Developed around the unconventional theme of marijuana farming, LBC Studios' Hempire has proven to be a huge hit amongst cannabis and farming fans alike.
The game, which allows players to build a weed-empire from the ground up, has also proven a perfect analogy for LBC Studios, a Vancouver-based indie developer that has grown from a humble two-man operation to a 30-person downtown studio.
Here, LBC Studios’ Solon Bucholtz discusses the games that inspired him, what he thinks the future has in store for cannabis-themed games, and digs deep into all things Hempire.
What inspired you to get involved in the games industry?
Solon Bucholtz: Although I grew up playing games, my real passion has always been building great businesses.
We had the right idea at the right time, and this drove us to pursue creating a business in the gaming space. For me, growing a company is like playing a game.
You do it for the challenge, and the joy and excitement of overcoming obstacles along the way. For me, it’s all about these experiences, especially because not all of your businesses are guaranteed to become a financial success.
What drew you to the idea of combining cannabis and video games?
When we first came up with the idea for Hempire four years ago we had zero experience in gaming. But what galvanised us was the recent cultural revolution in the acceptance of cannabis, especially with Canadian legalisation on October 17th this year.
We recognised the F2P mobile game market was growing in dollar volume and, while there were a few cannabis games on the market, we saw an opportunity to create the best triple-A cannabis game that would set a new bar for quality.
As such, one of our top priorities was to provide a level of authenticity that promoted cannabis in a positive way (without the stereotypes or stigmatism), and provided a platform for the community to grow together.
What’s been great to see is that we have players who are curious about cannabis, who download Hempire, and learn about the medical and economic benefits of cannabis - while having a great time.
Did you experience any pushback from certain markets because of the subject matter?
Our initial concern wasn't whether would people want to play but rather would they be able to download us on the app store.
LBC Studios looks to be the category leader for quality cannabis-themed games.Solon Bucholtz
Our ultimate success was ensuring strong platform partnerships. Working with the policy teams allowed us to be published, but we did face a few challenges along the way: Adjusting keywords, language and marketing content has ensured we often break barriers with advertisers by being the first in the space.
We do face marketing challenges as not all businesses have come around to the content or are opposed based on their geographic location. We’re still unable to release in certain countries.
As more jurisdictions adopt cannabis legalisation, how will this benefit both your studio and the games industry in general?
We see more requests to develop games as a result of the change in attitude towards the culture as legalisation becomes more normalised. We are already noticing larger brands and IP interested in embracing the cannabis space. For the industry as whole, I think opening up more themes and content is always a positive as it allows gamers to find unique and specific content that may appeal to them. The greater range in choice, the better.
What’s next on the horizon for LBC Studios - will it continue to produce cannabis-related games or will you be looking to explore other avenues?
LBC Studios looks to be the category leader for quality cannabis-themed games. We feel that sticking to the theme we are passionate about and continuing to create great games for an audience we know is the best strategy for success as a studio.
We also believe there are many opportunities to leverage the Hempire brand into other games that will appeal to gamers of all types.
We’re always open to other opportunities and always have a line open for discussions with stakeholders. We are excited for what the future holds for LBC Studios in 2019 and look forward to sharing some big news in the future.
How do you respond to accusations that the game encourages drug use?
We don’t promote illegal drug use, or any illegal activity. Hempire is a story with a positive and legal message and when we do get negative feedback, the reviewers often aren’t players. Whenever you have a topic with polarised opinions you have to expect some negative rhetoric.
Foster a positive work environment that allows each team member to take risks and not be afraid to push the boundaries.Solon Bucholtz
We counter these assumptions through the content of our game and the underlying message. We promote a legal environment where cannabis is used to rebuild your town, help medical patients, and provide a higher quality of life.
Everyone is entitled to their opinion and we accept that it's not for everyone, but we do feel the overall feedback is really positive and the only way to continue to promote the good is not be swayed by the misinformed.
Did the theme present any unique development challenges?
Anytime you swim into uncharted waters you have to expect unique challenges. There is no roadmap. It is important to surround yourself with a great development team you can trust and make sure they feel trusted.
Foster a positive work environment that allows each team member to take risks and not be afraid to push the boundaries. Working together and promoting an open dialogue in the studio has resulted in an environment that really allows everyone to provide input and ensure confidence in the leadership decision-making.
From a product standpoint, the list of challenges is long - from app store issues, marketing delivery issues, hiring issues, etc.
The main takeaway is that you will run into challenges, but with each solution you learn, and from those learnings you navigate future pitfalls and it makes your studio and business stronger as a result.
We have a tremendous amount of knowledge in this space that will serve us well for the future of LBC Studios in the cannabis gaming space.