Damn those guys at Moviestorm. They’re the only software company doing really interesting things with Machinima right now (the Second Life pro-Machinima EULA change nonwithstanding - I’ll be writing about that later - and iClone people, if you have interesting news, please send it to us!), and so we at MfD have to keep writing our big “yes, we’ve both done work for them, Johnnie’s their product manager, but Hugh’s writing this as an independent outsider” disclaimer.
What have they done this time? They’ve earned my eternal respect by being the first Machinima tool developer ever to realise that people might want to make films about people having sex.
(I know SL has plenty of sex. But they’ve never released a “Sex Island” pack. It’s a very brave move for a company to release an official pack supporting sexuality.)
Before I get started, a disclaimer.
THIS ARTICLE WILL EXPLICITLY DISCUSS SEX AND SEXUALITY. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
We don’t usually do R-rated here at MfD, but this is important.
Stories are about sex and death. That’s basically it for humans’ interest in narrative.
Violence is easy. We’ve had it in Machinima since Diary of a Camper. Indeed, one of the advantages of Machinima that I and others have touted is that it makes it easy to make films with spectacular violence in them, very cheaply.
Sex, not so much. We’ve spoken on MfD before about the wierd “porn gap” in Machinima - until recently, there was very little porn being produced in the medium at all. And Machinima films rarely feature sexuality in any way - romance, sure, but sex, desire, bodies, flesh, hardly ever. Why? Well, partially because it’s not really a strength of the medium, partially because there’s long been a feeling that if you want to make porn, you’re better making it in real life, and partially because there weren’t graphical assets to support it. After all, given the trouble Mass Effect got into for a very short, non-explicit sex scene, which major games company wants to go there?
Enter Moviestorm, and their new After Dark pack, which includes nude skins with morphable breasts and genitals, and explicit oral and other penetrative sex animations. We’ve never seen something this explicit outside dedicated sex simulators (link VERY NSFW) or user-generated Second Life content.
I tracked CEO Jeff Zie down to ask him about the basis behind this rather ballsy (sorry) move. He’s pretty clear about his intentions with this pack - “After Dark is a toe in the water to see how a (currently) small user-base responds. From a content perspective, it broadens any film-maker’s range, and it’s entirely optional. I don’t expect everyone to be putting sex and nudity into their content. But maybe some will. Let’s see, before we’re massively mainstream.”
I know that there was a certain amount of trepidation at Moviestorm about the user reactions to the pack - however, from a read of the major thread on the forums about the pack, the reaction has actually mostly been positive. The two major objections that have been raised that the development time could have been used to improve modding tools for Moviestorm, and that the actual animations in the pack were rather porn-focussed, rather than romantic, and more focussed on male pleasure.
“But you could have supported modders”
The argument about development time is a little simplistic. From talking to Jeff, the major hurdles to enabling more user-generated content in Moviestorm are legal rather than technological: “Enabling this stuff’s the easy bit. The hard bit is quality control, technical integrity - and most importantly - IP ownership.” He’s concerned that UGC directly sold through Moviestorm - which is obviously the only way it’ll generate the company revenue directly - might open Moviestorm up to legal liability, and so is seeking legal clarification on those points. As he says, obviously that’s not something that Moviestorm’s artists and programmers can help with.
He also mentions that the other significant barrier to enabling more user-generated content would be quality control and testing. “I want to be able to give both customers and commercial partners a great experience. That’s part of the DNA of a world-class brand and service. I think Moviestorm needs to be able to have that ability.” Jeff’s argument is that, whilst big brands like Unreal and the Source engine are able to enable very free-and-easy modding, for Moviestorm user-created content is much closer to the core of the brand, and bad content might negatively affect MS’s reputation. Games make their money from games sales, and modding is “ for a tiny minority of their customer-base.”
My initial reaction to this approach was distinctly skeptical. On the one hand, with the recession biting, Moviestorm clearly needs to concentrate hard on revenue generation, and the only way to do that with user-generated content is to sell it through a marketplace and take a slice of the revenue. At that point, of course, quality and legal issues come into play.
On the other hand, having access to MS skeletons and being able to create a full range of new content would significantly increase the value of Moviestorm as a filmmaking tool, and would probably spark a much wider range of free content. Before the change to a non-free model, there were obvious problems with that approach, namely that Moviestorm would be enabling their own competition. However, now, as many people have said, its hard to see why giving Moviestorm modders more tools wouldn’t be a good longer-term call, assuming that there weren’t significant technical problems with doing so. Whilst Jeff makes reference to IP problems, the model of many, many games engines seems to imply that would almost certainly not apply to modding outside MS’s control.
So are there technical issues? I talked to Chris Ollis, lead artist at Moviestorm, and he referenced a couple of problems with releasing more modding tools, including the increased support overhead. That’s a real concern - no matter how much MS says “these tools aren’t officially supported”, additional support requests will still happen. (That’s something else we can learn from the games companies’ example). According to Chris and Johnnie, there are also some significant hurdles beyond just packaging up the 3DS Max assets used for Moviestorm - Johnnie says “There’s a LOT of stuff to be done to get the skeletons into a format that will be of any use at all outside this building.”, whilst Chris referenced a lot of specific details that need to be right for assets to work in MS, like specific poses, custom bones with very specific purposes, skin weightings, and other things that would all have to be documented - a non-zero cost. I’ve done enough work with games company assets to know that the skeleton would probably require a 20,000 word document accompanying it, and would still generate a large number of support requests. That’s probably enough work that it’s hard, given that Moviestorm is definitely in search of profitability at this point, to justify spending business hours on it at the moment.
In short, then, it looks like modding tools aren’t being held up for screwing animations, so much as they’re being held up for lack of a viable business case. That’s disappointing for modders, but fairly reasonable for Moviestorm.
Where are the lesbians?
The pack includes doggy-style sex animations, blowjob animations, and sex on a table. The choice of animations has come in for a bit of stick on the forums, notably from Kate Fosk, who said “I think this pack suffers more than most from the lack of a female viewpoint, there’s an icky feel to it which doesn’t fit with the rest of the product.”
From a personal standpoint, the animations available aren’t the ones I’d chose for a pack like this either. I’m surprised by the lack of woman-on-top, about the only sex position which is really usable across the range from comparatively mainstream Hollywood movies to hardcore porn. My inner feminist was also a bit disappointed by the lack of oral sex for woman as well as men.
Apparently the content of the pack was largely chosen in group meetings, with the final say going to Chris Ollis, Head of Art at Moviestorm. Given this was a test pack, there wasn’t a lot of art time available for the assets, and so they were apparently chosen for a wide variety of considerations including taste, similar animations elsewhere, and practical speed of animation. Chris says that the animations deliberately don’t include accurate penetration, “ to avoid people filming overly graphic close-ups.”. There was no missionary sex because “we allude to that in the bedroom pack so it would have been wasting time/repetition” or kissing and cuddling because “it was a test sex pack, not an intmate romance one”. Woman on top apparently missed the cut by a whisker, and would have been the next animation created. As to the animations that did make it in, Johnnie says “What eventually was released was influenced by how practically easy the animation was to implement” - it’s notable that doggy-style and male oral involve very little body interaction. The deciding factor appears to have been that all the animations are also usable for M/M sex - whilst I applaud that, I’m not entirely sure how much use it will get outside comedy from Moviestorm users, but we shall see. It’s a brave move to offer M/M gay sex rather than F/F, anyway.
The aim of the pack appears to be rather specific: Jeff, Chris and the After Dark page all agree that the intention is to allow filmmakers to create very edgy, sexually-explicit films that are nonetheless within the mainstream, a la Straw Dogs, Romance, or Brokeback Mountain. (That fits with the decision to allow M/M rather than F/F sex). It’s an interesting angle, although I’m rather concerned that it falls between two fences - there’s not enough detail or popular poses for outright porn, but the sex is rather more raw than one might expect in a more mainstream narrative.
On the other hand, whilst porn might be a very profitable market, it would require a lot of very specific marketing to enter. And many filmmakers tend to like “edgy” and “real” - we’ll see if Moviestorm guessed right on their users’ likely preferences for sex animations. (And indeed if any Moviestorm creators will be brave enough to include non-comedy sex scenes - it’s a notoriously hard thing for a storyteller to do).
In either case, it would be possible to argue that the Moviestorm team should have thought more, perhaps researched more, produced more animations. But the overall business philosophy that allowed the pack to be created at all mandates against that - this is a high-risk project, and only a company driven by a try-lots-of-things-fast-and-see-what-the-users-like philosophy would have even attempted it. If MS had been inclined to put more detail and more money into the pack, it probably wouldn’t have happened at all.
I’ll be interested to see if it pays off, and if not, if MS tries another sex pack with a different angle.
Is it good for Machinima?
If you were expecting a balanced, non-commital viewpoint here, you may be reading the wrong journalist. Yes, of course it is. This is a sensational move to push the boundaries of Machinima far beyond where they were a few weeks ago. It allows Machinima creators to make films that are more mature, more real, and with more balls. Sure, you might have hated Baise Moi, but the fact it could be created and shown meant that we could see cinema was a mature artform, not one afraid of real bodies, real sex, real life.
Do we want to emulate independent film, or do we want to emulate comic books under the ‘50s Comics Code? If you want the former, I can’t see how having a sex pack - even a less than ideal sex pack - available for use can be considered anything less than a huge win.