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Chilly reception for marijuana tycoon game shows games industry’s backwards stance on drugs – TechCrunch

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Intense and graphic violence is something we’ve come to simply expect from games, but sexual and other adult themes are still largely taboo — including, as publisher Devolver Digital is learning, drugs. Even if the game in question is a relatively serious tycoon-type look at the current (and legal!) business of selling weed.

Devolver is no stranger to controversy; it has published and helped develop dozens of games and many of them have featured the kind of graphic violence that sets off those who still see the medium as a corruptive, fundamentally debased one. And to be fair, the likes of Hotline Miami aren’t going to change any minds.

But for the company’s first original commissioned IP, it had the idea of assembling a game in the popular “tycoon” genre, but focused on the emerging and popular sector of growing marijuana.

Obviously this is somewhat controversial, but the plant is legal in many states and countries already and on its way in plenty of others. This isn’t the time or place for a full evaluation of the scheduling system and the war on drugs, but it suffices to say that it is a complex and interesting business ecosystem that’s teetering on the edge of widespread acceptance. That makes it a bit edgy, but also fresh and relevant — perfect, Devolver thought, to build a game around. So they made Weedcraft, Inc.

Unfortunately, the company’s co-founder Mike Wilson told me the other day, they underestimated how square the gaming industry is.

“This is definitely the hardest game I’ve had to market, and that’s saying something,” Wilson told me. “It has been a fucking nightmare. The fact that we’re still so afraid of a topic like weed instead of the murder simulators you can market any time, anywhere, it’s shocking.”

Console game stores were reluctant to even carry it, and warned Devolver that it would never be featured, which is a death sentence for a game’s discoverability. They couldn’t get ads approved on Facebook or Instagram, and the person who submitted them even had his account suspended. And just this week, streamers trying out the game on YouTube had their videos demonetized.

The only stores that didn’t buck were Steam, which is largely content-agnostic, and GOG, a popular DRM-free storefront.

Why, though? This isn’t a game about smoking blunts or cutting dime bags with oregano to sell to middle school kids.

Well, it is a little pro-legalization.

“This isn’t a pro-legalization game. This is a tycoon game. You don’t do drugs in the game!” said Wilson. “You can play as a totally legal, scrupulous businessperson. We did all this research with like, dispensaries, geneticists, lawyers, we were worried about cultural sensitivity with the subject matter, things like how much more black people get jailed for it. We wanted it to be representative of all the social issues involved. It’s kind of like doing a game about booze in the prohibition era — like, what an interesting industry to study, right?”

It’s not that the companies involved here — Microsoft, Sony, YouTube and so on — are applying some invisible rules. The rules are there; when I contacted YouTube for comment, they pointed me to the list of guidelines for “advertiser-friendly content.” And plain as day there’s the one about drugs: “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.”

It’s just a bit weird to me still that we have this backwards, puritan approach to this stuff. Think of how much vile garbage is on YouTube and how the most popular games in the world glorify guns and death. But a recreational drug legal in many places and generally well thought of, not to mention a massive and growing business — that’s beyond the pale.

I understand YouTube doesn’t want people doing bong-clearing competitions, and console makers want to appear family-friendly so they don’t lose that teen and tween market. But surely we can be adults about this.

Gaming is maturing to be an interactive storytelling medium that encompasses serious issues, but the industry is holding itself back by its squeamishness about adult themes. And that feeds into the puritanical objections from misguided commentators, who go nuts over romancing an alien in Mass Effect or the ridiculous “Hot Coffee” thing in GTA, but don’t acknowledge the sophisticated storytelling of Return of the Obra Dinn, or subversive commentary of Papers, Please, or the impressive period recreation of an Assassin’s Creed.

Drugs are a complex and controversial topic. I get that some people want to stay hands-off. But when that hands-off stance doesn’t apply to graphic violence, sexism, and other sore spots, it comes off as prudish and hypocritical.

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My latest co-op multiplayer obsession is Raft, the game where you build a raft

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Enlarge / Raft is developed by Redbeet Interactive and published by Axolot Games.

Redbeet Interactive

My co-op gaming group has logged a few hundred extra hours in Deep Rock Galactic since I wrote about it a year and a half ago, but we’re always looking for another game to fall in love with.

We’ve tried a bunch of things in the last year, guided by a combination of positive reviews and “whatever is on sale in Steam at the time.” We’ve logged time in Back 4 BloodPayday 2Warhammer: Vermintide 2, Sea of Thieves, Diablo IIIRisk of Rain 2, and Borderlands 3, and each has had its charms. But the one that has stuck with me the most is called Raft, a game about building a raft.

Raft isn’t new—it went into Early Access in 2018—but its formal 1.0 release happened this past June. The pitch: You begin the game drifting across an endless ocean on a tiny wooden raft cobbled together from flotsam and jetsam. Armed with only a trusty throwable plastic hook, you must comb the ocean for planks, plastic, and other bits of scrap that you can use to expand your raft and stay alive. And once you’re no longer in constant danger of starving to death (and once you can steer your raft instead of just letting it drift), you can begin sailing to the world’s remaining islands to figure out what happened to everyone else.

Bits of trash dot the water around you—from these, your empire will be painstakingly constructed.
Enlarge / Bits of trash dot the water around you—from these, your empire will be painstakingly constructed.

Andrew Cunningham

The surest sign that you’ll like Raft is if you like Minecraft (or if you want to like Minecraft but find its general aimlessness frustrating instead of freeing). Building is all done on a grid system, you’re constantly combining and recombining materials to build and improve your tools, and the way the game gradually advances from an early survival-horror phase to a more free-form building-and-exploration phase is distinctly Minecraft-y. The game includes combat, and what is here feels fine (it flows a lot better than the clunky, boring combat in Sea of Thieves), but it’s all subordinate to building, exploring, and resource gathering.

The crafting UI and inventory management are dense and kind of clunky, in a (mostly) endearing, <em>Minecraft</em>-meets-<em>Animal Crossing</em> kind of way.
Enlarge / The crafting UI and inventory management are dense and kind of clunky, in a (mostly) endearing, Minecraft-meets-Animal Crossing kind of way.

Andrew Cunningham

In the early game, you’ll be driven almost exclusively by hunger and thirst. The two meters are ticking down all the time, and starving or dehydrating will slow you down and eventually sap your health until you die (you can always revive or respawn, but the former requires a teammate to haul you to a bed on your raft and the latter comes at the cost of 2/3 of your inventory at normal difficulty). Further complication circles you in the form of an aggressive and omnipresent shark, which is always ready to bite you if you hop in the water (or to take a bite out of your raft, if you’re out of its reach).

You can play solo, but the game is less intimidating with friends—it means more mouths to feed, but you also don’t need to stop collecting precious planks and palm leaves so you can take a break to fish or refill your water desalinization rig. There are no specific character classes, but there’s enough to do that you and up to three of your friends can find a distinct lane depending on what you like the most. I focus mostly on actual raft construction and caring for our steadily growing menagerie of domesticated animals, while others in our group prefer navigating, collecting food and materials, and advancing the game’s tech tree.

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Activision pays $35M SEC settlement over workplace misconduct disclosures

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Enlarge / Taking a close look…

The Securities and Exchange Commission announced Friday that Activision Blizzard has agreed to pay $35 million to settle a probe into the company’s handling of widespread workplace harassment and discrimination allegations.

In an administrative order, the SEC said that complaints of workplace misconduct at Activision Blizzard “were not collected or analyzed for disclosure purposes” since at least 2018. This left Activision Blizzard management “lacking sufficient information to understand the volume and substance of employee complaints of workplace misconduct,” and therefore unable to warn investors of any potential business risks those complaints entailed.

The SEC also found that Activision asked departing employees to enter into “separation agreements” that illegally asked those employees “to notify Activision Blizzard of any requests from an administrative agency in connection with a report or complaint.” That violates SEC rules designed to protect whistleblowers and prohibit employers from impeding employee complaints to government agencies.

The SEC says Activision started implementing “company-wide structural changes” on workplace misconduct complaints starting in May of 2020 and changed its separation agreement language in early 2022.

By settling these matters out of court, Activision avoids any formal admission of wrongdoing. “We are pleased to have amicably resolved this matter,” Activision Blizzard said in a statement provided to Ars Technica. “As the order recognizes, we have enhanced our disclosure processes with regard to workplace reporting and updated our separation contract language. We did so as part of our continuing commitment to operational excellence and transparency. Activision Blizzard is confident in its workplace disclosures.”

Despite the size of the settlement, the payment represents less than 0.4 percent of Activision Blizzard’s $8.8 billion in annual revenue (as of 2021) and, thus, will likely have a minimal impact on the company’s bottom line. Settling the matter out of court also means the complaint is no longer a potential complication for Microsoft’s planned $69 billion acquisition of Activision, which is facing its own government headwinds from the Federal Trade Commission.

Today’s settlement follows an $18 million settlement the company reached with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2021, just a day after that complaint was filed.

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Did Billy Mitchell use this illicit joystick to set a Donkey Kong high score?

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Mitchell (right) at the 2007 FAMB convention with former Twin Galaxies referee Todd Rogers and what appears to be a Donkey Kong cabinet with a modified joystick.

Over the years, King of Kong star Billy Mitchell has seen his world-record Donkey Kong scores stripped, partially reinstated, and endlessly litigated, both in actual court and the court of public opinion. Through it all, Mitchell has insisted that every one of his records was set on unmodified Donkey Kong arcade hardware, despite some convincing technical evidence to the contrary.

Now, new photos from a 2007 performance by Mitchell seem to show obvious modifications to the machine used to earn at least one of those scores, a fascinating new piece of evidence in the long, contentious battle over Mitchell’s place in Donkey Kong score-chasing history.

The telltale joystick

The photos in question were taken at the Florida Association of Mortgage Brokers (FAMB) Convention, which hosted Mitchell as part of its “80s Arcade Night” promotion in July 2007. Mitchell claims to have achieved a score of 1,050,200 points at that event, a performance that was recognized by adjudicator Twin Galaxies as a world record at the time (but which by now would barely crack the top 30).

In his defamation case against Twin Galaxies, Mitchell includes testimony from several purported witnesses to his FAMB performance. That includes former Twin Galaxies referee Todd Rogers (who was later also banned from Twin Galaxies), who testified that the machine used at the event was “an original Nintendo Donkey Kong Arcade machine as I have known since 1981.”

Another angle showing Mitchell, Rogers, and Ritch Workman in front of the seemingly modified <em>Donkey Kong</em> cabinet.

Another angle showing Mitchell, Rogers, and Ritch Workman in front of the seemingly modified Donkey Kong cabinet.

But the pictures from the FAMB convention, made public by fellow high-score-chaser David Race last month, raise additional questions about that claim, thanks to what Race calls a “glaringly non-original joystick” seen in the machine shown in those photos.

Original upright Donkey Kong arcade cabinets were shipped with a distinctive short joystick with a prominent black ball atop a silver metal stick (close-up available here). But the machine behind Mitchell in the recently released FAMB photos clearly shows a taller joystick with a red ball and stick.

The joystick shown in the FAMB photos (left, zoomed in for detail) vs. the joystick on an unmodified <em>Donkey Kong</em> cabinet (right).
Enlarge / The joystick shown in the FAMB photos (left, zoomed in for detail) vs. the joystick on an unmodified Donkey Kong cabinet (right).

Use of a non-original joystick would violate Twin Galaxies’ Donkey Kong rules, which require games be played with “an original stock 4-way Donkey Kong arcade joystick, or a replacement 4-way joystick of exact size and shape as the original Donkey Kong arcade game joystick.” Twin Galaxies’ also requires “a wide image of the game’s control panel” in any record recording to verify this. And archived rules discussions also suggest that players of that era knew cabinets with aftermarket joysticks were known to be unacceptable, even if the core arcade board had authentic Donkey Kong software.

A taller joystick might actually be a hindrance for high-level Donkey Kong play since it requires more physical movement to get the same in-game results. But that disadvantage could be worth it if the controls in question were an eight-way joystick rather than the standard four-way joystick Nintendo shipped on original cabinets. An eight-way joystick mod could give a player an advantage by letting them enter diagonal inputs (e.g., up and left simultaneously), which could speed up transitions after climbing ladders, for instance.

Mitchell also testified in court documents that his FAMB Donkey Kong performance was “visible on a TV above the cabinet to give the guests greater viewing capability.” But while a VCR can be seen above the cabinet in the photos—presumably to record the performance for later verification—no such external display can be seen (though it conceivably could have been brought in for added visibility when Mitchell was actually playing).

In that same testimony package, technician Robert Childs testified that the FAMB score was achieved using “my same Donkey Kong Arcade machine,” which was purportedly used by Mitchell to set a 2004 record of 1,047,200 points in Childs’ warehouse/showroom. Assuming that’s true, the non-standard joystick could also further jeopardize that performance’s place in the record books.

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