Machinima in 2009 - review

And so, it’s that time again - time for a round-up of the last year in Machinima.

  1. It’s quiet in here…

It’s been a very quiet year, overall. We’ve seen a few notable additions to the Machinima world (Pixel Eyes Productions), but overall, as far as I know there have been less films that broke out of their Machinima area this year than any year previously.

Why? I don’t have any answers on that one, just a few suggestions.

  • The Machinima communities have now entirely separated. The world of WoW Machinima and Moviestorm Machinima cross over only insomuch as there are a few Moviestormers who play WoW. No-one’s watching Halo movies except Halo players. The Second Life/Anymation/Moviestorm communities are still crossing over, but that’s about it. That makes the likelihood of finding out about really good stuff from any community you’re not involved in much smaller. For example, I only found Warrior’s Dream, probably my pick of the year, when I was specifically looking for 2009 Machinima.

  • That there’s a glass ceiling in Machinima is now well-understood. I don’t have any hard evidence that’s having a chilling effect on game-based Machinima, but it seems a plausible theory. A budding filmmaker can, with a little Googling, discover that if he makes a film in the Source Engine, for example, he’s effectively giving up any chance not just of money, but also of TV or other widespread distribution outside YouTube. That reduces what used to be a significant intake into Machinima - that of the frustrated professional. (Obviously, Second Life and Moviestorm don’t have that problem, but they’re also not as well-known as World of Warcraft or Half-Life 2).

  • It’s been a very slow year for new technology, and new tech drives Machinima. World of Warcraft Model Viewer is limping along, sadly. Second Life hasn’t had many graphics improvements I’m aware of. The only new Machinima tool that appeared (MachinimaDev) seems to have stalled. IClone 4 arrived this year, I believe, but still doesn’t seem to have much of a hold on the Machinima world. Only Moviestorm and OpenSim saw significant technical developments.

  • There aren’t many sources of recommendations out there, either - at least not that one can reliably expect to recommend really good work. WoW.com has Moviewatch, but the frequency of posting there means that the quality can be variable. The Movies Underground is starting to gain traction, but is still finding its feet. Machiniplex is good, but pretty infrequent. There hasn’t been a physical-world Machinima festival this year. I’ve not checked Machinima.com’s recommendations in a while, I must admit. Maybe there is good work out there, but we’re missing it.

Will 2010 see a speed-up in Machinima production? Perhaps. But if it does, it’ll largely be because of…

  1. The Year Of Moviestorm

If we hadn’t had Moviestorm, it would have been a near-silent year, not just a quiet one. Moviestorm’s supplied several of the best movies of the year, including one of my personal favourites, Clockwork. It’s had a steady stream of technical improvements, it’s grown exponentially, and it’s moved from borderline-credible as a tool to very capable indeed.

Of course, it’s also supplied a few controversies, most notably the move to a subscription model. Apparently most of the noise from that has died down by now, and I’ve heard informally that Moviestorm will be addressing both lifetime subscriptions and an End-Of-Life (or “What happens if you go bust?”) policy.

Next year will be the really interesting year for Moviestorm. I have a sense, as I’ve mentioned before, that this is the make-or-break year for Moviestorm. There’s a reason they’ve been the source of all the interesting news this year, and that’s that they’re the only seriously funded company (20 or so employees) who are solely focussed on Machinima. Sooner or later, they’ve got to start making that money back, and from the move to subscriptions, my feeling is this is the year. Will they manage to turn the promise of this year into them becoming the next Photoshop, the first easy and powerful 3D moviemaking tool? I think they’ve got a hard fight, but it ain’t impossible.

  1. Games Companies to Machinima creators: “Bugger off.”

Valve doesn’t want anything to do with legitimising Source Machinima. We’ve not been able to find a single person who’s had film festival permission from Blizzard Entertainment (although you might not need to). Even producers of tremedously successful Machinima, like Clint Hackleman, haven’t been able to strike a deal with the games companies.

With the recent news about Valve, it seems that 2009 has put the nail in the coffin of a breakout hit ever launching a commercial Machinima career using game engines. Maybe a future game engine creator will have a more optimistic attitude (and it’s worth noting, again, that Microsoft are very interested in discussing commercial Machinima production), but right now it seems the big names - Blizzard, Valve, EA - are, pretty definitively, not interested.

What effect will that have on Machinima production? I’m not entirely sure, but it seems like a real pity. I’ve ranted about the glass ceiling in Machinima before, and it’s still very frustrating - there are so many great films that could be made in these engines, but with the controlling attitude currently in place, I can’t see them happening.

(As a side note - it might seem like a funny time for me to be working on a very high production value WoW short. There are reasons for that…)

  1. No New Engines

In 2007, the big engines of note were World of Warcraft, the Source engine, Halo, Second Life and Moviestorm. In 2008, the big engines were World of Warcraft, the Source engine, Halo, Second Life and Moviestorm. And in 2009? WoW, Source, Halo, SL, Moviestorm. For a fast-moving technology-based medium, we ain’t doing much fast moving.

For several years now there has been a notable lack of Machinima being created in new engines, despite a fair number of promising options arriving. Medieval Total War 2 never got any traction, nor did Empire Total War. Uncharted 2’s Machinima mode doesn’t seem to have produced much at all. I’m not hearing anything about Conan Machinima, Lord of the Rings Online Machinima, Aion Machinima.

Why? Well, for starters, even engines that try to be Machinima-friendly seem to have an appalling tendancy toward making really bone-dumb decisions. Take GTA4, with its movie editor, but no way to lipsynch characters. Or Playstation Home’s Machinima mode, which looks awesome, if only there was some way to record the video it produces and make, you know, a film out of it.

Added to that, Machinima communities are more and more centering themselves around their tool of choice. The World of Warcraft Machinima community isn’t, by and large, interested in making films so much as it is interested in making WoW films. Most Machinima creators just aren’t looking for a new tool.

And the old-time Machinima creators have become jaded by years of promising-but-flawed games, not to those of us with the experience to get into a new engine and make films in it are by and large now reluctant to touch a commercial game engine without really good reason, because of the legal issues.

One possibility for a new Machinima engine in 2010 seems to be Dragon Age. It’s developed and supported by a team including a bunch of very experienced ex-community Machinima creators. (Michelle Petit-Mee, for example, Leo Lucian-Bay, Paul Marino and Ken Thain, to name but a few). Initial tests show that Bioware are interested in supporting Machinima creators actively, and tests seem to reveal that the toolset actually has sensible, well-thought-out tools for film creation. The only downside will be that, owned as they are by EA, we really shouldn’t expect commercial possibilities. But of all the games of 2010, Dragon Age looks to be the one that might take off in Machinima.

The other quiet contender for Machinima creation is OpenSim, the open-source Second Life clone. Currently it’s in the very early development stages, but the world that Pineapple Pictures have been doing with it looks very promising indeed. The idea of a truly Open-Source Machinima creation toolkit has been floating around for years, and whilst it’s not as developed as Dragon Age (and realistically I wouldn’t expect to see any really impressive work in it until 2011), it IS commercially usable. it’s the other engine to keep an eye on.

  1. Mocap on the Horizon

And the other big elephant of Machinima ain’t exactly in the room yet, but you can certainly hear its feet pounding closer if you listen closely. Mocap is coming to the home, and it’ll be sooner rather than later. Microsoft have announced Project Natal, which allegedly includes full-body motioncapture for the X-Box. The PS3 is getting mocap controls too. IPISoft now offer a motion capture program for a few hundred dollars. And the first Machinima production company - mine, Strange Company - has just invested in the higher-end but still low-priced NaturalPoint mocap tech.

Will we see a low-budget Avataralike from the Machinima community in 2010? Well, if we don’t I’ll be very, very frustrated this time next year, since we’re in pre-production already, and it’s only a short, dammit. But I don’t think we’ll see much of a rush on the tech for a while - maybe more than one homegrown Mocap flick next year, but realistically, I see Mocap becoming important to Machinima in 2012-2014.

Why that long? Well, Natal won’t turn up before the summer at the earliest. The first version will utterly suck. IPISoft’s software currently doesn’t, from the tests I’ve seen, produce usable results, but by the end of 2010, if they survive, they’ll be getting there. There will be announcements of more low-cost mocap in 2010, but no actual releases.

In 2011 I’d expect us to see the first usable prosumer-level mocap, but probably near the end of the year. Maybe it’ll be an update of Natal, maybe it’ll be the rumoured games mocap device from Animazoo. But by 2012, Machinima creators will be able to afford mocap that works.

Then we’ve got the fabled Machinima lag. Over the last 10 years, we’ve seen that it takes new technology an average of one to two years to be incorporated into Machinima production on a wide scale. This is the first year we’ve seen lots of Moviestorm production, for example. It was two years before Half-Life 2 saw lots of Machinima. It takes that long to work the bugs out, for people to become aware of the tech, and for the production process to grind its way through.

Given all that - look for Machinima mocap in 2012-2014.

Of course, 2010 will, if all goes well, also usher in another new era of Machinima - the era of arguing about whether performance capture is Machinima. I look forward to it…

How was 2009 for you? What trends did you see in Machinima?