The non-game speedbump

Machinima creators are in for a bit of a shock.

Let me rephrase that. Machinima creators who move from games engines to non-game engines - as many commentators including me are advising - are in for a bit of a shock.

You see, we’ve become used to Machinima having the potential to reach huge audiences. Strange Company’s Fair Trade piece in World of Warcraft, for example, has reached over 120,000 people by now. Films like Still Seeing Breen, The Return, and of course Red vs Blue regularly attract TV-sized audiences of more than a million people. Certainly at Strange Company we’ve become used to the idea that a film attracting less than 10,000 people hasn’t lived up to its potential.

So how many people are non-game pieces like Tom Jantol’s beautiful Wizard of OS attracting? It’s one of the most feted films in the recent Machinima past. So, surely, a few hundred thousand at least?

Nope. I don’t have figures for Machinima Premiere’s viewing, but for all its other outlets, after more than a month, Wizard of OS, which took 5 months to make, has gotten just over 1,000 views.

The figures carry over. When We Two Parted, Strange Company’s new film, has only broken the thousand view barrier thanks to a high-profile posting on Machinima.com’s YouTube channel - and many viewers there are, shall we say, less than enchanted with it. Even What I Love About Christmas, the seasonal comedy piece from Phil Male Restroom Etiquette Rice has, after 6 months, a lot of pushing, and help from Phil’s millions of viewers, only just crested the 10k mark.

By comparison, Baron Soosden’s I’m So Sick, added only three months earlier, has so far racked up 250,000 views on the ‘tube, which isn’t even the primary medium on which most people watched it. And much as I like the Baron’s work, I’d have to say that Phil’s Christmas rant is at least as good and (you’d expect) more viral.

So what’s happening?

What’s happening is that Machinima creators who move away from games engine lose their inbuilt games audience. Now, the way this works is actually a lot more complicated than it looks, and misunderstanding it could cause you to trip up - it did for me.

  1. What’s going on?

There are basically three components at work here:

  1. Communities. These games have websites associated with them, and people talk about things related to that game on that website. This is very important - it’s not about how many people are interested in a subject, per se, it’s about how many websites there are devoted to that subject, how active they are, and how many viewers they get.

    This is an important point to bear in mind when thinking about a film. We tripped up here. We’d reasoned that Byron is a well-known name, and hence we’d be able to raise interest in the movie. However, we forgot that there aren’t that many places on the Internet where people talk about him, and those that do are highly academic and out of our grasp. Hence, despite the fact that lots of people like Byron, we couldn’t find anywhere to talk about the film - unlike World of Warcraft, say, there’s no RomanticPoetsInsider.com desperate for content.

    The games world is one of the fastest-moving, content-hungriest, internet-savviest interest groups out there. As soon as we move out of that stream, it’s a lot harder to inject our works into conversation.

  2. Familiarity. “Animation” doesn’t have good associations for most non-animators. Either it references “kid’s stuff”, or obscure Eastern European art films with characters made from matchsticks. Normal people don’t hear “animated film” and think “ooh, I want to watch that”.

    On the other hand, millions of people on the ‘net have very positive associations with phrases like “Half-Life 2”.

    We avoid the unfamiliar, by and large. Machinima’s engine connections give game Machinima a huge step up by connecting something potentially threatening (a short film made by someone they’ve never heard of) with something very positive (a game engine they love). As soon as you move away from that, into a minority interest like Moviestorm or even pro tools like Tom uses, you lose that connection.

    There are ways to combat that, of course, like writing fan-fiction based on existing universes, but ways to combat it whilst not embroiling yourself right back into copyright problems are much, much harder to find.

  3. Catalysis. What are the films that gain the most hits on YouTube in a given day? Well, they’ll either be the ones on the front page, the ones being linked to by MSNBC or BoingBoing, or… the ones that are already popular.

    The hardest part of gaining an audience for most films is getting the initial momentum going. With BloodSpell, we were very lucky to get that thanks to an approving post on BoingBoing. With Fair Game, we got it from WoWInsider.

    A games audience on its own can’t propel a video to success. For that it needs to be both good and, often, well-marketed, either in concept or after release. But what a games audience does do is offer a few hundred or thousand people who WILL watch just about anything semi-competent produced in the engine. A bit of buzz from them and it’ll rise to 10,000 or so - and news sites will start to hear about it. Above 100,000, a film starts to generate its own momentum - people will simply look at the number of views and conclude it must be something special. And above a million, so I understand, the problem is keeping up with your own film as it rolls.

    Getting the catalysing first few hundred viewers, particularly making sure those viewers are likely to be people who will post and talk about your film to others, is much, much harder without a games engine audience to back you up.

    1. So What Can We Do?

Well, I don’t have any real answers. I have a few suggestions, but I’m still feeling this territory out. If you’ve got ideas on how to overcome the PR gap, please do post ‘em in the comments.

  • Consider making game movies : Yes, I know what we’ve all said. There are loads of good reasons to not make game movies. But there’s one very good reason to do so, too - audience-building. A popular game engine movie or movies can build you up as a name, can ensure that fan sites will report on your next movie even if it isn’t in a game engine, and can ensure that you have the catalysing few hundred or thousand hits from fans of your past work.

  • Make series : It’s becoming increasingly obvious that the killer app for the Internet video is the series. Blip.tv and Machinima.com both work on this principle, and they’re both right. Series allow you to build an audience over time. They give you multiple release points. They give you opportunities to come up with new angles to publicise your films - for example, BloodSpell got a boost half-way through from the Leipzig Games Conference controversy. And they let you attract an audience that might start with a single video, but will probably check out the rest of your work too. Again, it’s a familiarity thing - the first time they hear about your series you’re an unknown quantity, but if the same person hears about you again and again, you become known, familiar, and eventually they’ll check your work out.

  • Design movies with an eye on publicity : I know that sounds pretty horrible. But if you’re anything like me, at any given time you’ve got more ideas for movies than you’ve got time to make them. Consider making the one that you can most easily market, if you’re going the non-games engine route. Consider the communities who would be interested in it (and check they actually exist!), consider the news hooks (can you get a famous person involved?), consider, even, if it’s going to have a really striking YouTube thumbnail. All these things matter.

  • Make movies for yourself, not an audience : I got a good telling off from Johnnie, my co-author on this blog, after I ranted about all the problems I was having publicising When We Two Parted. He asked me what I was making the movie for - to make a good movie, or to get large numbers on a counter on YouTube?

Now, that’s actually a difficult question for some films. For my upcoming non-Machinima series Kamikaze Cookery, I am, in all honesty, primarily making it to make money, which means that I need numbers. But for WWTP, I was making it because it was something I wanted to make, an image I had in my head. And I got that image down onto the screen fairly successfully. Which means that WWTP is a success for me, even if only 100 people had ever seen it.

Be clear why you’re making a film. If you’re making it for yourself and art, then it doesn’t matter how many people see it. Although, obviously, more is nicer than less…