How Blockbuster Inc. Made Me The Accidental Ruler Of Hollywood In Less Than Three Years

How Blockbuster Inc. Made Me The Accidental Ruler Of Hollywood In Less Than Three Years

In 1921, my Blockbuster Inc. film studio, Jickle Labs, had its first major hit. The film, West is Best, was a low-effort western that was mostly filmed on a single set, featuring no-name actors and no real discernable plot. In some shots, you can see the metal railing at the top of the sound stage in-frame. Like every film Jickle Labs film released in its first three years, it got poor reviews. But it hit number 1 at the box office, earning over $1 million in its first month – an enormous sum for the 1920s.

From there, my studio could do no wrong. As long as I kept making films, the only thing that kept any of them from hitting the top of the charts would be if another film I’d realised earlier, or at the same time, was outperforming it. West is Best swept at the Filmwood Awards that year, including a win for Best Picture. In 1922, all four best picture nominees were Jickle Labs films. By 1925, I had bought a controlling share of every operational movie studio in town, and the money was pouring in. Of course, technology had not advanced very far by then (even though one of my sets looked like a spaceship, and another was a cyberpunk city), and if I’m being honest, my films were getting worse and made with less love. But the money in the bank kept growing.

Having long realised that nothing I did during the “directing” of the film had any real impact on the film’s quality, even though making at least one directorial choice per scene is a mandatory step in the process, I went through the motions with each production. I assigned the best writers, stars, directors and producers who weren’t currently working on a project and added a bit of screen shake or a costume change to meet the technical criteria of having directed each scene. They were all incoherent, and I wondered why I was only allowed three actors per film when I had a growing stable of high-profile stars at my command.

After every year’s awards, I would lure the winners in the directing, producing and acting categories away from their studios by offering big salaries that barely touched the sides of the pile of money I now sat on. If someone was unhappy, I gave them more money. If a problem popped up – an actor was unwell, someone was kicked out of the apartment the studio rented for them, another studio was trying to mess with us – throwing money at the problem always fixed it.  I was incapable of financial failure, but I also could not make any movies outside of the very few genres that were still available to me – the rest were locked until later in the campaign, even though I had a fully staffed research division slowly accumulating points for me to spend in the now-empty research part of the menu.

By 1926, and a few hours of play, running Jickle Labs had grown stale – but I still felt a little thrill with every new release I crapped out. I was making movies, and they were hits! I filled my studio lot with palm trees, different sets, and all the amenities that I could provide for my employees. I paved paths and painted walls. I rented apartments in the city for my best stars. I produced hit after hit after hit, and I tried to take pride in it, even though it increasingly felt like a thing that was happening independent of the effort I was putting in.

When my teams stopped showing up for filming in 1926, I wasn’t sure if it was a bug or some issue that I could not diagnose in the game’s unclear UI, or if things were simply going too well and the game had decided to put a stop to it. Moving a set would sometimes mysteriously prompt filming to start again, but sometimes it wouldn’t. If a star was injured, they might be unavailable to shoot for a while, but there was no way to replace them or an easy way to check what was holding things up (the doctor’s office would not be invented for many years yet, so injured people simply had to go home and recover). At this point, not making anything still, somehow, made me a profit.

Meanwhile, I had an issue with my canteens that could never be resolved. I was constantly told that people could not reach a table, but it wasn’t clear which of my four canteens had this issue or whether it was a matter of positioning, availability or something else entirely. Was it because of the poor staff that people kept complaining? It was impossible to know because as each new in-game month dawned and the employees went to eat at the time I’d assigned for lunch, I’d get two pop-ups: one telling me that several people were praising the food served, and several others did not like it,  with no real input into how to fix the issue, or which canteens and staff they were specifically referring to.

I’d hire more workers, then click through each canteen to staff them, looking through the staff list… but it wouldn’t tell me who was working where, so if I set a staff member at one canteen, I might be ripping them out of another. These problems can be mitigated by simply building one huge canteen, where all your staff work, but there’s not actually much incentive to fix the issue – even when hungry and annoyed, my filmmakers never stopped working.

This is a symptom of a wider issue with Blockbuster Inc., a fundamental UI problem that made it hard to track what, if anything, I should actually be doing to improve my studio and the lives of my employees or keep production on my various films running smoothly. And if the money keeps coming in, did I really need to?

Jickle Labs was a runaway success. I wished that I had the ability or incentive to actually make a good film, but the filmmaking part of the experience is limited enough to render this essentially impossible. It could be that I picked the “easy” difficulty, I reasoned, except that the difficulty only modified the money I got at the very start of the campaign, and now I had a hundred times that amount.

Tired of my infallible monopoly in the 1920s and the extremely slow technological process that forced me to make essentially the same movies over and over again, I started a new studio 70 years later. There He Is! Productions would be a cool 90s indie studio that would make a lot of crappy, low-budget films and foster talent over time, building its way up to hits, I decided.  Blockbuster Inc. lets you start from any decade, with different equipment, technology, and genres available the later you go. Starting in the 90s, I was given a huge reserve of “research” to invest, and I was giddy with the options. I could make superhero films, R-rated films, or even branch out into television!  The studio system had not changed in the game the way it did in real life — no matter what era you’re playing, you still contract directors, producers, writers and stars and lock them into only working with you.

Finding my footing in the 90s was a little trickier. There were decades of cameras, lighting, special effects, genre developments to work with, special effects supervisors to appoint, new opportunities for learning and development for my staff, and higher incomes needed to keep staff happy. The filmmaking itself does not really change, but you’re empowered, theoretically, to pursue different kinds of movies. Thankfully, the game has excellent tutorials for every mechanic, and figuring out how it all fits together isn’t too difficult.

I took out bank loans and pushed through the first 18 months on the razor’s edge. The talent still wasn’t happy with the canteen. Filming still wouldn’t start for months, sometimes, without the game explicitly telling me why (once, I realised the writer had been in a classroom I’d built for months, learning how to be a better writer, when I was relying on him for a new script). My dream of making Slacker and Reservoir Dogs and Clerks faded away when A-level talent presented itself in my list of potential employable stars. I made a movie that scored a perfect 100 in reviews, somehow, and then took an offer to sell it to another studio to recoup a short-term windfall, which was pumped into more movies.

To my surprise, after those initial struggles, I was able to replicate my exact success from the 20s at about the same pace. I won best picture in 1992 and best studio in 1993. All my films hit number 1 on the charts again. The only big difference is that I spent less time designing my studio, paid less attention to aesthetics, and let time progress as fast as the game would allow. My sets were all using hugely outdated technology, because the amount of research points required for upgrades is enormous, and points accumulate very slowly. As long as I put out films fast — and there’s really nothing stopping you from doing so once you have a bit in the bank — success was all but guaranteed. If you buy stock in all the other companies, it’s possible to effectively reap the entire industry’s profits and become invincible.  Despite all the technology, the films being made were fundamentally the same underneath it all. One of my sets still had the old 1920s cameras set up on it, capturing footage in blurry black-and-white, and I never felt like I had a good reason to upgrade them – it did not seem to impact the success of my films.

It’s funny to play a game like this in 2024 when we can’t go one weekend at the box office without an “Are Cinemas Dying?” headline popping up the following Monday. As someone who goes to the cinema as often as he can and who has a rant in him about why three-hour movies are fundamentally good (don’t be tricked into thinking that time spent with art is a distraction or like you’re being kept from more important stuff. It’s the point of being alive!), there’s something a little disheartening about realising that the best way to play is to pump out endless dreck with bankable stars in it. But at the same time, there’s something weirdly exciting about a game where your films thrive like this. Imagine! A healthy ecosystem for profitable art!

All of this is to say that Blockbuster Inc is sometimes thrilling, frequently frustrating, and, right now, fairly undercooked. But despite all that, it has two big things going for it – an undeniably killer premise and future potential. For all the mechanical faults, the balance issues, and the lack of spark in the filmmaking portion of the game, I cannot talk about it without wanting to proudly share with you the full story of the rise of Jickle Labs. I never played The Movies, the game that most clearly inspired Blockbuster Inc., but I always wanted to. Playing this now is akin to scratching a long-held itch, albeit not soothing it entirely.

Blockbuster Inc. is a game that was made by a tiny team of three people, and viewed through that lens it’s an extremely impressive achievement. And it’s easy to see a bright future for the game if they decide to keep updating it, working through feedback and focusing on how to engage players more with the filmmaking process. The maxim is that you should always review the game you have, not the one you’re imagining in your head, and as it currently stands, Blockbuster Inc. is a rough cut in search of a good editor. But I can’t deny the appeal of building up Jickle Labs’ profits or expanding There He Is! Productions, attracting top talent to make (apparently) great movies. The film industry has always been one for dreamers, after all, and so are games like this, passion projects by small teams with a specific vision. Maybe one day, a final cut will realise the game’s full potential.

Blockbuster Inc. is out now on Steam. A review code was provided by the publisher.

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