14 December 2015

Mystery Science Theater is... coming back?

For those not in the know by now, Joel Hodgson started a Kickstarter campaign in November in order to fund a new production season of Mystery Science Theater 3000.  The principals have been cast  -- Jonah Heston as the human riffer, Baron Vaughn and Hampton Yount as Tom Servo and Crow respectively, and Felicia Day alongside Patton Oswalt as the new Mads Kinga Forrester and TV's Son of TV's Frank.

The Kickstarter raised $6.3 million dollars between direct donations ($5.7MM) and add-on purchases ($600k) over the typical thirty-day open solicitation period.  The amount raised set a record for film/television projects, but just barely... by only a few thousand over the Veronica Mars film.  Joel Hodgson set a graduated goal, stating that $2 million was necessary just to get on the board with three episodes but that the ultimate target was a twelve-episode season, which would end up costing $5.5M.  Joel received that and a bit more, with all of the extra money raised going into creating two additional episodes to bring the first season up to fourteen episodes.  The final amount was gained through one of the goofiest trainwrecks of a telethon you'd ever watched.  This was even more awkward and technical-issue-ridden than the fake fictional one that "Weird Al" Yankovic envisioned in his movie "UHF".  Far less money, too...  And if there ever was a quintessential Joel moment, it was when he looked drowsy when announcing that the Kickstarter hit his *first* stretch goal of $5.9MM to get the thirteenth episode.  It was like watching him helm the Satellite of Love twenty years ago.

At present, there is no outlet for broadcasting these episodes.  However, being fully-funded for one season was Joel's goal so that he could literally bring "free" content to a provider and show the support of the show.  The provider would receive any sort of advertising revenue, with the hope that the advertising from the provider would induce the provider to fund more seasons, while being able to sell the show's audience to advertisers.  This brings us to the present day with the situation, awaiting Joel's post-mortem tomorrow.

So, the last month really did happen.  Fifteen years have passed since the Sci-Fi Network decided that they would not fund more episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000.  Oddly enough, every single one of the principals from MST3k ended up going on to do projects that were.... just MST3k in different forums other than television.  Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett, and Kevin Murphy seem to be making a very good living from Rifftrax since 2006 (nine years!).  Joel reformed the old guard into Cinematic Titanic, which ran for another six years between 2007 and 2013.

It was always odd to me that these side projects ran for such a long time yet there was no ability or way to get MST3k on the air again.  Cable television has exploded with so many channels through the last five years, and now that Netflix and Yahoo are creating new content for delivery via internet there's even more media options available.  On top of that, according to Joel, MST3k was always a low-budget affair.  The very last time Joel was onscreen as principal riffer, "Mitchell", the crew simulated static on a video feed by literally tossing white shredded paper in the shot... they couldn't even afford the extra monitor and camera to film while degrading the signal in 1993.

Now, some outlet or another will get the opportunity to bid on this show... and they'll have a reel of fourteen episodes, multiplied by ninety minutes of footage -- twenty-one hours of content of a fully realized show, fully funded by fans, and all they have to do is add advertisements.  Joel's Ask Me Anything said that he conceives that the show can last another thirty years with support.  It seems though that the the only current support are the fans... who by the way ponied up an average of $120 per person in order to fulfill the Kickstarter campaign.

I can't help but be apprehensive for where this project will end up going.  New riffers means that there will also be people that need to learn how to write riffs for movies.  Joel made the point that he tapped people from a wide range of previous occupations to write for him (and yes, sadly neither of your blogging hosts are on the list....), and these people will need to get up to speed.  Every single character is new and will need to be fleshed out, given a solid voice, and will need the sympathy of an audience in order to get away with some of the funniest riffs... putting three Donald Trumps in a shadowramma would end the show very quickly.  And this is on top of the fact that the show is cheap, has a built-in audience, and has had multiple successful online knockoffs through the last decade and a half but has not been brought back to television in any way, even by someone that was considered to have a business acumen (Jim Mallon).

One last point to make about the reboot is that this is happening with what seems to be an all-West Coast cast.  All of the guest-stars and guest-writers are also in the showbiz mold, having earned fame from other projects.  I don't know a whole lot about the new writing crew, bit the hope is that they can bring some balance to the finished project.  The writers used to be proud that they were performing in a "midwestern puppet show", and I am not sure how it will go if they lose the sense of confrontation and being wayyyy outside the halls of coolness that Minneapolis brought them.

This is not to say that I didn't put my money down on the table.  I anted up for this project, and I don't exactly have a lot of pocket change that I can devote to things like this... and the main reward that I was looking for from the Kickstarter will not be available until fifteen months from now.  Joel is helming the project and I am hoping that he can train up the next denizens of the Satellite of Love and Deep 13 into a fighting force.  And to be perfectly truthful, when I heard that Patton Oswalt was involved, it made me feel at least a little bit better.

So the Satellite of Love will float on.  I also hope that it will float on for many years to come... I love the characters, I love the concept, and I do still enjoy writing my own content within the idea of the show even if there's not a lot of time to produce free content within my schedule anymore.  I may even meta-MST some of these new episodes if the time and fancy strikes.

Though apprehensive, I am hopeful that this is the right time for Mystery Science Theater 3000 and that the show will work well.  In this day and age a provider only needs to market to perhaps two million people to get enough support and profit in order to keep a production going.  Even with the likes of Rifftrax around, I hope that both Rifftrax and Mystery Science Theater 3000 will be able to find the audiences and support it needs to do battle with pop culture into next Sunday A.D.  (And yes, I'm still available to write!  Follow the link above to my portfolio!)

13 December 2015

#2LR Too Late Reviews -- Europa Universalis IV (EU 4)

Weirdly enough, strictly speaking this is not one of my too-late reviews... the thoughts that I have below are directly related to changes that Europa Universalis IV has undergone since I've purchased the game in March of 2015.  I bought EU4 during one of the discounted Steam sales.  I had heard that it was more complex and interesting than Civilization V, which is definitely one of my favorite strategy games of all time.  The reviews weren't kidding, EU4 was complex and it has a learning curve associated with it.  This learning curve was not helped by the fact that I had an extremely hard time finding any sort of instructions for the game... I played it for about two months until I realized that I could do diplomatic annexations of vassals, for instance.

I was finally getting the hang of the game though, until I ran into the dreaded update cycle.  The developers pushed out an update to the gameplay of EU4 (titled "Common Sense").  When I read about the update it seemed like it would bring a lot of interesting things to the game.  But when I opened the game and started to play it, I was even more confused over what was happening in the game, going to the forums to try to figure out how things were happening, even going to Youtube.  And that's when I found out that unless you paid for the "full" DLC upgrade rather than just getting the pushed-out half-updates, you wouldn't get all of the interesting benefits.  And as far as I can tell, waiting out any of the DLC is not worth it... the developers will still charge for the previous DLC even though they've pushed out a new DLC, so there's no benefit to try to hang on through the game's updates when you don't have much money to spend.

I have played EU4 for a bit over 100 hours, while I have played Civ 5 for somewhere close to 1500 hours.  And there are two reasons that I can play Civ 5 for far more time and have started far more Civ 5 games.  The first is that while the Civ 5 folks have put out paid DLC upgrades to the game, they don't alter the gameplay for the people who don't want to pay for the DLC upgrades.  And the second is that I feel that Civ 5 has a lot of replayability compared to EU4, in that Civ 5 has multiple different ways to "win" the game, where you have to manipulate all of EU4's different strategies in service to basically one goal, expansion... for instance, I have won games in Civ 5 with only one city, but I do not believe that it's possible in any way to "win" a game of EU4 with only one province, or to build a military purely to dissuade others from attacking.

The last note might be related to only having played EU4 for a bit over 100 hours and only against the computer on "normal" difficulty.  However, I would have thought that by this time I would have understood the mechanics of the game much better.  I continue to end up with bad beats rolling dice on military expeditions.  There are more than a few times that I have declared war as a stronger country against a weaker country only to find out in the next forty-five minutes that I can't win... and when I restart the game and try to use the knowledge I just gained from the previous forty-five minutes, I'll get defeated in a new and less creative way.  I can tell stories of armies skirting my main force, of getting beat to a province by a day but getting the complete and full crossing penalties in the subsequent fight, of defeating a lesser force to only 5% of their morale only to have a far larger force join in the nick of time to completely upend the battle, of having better generals and equal forces yet losing anyway, and having my allies never consolidate their forces with mine against my foes when my foes consolidated all their forces the whole time.

TL;DR: I had thought that I was right in the wheelhouse of this game's target audience.  I love history, I love geography, and I enjoy the alternate histories that EU4 can spawn.  However, between an inability to learn the game over 100 hours, not being able to pay for each DLC that comes out, and the fact that the game is somewhat broken without the DLCs, it's not worth playing unless you have a LOT of time and the money to keep up with the updates.

This review has been cross-posted to some Steam board or another as a review.