The most notable thing about gamer-focused web video network Machinima isn’t its thriving Director’s Program, its 1.3 billion monthly video views or 149 million uniques (as of January 2012). It’s this — getting people to watch drama online.
Drama is usually a tough sell for web audiences, but in 2011, Machinima used its primary YouTube (s GOOG) channel to distribute three high-profile series: Kevin Tancharoen’s Mortal Kombat: Legacy, Felicia Day’s Dragon Age: Redemption and David van Eyssen’s RCVR. The first episode of Mortal Kombat currently has 16.3 million views, with following episodes averaging four to five million, while Dragon Age and RCVR‘s premiere episodes each racked up over a million views, with subsequent episodes earning solid six-figure viewcounts. In addition, all three shows were nominated for awards at the inaugural IAWTV Awards last month, with RCVR picking up best drama.
While it’s true that both Kombat and Dragon Age are both video game-inspired, the three shows — a gritty martial arts thriller with some supernatural elements, a high fantasy epic and an X-Files-esque conspiracy drama — are relatively diverse in style and content. However, what they have in common, according to Machinima CEO Allen DeBevoise, can be categorized as “extraordinary characters in an extraordinary world.”
In a sit-down interview, DeBevoise attributed the company’s success with drama online in large part to its audience of video game enthusiasts. “It’s an adrenaline-oriented audience that engages with mythologies. Other companies have a demographic that’s more random — but we have 95 percent males, and we know there’s content they care about,” he said.
Two elements were key to Machinima building that following — first, its approach to platforms, focusing exclusively on YouTube instead of diversifying. “We decided not to put all our content on every platform, instead saying ‘let’s just get this one right,'” DeBevoise said. Machinima currently has over 4.1 million subscribers on the platform, and is one of the participants in YouTube’s Made For Web channel initiative.
In addition, rather than trying to appeal to all video game fans at once, it started with one small specific audience and then grew outwards. “First, we focused all our energies on Halo [gamers], then grew to shooter games, and then we went broader,” he added. “Machinima now stands for game-centric programming — not just gaming.”
That doesn’t mean Machinima would ever attempt a pivot, though: “Our core gaming audience will be something we never abandon,” DeBevoise said. “But we don’t have to give up gaming content to bring in a new audience. The shelf life on YouTube is essentially unlimited.”
Machinima has room to evolve, though; DeBevoise looks to premium cable channels like HBO (s TWX) and Showtime (s CBS) as inspiration. “We want to become a more consistent global entertainment commodity. There are always two or or three shows going on on HBO — are we doing that in every category? No, not yet,” he said.
He also looked to the importance of establishing franchises: “What’s our Simpsons? What’s our Sopranos? We need to figure out what our big franchises are.” Zombie comedy Bite Me is returning for a second season March 6, but followups to RCVR, Mortal Kombat or Dragon Age have yet to be announced.
Most importantly, though, DeBevoise expressed interest in finding content that taps into the zeitgeist of this current generation, reflecting upon the way movies like The Godfather resonated during their time. “We think about what would be The Godfather for us — really compelling but really rooted in our audience,” DeBevoise said.
DeBevoise pinpointed several elements that might connect with the Machinima crowd — the CGI aesthetic that permeates both modern gaming and much genre filmmaking, the distinction between a virtual world and the real world — and also the fact that in order to achieve that goal, the company needs a talent base. “We can’t be HBO without great writers or directors,” he said.
It’s overstating to say that what Machinima is doing is the future of all entertainment. But it does represent one of the most important trends of the evolving digital age — content that achieves success by knowing its audience intimately.