Written by: Rik

Date posted: December 8, 2012


Pausing the game allows you to get an overview of what’s going on at your studio.

I don’t know exactly at which point Lionhead’s Peter Molyneux went from being “respected industry figure” to “famed over-hyper of games and breaker of promises” but at the time of writing, that certainly seems to be his reputation. Whether this reputation is entirely deserved, I’d be hard-pressed to say, given that I’ve never really played any of the games he’s been involved with – you may well have noticed a distinct lack of old Bullfrog titles here, with the exception of Syndicate and Jo’s review of Theme Hospital.

The only Bullfrog game of old I did play was Theme Park. In fact, I think Theme Park was pretty much the reason I ever wanted a PC in the first place. With that in mind, you might wonder why THE HELL I haven’t reviewed it here, so here’s my explanation: I was not very good at Theme Park. I never ever cared about being good at Theme Park – I just liked to build a few rides, mess around for a bit, fail spectacularly, then start again. I guess I could have gone back to it since then, but the urge has never taken me and, well, you know how not-thorough we are about series of games around here (for the views of someone with an altogether more professional approach and attitude, go here).

I mention both of these things because, firstly, The Movies seems like exactly the kind of game that would fit the alleged Molyneux template of “sounds amazing but actually ends up disappointing”: not only do you get to run a movie studio, but you can actually get behind the camera and shoot the movies yourself – it sounds almost too good to be true. Secondly, while it might not seem like such a game would have much in common with a predecessor that was all about running a successful amusement park, in this case, it does, and I’m going to refer to it a bit later. Ok? Ok!

So, your goal in The Movies is to become a top studio head. In attempting to achieve this, you have three main areas to manage. The first of these is your movie stars: wannabe actors line up outside your stage school, you hire them to star in your movies (or direct them) – and from that point on, you also need to supervise most aspects of their life and keep their behaviour in check. The next area is, obviously enough, the movies themselves: write a script, cast your stars and release to the press and public in the hope of blockbuster hits and big money. Finally, we have your studio lot: ensure it all looks as attractive as possible, and keep the sets and facilities in a good state of repair.

Two identically-dressed (if not entouraged – is that a word?) stars try to get to know each other.

The career mode starts you off with an empty lot in the year 1920, and you’ll guide your studio through thick and thin until the game ends, 100 years later. There are no levels as such, although the timeline is punctuated by an awards ceremony every five years, which acts as a good barometer of how you’re doing. Like the Oscars, but with much more emphasis on the studios’ performance rather than the luvvies themselves, it’s great just to be nominated, but it only really means something if you win – with each award bringing an in-game bonus of some kind (winning the top star award will boost the performance of any movie featuring that star, for example). Beyond that, you also need to keep an eye on your ‘Movie Mogul’ rank, which is contingent on your studio achieving certain overall objectives, usually based on the quantity, or quality of movies released, or the profile of your stars. Your reward in this instance comes in the form of unlocking facilities and sets.

Making a movie is simple enough. First off, you need a script, so you’ll need to build a scriptwriting office and hire some writers. As you progress through the game, you’ll unlock bigger offices and your writers will gain in proficiency, which will boost the quality of your scripts, but at first they’ll be relatively simple affairs – although that doesn’t matter particularly because, well, it’s 1920 and complex, long-running films aren’t supposed to exist yet. You’ll need to choose a genre, too – the options are Action, Comedy, Romance, Horror, and Sci-Fi. Hovering the mouse over the office will give you an idea of the public interest in each genre, although these change over time, sometimes dramatically depending on world events in the timeline – the moon landings boost interest in sci-fi, a royal wedding creates a good market for romantic movies: you get the idea. Oh, and if you haven’t done so already, you’ll need to build some sets.

Once your writers have churned out a script, your film moves into the casting stage. For best results, select the actors and directors with good experience in the genre – new stars won’t have much experience in anything when you start with them, but you can always get them to practice on an unused set in between movies to improve this, and – of course – they’ll get experience from actually starring in the movies. Your stars’ looks also have an effect on their ‘fit’ for the movie – ugly actors are good for horror movies, attractive ones for romance – but, to be honest, this isn’t something I paid a massive amount of attention to, and it didn’t seem to matter nearly as much as experience. Also, if your stars have a good relationship it should boost their performances in the movie, but, again, this doesn’t seem to matter massively and is a bit of a pain in the arse to manufacture (more on which later). Before you shoot your movie, you’ll also need to make sure you have a movie crew, and some extras (if required by the script) – and, as with all areas of staffing, if you need to hire some, any wannabes will be waiting in line outside the relevant building.

Shooting the all-important prison bathtub scene.

Once you have all the cast and crew in place then, after a short rehearsal period, you’ll be ready to shoot your movie. Once shooting begins, they pretty much get on with it for themselves and, with one or two exceptions (which we’ll get onto) you won’t need to give the movie much more of your attention until it’s ready to release. In the early stages, releasing is just a case of clicking a button, reading the reviews and waiting for the money to roll in, but in later years you’ll also need to consider PR and marketing campaigns to boost interest in your movies. Reviews are based on a number of factors, but mainly it’ll come down to the quality of the script for the era, the star power and genre experience of your actors, the novelty of your sets and the technology used in your film. Your movie will then appear in the charts and start to make money.

In between all this, though, there is much to manage. Your stars aren’t machines, and you need to monitor their mood to ensure they don’t cause trouble on set and give a good performance. Each star has a threshold for stress and boredom, and you’ll need to keep an eye on these, particularly the first one. Working on a movie causes stress and you’ll generally need to give your stars some rest between shoots. You can speed up the process of ‘rest’ by sending your stars to the on-set bar or restaurant, where they can comfort themselves with the aid of food or drink. This works a treat, until it causes them to develop an addiction, at which point they may storm off in the middle of a stressful shoot to stuff their face or chug down some booze. You’ll be alerted that the shoot has been interrupted and can intervene by dragging your errant star back to finish doing what you pay them to do, but once the movie’s wrapped you may need to send them to rehab, which will help with their addiction, but also keeps them out of action for a little while.

Building the profile of your stars is crucial to the success of your studio – not only do they raise interest in your movies, but the studio charts and ‘movie mogul’ ranks also demand it. Aside from managing their moods and addictions, you need to make sure they’re paid a decent salary, have a trailer and an entourage that fits with their expectations, and also maintain a good image by wearing outfits appropriate for the era, taking regular exercise, and, if necessary, indulging in the odd bit of cosmetic surgery.

Amuse your stars by making them do PR in a toga.

The state of your studio lot is, bizarrely, also very important. You’ll need builders to build and maintain your sets, and janitors to clear up litter and keep everything neat and tidy. This is perhaps where the links to Theme Park are most obvious, although it does seem slightly incongruous for a studio head to be bothered about such things. Thankfully, your maintenance staff work fairly autonomously, although you’ll still need to pay attention to your overall lot ‘prestige’ by placing lots of plants and ornaments around the place. With the exception of ‘lot connectivity’, which is a rating for how well your sets and facilities are laid out and joined together with pathways (thus aiding cast and crew between scenes), the prestige rating of your lot doesn’t seem to be based on anything practical, and you can just mindlessly dot trees around the place until your rating goes up. The most sure-fire way of boosting prestige is to purchase the costliest ornaments – cars – and so making areas of your studio look like a used-car lot is, bizarrely, quite a successful strategy. Ornaments can also be used to boost the prestige of your stars’ trailers, too, so bung a couple of limousines next to a trailer and it’ll have the desired effect (no matter how odd it might look).

By and large, all of this works well, and it’s pretty addictive stuff. You quickly develop the attitude of a fat-cat studio head and see movies and stars only in terms of how they can make money for you, or boost your studio’s rating, and so you work your stars into the ground, churning out as many movies as you can, and whoop with delight as the money rolls in. It has to be said that it’s pretty hard to screw things up badly, especially early on (in contrast with my, admittedly distant, memories of Theme Park) – you’re not likely to lose money on a movie, even if it doesn’t do as well as you’d hope, and as a consequence, capital never really seems to be an issue. That’s not to say it’s easy though – after four or five playthroughs, ending up as the top dog has always eluded me – and each time, my studio’s history was characterised by a long period of domination at the top of the charts until the modern era, at which point, things seemed to get a lot harder: films need to be bigger and better, you need top stars for your movies to chart well, and – perhaps most crucially – investment in science and research no longer gives you an edge in terms of technology, because all that’s going to be discovered, has been. (Early on, you can establish superiority over rival studios by hiring a load of scientists to ‘discover’ new sets, facilities and movies costumes before they’d usually become available).

The main area I always seemed to fall behind in was the star rating of my stars. Although much can be achieved by simply splashing the cash – salary and trailer size are two important variables – other areas are hard to develop. Star relationships are particularly hard to progress without significant micromanagement, and can be easy to neglect when you’re focused on developing your next blockbuster. You might expect that when a couple of stars have worked together on a number of movies, particularly if those movies were big hits, they’d develop a good relationship, but here, it doesn’t provide a significant boost to their relationship rating. Instead, you have to force them to talk to each other over and over again on set – and I mean literally, once they’ve finished a conversation, dragging them back together to talk again, and again, until they develop a friendship, at which point you need to develop things further by dragging them to a bar, and doing the same thing again. Seriously – it takes ages, and seems to have a negligible effect on their performances together in movies, but because it’s required for the ‘movie mogul’ rankings, you need to do it, and neglecting this area can be costly. It often took me much too long to unlock the final scriptwriting office because I didn’t have a ‘four-star’ star, for which you need your stars to have at least one celebrity friend, and I was punished in the final years as a result.

Older actors are usually your biggest stars, regardless of how well their prostate functions.

The other major area of difficulty was recruiting sufficient staff; as I mentioned earlier, wannabes line up outside your buildings for you to recruit, but the game seems to control the numbers very tightly, to the extent that you frequently seem to be juggling janitors, crew, extras, scientists and entourage members. All of these studio staff come from the same, limited pool – although they might line up outside a particular building, they can be assigned to a different role, and re-assigned later (although their experience in the new area will be limited) – and once you’re shooting multiple movies at once, with stars that need a big staff of hangers-on, you start to run into difficulties. If this is supposed to be Hollywood, you’d think that there’d be no shortage of inexperienced youngsters to recruit and exploit.

Then again, if you’re looking for a hard-nosed representation of the movie world, that would simply be one of a great many complaints you could make about The Movies in this respect. As I mentioned previously, this isn’t exactly a serious business simulator, and you’re rarely likely to find yourself looking at a balance sheet and cursing a series of bad decisions. On a similar note, there are certain challenges you’d associate with a game about making movies that never seem to raise their head here: a scenario involving script and casting problems, a disastrous shoot that over-runs with numerous disputes between actors and directors, before a desperate attempt to save things in post-production fails and the film is released to a lukewarm critical reception and massive financial losses is just never going to happen. Occasionally, you’ll have high hopes for a movie that will be dashed, but there’s nothing more dramatic than that here.

Aside from that, the whole area of sequels, franchises, DVD sales and other residuals is ignored, where you feel that might be an area worth exploring for a game like this. Stars only ever work on one movie at a time and so shoots are never intertwined and you never have to consider their schedules, other than ensuring they’re properly rested between projects. And finally, a successful strategy is almost always based on the philosophy that ‘bigger is better’ – films that are longer, with more scenes, more actors and more costume changes, are given higher ratings by the critics – and as a result, you’re rarely likely to over-spend significantly on an ill-advised big-budget project, and nor are you ever going to make a lean, low-budget movie that becomes an unexpected box-office smash.

Hooray for FFG studios!

Of course, it would be a tough ask for a game to evaluate your movies by any other criteria, and to an extent the mathematical approach to critical and commercial success makes perfect sense. But it also acts as a strong disincentive to spend time creating your own movies, which is an option we’ve not mentioned thus far. Yes, once you unlock the Advanced Movie Maker, you can create your own script from scratch, or adapt one that your writers have come up with. Creating your own movie does actually work, in that the developers have come up with a relatively accessible system for putting things together, and once you’ve written the script and cast your actors, you can see the film being shot by zooming in on the sets and watching as the scene takes place – but it does take a while, and getting sucked into the creative process for any period of time kind of kills the greedy, money-making momentum that makes the main game so compulsive. You can’t be the creative and the studio exec – it doesn’t work – and, despite what we said earlier, that’s one Hollywood cliché that does ring true here. (Still, that’s not to say that, in isolation, this mode isn’t fun – for more on which, see A Force for Bad).

Perhaps everything in The Movies doesn’t quite fit together as it should. But there’s a hell of a lot of good stuff here. When I first bought it, I’d read that the movie-making tools masked the flaws of an average management game, and I was expecting to faff around in career mode for as long as it took to unlock all the facilities I’d need to make a movie, and then spend the bulk of my time with the Advanced Movie Maker. As it happens, my experience was the exact opposite – I was so hooked on the main career mode, I couldn’t be bothered to waste precious money-making time on the more creative side of things. The Movies certainly has its flaws, and I’m sure that a scientific method of exploiting the game and achieving runaway success may well exist. If it does, I haven’t found it yet, but The Movies isn’t the kind of game that you obsessively want to ‘beat’; it’s more about enjoying the ride as you go along. So while I don’t quite have that immediate urge to go back to my 1970s save to try and rectify my latter-day mistakes, I’ll certainly have another strategy in mind when I next give it a go – which I definitely will.

Despite being more verbose than usual, I’ve nevertheless neglected to give any attention to sundry details such as the audio-visual side of things and the interface, so I’ll make a quick attempt to redress that before we finish. The nice thing about the graphics is that you can zoom in on the action and see what’s going on in relative detail – we’ve already mentioned how you can observe the scenes from your movies being filmed, for example – but for the most part, you’ll be zoomed out so far you may as well be playing Theme Park. Sound is dominated by the in-game radio station, which reflects the current era, both in terms of the style of music played and the DJ’s chit-chat. You’ll generally be too distracted by the events of the game to pay too much attention, but it certainly serves its purpose as background noise, and occasionally you’ll notice familiar-sounding riffs, with nods to the likes of Axel F and Nirvana in the eighties and nineties most obvious to my ears. The interface is fairly symbol-heavy, which is normally a bad sign, but it all works well enough, and in general, you get lots of help, and hovering over something will usually provide a handy hint in the event of your mind going blank.

Things obviously aren’t going so well on set today.

In conclusion: while The Movies might contain enough flaws and omissions for a highly-strung gamer to declare it yet another box of bullshit and broken promises from pied-piper Molyneux, a more sober analysis reveals it to be a light-hearted take on the tinseltown experience that’s really rather good, actually. The dedicated strategy nut may dismiss it as lightweight fluff, but its accessible and forgiving nature is equally likely to endear it to others. Speaking as one of those others, The Movies has stolen more time from me than any other strategy title before or since (with the possible exception of Championship Manager) – and that’s not including the hours spent hammering together the terrible piece of machinima produced for the purposes of this review. A hearty thumbs up from me, then, and certainly worth hunting down if you missed it first time around.

Final note: Yes, I know there’s an add-on pack, and I hope – hope, mind, not promise – to cover that in the near future.