Ever wanted to be the kingpin atop a sprawling cannabis empire, but lack the start-up capital, green thumb or disregard for laws to get started? Weedcraft Inc., a tycoon game for Steam that premieres today, puts players in the role of an entrepreneur attempting to navigate the convoluted waters of the modern American cannabis industry. Over the game’s various scenarios, players will grow strains, hire employees, deal with cops, politicians and rivals however they see fit as they build their business from the ground up.
The game’s lead writer, Scott Alexander, spent months researching the real-world laws, personalities and pitfalls that comprise the cannabis market to try and bring as much realism as possible to the game’s digital grow rooms and dispensaries. PRØHBTD got on a call with Alexander to hear more about how he and the developers balanced their missions to release a game that delivers both the stoned fun and sobering realities of the War on Drug's final days.
How did the idea for this game come about, and how did you get involved?
I was brought into the project about a year and a half ago, but I did not conceive the game. That was conceived jointly by the developers, Devolver and Vile Monarchs. They looked at this loud thing happening where we're seeing this true bottom-up democratic movement around marijuana and recognized it as pretty unique.
If you're standing in that spot at the Four Corners and you have weed in your backpack, your foot that's in Colorado is fine, while the foot that's in Utah is fucked. You can go to jail for two years in Arizona for weed, whereas it's perfectly legal in Colorado. If you have a backache or insomnia in New Mexico, you can get a medical license, but to get one in Arizona, you need to be diagnosed with HIV or Crohn's disease.
You've got completely different regulations on the medical side from the recreational side. It’s a giant mess, and when game developers looked at that giant mess, they thought, "We can make a tycoon game for that."
What was your background with this subject matter before you began researching it?
Growing up during the '80s, I knew of apocryphal stories before the internet about how it was like the cotton, tobacco or booze industries and [I heard] all these conspiracies about why it was illegal. I later learned about Nixon’s role in the creation of the Drug War and all that. But I grew up in the Just Say No age, so if you had told me that marijuana would be legal in large parts of the country in the first 20 years of the 21st century, I would’ve said you were a crazy person.
So, I had a pretty good bead on the marijuana culture of the '80s and '90s. Then I had kids and got jobs, and you just think, "Okay, that fight’s probably just lost." I was relatively familiar with the injustice of it, like how damaging alcohol, marijuana and all substances are as drugs. And think I thought, there's this one that’s been used as a medicine for thousands of years that has somehow been made illegal, probably due to politics, money and lobbying interests and just everything’s so stacked against it. So when all the medical movements and the California thing happened, I was very attentive. I never paid close attention before all this, and I found it fascinating to watch it all unfold.
How did you research for the game?
I started going to these cannabis meetups here in New York, and I was really struck by the diversity of people who were there. I met people who are growing illegally in their grandmother's closet. I met the chairman of Anchorage Holdings, who's a multi-multi-multimillionaire. He’s this super wealthy dude, and the biggest bro in the United States, and John Boehner's on his board. I met compliance lawyers and those who work on social justice.
And there's all this crazy political gamesmanship, too. When I was doing this part of the research, the gubernatorial race was on in New York, just after Cynthia Nixon had announced her candidacy. She came out and ran on a pro-legalization platform. Governor Cuomo, who had come out in the past had said, “I'm a law and order Democrat. No marijuana here in New York. We're good, upstanding folk.” And he was shamed into shifting his platform and had to admit that there's no logic to the prohibition of marijuana. So now New York's governor has a pro view on pot smoking because someone ran against him in the last election. That shift didn't happen because it was the right thing to do. It happened because he was put in a corner.
How did that translate into the game?
We tried to look at these things and what really drives this movement and industry. What drives it is money, power, people with compassion. So, we have this whole advanced system in the game that’s an alignment of shady versus decent and legal versus illegal. I really thought about it as four quadrants: legal-decent, legal-shady, illegal-decent, illegal-shady.
For legal-decent, you’ve got the medical marijuana industry and the businesses that comply with the law that don't use pesticides, comply with all those other growing and purity standards and treat their employees well. And on the legal-shady side, you’ve got someone like John Boehner who comes out of Congress having run on marijuana prohibition for 30 years, and the first thing he does when he leaves office is to join the board of Anchorage Holdings. And you’ve got illegal-shady, which is just straight gangsters. Finally, for illegal-decent, you’ve got the compassionate, caring people and the activists who are getting arrested over and over again and saying, “I'm making pot brownies for AIDS patients. I'll be making them and giving them away. Do you want to come arrest me?”
What differentiates Weedcraft Inc. from the other cannabis empire games already on the market?
Have you seen the other stuff that’s out there? Wiz Khalifa’s Weed Farm is a mobile clicker game. You’re tapping really fast and leveling up, and it has this sort of pleasing loop that comes from that easy, freemium, addicting space. It’s not an unpleasant experience, but you kind of just turn off your brain, and it has no position beyond, “Dude, weed is awesome.” We wanted to show more nuance. Most of the stuff out there plays into the marijuana culture.
Were there any clichés or terms from that culture you avoided including in the game?
Well, to leave that stuff out is also a bit untrue to the subject matter. We didn’t want to say that stuff isn’t part of the culture, because it totally is. We actually include a real-life weedfluencer in the game because that is still a major element of the scene.
What are some elements from the real-world cannabis industry that you purposefully chose to leave out of this simulated experience?
There’s a lot we gloss over because the gameplay would’ve been too complicated, almost like having a job. Genetics, cross-breeding, soil nutrition: that’s all much more complicated than we made it in the game, as is compliance. There’s definitely stuff that was too complex to fully model, which would have taken the fun element out of the game.
The joy of these games is that, normally, if you have a job in the marijuana industry, you're a specialist in whatever little area you're in, and when you're playing this game, you're doing all the jobs. You’re the marketing guy, the grower, distributor, the guys who figure out the legal stuff. So each one of those can't be as deep a dive as it is in real life.
When I tried out the game, I found it to be surprisingly difficult, compared to other tycoon games. Am I just really bad at it, or were you making a larger point about the challenges of the modern cannabis industry?
With all the subject matter, for tycoon gamers who love the genre, you need to make it pretty challenging. Some of these guys are really good, and the build you played didn’t have an easy mode built in. Ultimately, there should be a version where you can just have fun, and the competition will be lighter, and it’ll be easier to win. So, we definitely wanted to add a lot of challenges, both for experts and new players, but also to show just how complex this market is.