Video-game playing has become a mainstream activity, but gamer culture isn't quite opening up at the same pace.
At the center of that culture is machinima, a fast-growing filmmaking method that's more than a decade old but still unknown to most non-gamers. A blend of the words "machine" and "animation," it describes animated work done by recording movements within a video game such as Halo, Grand Theft Auto IV or Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.
The vast majority of machinima is by and for hard-core gamers, with stories that fit into existing game narratives or inside jokes for experienced players. The most-watched content from market leader Machinima.com, which generated 157 million videos in July on its YouTube channel, includes a comedy series called "Arby 'n' the Chief," in which two Halo action figures play video games together, and montages of outrageous moments and glitches from popular games.
"Most machinima is created inside the gaming community, where you have to be part of it to get it," said Jordan Mathewson, a prolific machinima director. "Then there's the type that uses it as a form to convey a story anyone could appreciate."
L.A.-based Machinima.com, which started as a community for users to share content and has grown into a small media company, has successfully positioned itself at the center of the space. The firm, which has raised more than $14 million in venture capital, is the only major distributor of machinima videos online, boasting the No. 2 most viewed channel on YouTube.
But the vast majority of its audience is still the niche group of young, male hard-core gamers. The challenge it faces now is whether the work it features can ever appeal to a broader audience.
About 30 of Machinima.com's most promising directors have started giving it a try this year through the site's "directors program," which aims to give filmmakers the resources and support they need to reach outside the gamer comfort zone. The company, among other things, pairs talent, promotes their work and answers questions for them in a private Facebook group.
Rich Boylan, who uses the name "Eddie Smithson" in his machinima work, admits that his first few videos didn't exactly push any boundaries. His debut series, called "Follow Freedom," simply retold parts of the game Half-Life 2 from a supporting character's perspective. "It had every action cliché I could think of," he said.
This year Machinima.com paired Boylan, a Canada-based film school graduate, with a writer in Los Angeles to help him develop an idea he had started on his own called "Ultrahouse." A broad comedy that relies on a mix of immature humor, awkward pauses and science-fiction satire that a "Family Guy" fan might appreciate, "Ultrahouse" is about a team of invading aliens who are shocked to discover that they're no threat to Earthlings — at only 8 inches tall.
"My job was to develop these characters so they could support an arc that lasted an entire 12-episode season," said Nathan Jordan, the writer brought on to "Ultrahouse."
Mathewson, who directs with the nom de plume "Kootra," created his first work under the directors' program entirely on his own. But his science-fiction drama "Reprisal," which premiered earlier this summer, hit a major technical snag that Machinima.com is trying to help him solve.
The tale of a mercenary on the run who's seeking to avenge a dead comrade was produced with technology from the game Mass Effect 2. "Reprisal" features handheld camera effects and sophisticated sound that are far superior to what's in most machinima, an impressive feat given that Mathewson is only 19.
But unlike some other games, Mass Effect 2 doesn't come with tools for machinima makers. Mathewson had to hack into the game and teach himself how to animate in it, a time-consuming task that could make future episodes of "Reprisal" next to impossible. Machinima.com is now hoping to get the game's developer, BioWare, to give him more direct access to its technology.
"I took a lot of influence from the 'Bourne' movies and 'Shooter,'" Mathewson said of his work. "But the way I'm producing it is pretty limiting."
So far shows like "Reprisal" and "Ultrahouse" have garnered between 67,000 and 109,000 views each on YouTube, decent numbers but far behind the millions of clicks for the most popular machinima clips. Nonetheless, Machinima.com is betting that in the long run, higher quality and more diverse audiences will benefit the art form and the brand.
"So many people today from across the mainstream are playing games," said Jeremy Azevedo, director of entertainment programming. "We need to have a programming approach that's a little more mainstream too."