Blockbuster Inc. Review – Box Office Blues

I am a great lover of the movies. I’ve even got one of those movie passes because I go to the theater so frequently, and as a kid I directed and edited dozens of home movies with friends, dreaming of one day being a director. Additionally, I love reading and talking about the film industry itself nearly as much as the movies themselves. Sue me, I took too many economics classes in college. Blockbuster Inc. from debut indie studio Super Sly Fox games looked like it might be able to scratch both of those itches simultaneously, but unfortunately by reducing the art of film making to pure numbers, the heart of the art form is missing entirely.

Blockbuster Inc. is a top-down simulation game that puts players in charge of their own movie studio, warts and all. The issue I have with Blockbuster Inc. pretty much begins at the design stage, because the game is about 90% management of a studio, 10% movie making. In practicality, it feels much more like Two Point Hospital or a similar kind of management sim game, and the movies almost aren’t even important. Depending on what you’re looking for out of this game, this might be your jam. It’s not really mine.

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Building your lot out takes time but can be rewarding. It’s just hard to manage when you’re trying to balance the checkbook at the same time.

You’ll start with creating a studio, naming it, and choosing a difficulty level. The difficulty level basically just determines what amount of seed money your studio begins with, and here’s where Blockbuster Inc.‘s biggest crime comes to light. There is no Creative or Sandbox mode. The only way to make movies in the movie making simulator is by spending most of your time on the management simulator it’s wrapped in.

The issue on top of this is that the management simulator itself isn’t very interesting or good, either. The clunky UI, wildly over-complicated layers, and slow pace of the real time clock just don’t add up to being fun. There’s a lot of building involved as well, so you’ll begin Blockbuster Inc. by physically building your studio and creating required rooms for producers, writers, maintenance staff, and more. You need to buy vegetation, build custom stages for sets, and pair the right writer and director based on their stats. You’ll also personally hire these people, each of whom have specific strengths and weaknesses, educate and train them, run performance reviews on them, feed them… you can see where I’m going with this. Let me make a damn movie.

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You’ll have to do research to unlock more genres, but they have so little to offer you in terms of movie making it’s almost not worth it.

While the options are pretty limited at the movie making stage, it’s actually pretty fun, and even more fun with a friend or two sitting in and making suggestions. My first film was a 1930s black and white horror movie called Vampires of Minnesota, which was panned by fans and critics alike. With a runtime of a whopping 17 seconds, I packed a lot of action in. Blockbuster Inc. also goes so far as to generate a Metacritic score and fake reviews for your movie, which is a really nice touch. However, the results of how your movie reviews and how much it makes in the box office is all dependent on sliders, which takes a lot of heart out of the process.

You pick a MPAA rating, a genre, a theme, etc out of drop down lists when setting up production. Then you set the content, such as how much action, romance, lore, or dialogue it contains. Then you get the fun part, which is making the movie. The issue is that all the stuff you do before the movie is what determines how well the movie does in the box office. Making an action movie? If you put the romance slider too high, even if there’s none in the movie, you flop. I know it’s not realistic to want an indie game to have the ability analyze a short film and produce a score, but all the same reducing it all to making sure the numbers add up feels very… icky. Very Hollywood.

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Why are there so many stats? What am I even looking at?

While making your film, you can set up scenes by selecting actors, putting them in costumes, setting emotes and effects, and then working the camera to get the shot you need. All of these things are severely lacking in content. There are around 30 emotes the actors can do, and none of them involved kissing or hugging, rendering the entire romance genre that is included in the game useless. There are a few stunts that are kind of hilarious to watch. You must do research to unlock better camera, lighting, and mic equipment for more options as well as more genres, but again, I found each to be lacking in content for what is supposed to be a movie making simulator.

The camera is very hard to control, and you can’t even get the angles you want half the time, which dilutes the fun of cinematography. The limited effects options include only smoke, fire, and water. There are about 40 costumes, but only two of them are everyday clothes, so if you’re filming a drama you’re stuck with those exact ones. There is a very limited movie editor thankfully with sound effects, but no included soundtracks or ability to add voice acting. What I’m getting at is that it feels as though the developers spent all their time making a management game and threw in the movie making part at the last minute.

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Vampires of Minnesota was ahead of its time, and years from now film nerds on Reddit will call me a true auteur.

Directing your film is the sole fun part of Blockbuster Inc., and it is extremely fun. It’s also wildly funny, and my friend and I fell into a laughing fit that lasted over five minutes while shooting the opening scene of Rush Hour IV, which in our universe was a reboot of the buddy cop comedy that pairs a lazy modern-day scientist with Anubis, the ancient Egyptian God of Death, on a globe-trotting hunt for a lost pirate treasure. I laughed so hard I spilled my drink on the final scene of our Italian werewolf romance picture Il Amore del Luna, when the two love interests dance next to each other while a sad harp plays because there is no kissing emote.

A friend of mine used to ask “was the game fun, or are your friends fun?” every time people would bring up a multiplayer game. I drew an unbelievable amount of joy out of the two hours my friend and I got to spend actually making a movie together, laughing at how stupid it all was. I also had very little fun playing Blockbuster Inc. on my own, even during the movie making parts. I am typically a huge fan of management games, but this one is both a slog and more complex than it ever needed to be.

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Rush Hour IV really went in a different direction than the first three, but I think they pulled it together in the end.

Frankly, Blockbuster Inc. does not seem finished. It’s unpolished everywhere, and lacking in content for the important part (making a movie) but overflowing in content for the management part that is wildly unfun. If this game were in Early Access, I’d heartily recommend it, since it looks like there’s a lot of development left to be done. The developers are even announcing a road map soon, which again makes me feel like the game isn’t finished.

Regardless, I could forgive the lack of movie making content if there was a Sandbox mode that allowed you to freely make movies with all available props, stunts, effects, and equipment in the game without worrying about your studio. Even though Lionhead’s movie making simulator The Movies was made 20 years ago and frankly left a lot to be desired, it certainly achieved the premise better than Blockbuster Inc by a mile.  Hopefully a Sandbox mode is on the horizon. In the meantime, I’d recommend this only for those who love multi-tiered management games. Those who love movies and the art form of making them shouldn’t book a seat just yet.

Nirav reviewed Blockbuster Inc. on PC with a review code.

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