Year in Review: Trends for 2009

Another year, another Machinima review of the year.

In many ways, 2008 has sucked. Badly. But rather than focus on the bad, I’m going to pick up a couple of interesting trends within the world of Machinima.

  1. Machinima - a silent medium?

2008 has really been the year where Machinima stopped doing dialogue. Of the top films of the year, more than ever before have been wordless or voice-over only (The Demise, The Dumb Man, Spinning Plates, and numerous music videos), and of the remainder, we’ve seen a couple of monologues (Apology and Jill’s Song, which is effectively a monologue), and only a very few films that feature actual dialogue (Clear Skies, The Monad).

There’s an obvious reason for this trend, of course: several of the top Machinima engines right now can’t produce anything resembling effective facial animation. Neither WoW nor Second Life are really capable of any kind of even simple lipsynch at this point. (Snacky’s Journal 4, which was a dialogue-heavy piece in WoW, suffered from the lack of useful talking animations.) As a result, filmmakers in both are tending toward silent movies.

By the same token, it’s very noticable that the only engine out there that’s currently capable of really great facial expression, Source (AKA Half-Life 2) is also the engine hosting the vast majority of dialogue-based films. Lit Fuze, in particular, have continued to produce great facial animation this year. (I am rather surprised at the lack of work in any other Source-based game - any ideas, anyone?)

At the same time, we’re seeing more and more single-person productions, which may be another reason for the preponderance of voiceover, silence or monologue. It has always been an odd disconnect in Machinima that, at least for a short production, it’s possible to create everything by yourself without talking to another human being - except dialogue. I think we’re seeing a natural routing around that disconnect by individual creators at the moment.

With both GTA4 and 2009’s Big Game, The Sims 3, likely having no lipsynch or dialogue capabilities, I’d expect another dialogue-free year next year.

(Postscript on this one- I’ve seen a GTA4 film with lipsynch now - uglyish lipsynch, but it’s there. Anyone know if this was a hack, or if we’re likely to see more?)

  1. Short-Form Wins

There have been no publically available feature-length Machinima pieces in 2008, marking the first year where that has been the case for a few years. The longest 2008 work that I’m aware of has been “Clear Skies”, weighing in about 40 minutes.

Why? Well, it might just be a coincidence. But it might also be the case that filmmakers in general are adapting to this new medium, and all the evidence suggests that shorter films are more popular, as likely to gain a response, and, of course, far less work to produce. The dialogue problem above weighs in here, too - it’s fairly easy to hold attention to a silent film or one with VO for two or three minutes, but it’s close to impossible to do it for 90 minutes. And, of course, one of the greatest long-form Machinima pioneers, Peter Rasmussen, tragically died this year.

I’ve heard nothing about Machinima feature-length pieces in production for 2009, either (at least, not that I’m free to disclose), aside from a few high-budget commercial projects, so the drought of indie Machinima features may go on for a while yet.

  1. Engine Licenses - a Damp Squib?

There was a lot of excitement in the first half of the year about Microsoft and Blizzard’s coming out with official Machinima licenses. We expected to see more announcements, perhaps more games companies following suit, and more dialogue with the Machinima community. None of that has happened.

The Microsoft license is still a great thing, genuinely extending Machinima creators’ rights in a useful way - notably, allowing us to enter film festivals free and clear. The Blizzard license, which is self-contradictory in places and still distinctly control-freaky (filmmakers have to apply individually to enter any film festival, for example), is less useful.

But we’ve not seen any advance or change, and the effect of the licenses, apart perhaps from within the Halo 3 community, has been minimal. Certainly, the WoW community has just kept right on doing what it was doing anyway, with no noticable change apart from the occasional dig at Blizzard’s rather draconian content standards. And we’ve not seen any advance to license content from, say, EA, Activision, or Valve.

Will EA step up next with the launch of The Sims 3? Will someone finally be brave enough to offer a commercial license in some form? Who knows?

  1. Soundbites

  • You can’t keep up. I said a few years ago that the Machinima community was going to split into a bunch of seperate communities, and that has finally really happened this year. There’s so much content being produced that it’s impossible to keep up with it all, and the communities are seperate enough that it can take weeks or months for celebrated Machinima in one community to make it to another. WoW Machinima creators are almost completely ignorant of Moviestorm work, I’ve got no idea what’s happening in the world of Halo 3, Sims 2 or The Movies, Second Life Machinima creators and Halo 3 filmmakers don’t talk at all.

  • Machinima = Games? The eternal “is Machinima filmmaking with games” argument shows no sign of abating. Notably, “The Craft Of War: Blind” has recently attracted a lot of attention as a great Machinima piece, despite being entirely conventionally animated, just using game models from World of Warcraft.’s games focus (which is, by the way, very sensible from a business standpoint) and the movement from non-game Machinima tools to avoid the use of the term “Machinima” is contributing to this trend. When mocapped Machinima becomes more common and the line between Machinima and performance capture starts to blur, expect the “Machinima = games filmmaking” definition to gain strength.

  • Next Year’s Engine. 2009 is shaping up to be the Year of the Real-Time Strategy game on PCs. Whilst engines like the Total War engine can produce fantastic Machinima, we’ve seen very little of it ever created, and there’s no reason to expect that trend to change. Thus, I’d expect 2009 to be dominated by the existing contenders, plus GTA4 (although I remain dubious about its larger-scale Machinima capabilities unless heavily modded) and of course The Sims 3. The latter will be the 300-lb gorilla of Machinima next year, in all likelihood: I’d expect the existing Sims moviemaking community to produce much the same as their classic work in the new engine. Again, of course, probably no lipsynching. Music videos ahoy! (Postscript - obviously, this all changes if GTA4 Machinima gains facial animation capabilities, particularly if GTA4 faces can look good.)