Red vs. Blue - MachinimaLet’s start with a flashback. For me it was 2003 and after a grueling 4-hour multiplayer session of Halo on XBox, my friend Danny decided to call an intermission and pull up the latest episode of a online-only series from a couple of guys in Austin, TX. It was Red vs. Blue (see episode 1 below), not only one of the first web series that would hook me, but an introduction into the world of machinima. It was an enlightenment for me—an entire story ‘shot’ within an off-the-shelf copy of a video game (Halo). And for the few million that would end up watching it, Red vs. Blue would become an essential step in machinima’s popularization as a viable entertainment medium.

Burnie Burns and his Rooster Teeth crew weren’t the first to shoot their stories inside video games. A few years earlier, Hugh Hancock had launched machinima.com, and with it coining a term for the new medium, a misspelled contraction of machine + cinema (machinema). The site would serve as a home to this experimental new craft, and attracted the occasional bits of mainstream attention like ILL Chan’s machinima film Hardly Workin’ that took home ‘Best in SHO’ award at Showtime Network’s 2001 Alternative Media Festival. And taking it back even further, 1996’s Diary of a Camper, which used the popular FPS game Quake, is often credited as the first machinima film with a narrative story. It would spawn a whole movement of creating these so-called Quake movies that served as the precursor to machinima series.

(For a much deeper dive into the history of machinima, there are two books worth checking out from two of the early godfathers of the medium: Paul Marino’s 3D Game-Based Filmmaking: The Art of Machinima, and Hugh Hancock’s Machinima For Dummies)

Flash forward to today. By now it’s no secret that the market for video games exploded over the past decade, and analysts say the industry is on track to hit $70 billion by 2015. So with the early pioneers honing the craft of telling stories with these ever-improving game engines, the proliferation of machinima content was all but given.

Even Comedy Central’s South Park created an entire machinima episode—and win an Emmy for it—with its World of Warcraft set “Make Love, Not Warcraft.”

A Business Model Emerges

machinima logoBy 2008, investors were ready to back a business model built around machinima, as Allen DeBevoise acquired the Machinima.com site from Hancock and raised $3.85 million (plus another $1.7 million) for this new LA-based Machinima.com entertainment network.

The network began as a hybrid of user generated clips from game play, along with in-house web series that would cover the news of video gaming, as well as a number of more polished narrative machinima series. YouTube was central to its strategy, as much of its core 18-34 male demographic was by that point well ensconced on that site. Machinima.com’s primary YouTube channel saw surging growth, eventually reaching over 1.2 million subscribers and over 1.3 billion views. It’s flagship channel is now the #6 most subscribed of all time on YouTube. It became so popular, the company decided to break off into separate more focused channels on YouTube: Machinima Respawn (for user gameplay), Machinima Sports (sports gaming) and Machinima Trailer Vault (trailers for upcoming video game releases).

Breaking it down: the Machinima.com Audience

Through the network’s portfolio:

  • 157 Million Video Views*
  • 31 Million Unique Visitors *
  • 88% Male
  • 40% 18-34
  • (* Stats for July 2010)

Naturally, YouTube is still one of Machinima.com’s primary sources of revenue, sharing the pre-roll and display ad dollars with Google. But increasingly the game publishers themselves are turning directly to the company to reach that core gamer-heavy audience and build buzz for their upcoming titles. In some cases that means commissioning what are in effect machinima version of branded entertainment with prequel web series like the Terminator Salvation and the more recent Dragon Age: Warden’s Quest (below), which tapped independent writer-director Andrew Will along with Jason Choi.

I asked Machinima.com CEO Allen DeBevoise whether he plans an increase in these type of partnership series between the game publishers and the network. “Yes,” he said. “We are seeing significant focus on this as it generates significant community involvement at a time when many games are moving to a more episodic model via DLC, etc.”

The company also runs a Director’s Program, which aims to develop and cultivate talented creators to create projects using machinima tools. The program has two divisions: Narrative Driven and Gameplay/Commentary/Tips. The narrative side is the more classic storytelling series that have shaped the medium, and Machinima.com’s Director of Programming Jeremey Azevedo gives guidance to emerging creators helping with production, editing and audience cultivation. Eddie Smithson’s Ultrahouse, which uses in the Half Life 2 game engine, is an example of a web series out of this program.

Creating the MTV of Gaming

Fresh from raising another $9 million in funding this summer, Machinima.com is setting it sights beyond conquering YouTube. DeBevoise is setting a course for true multiplatform domination, extending the network’s brand into TV and film. Case in point, the company teamed up with TV production studio Reveille this spring to create an entirely machinima-based TV pilot, Heel for FOX. The project is being written by Simpsons writer Chris Cluess as part of a broader development deal announced last year with 15 veteran TV writers working on machinima projects for the company.

Where is the network five years from today? “Machinima will be a global mulitplatform programming brand whose central focus continues to be on high-end interactive entertainment,” DeBovoise said. In the shorter term however, he says the company plans to reach profitability sometime next year in 2011.

In Los Angeles this week? Come meet the team from Machinima.com as we go for a deep dive into the tools, talent and technology that is fueling this boom in machinima content. Hint: They are looking for talented web series creators willing to take the leap into the game engines. RSVP for the August edition of the Tubefilter Web TV Meetup with Machinima.com. There are still a few tickets left!

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