RUNNING a movie studio is a fantastic setting for a tycoon game and it still gobsmacks me that no-one’s really made a decent crack at the idea in the literally nearly two decades since Lionhead’s masterpiece The Movies was released.
The subject of this review – Moviehouse: The Film Studio Tycoon – is developed by Odyssey Studios and published by Assemble Entertainment for PC & MacOS, and represents a notable attempt at recapturing the magic, even if the overall result ends up falling somewhat short.
While the game implies you’ll have control over all aspects of making a film, the reality is this is basically Game Dev Tycoon but with celluloid instead of bytes as the theme.
Scripting a movie consists of selecting a genre then choosing different setting, hero and villain plot cards. These help you bring together the story you want to tell and give you an idea (as the player) of what sort of movie you’re putting together.
You task writers with writing scripts, get directors to direct films, and help guide the project through its various stages from inception to cinematic or video release, then (hopefully) reap the financial and critical rewards from the result.
Moviehouse: The Film Studio Tycoon is such a promising concept, but sadly you don’t have to look very far to find trouble on the set.
The game really doesn’t explain itself very well at all – in a lot of cases, I was relying in my experience with Game Dev Tycoon to understand mechanics, like what percentage of the budget should be devoted to certain aspects. I still have no idea what the sliders for the different aspects of a movie trailer did, for example.
A lot of other important things are pretty opaque or seemingly arbitrary too – you can build a range of props, but instead of saying “Create a copy of the Necronomicon”, you have to select three different attributes and then you seemingly get a random prop as a result. The game also doesn’t explain what those props do or how they impact your movies, at least as far as I was able to ascertain.
Later on in the game you get the ability to design your own movie posters, which seems like a neat idea until you realise the text (besides the title) on them doesn’t match up with the facts – the actors names are different to the people who were actually in the film, there’s a different director, and so on. The novelty of making my own posters wore off very quickly as a result.
Occasionally the game will ask for your input resolving “trouble on set” – not juicy issues like “The Lead Actor is drunk again” or “The script writer has been exposed as a Communist” or anything fun like that, but with incredibly obvious film-making technique stuff that pretty much everyone with a passing interest in movies or TV should know, and certainly people you’re paying lots of money to make films should know.
If you’ve seen Team America: World Police, you know a song about this.Perfect example: Getting a pop-up saying the editor “needs to show the passage of time in sequence, but everyone has forgotten how”, and asking you to choose between “use a skip frame”, declare “this calls for a montage“, or pay an outside consultant a ludicrous sum of money to state the obvious.
Sadly, there is no option to frustratedly yeet your coffee into a nearby bush while demanding to know how come absolutely no-one in your literally multi-million dollar movie studio has the same level of knowledge as anyone who ever took media studies in high school.
The other thing is that once you’ve got the ball rolling, you will end up with so much money it would give both Scrooge McDuck and Flintheart Glomgold pause for thought.
As in, I was at the level of making “small” movies and had a bank balance of $10bn – yes, that’s billion dollars – from making movies whose real-life equivalents would be on the scale of things like Clerks. My studio didn’t so much have The Midas Touch as it had The Midas Vague Gesture.
The other issue is the script cards component section seems broken. For example, I made a Western featuring the setting of a small town, the hero of a loner, and the villains as an outlaw gang. Despite this being a textbook Western genre story plot (used in everything from The Lone Ranger serials to A Fistful of Dollars to Blazing Saddles), the game told me these elements were not a good match for the genre.
I had similar experiences when recreating other staple plots for various genres; according to the game “Supervillains” were not a great fit for action movies and a “Moon base” was not a good setting for a horror movie – you get the idea.
Did I mention the fact that, when the game was released, it seemed to be almost impossible not to make obscene amounts of money? Like, throwing together the most craptastic movies – the sort of stuff would make the oeuvre of Ed Wood look like Academy Award-winning works of Great Art – would invariably result in squillions of dollars being thrown at my studio by distributors who absolutely seemed to think the 3/10 at best Updog: The Movie (production cost: free lunch for the cast and crew, plus some pocket lint and a packet of Minties to share) was worth a $50m investment.
To be fair to the developers, that was tweaked in a post-launch patch, but it was such a glaring issue I didn’t think it should have been there in the first place, and even post-patch you can still make decent money from churning out unmitigated crap.
That’s also a good segue to the fact the movie element quality, critical reviews, audience reviews, and financial return often seem to have absolutely nothing to do with each other.
As in, I’d throw together some straight-to-video no-budget horror film scripted by an inexperienced writer, directed by someone with no talent, and starring actors one step up from extras, then have the critics say “Great film!”, the audiences loved it, and it would make megabucks, while the big-budget film scripted by an experienced and talented writer with countless successes under their belt, and starring AAA-list actors would look fine on the overview, get critically panned, be disliked by audiences, and make no money.
Even allowing for the general Critic/Audience ratings difference which is evident in real life (lots of stuff that critics hate and audiences love, and vice versa), it all just seemed like there was a backlot RNG generating the outcomes rather than it having anything to do with my choices or decisions.
Things weren’t helped by the number of bugs I encountered, too – everything from research options remaining greyed out even when they should be available, to everyone in the studio being happy we’d won the major Industry Awards despite not being one of the finalists, and things like that.
The most disappointing thing for me about Moviehouse is you can see the framework for a really good game here – with a better tutorial, more transparent mechanics, a better UI with alt-text reminder tips, things like that, a general shine and polish, and so on, this could have been a gem – but right now this feels like a first draft rather than a Director’s Cut.
I really, really wanted to like Moviehouse: The Film Studio Tycoon, but under the glare of the studio lights the reality is it needs a lot more time in the editing suite before it’s ready for mainstream release.