There was a time—in recent memory for some of us—when posting a video on the web was all but out of reach, requiring dedicated hardware and some serious nerd skills. On April 23, 2005, YouTube, a side project created by three PayPal employees, posted its first video. Viewership skyrocketed, and in the summer of 2006 YouTube was averaging 100 million views a day. Time magazine named it as the 2006 “Invention of the Year.” Suddenly, posting videos that could be seen by anyone with an internet connection was just a few clicks away.
At the same time, an L.A. actress named Felicia Day was enjoying another relatively recent internet innovation, the Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG). These computer games allowed thousands of people to log in and play with and against each other in the same virtual world. Day’s game of choice was World of Warcraft, a game that came to define the genre and, at its peak, attracted 12 million players worldwide. Day thought that her funny, frustrating, and (by her own admission) obsessive gaming experiences would make a great sitcom, and in 2006 finished writing a traditional 30-minute TV pilot script. Eventually titled The Guild, referencing the in-game groups players use to provide social and practical support, it centered on Day’s character, Cyd Sherman, as she awkwardly navigated issues with her fellow guild members both in the game world and—reluctantly—in real life.
Day quickly realized that the content was too niche for traditional TV networks to embrace. She got advice from her writing group, which included Jane Selle Morgan, who would direct the first half of season one, and YouTube veteran Kim Evey, who would co-produce the series with Day. Evey was producing and starring in her own delightfully eclectic web series, Gorgeous Tiny Chicken Machine Show, and convinced Day to take her show directly to the web. Together they reworked the script into smaller three to six-minute chunks, or webisodes, specifically designed to be released through platforms like YouTube.
On July 27, 2007, the first webisode of The Guild was posted. Day’s authentic and endearing performance as both Cyd and Codex—her in-game avatar—combined with a cast of characters that resonated with MMORPG players, made the show an instant hit.
Production was done on a shoestring; episodes were shot in the cast’s homes with borrowed equipment. Funds and favors ran out after three episodes, and they successfully financed more by reaching out directly to fans, which was a novelty in the days before established crowdfunding platforms. By season three, the series was picked up by Xbox to stream on their new video service.
The Guild would go on to release 70 episodes over six seasons, plus three music videos. One of those videos, “(Do You Wanna Date My) Avatar,” went viral and spent a week as the #1 download on both iTunes and Amazon. The series earned praise within the web content community, winning awards from YouTube, the Streamy Awards, and the International Academy of Web Television Awards. Due in part to the popular and critical response, in 2014 The Guild became the first web series to be released on Netflix. The adventures of Codex and her friends (and enemies) were also featured in a comic book series.
The success of The Guild paved the way for other storytellers who wanted to work outside the traditional network structure. Joss Whedon recognized it as a major influence in creating the made-for-web series Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along-Blog. In 2009, that show, which co-starred Felicia Day, became the first non-televised program to win a Primetime Emmy Award. Today, shows made exclusively for the web are an integral part of the entertainment landscape.
Dave McOwen is a Digital Experience Developer for the National Museum of American History, a gamer, and can sing all the songs from “Dr. Horrible” by heart (but probably shouldn’t).