Machinima -- VR fiction

Technology has reached the point where people can now explore very convincing Virtual Reality (VR) in real-time using ordinary home computers.  This has spawned a new storytelling medium: machinima, also known as VR fiction or virtual storytelling which is part of a wider family called interactive fiction.
You are home in your living room.  You've selected the latest episode of your favorite new show.  Smiling in anticipation, you make yourself comfortable to watch it with the remote control in hand.  You could use a mouse and keyboard, or a joystick, but you prefer the remote because it is easy to use while relaxing in your armchair.  Yesterday you watched this episode, but tonight you want to see it second time because you are curious about one of the characters in the story.  You're going to direct the "camera" to follow this character instead of settling for one of the standard views.  You can look at the scene from any position by pressing the up and down arrows to move the viewpoint forward and back, or the left and right arrows to turn the viewpoint left or right, just as if you were moving a mobile camera around inside the story.  But of course there is no actual camera.  The story is in a virtual world -- a moving, computer-generated, imaginary 3D world projected onto the video screen in your living room -- and you're controlling your viewpoint within it.  Last time you watched this episode you felt lazy and just let one of the director's cameras show you the story.  It was like the old days of vegeing out and watching a movie on video...  except at one point in the story when you moved the "camera" over to a suspicious shape in the shadows.  You have a feeling the writer put the shady character in there as a joke, knowing that many people couldn't resist the lure.  Smiling, you settle back to enjoy yourself for the next 20 minutes.
At the moment machinima is viewed mostly on computer screen, but with the growing convergence of computers and television in the living room the scene above is not futuristic -- it is possible right now.  New computers are now sold with remote controls for armchair viewing and the ability to display on the family TV, and the latest versions of Linux and Microsoft Windows integrate such capabilities.

What is machinima?

There are many kinds of machinima.  They can be broadly characterised by four main attributes.
  1. Presentation form.
  2. Interactivity.
  3. Determinism.
  4. Threads.
All these can be combined in various ways, each a spectrum of possibilities.  A few very different examples might illustrate what I mean:

But machinima can be far, far more than any of those examples.  Of the many possible traits machinima may display two are especially useful: interactivity has been shown to hold people's attention for long periods instead of the few minutes most web pages do, and multi-threaded storylines, encourage viewers to revisit the virtual world many times.

Production advantages

A virtual world need not obey the laws of physics.  In VR you can do things and build structures impossible in the real world, with no physical limits on size.

An efficiently designed virtual world can be a surprisingly tiny file.  An infinite world without a story can easily fit on a floppy disk.  Many hours, perhaps days, of VR fiction could be stored on a CD.

Showing machinima is as simple as putting a web page up on the net.  For those without net access, worlds can be distributed on CD.  Machinima that allows multiple users to meet and interact is a little more complex, but still far easier than distributing film or broadcasting TV.

Machinima has dramatically low production costs, whereas film and TV are terribly expensive.

Actors or animators (or both) can be used to make the characters move.


How to make money from it

Unfortunately money is a fact of life and is required in order to survive in today's unbalanced society. Here is a quick overview of the ways that such a system could raise money.

I have spent many years working on internet-related projects and trying to understand what kind of economic model can fit that unique environment.  I have come to the conclusion that trying to make a living by selling information-based products as commodities based on restricted access or scarcity is doomed to failure.  Duplication is easy, costs little or nothing, and people have a natural desire to share with friends.

Success will be tied to harnessing these aspects, instead of wasting time, money and manpower fighting against them.

Machinima would ideally be made available on the net for free and viewers encouraged to copy it and pass it on to friends.  This brings great benefits in nearly eliminating the costs of distribution, delivering to a world-wide audience cheaply and efficiently.  The audience become the distributors, and pleasure is their payment.

Donation - I think that this is by far the most promising way to earn money via machinima. It requires one to lose the greed-based all users must pay philosophy and adopt a statistical approach of understanding that if enough people like something then a large enough proportion will pay. This technique has been used very successfully with sites like http://livejournal.com. It also has the ethical advantage of providing things freely to those who can't afford to pay. Free users are not a loss to such a system though, as they become very effective promoters of the shows.

There are other more conventional avenues for income too:

Advertisers - Sponsors who want their products advertised in the stories will pay for product exposure, just as they currently do in TV series and movies to have their song played in the background or to have one of the main characters seen to be drinking, wearing, or driving their product.  NOTE: It is imperative that all advertising be ethical.  I am convinced that unethical advertising must bear a lot of the blame for the drastic drop in advertising revenue for the web and hence was one of the major factors in the dot.com crash.  A person only needs to click once on an advertisement that lies or deceives and they will never ever respond to one again.  Trust is one of the most valuable properties.  If lost it is extremely difficult to regain.

TV and film - Even though VR fiction is fundamentally different to film or TV, works of VR fiction can be easily recorded from a single viewpoint and screened on TV.  The dramatically low cost of production would make such shows extremely attractive to TV networks.  But not only would TV networks pay for shows, they would also serve to advertise the new medium.  Even feature-length films could be made this way and filmed to be screened in conventional cinemas.  "Making-of" TV specials would generate both publicity and funds too.

Merchandising - Merchandising is particularly viable if the stories are good enough to rate cult status.  Nowadays real plastic models can be quickly, cheaply, and automatically produced from computer files.  The figurines could be sold in toy outlets, video libraries, and Science Fiction specialty stores, used in promotional giveaways with breakfast cereals, etc.  Other merchandising possibilities are coffee mugs, t-shirts, pens, caps, swap cards, and stickers.

Avatars - With the current popularity of 3D chat and game worlds there is a demand for special avatars.  (Avatars are virtual bodies that people "wear" when visiting virtual worlds.) There could be a cooperative relationship between 3D chat/game worlds and machinima which could boost both.  Note that 3D games currently earn more money than the entire film industry, and I believe machinima has the potential to be bigger than that.

Books and comics - Stories can be extended to paper formats such as comic books, and paperbacks of short stories and novels, and even the series scripts and documentary books on the making of the series.

Workshops and lectures - Workshopping and teaching people how to build for VR and how to write VR fiction would educate the next generation of recruits for the industry and promote it too.  If the sessions were paid then they would also generate income.

Magazine coverdisks - Magazines would be happy to give away copies of machinima on their cover CDs/DVDs.  Later the stories would be sold on CD or USB flash drive at newsagents, bookshops, and computer shops for minimal price as a way to distribute to people who don't have net access.  Care must be taken not to over-price such items as it becomes an obstacle to the spread of the files.

Subscription - The online massive multiplayer game phenomenon has shown how powerful this is.  Targeting only a tiny part of the population (young males) they have quickly grown to become a highly lucrative industry.  Machinima will appeal to a much wider audience (females as well as males, and people of all ages).  I believe it is important to keep barriers as low as possible.  The wider the appeal the more reliable the market.  In uncertain economies it seems likely that relying on 5 million customers coming up with $4 each month is more reliable than 1 million paying $20.

Time line for this project

This project will necessarily begin slowly, but will accelerate as experience, tools, and talented people are gathered.
  1. The development of a new VR language. Since the mid 1990s I have built virtual worlds using many computer languages. Most successful among these has been VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language) however it is not powerful enough to easily create VR fiction. Over the last few years I've have been designing a much more flexible, extensible, VR language and expect to have it implemented during 2006. It is difficult to put a time frame on this as there are many unforseen aspects. It could take as little as a couple of months to do, or it may take a year... or even more. It is impossible to know until it is done. I am hoping to adapt a pre-existing 3d engine to the purpose.

  2. Central to this project is that all tools be released free to the general community. This is very important.

  3. When I have the simple, first version of this language working, I will use it to create a pilot episode upon which to launch a series of VR stories. The script for this is already written. I expect this pilot episode will take about 6 months to complete to my satisfaction if I am working on it alone; perhaps one month if I have the funding to put together a team.

  4. The main part of the project. This will entail the ongoing production of a series of 80 short episodes, one every 2 weeks, over 4 years, and will require a team of writers, artists, musicians, voice talent, and virtual world builders. I have already written the outline for this series, and the roughs for many of the stories. Writing VR fiction is very different from writing for any other format. Much of it involves writing multiple, overlapping stories.

  5. Later, during the second or third year of production, after most of the techniques have become well worked out, work will begin in parallel on a much more ambitious interactive series of stories, where the viewer can alter the outcome.


Finally

Machinima is just starting as a new medium. I fully expect it to overtake all other storytelling media in importance. This will happen whether we, here in Australia, are involved or not. To get an idea of its potential earning power consider this: At the moment computer games earn more money than the film industry despite the fact that computer games appeal almost exclusively to young males -- a fraction of the total population. Machinima, on the other hand, would appeal to all agegroups and both sexes -- all those who currently enjoy films, videos, and TV shows. This is potentially a multi-billion dollar industry. Our talented and creative local writers, artists, musicians, and computer programmers could play a large part in that industry if it is handled correctly. Just on the Sunshine Coast alone it has been estimated that we have around 1,000 writers struggling for an income. Australia can't hope to compete with India or China for manufacturing or unskilled labor, but educated, creative minds are another thing entirely. Australia has for decades consistently "punched above its weight" in intellectual and creative ability. This is the natural resource we need to draw upon to secure our future. We have it in abundance. We just need to capitalise on it. In the early stages this project would employ a small team of about a dozen people, but that should quickly increase with no obvious limit.


Miriam English (2006)