By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, October 14, 2007
For the past few months, New York-based programmer A.J. Loiacono and his buddies have been logging onto the popular online sword-and-sorcery game World of Warcraft a little more often than usual.
But they're not visiting the mythical realm of Azeroth to goof around and fight the game's virtual dragons like the rest of the game's 9 million subscribers. They've got work to do, you see. They're making a movie.
Using a high-end Mac to record the action, Loiacono's buddies log on from their computers and control their game-character avatars to act out scenes from the team's original script, a sci-fi comedy thing about a guy who travels through time to save his people. The film, still in production, is set for an online-only release next spring.
The project, called "MMOvie," is one of the more ambitious projects of an emerging online film trend called "machinima." (The film's title, in case you're wondering, is a slightly nerdy pun on the game genre that Warcraft inhabits.)
Machinima films started out a few years ago as a way for fans to amuse each other by poking fun at the game world, but the form has started to emerge into the mainstream. Last year, there was an episode of the Comedy Central cartoon show "South Park" set largely inside World of Warcraft's fictional realm of Azeroth, for example. More recently, a Toyota Tacoma commercial filmed in a WoW-like world presented the truck as durable enough to slay a dragon.
It's likely that a wave of user-generated game videos will be hitting the Web this holiday season. Game designers have started incorporating video-recording tools in many of the latest titles, with the hopes of fostering communities around their games and boosting fan loyalty. Pull off some outstanding move in Halo 3, for example, and you can now share a recording of that performance with the world with just a few clicks.
Those same tools can also be used to let fans release their inner Spielberg, and those less interested in showing off their battle skills have been busy exercising their creativity to spoof popular TV shows like "Family Guy." Almost all of these clips are just a few minutes long -- and nowhere near the planned two-hour length of Loiacono's "MMOvie."
"MMOvie" started out as both a labor of love and a piece of savvy marketing. Loiacono, a Warcraft fan, was looking to create some viral buzz for his start-up, a social networking site called Voig aimed at bringing video game fans together. He was able to get his friend Nate Taylor, a Warcraft player who makes TV commercials in New York City as his day job, to agree to direct.
After working together for a few nights and weekends this summer, the team launched a promotional trailer for the project, a two-minute segment in which the game's recognizably Warcraft-ian characters quoted and recreated scenes from classic films such as "The Graduate," "When Harry Met Sally," "Fight Club," "Star Wars" and "The Princess Bride."
The video was a hit. The trailer has been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times from Voig ( http://www.voig.com) translated into a few languages and viewed another couple of hundred thousand times at YouTube. Loiacono says Voig is getting 10 times the amount of traffic it got before the trailer was released, or about a million visits per month.
The original plan was to make a few short episodes on the concept, but the response encouraged them to ratchet up their ambitions and turn the project into a two-hour story.
Trying to stick to a script and a shooting schedule in a bustling virtual realm, however, can present challenges even for a film crew that has worked on the streets of New York.
"It's much more like a real film shoot than I ever thought it was going to be," Taylor said. "You don't have as much control as you do when you're filming in the real world."
This being an action-packed game realm, there are a lot of brawls, started both by other players and the game's computer-controlled monsters. There's no real way to rope off an area when they want to film a scene, so Taylor and his team have production assistants on patrol, logged on as powerful characters, whenever they're trying to film.
If a monster comes near, the PA's job is to kill it, if possible. If another Warcraft player is about to stumble onto the set, that PA tries to steer him away, with bribes if necessary. The crew has paid out about 10,000 pieces of virtual gold in bribes so far. (Entrepreneurial Warcraft fans could sell that amount for around $500 in real-world currency.) When a scene calls for extras, the team hires from a pool of WoW players they know and pays a standard rate of $200 (real-world dollars) per day.
Victor Reyes, the film's producer, had never played the game before and didn't know what to make of it at first. The project has had its frustrating moments.
"The crew doesn't usually start running off after their mortal enemy and shooting fireballs when you're filming in Times Square," he said. "It took a while for us to figure out how to make this work."
All around, Loiacono said, the project has turned out to be more work than he anticipated. "For every five minutes of scene you probably have five hours of video capture and five hours of editing," he said.
For all the effort, MMOvie's makers said they don't have any game plan for making any money directly off the project. Blizzard, the company that makes World of Warcraft, has embraced homemade fan videos such as this -- so long as no one's making a profit off the results.
Funny thing is, Taylor said, he's not as much of a Warcraft fan as he used to be, after spending endless hours lining up shots for the film and editing the results.
"It kind of burns you out," said Taylor. "When you're playing the game for work, you don't want to play it for fun anymore. Almost everyone in our crew has stopped playing it for fun."