Archive for: October 2005

The Movies

REVIEW – Todd Volz, Editor

Almost everyone goes to the movies once in a while, and every moviegoer has ideas about how a film could have been improved if only they were at the helm. If you’ve ever wanted to get your grubby paws into the film biz in some way, shape or form, Lionhead Studios’ The Movies will satisfy that urge and then some.

On the surface, The Movies is a real-time strategy/simulation game that lets you make all of the business decisions necessary to run a major movie studio – hiring talent, building sets, managing finances – with the goal of becoming the top studio in Hollywood. But The Movies is no simple "Tycoon" game. Not only do you run the business side, you also have a hand in the creative process of moviemaking.

Just how involved you get in the actual making of movies is up to you. You can simply hire screenwriters, choose a film genre (Comedy, Action, Horror, etc.), and leave them to their own devices, churning out script after script. Or, if you’re more of a megalomaniac, you can opt for complete control and design scripts from the ground up.

Then, once a script is finished, you cast the movie, choose a director, and shoot it. Here again, the extent of your involvement is up to you. You can choose to have your movies shot instantly without any input from you, or go through the entire shooting process where, if you like, you can play director and adjust dramatic elements shot by shot.

And if that’s not enough, you can even take your finished film into post-production and play with editing, music, dialogue and effects, tailoring the film to your precise specifications. The endless customization opportunities are astonishing.

Once a film is shot you release it, after which it receives scores based on the merits of its various facets, from story to acting to genre innovation. Even virtual movie critics get into the act, opining with often hilarious quips that either praise or excoriate your work ("Watching Joe Schmoe’s acting is worse than digging your eyes out with a spoon" is my favorite).

Of course, the quality of your movies has a direct effect on your finances; box office returns on a piece of crap will be much lower than on a cinematic masterpiece. Which brings us back full circle to managing your studio’s finances.

Almost. Beneath this core gameplay lies a staggering amount of micromanagement, all of which has a direct impact on both business and creative development.

In the movie business, actors and directors are your bread and butter. An unhappy movie star means trouble on and off the set, so you must endeavor to keep your talent happy at any cost. Doing so involves a seemingly endless array of factors.

First and foremost is salary. As a star rises in popularity so must the salary, lest you risk their defecting to a rival studio. A star must also have an entourage of lackeys to fawn on them and do their bidding. Should an actor become unhappy with his or her image, you must be prepared to give them makeovers, cosmetic surgery (such as face lifts and liposuction) and upgraded wardrobes .

Be very mindful, also, that you don’t work your talent too hard. Do so and they may take to the bottle to ease their stress, and you may need to shove them into rehab, rendering them unable to work for months at a time.

How well your stars get along with each other can play a huge role in the success of your films. You’ll need to pick them up and plop them in the vicinity of each other repeatedly to encourage conversation – in increasingly intimate settings – developing their relationships from acquaintances all the way up to soul mates. The more they like each other, the better your movies will turn out.

Don’t forget publicity. Photographers are constantly milling around at the studio gates waiting for the perfect photo op. Should you see two stars deep in conversation or a drunk director wobbling out of the VIP bar, drop a paparazzo near them to get a dishy, tell-all photo spread published. You’ve also got a Publicity office, which you can utilize to promote your movies and talent before, during or after a film’s release. Creating the proper buzz for a movie can make or break its success with your adoring public.

This detailed decision-making is all well and good, but you don’t necessarily need to focus on building an entertainment empire. Aside from the game’s business tycoon mode, there’s also a sandbox mode which lets you concentrate solely on moviemaking. And once you’ve got a completed film you can even upload it to The Movies’ web site to share with fellow moviemakers.

Out of breath yet? The amount of time and attention required to fully explore the game’s depth is tantamount to a full-time job – albeit an incredibly fun job. The Movies’ gameplay rivals that of the most intricate warmongering RTS titles out there – such as Command and Conquer or Empire Earth – but it does so with a refreshing, whimsical flair that’s atypical of the genre.

The game is insanely beautiful. Looking at a static screenshot of the game you’d be inclined to think you’re looking at a detailed, static rendering, but the game world is in fact a dynamic environment. You can rotate the camera, view the studio lot from high above and just as easily zoom down to street level to witness a movie shoot in progress. It’s a world of perpetual daylight that reveals amazingly detailed textures on both the characters and architecture.

Sound design is unique and effective. Oft-used objects such as scripts and film canisters make a satisfying "pop" upon placement in their proper positions. Characters utter a surprised squeal when you snatch them up. A constantly running radio station offers both music and the occasional announcement from a DJ hinting at current trends in popular culture. And of course there’s the occasional director shouting "Cut! It’s a wrap!"

That’s not to say that The Movies is without annoyances. The sheer breadth of gameplay options, though impressive, can also be daunting. There’s almost not enough time to make the multitude of decisions you need to make in order to compete with rival studios, let alone direct your movies. Stars’ stress levels get out of whack very easily, and often; getting them back on track, especially when several of them are throwing tantrums simultaneously, can be a real challenge.

Lionhead did an admirable job with the custom moviemaking module. They included an immense number of scene types and templates for you to use in stitching together your own films. Nonetheless, creating a movie with a cohesive story, with scenes that flow together and actually make narrative sense, is not an easy task. For instance, say you choose a shot in which a character punches another character. Finding the next shot, where the other character to reacts to the punch properly, requires much trial and error and sifting through scores of scenes at a time.

But you can’t fault Lionhead for trying. Opting to incorporate a full-fledged moviemaking module in a game is crazily ambitious. That they succeeded in any small measure is laudable. They’ve created an accessible, fun-to-use tool, and though it’s not particularly suited for actual storytelling, it generates results that are always amusing, and often hysterical. (Imagine a swamp monster applying lipstick.)

Lionhead’s The Movies is truly a marvel of design, featuring some of the deepest, most complex and unique gameplay ever seen in a real-time strategy or simulation game. It’s surely destined to have long-lasting and broad appeal to gamers and budding filmmakers everywhere.