Idol Manager, a long-awaited new release from developer Glitch Pitch and publisher Playism, is a great example of a type of game we don’t really get a lot of any more: the management sim.
Management sims used to be a big deal in ’90s gaming, and outside of the occasional console port, tended to be specifically associated with the PC gaming field. The emphasis on in-depth financial management and statistical analysis tended to mean that they were much better suited to the high-resolution screens of PC monitors than old-school TVs — plus mouse control tended to be a much more satisfying and intuitive means of getting around the interfaces of this kind of game.
In more recent years, the mobile and casual games markets threatened to all but destroy the classic management sim by providing experiences that looked like the old-school sims of yore, but which were actually mindless, shallow tap-and-wait (or pay-to-skip) affairs in which no strategy or actual management was involved. No-one has ever quite forgiven EA for what they did to Theme Park and Dungeon Keeper, nor Atari for their recent crimes against RollerCoaster Tycoon. And don’t even get me started on Tiny Tower; how anyone thought that game’s utterly mindless nature was a successor to the classic SimTower is beyond me.
But I digress. Idol Manager is very much a modern take on the classic ’90s management sim, with a few concessions to today’s gaming trends, such as some light “clicker” elements and a visual novel-style narrative component.
In Idol Manager, you are cast in the role of a new producer who is taking over an abandoned building at the behest of a local businessman of questionable background, morals and ethics. Having previously run a somewhat shady operation out of the building, it seems that Mr. Fujimoto, as your new friend is known, is keen to go somewhat “legit”, and thus encourages you to start your own idol agency. He’ll even let you have one floor of the building rent-free — but you’ll have to pay for any further expansion.
From here, your job consists of building new rooms in the tower, hiring staff to occupy those rooms, setting those staff to work, recruiting idols and producing a variety of media using said idols. Your ultimate aim is, of course, to make as much money as possible, but there is a story mode as well, that sets you a series of structured goals in order to advance your way through a narrative, develop a rivalry with another character and perhaps find out what Mr. Fujimoto is up to.
Idol Manager’s “clicker” element consists of the fact that each day, you can choose to get your idols to Perform (which brings in money), Promote (which increases their fanbase) or take a Spa Day (which costs money, but restores their stamina). These options, although simple, provide you with something to do while you’re waiting for other things to happen — because the more substantial actions you take in the game all require varying amounts of time to complete. We’re not talking mobile game-style “hours unless you pay £5 to skip the timer” waits here, mind; we’re talking maybe an in-game day or two, the speed of which varies according to the speed you set the game to run at.
Idol Manager’s tutorial introduces you to the basics of the game, but after a certain point it rather suddenly leaves you to start exploring things for yourself. To be fair, by the point the tutorial fizzles out you can probably figure out the rest of the game’s interface for yourself, but for those easily daunted by games that don’t systematically walk you through each and every icon and menu item, be prepared for this.
Structurally and mechanically, the game follows the mould of classic management sims to a tee. Your early goals will be to make yourself as self-sufficient as possible, and as such you’ll need to discover some ways to make money. There are plenty of opportunities to do this in Idol Manager, ranging from the aforementioned “clicker” mechanics to more substantial means of making passive income. Getting your idols to host regular livestreams, radio or TV shows, for example, is a good means of bringing in money each week — though there are, of course, expenses to offset against that income.
Office staffers can be hired to pursue business opportunities for your idols, including events such as appearances in photoshoots and advertisements. Each of these opportunities tends to demand a particular specialism, with idols who have better statistics in the appropriate areas potentially bringing more money in. At the same time, you need to take care to manage your idols’ stamina and fame levels — focus too much on one idol and you risk leaving the others behind in terms of exposure while exhausting the one you’ve been emphasising.
Any time you want your idols to work on a project, it’s a team effort that extends well beyond just the performers. Music singles require lyrics to be written, music to be composed, choreography to be crafted and marketing plans to be devised. Video and radio shows need people who know what they’re doing to set things up. And special events require their own form of management.
On top of all this, in order to expand beyond your basic capabilities, you’ll need to invest research points (and/or money) to pursue a wider variety of opportunities. All your staff members (except your idols) will passively generate research points any time they’re not doing anything else, so sometimes it’s important to leave them to do this rather than constantly having everyone taking actions. Much like in the classic management sims of yore, it’s all too easy to try and do too much too soon and find yourself bankrupt — though for completionists, there are some events and CGs to unlock from getting yourself into such an unwinnable situation!
Narrative-wise, Idol Manager does a nice job of capturing the both the idealistic, candy-coloured, public-facing front of the idol industry as well as the more sleazy underbelly of the business. Particularly in the story mode, you’ll often be presented with difficult choices to make regarding how you represent your company as a manager, and how you deal with various situations involving your idols.
For example, your first meeting with your main “rival” in Idol Manager involves appearing on a game show that offers an opportunity for the winning manager’s idol group to appear on television — but towards the end of the recording session it’s suggested that if you deliberately throw the game and let your opponent win, there will be a bigger opportunity waiting for you instead. What is the “right” thing to do in that situation — particularly when it becomes clear that your rival may have been offered a similar “deal”?
The game also has a keen awareness and acknowledgement of modern trends and their potentially troublesome impact on public figures. You might find yourself having to deal with online social media role-players who are pretending to be the idols in your group — should you come down hard on them, let them have their fun, or make use of the social media platform’s standard reporting facilities in the hope that things might work out?
It’s rarely a game where you have to just sit and wait for something to happen, in other words — and as the game progresses, it becomes more and more complex and interesting for you to deal with your growing lineup of idols. You’ll have to contend not only with their own abilities, but with their attitudes towards one another — and with their feelings towards you. Through interacting with them, you’ll learn about their own personal goals and have the opportunity to help them achieve them — and naturally, this will give you influence over them for when you need (or want) them to do something for you.
Crucially, Idol Manager provides you with the opportunity to fail, which is something that modern casual and mobile takes on the genre simply don’t do. And if you can fail, you can learn — plus you’ll doubtless have some interesting stories to tell from the disasters you’ve experiences as you get to grips with the business.
There’s a great deal more which could be said about Idol Manager, but honestly a lot of the joy of the game comes from discovering the wide variety of situations you and your company can get into. And if you want more, modders have already got to work on the game with packs of new events to make your daily life as an idol producer even more interesting and chaotic.
If you enjoy classic ’90s-style management gameplay, this should be high on your shopping list. And if you’re new to what can be a potentially daunting genre, Idol Manager is an accessible way to get involved; its good humour, slick presentation and enjoyable blend of scripted and emergent narrative all keep things constantly engaging and interesting. And as any veteran of the management sim’s golden age will tell you — that’s a sure-fire recipe for a game that will keep you up until the small hours.
Idol Manager is available now via Steam. Thanks to Playism for the review copy.
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