Empire TV Tycoon is a misleading, and frankly strange name for what is a relatively paired down simulation of TV station management. Rather than tasking you with building a TV station from the ground up, managing resources, hiring staff, and programming channels, Empire gives you a thin slice of these elements in a fairly quick fire game of ‘Who can be the best at TV stations in a week or so’. This is simulation at its lightest – your programming decisions will quickly become a case of A + B = C, and barely reflect the true nature of the television industry. This isn’t a huge problem – Empire can still suck you in for hours at a time – but it still feels like a waste of great potential.
We begin our foray into the world of television by picking and naming one of three avatars, and Christening a TV channel. In a moment of zero inspiration, I opted for ‘Channel 9’, run by Olympic Gold medallist and renowned professional wrestler Kurt Angle. At the top of a large office building, I began vying for superiority over my rivals: ‘Green Channel’ and ‘Blue Channel’, run by two yuppies I forgot to name. In Empire TV Tycoon, money is not the be-all-end-all, rather it’s a means to an end. The real aim of the game is fame – the studio that accumulates enough ‘Fame Points’ by accruing awards, winning ratings wars, and completing advertising contracts, will inevitably become the victor.
Your job is to select suitable programming for the particular audience that’s tuning in, and assign adverts to those blocks in order to rake in cash. Audiences are handily diluted into recognizable stereotypes, including men, women, geeks, lovers, elders, rockers etc. So for example, if you want your ‘Global Gym’ advert to pay off, you might schedule alongside a re-run of Coach Carter or Cinderalla Man, and at a time when you know ‘athletes’ will be watching. Most genres are easy to figure out in terms of audience appeal – sci-fi and fantasy works for geeks, action movies work for men etc. – although some are a little trickier to work out, and require a fair amount of guesswork.
There’s an unavoidable hole in Empire’s systemic representation of a TV station – it doesn’t behave like a real TV station. There’s no accounting for diverse tastes or realistic programme times. There’s no watershed, no taking into account time-targeted programming (scheduling cooking programmes or food adverts at dinner time is TV 101), and some of the audience-to-genre pairings are way too simplistic. For example, I discovered early on that ‘rockers’ enjoy watching musicals, a fact that makes sense on paper, but doesn’t really reflect real-life audience profiles. The ‘rocker’ in question is represented by a sullen metalhead caricature, a figure who looks most our of place settling in to watch Grease 2 or Live Aid. Empire TV Tycoon’s simulation simply isn’t robust enough to make a lot of your decisions gratifying.
Similarly, it’s odd to find yourself running a TV station that deals primarily in movie re-runs. 95 percent of your programming will be made up of movies spanning seven decades, rather than the drama series, reality programmes and game shows actually broadcast on television. To see three channels simultaneously broadcasting 80s sports movies at primetime actually goes a long way towards taking you out of the experience.
Despite being filled with painfully unfunny Heisenberg and Doc Brown rip-offs, the TV station building itself actually becomes one of the game’s most important characters. Your responsibilities are spread out between different floors, with workers on one, your office (where you schedule programming blocks) on another, and your own in-house TV and film studio on the highest floor. There are also universal floors available to every channel, such as tech upgrades to increase audience reach or programming at your disposal, and a film library for purchasing movie re-runs.
These are all accessed by a shared lift – something that initially feels like an annoying waste of time, but eventually provides the game with some much needed tension and a palpable sense of urgency. If you’ve forgotten to fill an upcoming programming block, but your too busy browsing the basement for copies of RoboCop, then waiting for the elevator can mean the difference between winning and losing the ratings war, particularly when your rival executives also need to traverse the office building.
It’s a real shame about Empire’s attempts at humour though. Simply borrowing lines from TV shows and films doesn’t count as reference humour – it’s just referencing, a problem that plagues most videogames that attempt to tackle comedy. The only funny moments in Empire come from creating in-house TV shows and movies. Submitting Battlestargate – A Kurt Angle Sci-Fi to an awards ceremony (and winning, I might add) is worth a few chuckles, as is reading some of the godawful Mad Libs-ian scripts dredged up by your in-house screenwriters.
It’s an ironic jab though, because Empire is rife with its own simple spelling and grammar errors. Nary a sentence goes by without containing an English mistake of some kind, and though they range from the sad to the hilarious, they could all have been caught by a couple of proofreading runs. The game’s clear pixel-art and helpful, music-enhanced UI (the soundtrack changes depending on what genre is currently being broadcasted) makes digesting information easy, but that matters little when so much of it is incorrectly relayed to you in the first place.
There are some really nice touches in Empire TV Tycoon, but not enough to keep you tycoon-ing for more than a few quickfire rounds. Choosing whether or not to broadcast pirated copies of Doctor Strange is a nice example of risk-reward mechanics impacting your studio, and creating your own movies provides the game with a much need sense of customizability. There’s simply isn’t enough wiggle-room here to really make you feel like a real Rupert Murdoch.
If it has taught me one thing, it’s that you can show Die Hard at midnight, and twenty five million people will watch it. Yippee Ki Yay.