Imagine a video game that allows users to grow and sell weed, interact with celebrity smokers of the stuff, and ultimately build a citywide marijuana empire. Except, don't imagine it. Because it exists, right now. It's just a little under the radar, surprisingly.
Hemp Inc. is a mobile title from HKA Digital Studios led by former Call of Duty and Tony Hawk developer Danny Hammett, which plays a lot like FarmVille, except for the Facebook interactivity and the ability to create your own avatar. Oh, and there's only one single crop to cultivate: weed, obviously. The freemium app quietly launched on April 26, offering a core gameplay experience in which players grow and sell 20 different cannabis strains to customers, purchase property to expand their weed empire, and interact with celebrity weed aficionados. These smoke-friendly stars include Wiz Khalifa, Snoop Dogg, Willie Nelson, Cheech Marin, and Tommy Chong, and there are several recognizable brands in the game, too, like High Times magazine and marijuana legalization nonprofit NORML.
So why hasn't there been more noise for a game that, first of all, is about weed—people should be eying the game, surely—and, secondly, features a wealth of famous faces, albeit in a cartoon style? The answer's simple enough, and sensible too: The studio needs to make sure that Hemp Inc. can stand up to the demands of its users and get its marketing just right for a more substantial push. It's already had more than a million downloads, but Hammett tells me that the marketing of the game needs to be as coordinated as it can be with the schedules of the celebrities featured in it. An official launch will happen sometime in the next month, with some of those celebs promoting it on social media.
High Times's COO Larry Linietsky says that the magazine was approached by HKA about eight months ago. The magazine's logo appears when the app opens, its publication appears in the hands of characters, and it has an office within the fictional town that is Hemp Inc.'s setting. For the magazine—which has an audience that is 70 percent 18-to-34-year-olds and 76 percent male—the partnership made sense.
"It's a natural fit," Linietsky says. "Many of the people who come to our events, read the magazine, [or] go to the website are gamers. They expect, of course, that if there's going to be a game that is in this space, that those same brands would be in it."
Getting all of those celebrity likenesses, though, comes at a cost. Those featured in the game have agreed to allow HKA to use their likenesses, and help to promote the app, in exchange for royalties paid out on a quarterly basis, Hammett tells me. He also explains how the relationship makes it easier for the app to reach more potential players, while also allowing the celebrities access to audiences they might not usually be speaking to, in a way that isn't simply them preaching the same decriminalization message to an existing fanbase. (I reached out to Wiz, Willie, and Cheech for a comment, but their representatives all declined the offer.)
It's unclear right now whether Hemp Inc. will be seen as simply a fun game, or as something that's glamorizing weed consumption. The people who see marijuana as a vice won't be inclined to play the game, certainly, despite the rising popularity of the legalization movement, says Brian Kelly. Kelly is the vice president of First Harvest Financial, a private equity firm specializing in the legal-cannabis market. He tells me that marijuana-adjacent companies like his own will stand to gain a significant profit when weed becomes legal.
"There's a movement in this country toward the legalization of marijuana," Kelly says. "People who haven't played the game will think we're glamorizing it. But I think we're kind of past that point. Most people out there believe that cannabis shouldn't be illegal. That mood, that tone, has shifted."
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When Hammett was first approached to build the video game, he wasn't interested. His previous involvement with family-oriented, mainstream companies like Marvel and Activision made him hesitant to get involved. But as he learned more about the existing laws surrounding cannabis consumption, and its medicinal potential, he saw the game as an opportunity to communicate the decriminalization message to people outside of the existing advocacy audience—albeit not in a public service announcement sort of way.
Pointing to Nike's and Adidas's development of 420-styled hemp shoes and Microsoft's apps for helping pot growers, Hammett says he isn't concerned about traditional-advertising barriers, because he thinks the public's attitude toward the substance has improved. After seeing the similar but "amateurish" (as he put it) weed-growing games on the market, he realized there was space to build a more advanced game, one that would get him into what financial advisors call "the green rush."
"I said, 'If you want to do it right, I'd be interested, but we need to raise a significant amount of capital to do it the correct way.' If I could make a game that was fun and be able to convert a gamer to my product, entertain them as a user, I may be able to send a message to them subliminally—and very clearly—about the archaic laws through gameplay."
Hemp Inc. might yet be a powerful force in the legalizing of marijuana. Or, of course, the app could be one of thousands that ultimately fail in gaming's most crowded market, the mobile space, every year. Its success ultimately comes down to the people that play it, that stick with it, that spend their money through microtransactions and ensure that the celebrities featured get their side of the deal delivered.
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