Advertising A Game About Weed Is Hard

Advertising A Game About Weed Is Hard

A game about growing and selling weed that was released for PC and Mac last week has a bit of a problem: It’s a game about growing and selling weed.

“You’d think we were actually selling weed,” Devolver co-founder and Weedcraft, Inc. executive producer Mike Wilson told Kotaku. “Not selling, you know, a game about the industry.”

The company’s game has been running into some resistance. According to a report from Motherboard, videos featuring the game are inconsistently running afoul of YouTube’s nebulous and unevenly enforced content guidelines. The report also states that publisher Devolver Digital had its Facebook page restricted during launch, presumably because of the game’s drug-related content. (Facebook has since removed the page’s restricted status.)

Devolver has also, via a press release, said that it is “unable to market the title as it would via traditional marketing channels due to varying drug laws from state to state,” also claiming that YouTube creators featuring the game have had their videos demonetized—meaning ads will not run, earning the YouTube creator no money.

It’s true that YouTube’s guidelines on cannabis aren’t the clearest—it’s not really mentioned on the site’s policies page, with the closest matching guideline restricting content involving “hard drug use and creation.” That descriptor, it could be argued, only loosely applies to cannabis, a substance that exists under various states of legality in America.

Wilson says he’s frustrated after dealing with a year’s worth of obstacles in marketing Weedcraft (“I yelled at some people last week”), obstacles that he says he really wasn’t expecting, even though there were red flags. A big one was when most of their consultants asked to not be named. Another was when their Chinese partners said the game couldn’t be localised, lest it run afoul of the country’s censorious government, and lock Devolver out of one of their top markets.

Controversy was expected, but not to this extent — according to Wilson, Weedcraft intentionally divorces itself from the cultural stereotype embodied by stoner movies and Snoop Dogg. (It’s also why the game did not release on April 20.)

“A lot of it’s pretty offensive stuff,” Wilson said of weed stereotypes. “it’s very racially charged. It’s, a lot of times, sexually charged. There’s a lot of what I call ‘bitches and bongs’ content out there, which we didn’t want to be any part of.” According to Wilson, Weedcraft is targeted as much at regular players of tycoon-style games as it is to people interested in the modern weed economy.

This runs counter to the image that Devolver has built up for itself over the years. The publisher established its cred by taking on a confrontational attitude within the games industry, positioning itself as a scrappy underdog pushing back against big-budget bullshit. It’s not the only tack the publisher takes (Gris is an emotional tone poem, the complete opposite of “confrontational” and not marketed as such) but it’s the most consistent posture for the company that made its name on edgy titles like Hotline Miami and Genital Jousting.

Even when it isn’t going for controversy, Devolver has capitalised on it in the past, showing a knack for turning the trouble of its games is in into an opportunity — Devolver publicly Tweeted about the troubles it ran into with Gris last year, which had a trailer rejected by Facebook for being “sexually suggestive,” something it certainly was not.

I asked Wilson if this is part of his Weedcraft calculus: That censorship and controversy tend to drive attention to a subject rather than away from it, if he was hoping to take a less-than-ideal situation and use it to make some hay.

“Yeah I mean definitely, you know, maybe the controversy caused some attention that [we] wouldn’t have otherwise gotten right at launch,” he said, noting that the game takes about 20 hours to get through and that Devolver didn’t expect a sensation out of the gate as a result. “Maybe that noise made up for the fact that, you know, we couldn’t run ads and that a bunch of streamers bailed on the game. But we’ll never know.”

Despite the frustration, WIlson still feels a little vindicated, because it’s all illustrative of Weedcraft’s point: The cannabis industry is in flux, and prevailing attitudes are often regressive. A wider conversation is needed—and Mike Wilson would really like you to have Weedcraft be a part of it.

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