The Past, Present, and Future of Machinima

Behind the scenes, at SimsFilmFest there is always a lot of debate on how to best market SimsFilmFest. How do we draw more people to it? How do we promote it? What are we not doing to get EA/Maxis to even acknowledge that the festival exists? Everyone has different answers and one staff member is adamant that “people don’t understand machinima”.

What is there to understand? It’s amateur film making using a video game and working within the parameters of the chosen video game. Or modding it until it breaks.  This isn’t rocket surgery.

Machinima (/məˈʃiːnɪmə, -ˈʃɪn-/) is the use of real-time computer graphics engines to create a cinematic production. Most often, video games are used to generate the computer animation. — Wikipedia

A method of making animated film using software similar to that designed for making video and computer games. — Dictionary.com

As long as there are video games there will be amateur filmmakers making machinima. The more important question is, “What is happening to Machinima?” I came across an interesting video that asks the same question. It’s really quite an interesting video. It focuses mostly on Halo as a platform, but that is okay. The musings are still relevant and can be applied to The Sims. (The video is cued to start just over a minute in to skip some hard to hear Halo machinima footage) 

So, is machinima a dying art? Is it an antiquated hobby that has overstayed it’s welcome? The last game that I remember that provided cinematic tools for machinima making was GTA 5 when it was ported over to the PC in 2015. It’s just not something that gaming companies focus on. Despite this, machinimators persist.

I spent some time going through YouTube, filtering for results of the last year, and there is a deal of machinima up there. The Sims, GTA 5, Fallout 4 and now Fallout 76, World of Warcraft, Warhammer, Halo, and oddly, Minecraft serve as the studios for the bulk of it. With YouTube’s search feature not being the best, it’s hard to tell just how much machinima has been made in the last year. There are things listed under the machinima tag that aren’t, things that are mere commentary, and grievances against the machinima.com channel. The actual machinima projects have anywhere from a few hundred views to more than 500k, and in the case of ShoddyCast, more than a million.

I think it’s safe to say that machinima is alive and well and probably isn’t going anywhere any time soon. People are still making it and others are still watching it. It’s safe to say that people know what machinima is and that they understand it just fine. Machinima has its audience, it’s just hard to get new people interested. 

So, what is happening to the machinima landscape? It’s definitely changing. Let’s Play videos and vlogging have taken over the spotlight. It’s harder than ever to find an audience on YouTube. It seems if you aren’t a vlogger, Let’s Play person, as well as someone that spends nearly waking hour promoting themselves you will have a hard time finding your audience, let alone becoming popular in a sense of the word. It’s almost safe to say that gaming companies have given up on machinima as a promotion tool. Many of us miss the use of machinima promotions, like this gem give to us to promote The Sims 3.

They even started a machinima spotlight playlist on YouTube that was quickly abandoned. 

We also can’t forget the music videos that The Sims Team used to give us for The Sims 2 using Simlish versions of many of the songs that were going to be featured in the expansions.

So what happened? Vlogging became popular and so did Let’s Play videos. The Sims Team even uses game play trailers now as part of their promotional items for the expansions. Gone are the fun machinima videos that some of us loved. Only The Sims Team can tell us why they abandoned the machinima promos. It’s not like the music isn’t there to bring back music videos with the likes of All Time Low, Tegan and Sara, and Zedd on the soundtrack. The Sims 4 Soundtrack is even available on Spotify, and yet attention isn’t drawn to the music in the game as it once was.

Many things have been abandoned as the focus has turned to Let’s Play videos. The shift to those type of videos has come about because anyone can do them, they can be streamed live, they can be used to show off game features, and people will turn to them if they get stuck in games. I even know one person who binges on Let’s Play like other people binge on Netflix. The worst part of this is, they call themselves a gamer because they “know about” games even though they have never played a single one. Posers. One gaming company, Nintendo, even views Let”s Play videos as a form of machinima. It’s quite possible that many other gaming companies do the same. 

It also has to be considered that machinima is a performance art that gaming companies don’t approve of or even know how to capitalize on. Machinima has it’s own performance context, integrity, and own artistic expressions beyond the original game assets. The game itself provides own on context and vision. Machinima uses it as a tool to provide an alternative context and vision that both builds on and counters the original game. If a gaming company were to promote, or even acknowledge, a machinima project, it would quickly be assumed that the gaming company agrees with any views presented in the project. This could very well turn out to be counterproductive to the company.

Some gaming companies encourage fan made videos while others would like to ban them all together in order to protect their copyrights. Recognizing machinima as a kind of fan made advertisement undermines maintaining copyrights. Machinima creates muddy waters that gaming companies would rather not tread. Let’s Play videos offer no alternative artistic expression or creates copyright legalities on who owns what and who gets to profit off the machinima. 

Vlogging is slowly replacing written blogs. It seems everyone tunes into popular vloggers to learn about features of the latest games as well as to get their opinions. These game vloggers are slowing replacing those who work as professional video game journalists. It’s almost safe to say that YouTube has become our cultural trend setter. The internet is now defining our lives in both subtle and not so subtle ways and YouTube is at the forefront of that.

As a company, YouTube doesn’t focus on machinima because that isn’t what brings in the advertisers. They are looking for things more mainstream, things that the general population can relate to. They are looking for anything that will quickly go viral, like a cute animal video, or citizen journalists to provide their commentary on trending news topics. They want things that can easily be monetized. After all, YouTube is in the business of making money off the content that people upload. It’s not that people can’t relate to machinima. I just don’t think that those outside of die hard fans think of machinima when it comes to entertainment. Even the Machinima channel is moving away from machinima. When you add The Sims to it, it gets even more complicated because of how The Sims is viewed. It doesn’t matter that millions of people play it, it’s not viewed as a serious video game by gamers. It’s virtual dolls and “a girls game”. I am not sure when that stigma came about, or where it originated, but it does cloud the opinion of the game to outsiders. 

At the end of the day, there will always be machinima because there will always be gamers and amateur film makers. It’s not going anywhere in the near future. It’s hard to say if, and when, it will die out. As long as there are video games there are going to be those compelled to do more with them. People are always going to have stories to tell, and amateur film makers are always going to exist and these things are always going to intersect at some point. This is what birthed machinima and what keeps it going.

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