November 16, 2005

Machinima Made Easy, Within a Tycoon Sim

by Andrew Stern · , 3:55 pm

This has been a unusually prolific year for computer-based drama; in addition to Fahrenheit / Indigo Prophecy and Fa├žade we have last week’s release of Lionhead’s much-anticipated The Movies. I haven’t played it yet (nor Indigo Prophecy), but the reviews are pretty positive (1 2), and users are already madly uploading thousands of their user-created movies to Lionhead’s community server.

From what I’ve read so far about The Movies, it’s primary gameplay is as a tycoon sim, about running a movie studio. While that gameplay is reportedly decent, the more interesting activity is the game-within-a-game of shooting your own movies — ostensibly as a task for succeeding in the larger tycoon sim game, but more enjoyably just for fun, as a tool of self-expression, the product of which (2-3 minute video files) you can share with your friends on the online community. (In fact you can go to “sandbox” mode and skip the tycoon sim game altogether, to just author little movies.)

How self-expressive can you be? Well, looks like you pick from an extensive pre-built library of cinematic shots and character types, that cover about five cinematic genres — horror, action, love story, sci-fi, etc. From what I can tell from the reviews, you may not have much control over behavior of the characters within a shot, but you can dub whatever dialog you like into these shots (by recording your voice), change lighting, wardrobe and makeup (huge variety), actors’ facial features (and plastic surgery), backdrops (huge variety), camera angles and perhaps focus / depth of field, add titles, subtitles and credits, and edit the timing of the shots in a simplified video editor. And, the system renders the “film” in a variety of styles, from more old-time cinema with lots of scratches and grain to modern.

Very impressive. Looks like they pulled off something great here. Here’s some screenshots, and an excerpt from the Gamespot review:

If you want to get really involved in the fake filmmaking process, The Movies includes an incredible set of in-game moviemaking tools that let you create your own little masterpieces. At its most basic, you’re given a timeline and the frame for a story arc. Anyone familiar with digital video editing will find this to be like a Playskool version of something like FinalCut or Premiere. You fill in your story by dragging and dropping prebuilt shots, of which there are literally dozens to choose from for any one portion of the story arc. Like the rest of the game, the moviemaker can be tuned to give you just the amount of control you’re comfortable with. If you’re happy with just dragging and dropping a few scenes into a timeline and letting that be that, you can operate that way…though the real fun here is getting really crazy with the details, such as lighting, the mood of the performances, the backdrop designs, the types of camera angles used, and so on. You can even add subtitles, sound effects, your own custom musical score, and, if you’ve got a microphone, your own dialog. Given the dozens of different sets you’ll eventually have at your disposal, in addition to the five different genres you can work within and the insane amount of control you can take over virtually every single detail of your movie, there is a great amount of potential here for budding virtual filmmakers.

Unfortunately, you can pour hours into creating your own perfect piece of machinima, and it will have minimal impact inside the game itself, as the game judges the quality of the films rather mechanically, without much capacity to discern between what’s garbage and what’s art. In a way, this is acceptable, since the end product of the movie you’ve made is really the best reward. Plus, the game makes it quite easy to export the movies you’ve made into a common video format that you can share with others. There’s even an integrated tool that makes it easy to upload your movies to the Internet for all to see. Really, with the inclusion of a sandbox mode that lets you skip the “game” part of The Movies almost entirely, it’s pretty apparent that the whole package was designed with two separate, largely unrelated goals in mind. It’s not a deal breaker, but it does mar the illusion that you’re running your movie studio in a living, breathing world.