They say all publicity is good publicity- but what of you can't get any? It's so easy to cast a critical eye over past political and social issues and events, but not so easy to content with contemporary bones of contention- or so developer Vile Monarch has learnt.
Their game, Weedcraft Inc, was released this month. You might not have heard much about it, and there's a reason for that- it would seem that marketing a game about weed is almost as hard as marketing the real thing. In an ironic example of life imitating art, the team of Weedcraft Inc are finding themselves faced with similar challenges faced in its own game-play.
In an early press release, the premise of the game is described as follows:
Weedcraft Inc explores the industry of producing, breeding and selling weed in America in a deeply detailed tycoon-style game where players choose how they want to approach and build their business. Players can run smaller, independent businesses, but as in real life, the big opportunities often involve going the corporate route and expanding your weed empire nationally. Or, as nationally as you can manage, considering that pot remains illegal in 40 states.
The tongue-in-cheek nature of the final few words is somewhat indicative of their nativity in the face of the PR challenges they would later find themselves handling. Kacper Kwiatkowski sheds further light on the first seeds of doubt:
"As both we and Devolver were new to the tycoon genre in terms of development, we consulted with a wide range of experts, including a pretty legendary tycoon game developer, who let us know from the beginning that he didn't want his name publicly associated, which was perhaps our first real sign of the global controversy we were heading into with this game”
The developer, Vile Monarch, consulted with a number of currently active cannabis industry experts in development of the title, including genetic scientists, legal experts, advertising specialists, entrepreneurs, and influencers in order to reflect all of the current intricacies of this semi prohibition-era business as accurately as possible. Almost none of these consultants wanted to be included or credited by name in the game due to potential legal conflicts or personal professional affiliation concerns.
The game serves as a fascinating case study in the wider debate around what should and shouldn't be censored in society, or promoted through advertising. Mike Wilson, co-founder of Devolver and executive producer on Weedcraft Inc., highlights this:
“The fact that we have no such problems marketing ultra violent content, whereas this is an educational game where you can play and win as a completely scrupulous entrepreneur, is beyond ridiculous.”
Although the game features no illicit use of marijuana, Devolver Digital is currently unable to market the title as it would via traditional marketing channels due to varying drug laws from state to state, including online platforms such as Facebook and Instagram, and YouTube has demonetised content from creators around the game.
Weedcraft Inc includes two story-based scenarios that focus on both the grass-roots and modern industrial sides of the industry, and players can make their own choices as to how deeply they want to delve into both the legal and illegal parts of the business, but also how scrupulous or shady to be in building their cannabis empire. So, it's not exactly accurate to say the game is entirely squeaky-clean, but this does invite the question of choice. If we can choose to participate in illegal activities, such as murder, violence and prostitution in games like Grand Theft Auto, why can't we test out our moral compass in games such as Weedcraft Inc?
Taking on contemporary issues in video games is never an easy feat. Controversial issues usually make for easy capital- but perhaps the Weedcraft Inc team underestimated the intricacies in marketing a topic that is so polarising- not just in moral standing, but also legality. Hopefully they won't resort to dealing copies of it on street corners...