Full Steam ahead for Second Life, and that’s a good thing for machinima

A lot of Second Lifers are getting steamed up about Steam, now that Linden Lab has announced it will put a portal to our little backwater enclave of Second Life up on Steam, home of 40 million gamers. D-day apears to be September 5, at least that’s what Valve, the technology company creator of Steam, says here. This has a lot of SL residents worrying we will be overrun with griefers, gun-toting hulks, and general mayhem once the “Portal” opens.

One of the more thoughtful posts along these lines comes from Darrius Gothy here who predicts that the rush of gamers into SL will erode our world into a “poor reproduction of a well-crafted 3D online game” and move SL toward game play and further away from the “My World, My Imagination” ethos. The more alarmist posts like these from Prokofy Neva here and Crap Mariner here predict griefers, mayhem, and even a shooting rampage down the Destination Guide yellow-brick road (that’s from Crap, who else?)

Well, after reading all this exciting doomsday stuff, I had to head over to Steam to check it out. What is missing from these analyses, I think, is the fact that not only will Steamers be joining us, we’ll be joining them – if we want. We will have a new playground with amazing technology, distribution structure, mentoring, and 40 million new friends to play with. 40 million! Steam is just as much – in fact millions of times more – of a community as SL is. The complexity, brilliance, and technical skill of the Steam community is dazzling.

What’s a Pansy Hopper like Bay Sweetwater doing on Steam?

Now don’t get me wrong – anyone who has watched my machinima, like Twinkle’s Journey and Pieces of My Heart, knows I’m not exactly the shoot ’em-up, mow-’em-down stereotypic gamer. In fact, when I first began talking about Valve’s new Source Filmmaker software a couple months back, one Second Lifer who shall remain nameless asked what a “pansy hopper” like Bay Sweetwater was doing on Steam. I never could figure out what a “pansy hopper” was, though I loved the name and will definitely use it for a character in a machinima someday. Even after thumbing through my urban dictionary I still don’t know what it is, but it didn’t sound complimentary.

And his point is well taken. SL machinima, especially the gentle, story-rich genre I’m experimenting with, doesn’t at first glance seem to mix with Steam’s shooter/zombie/rogue robot stuff. As Miguael Liamano/Tarnix points out in a comment to a post by Inara Pey here, “Second Life is all but a game. It is a sandbox, and there’s people not familiar with the (sadly) harsh and insulting atmosphere of the gaming world.” Perhaps he has a rightful concern: “I think that it is WAY too soon for Linden Lab to open our doors to the mass machine of cheating and hacking industry that gaming is.”

I put on my bullet-proof vest and went over to Steam

So I put on my bullet-proof vest and went over to Steam. And here’s why: Steam may be full of cheating, insults, and hacking, I don’t know. I guess I’ll find out. But I am a machinimist. And what makes me incredibly excited about  a partnership with Steam is graphics like we’ve never seen, animation, sound, humor, and stories! When was the last time you saw a real story in a Second Life machinima? I mean a real one, one you can’t forget, one that grabs your heart? I know there are some, but they are far and few between.

The guys over at Valve are storytellers. Professional ones, at the top of their game (bad pun, I know). They’ve got 70% of the video game download market, and Portal 2 got more awards than you or I can dream about. And what awards, things I’d love to get awards for: Best New Character, Best Voice Acting, Best Ending. And let’s not forget one of the best songs ever came from the original Portal, Still Alive, by Jonathan Coulton.

Real-world physics, shader-based rendering … and other barely understandable things

But what really drove me over to Steam was Source Filmmaker. This is the movie-making tool built and used by the software and technology company Valve (the mother company of Steam) to make movies inside the Source game engine, which is used in Valve’s top games. This engine, in Valve’s own words, combines “leading-edge character animation, advanced AI, real-world physics, shader-based rendering, and a highly extensible development environment.” When was the last time you saw that in a Second Life machinima?

SFM is now out of beta and available for download here, where you can also read up on it in the blog. Watch the amazing SFM demo here. Any machinimist who watches this video is bound to get excited at the possibilities. Important Note: Please understand upfront that (1) you have to download Steam as well as SFM, and (2) you must have serious computer power and Internet bandwith to play with this thing.

In the words of Valve’s engineer Bay Raitt, SFM “allows storytellers to work in a what-you-see-is-what-you-get environment so they can iterate in the context of what it will feel like for the final audience … to combine the arts of cinematography, film editing, and animation.” You can shoot machinima, edit it on the fly, capture motion, insert clip motion, even edit motion, animate with motion picture-quality lip sync, alter character appearance in real time, and it just goes on and on.

SFM currently works only inside the video game Team Fortress 2. But I’m sure Valve will expand the SFM engine to other games – even … drum roll here … Second Life? Can you imagine the machinima we can make with this thing? Linden Lab has already announced in its Tools and Technology blog its intentions to ramp up SL graphics to Steam standards. When it does, hopefully by September 5, SL machinima is going to advance light years in a very short time – even without SFM. And with SFM, we will be able to make motion picture-quality machinima in our jammies at home. And upload them to Steam in its Indie section – or maybe even to machinima.com to show ’em machinima is more than guns and zombies.

Massive backdrops for creative exploration

And the really cool thing on the Steam site is the Steam Workshop, where users contribute samples of their work using SFM. As Bay Raitt predicts in the demo video: “Think of these video game worlds as massive backdrops for creative exploration. As contributors to the Steam Workshop continue to expand these worlds, the resources for storytellers are going to increase exponentially.” And you can tell whatever stories you want on Steam. Most are about zombies, robots, and warring hulks. But there are also creatures of all kinds, fairies, wizards, and space travelers. And Steam’s cupboard is about to get even bigger.

Don’t forget: Steam is changing too

What is not getting enough airplay in this steamed-up discussion is the fact that Steam will change on September5 just as much as Second Life – probably more. For the first time ever, it is going to offer non-gaming software ranging from “creativity to productivity,” according to a company post here. That’s a pretty big range. I can’t wait to see what they add to their plate.

Beware the learning curve, it’s steep and full of twists

I’ll warn you, the learning curve with SFM is steep and as full of twists and turns as Valve’s video games. This is not an easy program to learn. And it’s at the cutting edge of technology. I had to forego a lot of experimentation because my system couldn’t keep up. But my decision in the face of this is to buy a new system. I’m that excited about it. I am currently about to upgrade my entire computer set-up, largely so I can make better machinima in partnership of what I think Steam will provide.

Many people are too stuck on the idea that Steam is a platform for warfare, zombies, and robots run amok. There’s plenty of that, but there is so much more. As Wikipedia pointed out here, Valve has created an educational version of Steam for use in schools, including a modified version of Portal 2 for teaching science and critical thinking lessons. On the site itself you find amazing indie games, mind-stretching stuff in the Workshop, a community of helpful brilliant people, and an openness that can teach Second Lifers a lot.

I’ll see you tomorrow

So … I could go on and on. And I will. In my post tomorrow, I’ll take you inside my first visit to Steam – what I found, what I did, and what you can do too. Full Steam ahead.

2 Responses to this post.

  1. Gwyneth Llewelyn's Gravatar

    Posted by Gwyneth Llewelyn on 19.08.12 at 1:13 pm

    An excellent perspective of a point of view that was not really covered elsewhere 🙂 I had no idea that Valve was actively encouraging machinimists by providing them with specific tools. That’s simply awesome! Definitely a plus if LL wishes SL to join a community that is as “machinima-friendly” and unites storytellers, giving them fantastic tools.

  2. ILLBixby's Gravatar

    Posted by ILLBixby on 19.08.12 at 1:13 pm

    Great post and well said Bay. SFM is the machinima engine I’ve been dreaming about since we started making machinima in Quake 15 years ago. It’s amazing and well thought out. And adding SL to the mix is even more amazing as we’re talking a great community with fantastic talent for machinma and asset production (characters, props, locations, you name it). The future of machinima never looked better my friend.

    We’ve been digging pretty deep into SFM over here so if you have any questions just drop me a line. I may post my list of tricks sometime in next month.

    Thanks for the insightful post and keep up producing great work ya pansy hoppin’ machinimist.

    Frank “illbixby cerveau” Dellario

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