s survival, was directly tied to the act of creating a sitcom on the Web.
The show’s popularity was also helped by one (very influential) traditional television creator, Joss Whedon. “We started putting up videos in July 2007,” says Day. “And Joss Whedon was on my email list. That fall, the writers’ strike happened. We had a strike day when we were on the strike line together and I asked, ‘Hey, did you watch my show?’ He had seen all the episodes and was like, ‘That’s awesome what you’re doing. I’ve been thinking about doing an Internet video myself.’ Four months later, after the strike was over, he emailed me, ‘Can you sing?'”
The result was the Internet musical Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog, which became a hit, proving digital distribution was a viable ecosystem for video entertainment. “I don’t want to take a lot of credit for it, but Joss has said that The Guild was one of the inspirations to make Dr. Horrible,” says Day. He could’ve made it under a studio, but the point was he wanted to make it outside of the writer’s strike and show you can make something successfully outside the system. I gave him my thoughts on the Internet, but he took it to another level. I am just happy he cast me in that because it was amazing, and it definitely helped my show a lot.” The Guild, gained exposure though Day’s role in Dr. Horrible, and that help take The Guild out of the garage.
Well, almost. “We are still doing this in our garage,” she says. “But we partnered with Microsoft and Xbox, and Sprint is our overall sponsor.” Instead of fan-based funding drives to support each episode, she can now pay production expenses up front. And she still owns intellectual property she created–her desire to keep ownership caused her to turn down “dozens of deals with prominent producers and networks last year.”
The subject matter of the show appealed to Microsoft right away. Christina DeRosa, General Manager of Xbox Live, said, “We just loved the tonality and perspective of the show and just knew our audience would eat it up.” For Microsoft, getting Felicia and The Guild on Xbox is crucial to the console and its online service; DeRosa said, “It’s about repositioning the platform from a gaming platform to an entertainment platform; original programming has been able to give us a talking point for that initiative.” In exchange, The Guild is in the same lineup as network shows such as Fringe and The Family Guy. “They are our network,” says Day. “We’re in the Independent Video marketplace, but we are just one click away from mainstream shows that you can purchase, and Netflix streaming movies.”
So what lies in the future for The Guild? Season 3 premieres on Xbox Live this Tuesday, August 25, and on MSN a week later. Felicia is also writing a Guild comic book for Dark Horse Comics. And the relationship with the fan community continues to grow. “You’re going to see some introductions, though our partnership with Sprint, of interactivity for our users” says Microsoft’s DeRosa. “They are going to be able to send in questions to the cast and we will post the answers; we’re going to have downloads to their mobile phone.”
The Guild is thriving because of its grassroots online following, a fact that Day keep top of mind. “You can’t just put a widget up and expect people to enjoy the experience,” says Day. “That’s why I like the way we release our show; Xbox has a community and we continue our community online, and it all crosses together.”