So Microsoft has officially closed down Lionhead Studios. Depending on your age, the Lionhead name may not carry the same weight as our childhood friend LucasArts, but their legacy is one of daring unique games that will be fondly remembered for years to come. Lionhead were at one point comprised of key talent from the legendary Bullfrog Productions, and while those folks had long since moved on to other studios, it’s hard to disassociate precious memories from Lionhead’s fearsome logo. Join me as I talk about one of their earliest games and the magic contained within.
The Movies is the least mentioned Lionhead title, yet the one I have the most to say on. The objective of this film industry tycoon game is to lead a studio from the 1920s onward. Build a studio lot, establish a roster of actors, and adapt to new technology. Woven throughout is Lionhead’s silly sense of humor with parodic radio broadcasts. Radio personalities change to match the times and have a surprising amount of character development, reporting on historical events that usher in the latest trends. If a balloon crashes near Roswell, the interest in science fiction may jump significantly.
The Movies is reminiscent of The Sims in presentation—actors mumble an incoherent language in bright colorful surroundings and make extravagant gestures, expecting their mood meters to be tended to so they remain productive. Watch out though, letting them fulfil their every sordid whim unchecked can cause them to go full Charlie Sheen in no time. Actors can also age, making them suitable for certain movie roles and less so for others. Adorably a 50 year old action star is considered a big no-no within the game’s internal rules, except there are plenty of successful movies coming out today that sell on that premise. Hey, it’s a game, not a fortune teller. The first edition of Cyberpunk thought mobile phones were still going to be expensive bricks in 2013.
After a lot is built and the actors are satisfied, it’s time to make a movie. The automated process brings about the safest outcome, slapping together a nonsensical collection of scenes and showing the final result in a 30 second clip. Man Slipping On A Banana™ made millions at the box office and received rave reviews across the board. Of course, relying on the game to construct an appropriate movie will only go so far, as everything from star power to the camera crew’s experience affects the quality.
There’s also the option to create movies manually, and this is where The Movies provides in-game tools to dip into Machinima—the art of making movies from game engines. Fans of Neverwinter Nights may recall a solid campaign that merely turned out to be the gateway to a limitless supply of user-made content via the Aurora toolset, and there’s a similar deal going on here (however I stress the campaign portion of The Movies stands on its own). The Movies has a robust user-friendly editor with a huge selection of pre-made scenes that can be manipulated in a variety of ways. The soundtrack by award winning composer Daniel Pemberton is bundled in too, and adding your own music and voiceovers requires no technical expertise. The whole package is so simple a child could use it, and to the inexperienced it’s a perfect entry point into Machinima.
Putting the cherry on the Bakewell tart, The Movies had a whole online infrastructure set up, encouraging players to join a community and upload their creations to The Movies Online. Each movie was judged by other players using a five star rating system and had a place on the charts according to its popularity. Lionhead took on an enormous responsibility as they found themselves challenged by ragamuffins trying to subvert their system. Apart from a flood of copyrighted material, some "one star ninjas"or "bandits" actually sat at their computers creating account after account just to lower the overall score of a movie, and thus its visibility from The Movies Online charts. Meanwhile on the other side of the spectrum there were review trading threads blatantly asking for five star ratings. When this was banned, there was still an unspoken understanding between users that a five star rating would be returned as a courtesy.
Despite the last paragraph making it sound like a cesspit, the bad apples were a footnote. At the peak of its popularity, The Movies Online was a bustling hive of cooperation with thousands of like-minded folks coming together to share their projects or offer voiceover services. You've got to understand, this was 2006 when YouTube was in its infancy. Many of these faces went on to be part of YouTube’s sudden explosion of gaming critics. Even a young AngryJoe was there, although I think he took a wrong turn at the Fable forum. The online service was discontinued in 2008, but the community survives in one form or another at TMUnderground. Lionhead might not have a promising career in fortune telling, but I doubt the most potent mystic could've predicted that ten years after release The Movies would still have an online following. Now that’s what I call a legacy.
Apologies for the lack of screenshots. The Movies has no digital release aside from a Mac version and is difficult to get working on modern operating systems. If you'd like to see it restored, you could always wish upon a star. Or GoG.