"Why the hell hasn't someone done something like this before?" Lionhead chief Peter Molyneux wondered out loud at the unveiling of his latest sim baby, The Movies. Boyish enthusiasm undimmed despite this being his eighth presentation out of a dozen that day, it was clear the development veteran was enjoying showing off a game that could easily surpass The Sims as a mass market entity. After all, who doesn't fancy the chance to make a movie?
The concept is simple, and a logical progression from those well-loved Bullfrog classics Theme Park and Theme Hospital, with a splash of the persistent state of Black & White thrown in there for good measure. Would be Spielbergs must set up their own movie studio and produce cinematic mini-trailer movies, encompassing a huge variety of genres including horror, western, romance, war movies, sci-fi and more.
Be a movie god
Players get control over just about everything; the hiring and firing of real life directors, cast and crew; control over the set and even the premiere event. When you see for your own eyes just how simple a process this is, you'll be nodding in agreement with Molyneux: the straightforward implementation makes you wonder why no-one bothered to attempt this before.
The basic core of the game is presented in the traditional isometric format, using a tweaked version of the Black & White engine that not only delivers a fine looking game world with plenty of attention to detail, but also allows for some cunning character morphing technique that allow your stars to age (dis)gracefully depending on the progress of their career.
Suppose you've assembled your all-star cast for your latest horror blockbuster, 'Stuck In The Woods'. Directed by Wes Craven, you've got Drew Barrymore, Clint Eastwood and Bruce Campbell on board, but what about the script? Depending on how much time your writer has devoted to your masterpiece, the script could either come across like something the author scribbled on the back of a fag packet or a critical marvel.
In this current early build, when you commission the script, a 'star' rating creeps up to a maximum of five, but at any time you can accept what's been written, no matter how bad. Let's assume time was not on your side, or that you couldn't be bothered to wait around - whatever the reasons, the way each scene plays out will be directly affected by the choices you make, and in turn the money it brings in at the box office.
Make movies even worse than the pros!
Likewise, if you opt for an inappropriate cast or director, you could end up with an unintentionally hilarious B movie, full of odd delivery and emphasis. Similarly, it's in your hands to decide how you want to pitch the action in any particular scene. Fancy some all out shocking, gratuitous gore? Simply slide the violence bar up to full and your actor will perhaps pull out a double-barrelled shot gun and blow the Vampire away.
On the other hand, if you're scared of the commercial impact of an adult rating, you might end up witnessing a catapult fight instead. In one hilarious moment, the player can change a girly slap fest into a fisticuffs brawl, onto strangulation and bone-cracking head-stomping, or a smoochy kiss and cuddle to a groping squelchathon on the floor in an instant. Like we said; it's all up to you and the choices you make, and it's great fun seeing it in action.
Once you've filmed all your various scenes, and recorded your voiceovers, you end up with a short trailer which can be saved to a variety of formats, including MPEG, AVI or an internal format, and uploaded to The Movies' website for others to see your latest piece of cinematic art. "You're going to see thousands of these floating about," smiles Molyneux. Should be amusing if nothing else.
Given that The Movies is a continuous quest from the early 1900s to the early 21st century, whatever you do will have a bearing on how things pan out way down the line. You could, for example, hire a beautiful young actress to play the childhood sweetheart role in your latest romance flick. The problem is, just like in real life, give a budding young thing a taste of success and they'll develop an ego the size of Jupiter, along with a lorry load of demands and conditions. Some might decide they only want to work in the afternoon, or develop a drink problem and bloat accordingly.
Do you know who I am?
Along with the colossal ego your starlets may possess comes a delusional sense of their worth, and may conceivably demand to be cast in the same childhood sweetheart roles throughout their career - even as a plastic surgery-obsessed hobbling geriatric. Of course, the question is how you manage your stars (do you send them into detox?) and whether you pander to their whims (you want how much?) - the power is there to make or break these prima donnas, and seeing stars that you've created end up on the scrap heap might well be the most satisfying thing to have ever happened in a videogame. As Molyneux says: "Dealing with the emotion of stars is the cool part of it."
Possibly even cooler is the community aspect of the game which allows players to build up their stars and auction them off online. "The community element is really important," says Molyneux. And it's not difficult to imagine why he thinks this, especially with the game scheduled for release across four platforms, all with online capabilities. Users will even be able to vote online for their favourite virtual creations, although Molyneux didn't reveal what this would entail at this early stage.
But it's not all about the stars, nor is it the only cool thing about the game. The Movies considers the evolution of the industry, right from the very first slapstick obsessed silent films, right up to the present day multi-million dollar special effects laden blockbusters. With an eye on technological research you can take advantage of new developments throughout the decades, including sound, colour, through to blue screen special effects and computer graphics to bolster the capabilities of your burgeoning studio empire.
Do a better job of The Phantom Menace
Molyneux even boldly claims that you'll be able to remake your favourite movies ("even Star Wars"), choosing the exact same cast - all at the same stage in their movie career - and replicate given scenes "down to the haircut". "You could, theoretically, put Keanu Reeves in his real life movies throughout his career, upload him to the website and auction him off." Whoa dude. In fact, Molyneux has already earmarked a number of spin-off add-on packs, including the 'Director's Cut' that will give users "control over every aspect" over their creation, including camera angles, the voiceovers and so on. The Lionhead chief went as far to say that tie-ins with movies would be a possibility, ("imagine a Terminator 3 add-on pack with all the real sets, etc")
But when's the bloody thing out? This side of 2005? Typically, Molyneux shuffled uncomfortably, and glanced at his faithful PR representative Cathy Campos, before uttering the ambiguous "we'll cross our fingers for next year".
"There's a lot to balance; it's got to be simple but deep… but I'd be disappointed if it was not out in this decade." The rascal. "I've learned that I get in so much trouble for promising release dates." Expect the PC version first, with the GameCube, PS2 and Xbox versions "as closely together as we can".
Inevitably we spotted the porn potential in The Movies and asked whether Lionhead would let users make their own saucy trailers. "We thought if we don't do it, the hackers will and it'd be ten times worse." Don't, however, expect hardcore pot shots. The game would never get released, now would it?
Warning: very work in progress
Although it has been some 18 months in production already, Molyneux was at pains to point out that his latest creation was "very work in progress" with few sound effects, a placeholder interface and the usual wish list of features that inevitably appear. Inevitably there will be enormous doubt and conjecture over when we'll see this in the shops, but unlike previous projects, this one's built on existing tech. Despite our nagging doubts about being able to remake Memento, The Movies is shaping up to be one of the most eagerly anticipated games around. It's probably wise to express cautious excitement at this point, but from what we've seen it's got 'bigger than The Sims' written all over it.