Thursday, April 16, 2009

The NDA has officially lifted. "What I did at EA"

If you read my last blog entry, you know I had just done an interview with simoperations (which is currently in the process of changing forums, so I copied and pasted it here) about what I did as a "machinima artist" out in EA, and I had to clamp down because of the NDA. Imagine my surprise when I saw, the very next day, that GameSpot had put up screenshots of the tool we were working with, and had a very in-depth article about it. I contacted the folks at EA and asked what, exactly, we were allowed to say, since it is pretty much all out there, now, and they told me that the NDA had been "vague" in that area, and that we weren't supposed to talk until the official announcement was made. And the GameSpot article was the "official announcement".

So, looks like we're all free to talk, now. I admit I wish I'd known this information would have been released so soon after I did the simoperations interview; I feel kind of silly with the way I was strictly adhering to the NDA, under the assumption we couldn't talk until the site goes live, or the game comes out, or June, or whatever.

Drumroll, please.

GameSpot's article.

The 5 machima artists worked with a new tool for movie-making on the official Sims 3 site, to create "mash-up" videos. Machinima will be encouraged on the Sims 3 site, the way storytelling was, and still is, in Sims 2.

So, what we did was each create a video with this mash-up tool. Easy? Notsomuch.

I'll be honest: at the time it was EXTREMELY buggy and very frustrating to work with. The camera .ini file was not modified until either late Wednesday, or possibly Thursday, and since that's what gives you control over the camera speed (like all those dramatic slow-moving pan shots), we were having to record clips in real game-time. Hard to film anything "dramatic" at the rate sims really move. Everything looks comical at that speed. And the mash-up tool was either not showing previews, or was freezing, or we couldn't upload our clips to the exchange...

The process was completely different from what we do with Sims 2 videos. We were not using ANY outside editors. The footage is captured in-game, and from there, loaded straight to the Sims 3 exchange, and put in a folder, as is. The clips could not be altered in any way. Like, if a clip was too long, normally in an external editor, you'd cut out the unnecessary parts. Well, you can't do that with these. You can in the mash-up tool, itself (choose a stop time and a start time for each clip) for your actual video, but the clip will remain in the bin in its unaltered state for the rest of the community to use. But, you never know: what's unnecessary for you, when you're filming your own clips for a specific storyline, might be of use to someone else using your clip for their own movie, because they'll be mixing it to fit their own storyline.

If you are wondering what the hell a mash-up tool is (and haven't read the GameSpot article): there was a mashup tool for Sims 2, called SimsOnstage, but it was separate from the official site. (I just tried to find the link, and found it's been closed.) With the Sims 3 mash-up tool, people will be recording clips from their game, submitting them to the exchange, and others can then use those clips to make their own videos. It's really a way to make a video without having to do the actual filming. Someone else did it for you, unless you're using your own stuff, like we did.

The clips can be mixed in any order on a very basic timeline, set to music, which is all simlish music, and also provided on the official site. People who are experienced machinima artists won't be using this to make Sims 3 machinima, because the tool is frustratingly limited. There is only one video track, and one audio track. You can't trim the audio file, or fade in, or use multiple songs. So, syncing with the video can be a tricky thing. As for the video track, there are several different transitions you can use, and effects you can apply. Much like those used in very basic editors like WMM, only even more basic. I'm not sure, but I think they said they would be adding more effects to it by the time it's released. But this is definitely something a kid can use, and that's the point: to make it possible for people of all ages and abilities to make a music video. Plus, I think that being able to make a "mash-up" video will be a talent in and of itself. I'm not underestimating it.

And the story of the "Day I Officially Cracked" (Thursday night of the Camp) for those who heard me laughing hysterically on podcast at WorldSims: the machinima artists were already frustrated by week's end, and in a state of near-panic. We'd been dealing with game glitches, and the mash-up tool was not working properly, the camera .ini file was not modified, yet. TheSidDog got a video done the first day, but he was the only one. The rest of us seemed to constantly have people surrounding our computers, trying to fix another bug, whether in the game or with the mash-up tool, itself.

In fact, by Thursday, the rest of us had yet to even USE the mash-up tool, we were having so many problems getting our shots filmed. I had my sim actors disappear every time I closed down the game. So I spent every restart in CAS, trying to recreate my sim actors, losing precious time, and having to rework a storyline to fit the ever-changing cast. To add to this, we were told that on both Thursday and Friday, we'd be leaving the lab early, to make room for testers for another game.

Eggzie sat to my right, and had been going for a very dramatic shot, all week. One that desperately needed to be slowed down for effect, and he had been grumbling and mumbling to himself for a couple days, trying to get this particular shot done. He finally got it shot on Thursday, and opened up the (I'm laughing as I recall all this) mash-up tool for the first time, late that afternoon. He assembled his clips, hit preview, we all gathered around, and the clip was so fast. After a sudden sputtering of "language", Eggzie pushed his chair back in frustration, and turned around to face the maxoids and whoever from the dev team was there and said something like "All right. Somebody's gotta say it. This mash-up tool sucks!" and I lost it. I started laughing so hard I turned red and had tears streaming down my cheeks. We had all been so frustrated, and Eggzie's words just seemed so damned appropriate. Of course, it was all out of frustration. His video actually turned out VERY well, all things considered.

HAVING SAID THAT, keep in mind that this was a VERY beta version of the tool, and that's what we were there for. To help find the bugs. I am sure the kinks have gotten worked out, now, if EA is allowing GameStop to officially announce the feature.

So, my final take is this, going from my experience months ago: This tool should be fun for those who want to try machinima, but are a little queasy thinking about all the work that goes into the actual filming and editing. Now they can mix pre-made clips however they want, and they can upload videos to the exchange. And they can also make their own clips to upload for others to use, as well.

My disclaimer for when my video goes live on the site... well, if you read all this, you'll understand why I might be a little nervous about people seeing it. If you're expecting something polished, you'll be disappointed. I hit "publish" on mine literally as I was standing up to leave the room for the last time and head downstairs for dinner. That evening, when everyone's creations were shown to the rest of the group, I was so nervous it had even published correctly, at all. I had to walk out before receiving any confirmation.

So, now you have it. That's what I did at EA.

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