Developers at Polish studio Vile Monarch had never made a tycoon game before Devolver Digital tapped them to build Weedcraft Inc. -- a business-simulation title about the legal cannabis market. Weedcraft Inc.'s gameplay mechanics fell well outside of Vile Monarch's wheelhouse, whose past releases included Oh...Sir!! The Insult Simulator and a sequel, both of which were fighting games where players battled with rude words.
So, Devolver sent a legendary tycoon-game creator to consult with Vile Monarch on Weedcraft Inc. However, the developer had one condition.
"He let us know from the beginning that he didn't want his name in any way associated or to be credited," Devolver founder Mike Wilson told Engadget.
That was the first red flag. However, at the time, Wilson and the developers didn't think much of one person's reluctance to be associated with a game about cannabis.
"We're like, 'Well, OK, old dude. Whatever,'" Wilson said. "We figured it was one person's issue, but then it's just been one thing after another on down the line."
Weedcraft Inc. came out on Tuesday, and by Wednesday a handful of prominent and small-time YouTubers had been hit with ad-review requests, age-gate requirements and outright demonetization on their videos of the game. On Facebook, Devolver couldn't get a single ad for the game approved and, on launch day, its page was restricted.
So Weedcraft, a game about building a corporate business around legal marijuana, features no illegal drug use or violence, but has just been banned from Facebook & YT vids are being demonetized.— Qai Qai's J. Jenkins (@AgentTinsley) April 11, 2019
But you can post ads for whatever shooty shooterman murder simulator w/ no problem. pic.twitter.com/3lfl9fi0Re
"All of these things one at a time have just been like, 'Oh that sucks. That's weird,'" Wilson said. "But cumulatively, it's like, how in the fuck is this the hardest game I've ever marketed?"
Wilson has a long history in the games industry, starting in 1996 at id Software, where he oversaw marketing efforts for Doom and Quake, all the way through founding Devolver in 2008 and seeing success with titles like Hotline Miami and Serious Sam HD. Throughout his career, Wilson has been able to sell ultra-violent and sexualized games, but apparently, marijuana is a different beast.
Weedcraft Inc. features a bit of stoner humor, but its main focus is on the business of legal weed sales, challenging players to build an empire amid all of the political, legal and social roadblocks in their way under current law. It's a classic tycoon game with a THC twist, and as head writer Scott Alexander told Engadget in February, it's a commentary on the real-life hypocrisy and humanity buffeting the cannabis industry.
As of April 2019, marijuana is legal, in some way, in 34 states (that's already one more since we talked to Alexander in February) plus DC, Guam, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, and legalization is consistently on the ballot in most regions across the United States. But, federally, marijuana is illegal. Of course, so is mass murder.
"We've not run into any of this trouble with literally any game we've ever done."
"Devolver, you know we're mostly known for games where you kill everyone in sight," Wilson said. "Even though we do a lot of other types of games, but it's just, we've not run into any of this trouble with literally any game we've ever done. And I just thought it was an interesting, shocking commentary on the games industry and also the culture. Just on how backwards it is."
Weedcraft Inc. is available on Steam and GOG, and Steam even featured it on the front page on launch day. Steam has a notoriously lax approach to moderation, allowing every game that isn't illegal or "straight-up trolling" onto the store. In this environment, Weedcraft Inc. is laughably innocent. But for other, unnamed digital distributors and platform holders, it's toxic. Representatives from some of these stores told Devolver they would sell the game, but they wouldn't promote it in any way.
Devolver sent around 10 ads to Facebook, tweaking each one to ensure it didn't feature depictions of smoking or other prohibited activities. Eventually, though, "the guy trying had his ad account removed or banned or something," Wilson said, and Devolver's social media team couldn't get a hold of an actual human at Facebook to dispute the issue.
Facebook reversed its ban on Weedcraft Inc. ads after Engadget reached out for this story. A spokesperson said the company would review ways to prevent a similar situation for Devolver in the future.
"We re-reviewed ads from this game and determined they don't violate our policies," the spokesperson said. "We review each ad individually and have strict policies around drug sales, which have led to errors in this case. We'll are [sic] always working to improve our enforcement in these areas."
YouTube, meanwhile, is holding steady. Videos of people playing the game have been demonetized, meaning it isn't worthwhile for some creators to play the game or upload streams. In the age of social-media buzz and streaming culture, this is a big blow to Weedcraft Inc.'s marketing plans.
A YouTube spokesperson pointed Engadget to the company's "Drugs and Dangerous Products or Substances" policy, which reads as follows:
Video content that promotes or features the sale, use, or abuse of illegal drugs, regulated drugs or substances, or other dangerous products is not suitable for advertising. Videos discussing drugs or dangerous substances for educational, documentary, and artistic purposes are generally suitable for advertising, so long as drug use or substance abuse is not graphic or glorified.
Apparently, Weedcraft Inc. strays too far from the "educational" side of the cannabis industry for YouTube's tastes. Wilson argues the game isn't pro-weed, but rather an honest look at a new and complex industry.
YouTube's spokesperson clarified its stance further, saying, "We have clear policies that govern what videos may show ads, and content that features the sale or use of illegal or regulated drugs is not suitable for advertising. If we find a video that violates our policies, we remove ads."
Devolver didn't even try to promote the game on Amazon's streaming site, Twitch.
"We knew this wouldn't really be a Twitch game and that Twitch, you know, being Amazon, would also be weird about the content," Wilson said. "But we were like, 'YouTubers are gonna love this game.' And they did. Like two days ago it was just all these streams coming, and then one by one they were letting us know they got demonetized, and some of them have been awesome and just keep making videos anyway because they think it's such bullshit."
"It's a fucking tycoon game about an actual industry that exists."
The YouTube representative said the company also has strict rules around ads on videos where violence is the focus and on highly sexualized content. Still, Wilson said he's never experienced moderation like this before, even with games like Doom, Ruiner, My Friend Pedro, Hotline Miami, Shadow Warrior, Serious Sam, Strafe and Metal Wolf Chaos under his belt.
"This is a game where you don't actually consume any drugs in the game," Wilson said. "There's no -- it's a fucking tycoon game about an actual industry that exists. We really went out of our way to avoid all the stupid stereotypes and make a really thoughtful game on this."