The Movies Hands-On - Moviemaking, Star Wrangling, Studio Building, and More

We get our hands on The Movies just before it went gold to experience the joys (and trials) of being a virtual Hollywood mogul.

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Just before Activision announced this week that The Movies had finally finished production, we had the opportunity to get our hands on this anticipated strategy, simulation, and moviemaking game. Quite simply, we've never seen a game quite like The Movies before, because it blends so many different types of genres together, along with a completely new and innovative ability to actually create your own movies using 3D actors and sets. And, as we discovered from our time with The Movies, this is a game that offers something for pretty much everyone, and it is one of the most promising PC games of the year.

The Movies is a game that has something for everyone, including fans of Tycoon games, The Sims, and movies in general.
The Movies is a game that has something for everyone, including fans of Tycoon games, The Sims, and movies in general.

The Movies feels like several different games wrapped into one package. But perhaps the easiest way to understand The Movies is to imagine it as a blend of The Sims and a Tycoon-style building game. The story starts in 1920, and you, as a budding Hollywood studio boss, must develop a vacant lot and turn it into a studio that will produce movies for the decades to come. This will involve hiring and nurturing stars and other talent, as well as dealing with the inevitable problems that crop up with celebrities. And, if you're successful, you'll not only make money, but you'll also clean up when it comes to award time.

The first thing that you do is create a name for your studio, and then select a logo from the more than 50 possible icon choices. You are then dropped off at your studio's vacant lot. The first structures that you must put up include a stage school, casting office, crew facility, production office, and at least one generic set. Also, you should think about crew amenities. Restrooms are an obvious must, and you'll also need a catering stand so your crew can eat. (And, as the game progresses, you'll unlock plenty of other types of buildings and structures.) You must then link these facilities together with pathways to help your cast and crew get between buildings quickly.

Once the facilities are in place, you'll need to start hiring your studio personnel. Builders construct and maintain buildings and sets, janitors help keep the place looking clean, and crew members operate the camera and do all the behind-the-scenes work on movies. You also need writers to work in the script office to start producing scripts, directors, and, of course, actors, who you can divide into stars and extras.

You also need to start thinking about the aesthetics of your lot, because the more beautiful your studio lot, the more prestige you'll earn, which is one of the things that helps determine the best studio. Heck, there's even an award given out to the best-looking lot. A studio lot can be transformed with lawns, trees, pathways, and flower beds. You can place various objects down as well, including lampposts, benches, and trash cans. Some of these items also play a role in letting your cast and crew blow off steam, such as fancy town cars and limousines, as well as private trailers for your stars.

Of course, this is all set up so you can get in the business of making movies, and once the infrastructure is in place, your movie studio can become a moviemaking machine, though one you'll also need to constantly monitor and adjust. The first step of making a movie is getting a script, and for that, you need to dump writers into the script office. Simply pick up a writer and drag him or her over the script office. The walls and roof disappear, leaving a layout of the building on the ground. The building layout has different rooms for different genres, such as sci-fi, horror, action, romance, and comedy. Drop the writer onto the type of movie you want to make, and he or she will start hacking away at a script. You can drop multiple writers into the process to speed things up. Keep in mind that writers gain experience over time, and that can affect the quality of the script. Also, you can build more advanced script offices that let you create better scripts. And, if you want to create your very own movie, there's a custom script office that lets you create a movie scene by scene, but we'll get to that later.

The game starts in Hollywood in 1920, and from there, you must build a cinematic empire.
The game starts in Hollywood in 1920, and from there, you must build a cinematic empire.

The writers will create scripts that take advantage of any of the sets that you've already constructed on the lot. Each set is specifically geared toward a certain genre (though the sets can be used for other genres as well). If you want a horror movie, then it's best to put up the gloomy cellar set, or if you want a romance movie, then the Western saloon is perfect for that. Once a script is in hand, you need to drop it into the casting office, where you assign a director, stars, and extras. Crew members are automatically assigned to the movie. Once all the personnel are in place, the cast and crew will begin rehearsing the movie. When rehearsing is done, pick up the script again and drop it into the "begin shooting" room of the production office, and the cast and crew will head off to the soundstage to start shooting.

Lights, Camera, and...

Shooting a movie can take a fair amount of time, as the cast and crew have to set up and shoot each scene. While the film is being shot, you can watch the production at work, or you can go off and start working on other things. At the start of the game, when your studio is still small, you generally can have about two or three movies in production at once. One movie can be in the script-writing stage, while another is being rehearsed, while yet another is being shot.

The sets are lavishly detailed, and it's just fun to watch the cast and crew shoot movies on your studio lot.
The sets are lavishly detailed, and it's just fun to watch the cast and crew shoot movies on your studio lot.

Once a movie finishes shooting, it's ready for release, and you just pick up and drop it into the production office to release it to theaters. At this point, you'll get a rating for the movie, taking into account the script quality, the star power, the production values (the experience of the crew, and any technological breakthroughs you may introduce in the movie, such as color or sound), and more. Even better, though, is that you can actually watch the movie that the computer comes up with, and it can be a hilarious experience to see the results. It's almost like watching some kind of bizarre, avant-garde student film. In the first few years of our studio's existence (Fearless Films), we turned out such cinematic gems as The Baggage Boy, Love Lasso, and The Thought Borrowers. Almost as funny are the reviews of your movies. The game generates quotes based on different aspects of the production. For example, one critic seems obsessed with the quality of the sets, and whether one set is featured in too many movies. Another can savage your actors' abilities. (Favorite quote: "I've seen chimps act more convincingly than this.") Thankfully, the virtual audience of movies in The Movies seems to be as forgiving as real-life audiences when it comes to reviews. Generally, it's not hard making money early on, especially with the novelty of the movies in the 1920s.

After you make a few films, success can rapidly go to your stars' heads, and you begin to experience a problem that Hollywood has experienced since movie stars became celebrities: the stars themselves. Star power can do a lot for the success of a movie, and your stable of actors is ranked in terms of their celebrity status. Obviously, a movie that features two top-10 stars will rake in the dough. Yet you also have to manage and massage the egos that develop. In one case, our lead actress couldn't take the stress of the job anymore and started to drink at the studio's bar. This brought production of an ambitious action movie to a complete halt, as it couldn't be shot while the lead actress was at the bar. This, in turn, caused the director's stress level to rise, and he snapped and refused to work. With the lead star and the director refusing to work, the studio came to a halt, because the troubled production had monopolized key sets and key crew members, so no other movies could begin production. Eventually, the lead star and director got back to work, and the movie finally finished, though it spent months longer in production than it should have and it cost us valuable time.

So how do you avoid getting in that situation? Well, you can provide creature comforts to stars and other personnel by providing them with trailers, restaurants, and other amenities. You can also throw addicted stars into rehab, where they can work out their issues. Or you can buy a fancy car and let a stressed-out star drive it around to vent some steam. There are also ways to deal with stars having other problems, such as gaining too much weight. Just pick up the star in question and drop him or her on an exercise bar, and let them sweat off the pounds. Or dump them into plastic surgery (assuming you've reached the appropriate time period). Another solution is to give a star an image makeover. You can do this manually, and this lets you choose your stars' outfit and look. Make them look and feel like movie stars, and their mood will improve dramatically.

Stars are your biggest asset, as well as the source of your greatest headaches.
Stars are your biggest asset, as well as the source of your greatest headaches.

This is just a fraction of the possibilities in The Movies. The game has a considerable amount of depth to it, as it combines the Tycoon-style building mechanic with the people-managing gameplay of something like The Sims. This is a big game, and a long one as well, as you will guide your studio from 1920 to the modern age. The years move along at a nice, measured pace, and from our experience, it took a couple of hours to get through a decade of game time. Multiply that by eight or nine decades, and a single "game" of The Movies can easily take 20 or more hours. However, if you don't want to mess around with the single-player portion of the game, and if all you want to do is make movies, then The Movies will accommodate you with its sandbox mode.

Welcome to the Sandbox

The sandbox mode is just what it sounds like. It's basically a free-form mode where you can adjust the game settings so you have a fully realized studio from any decade, and you can give yourself a virtually unlimited budget to work with. You can adjust the gameplay settings so that stars don't misbehave, buildings don't decay, and sets and other buildings are instantly constructed. This gives you the ability to just focus on making the movies that you want.

Creating a custom script is easy, thanks to the simple interface.
Creating a custom script is easy, thanks to the simple interface.

You can make your own movies by going to the custom script office and creating a script. The script-making portion of the game is kind of like an incredibly easy-to-use video-editing program. Generally, a movie features a beginning, middle, and an end, and you can create a script that matches those parameters. You can also experiment with the structure, as well, if you want to create, say, a Pulp Fiction-like movie. But for the purposes of this preview, we'll stick to the basics. To create a movie, you need to string together a series of scenes to make a story. To do this, just select a set that you'd like to use and drag it to the timeline. Once this is done, then you have to select the action or scene that you'd like to see. For instance, do you want the characters to walk into the scene quietly? Do you want the scene to be of a street battle? Or perhaps this is a scene where a vampire bites its victim? The Movies will ship with a huge number of possible scenes to select from. Once the set and scene are selected, you can customize the look of the scene by adding props, tinkering with the camera angles and the lighting, and much, much more. In theory, you could keep adding scenes to create an epic-length movie, as you're basically limited to hard drive space and time. Though in practice, most movies that you create will be measured in minutes. For fun, we made some silly movies quickly, such as the surreal The Neverending World War II Movie and Vampires Suck, a bizarre horror movie featuring vampires, zombies, and space creatures.

We've noted in previous previews about how you will be able to "direct" the action in scenes yourself by adjusting sliding bars that control the "intensity" of a scene. For example, if you have a scene of a car turning a corner, then you can make it a normal driving scene by keeping it at low intensity. Raise the intensity higher, however, and you've got a high-speed shot of a car zipping around a corner and even hitting some objects on the sidewalk. We didn't mess around much with this in our time with the game, as we chose to instantly shoot movies while in the sandbox mode.

OK, so after a movie script is finished and the movie is shot, you can drop it into postproduction, where you have the opportunity to add music, voice-overs, captions, and more. You can also edit the movie at this stage, by cutting and trimming scenes or even moving them around. The Movies will ship with an excellent amount of movie-quality music. They're so good that we swear we've heard some of the orchestral scores in a movie before, but they're all original. You can also import your own music and use that in the game. Adding subtitles will be one way of getting your characters to "speak," and all you have to do is type in the words on the appropriate bar in the editing tool. You can also match the words to a certain character so he or she can lip-synch. Finally, you can also add your own dialogue, by importing previously recorded dialogue or by simply plugging a microphone into your computer and recording directly into the game.

The Movies is one of the most creative and original games in years.
The Movies is one of the most creative and original games in years.

After spending quite a bit of time with the game, we came away very impressed with The Movies. Simply put, this is very much a game that has something for everyone. The strategy and studio-building portions of the game are engaging and well done, and the creative endeavor of moviemaking can be fun and rewarding. The Movies is also a game that has mainstream potential like no other game since The Sims. After all, practically everyone loves watching movies, and finally, here's a game where you can experience the highs and lows of making movies yourself. It's been a long wait for this game, but the good news is that The Movies will arrive on the PC in November.

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