Microsoft announced on Monday that it’s developing original television shows for the Xbox, and the list of programs is about what you’d expect for that audience: reality competitions, sketch comedy, and an adaptation of the multi-billion dollar Halo video game franchise.
But one program stands out because of its unusual origins: “Deadlands,” a genre-bending Western filled with undead cowboys, card-slinging sorcerers and horrific monsters, is based on a pen-and-paper role-playing game.
“I’ve always loved the game and thought it would make an awesome film or TV series,” says George Strayton, a writer and producer who’s worked on films including Alive Inside and Transformers. “I’m psyched to see someone had the brains to make it.”
Deadlands is set in 19th century America, but in an alternative timeline where a group of American Indian shamans tried to drive out European settlers with magic spells, and accidentally opened a conduit to a demonic realm. Powerful evil beings known as the Reckoners use the conduit to begin turning the Earth into a haunted wasteland, starting in the “Weird West,” where lawmen and gunslingers battle zombies, ghosts and mad scientists.
The game was created by Shane Lacy Hensley and first published in 1996 by Pinnacle Entertainment Group. In the years since, Deadlands books have won nine Origins Awards and been converted to multiple RPG systems including the d20 System, GURPS, and Savage Worlds.
Deadlands is being developed into a pilot for Xbox Entertainment Studios, a Microsoft subsidiary created in 2012 in order to make “interactive television content.” A dozen “Xbox Originals” have been commissioned by the studio, and if they make it into actual production, will be distributed exclusively on Microsoft platforms, much like the original programming developed by online networks like Netflix and Hulu.
Other Xbox Originals in development include “Humans,” an adaptation of a Swedish science-fiction program about robot servants that develop free will, and a series based on the hugely popular Halo video games, which is being produced by Steven Spielberg.
Microsoft hasn’t released any details about the team working on the Deadlands pilot, but the game’s creator, Shane Hensley, says he’s been involved in the creative process from the beginning. “I’m very happy with my level of involvement,” he says. “Everyone is working together to make the best show possible.”
Hensley says the series will be set in the Deadlands universe, and may use specific characters and stories from published RPG adventures, but will also feature new stories developed for the program. “There’s lots of great original ideas the creative team has added alongside plenty of elements from the property our fans will love,” Hensley says.
Still, you can’t blame any fans who might be worried. Hollywood has a poor track record when it comes to adapting games into TV shows and movies. Since the 1980s, dozens of beloved video games including Super Mario Brothers and Street Fighter have been turned into critically reviled, high-profile flops. Tabletop games have fared no better: The 2012 film Battleship was nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Picture, and the fantasy role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons has spawned three execrable features of its own. (D&D owner Hasbro is currently embroiled in a lawsuit with Warner Brothers over who can make a fourth, and hopefully better, film.)
“The studios have always had a difficult time understanding games and how to turn them into franchises… especially RPGs,” says George Strayton. “I’ve been to so many meetings where it’s clear they’re overwhelmed by RPGs and just don’t even know where to begin, and therefore don’t trust it as a viable intellectual property despite the massive fan base.”link
Strayton says he pitched a film based on Deadlands to movie studios back in 2001, and came close to cutting a deal with Dimension Films, which at the time was owned by Walt Disney. He’s not involved with the new Xbox Originals production, but says Microsoft may have what it takes to finally turn a game into a great TV series.
Deadlands creator Shane Hensley is optimistic, too. “This is all new territory, of course, for them and us,” he says. “But everything I’ve seen from Xbox and the creative team so far has given me great optimism that this is exactly the right home for the Weird West.”