GDC 2003The Movies impressions

We get an early look at Peter Molyneux's Hollywood sim game.

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Ever think you could make better movies than what Hollywood puts out? Here's your chance. Peter Molyneux's Lionhead Studios is creating a game that will put you at the head of a movie studio and give you control of everything from greenlighting scripts and managing studio finances to directing the actors in real time. We heard all about this promising concept at last year's E3, but a demo shortly before Molyneux's speech on the last day of GDC was our first look at the game actually running.

The Movies is grounded in the fact that everything takes place on the studio lot. You build sets to match the types of films you'll be producing and outfit them with all sorts of props. In the version we saw, the sets were arranged on a tile grid around the studio lot, and on some level, the construction process seems somewhat akin to Theme Park or RollerCoaster Tycoon. And given that you're not making widgets but entertainment media, the studio lot emphasis can do a lot to give the game personality. The early build we saw running featured only a fraction of the visual detail that's planned, and in the end, there should be lots of rewarding options for dressing up sets and disguising older sets so they can't be easily recognized by the audience.

Once you've built some sets, the first real step to making a movie is to choose a script. Beyond deciding among the basic genres, there are a few other choices to make, then you can drag a script icon over to a set, and the crew will set up. Casting plays an important part in the game--you'll want to choose actors appropriate for the role and cultivate stars, and you'll also have to deal with the stars' egos. Some actors may develop drinking problems or have a proclivity for lateness, and that will result in the crew waiting around for stragglers to start shooting--or break for lunch. You'll have to deal with some creative personalities to get movies done without breaking the bank.

The real action of The Movies seems to come in the real-time directing. We watched two separate scenes of a Western play out on the saloon set: a fistfight on the dirt street outside and a romantic dialogue scene in the interior. It doesn't seem as though you have to worry too much about setting up cameras or dealing with the details of the shoot, but once the film is rolling, there are several sliders that appear to let you control how the actors deal with the scene. The fight gave a good example of what the violence slider can do. By default, the actors were connecting some decent punches, but setting it to the left turned the action into a silly slap fight, and with the slider all the way to the right, the fight became a graphic, literally bone-breaking rumble. The romantic slider worked similarly for the courtship scene--the left extreme produced longing glances and batting eyelashes, and the settings farther to the right led to some quite exuberant smooching. Molyneux didn't put it all the way to the extreme right setting to spare us from the "pornographic" version.

Besides seeing the actors' amusing animations, there are two reasons you'll want to get directly involved in the filming process. First, Molyneux says that it will be possible to export these movies as small data files, for those with a copy of The Movies, or as stand-alone movie files. He said that those who want to take the extra creative step could easily add extra sound effects and even voice acting for extra personality. The second, in-game motivation is that you'll want to adapt the tone of the movies to audience tastes and the overall marketing plan for the product. Although it will take quite a volume of movies to make the studio successful and expand to add new sets, for a given movie to be successful you'll have to create a good mix of different kinds of scenes and produce movies that are unique. After opening night, you'll get a rundown on what the critics said, and you can guess it won't always be flattering.

The Movies is all about creating entertaining content, but naturally it has to include all the building blocks. The game will start out in the 1920s, during the silent black-and-white era, and advancing to talkies and color films will be a challenge. The in-game demo took place on a 1930s-era lot filled with Western sets and Flash Gordon-like sci-fi sets. The final game should let you play through to the modern era and cater to changing popular tastes and deal with researching the cutting-edge technologies that get all the hype. But in the end, Molyneux did admit that Lionhead won't be able to create enough content for the initial game to include every type of movie genre. He confirmed that sets for horror and Western films would make it in, but he mentioned that at least some other types of movies would be supported through add-on packs.

Molyneux wouldn't comment on the game's release schedule; however, Activision recently announced that it will be publishing The Movies and that it should be out in 2004.

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