The truth is that Ted Manitoba is kind of paranoid. As part of a cultural world where the cult of personality holds sway, Teddy and his brilliant team of designers, cartoonists, joke smiths, storytellers and geeks-of-all trades have chosen to remain 100 percent anonymous. In a time when neo-fascism is making a comeback all over the world, Manitoba Games’ Weed Firm 1, an app game with its tongue firmly emplaced in its cheek, that I would call a comic masterpiece, has been both a massive success and the vehicle of a huge controversy. Number one with a bullet on iTunes’ gaming chart, Weed Firm 1 was a huge success worldwide. What was clearly an old-fashioned satire on the All-American rags-to-riches story of vaguely hippie-ized and kind of inept American youth taking over a farm, growing an illegal marijuana crop, then processing it before trying to sell it on in the face of much opposition was the kind of comedy-adventure millions of folks wanted and downloaded.
Unfortunately, numerous organizations like the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Free Speech Coalition, the ACLU, the NRA, the Organization for a Drug-Free America, the Tea Party and various other organizations and individuals became involved in attacking the very existence of Weed Firm 1. Surprisingly to some, although, frankly not me, Apple, the so-called champions of for green living and free speech and the first amendment to the US Constitution caved instantaneously after they were criticized in a few newspaper editorials and by the usual suspects among extreme right-wing politicians. Indeed, the circus that surrounded the game over the Spring and early Summer is interesting enough to make for a book, movie and game all of its own.
Some of the emails and notes Ted Manitoba received seem to have really rocked his world. I can only guess as to what was said to him because he’s chosen to walk a dangerous middle-ground between exposing those who attempted to intimidate him and ignoring them. Instead, in lieu of some photos of Ted, we offer you some game graphics and a nice interview.
Q: Before I talk about politics and all that, tell me about the new game. What’s new and exciting when it comes to Weed Firm 2? Is it something you’d conceptualized along with the original, or all new? How do you make something old new again, concept-wise?
A: Weed Firm 2: Back to College is the sequel to our story about an expelled botany sophomore turned grower and weed dealer by an unexpected twist of cruel fate. It’s based on the same unique gameplay that our audience fell in love with. We listened to the rainstorm of feedback we kept getting from gamers, and we’re incorporating some of these ideas into the sequel. It will feature updated graphics (just take a look at the screenshots – we’ve come a long way from the old school look we decided to go with in part 1), new characters, obviously including lots of new and exciting Aliens, new locations (Ted is heading back to college in this chapter of the story, so some of the places will look familiar), a totally new family of plants to cater to those voracious Alien appetites, and so much more. We’ve literally been working day and night on this sequel. Because we’ve refused to cross anything off the long “development wish list,” we’ve already pushed back the release date quite a few times, so I don’t want to give any exact dates at this point. Let me just say it’s due to be released before the end of this year.
Has making a little money meant you could treat yourself to some goodies that were previously unavailable? Like better computers, monitors, printers?
Well, we haven’t quite made enough to buy ourselves any private islands in the Pacific or even a couple of Bentleys with chauffeurs. Instead, we’ve invested every cent we’re making back into developing new games. So yeah, that means some new equipment and extra people to help us ramp up the development process.
Can you talk about humor? Humor in both an abstract and personal sense. I know you told me you don’t want to get into personas, per sé, but I haven’t laughed so hard watching a toon or playing a game for ages. I have to go as far back as the animated The Tick in the late 80s and A Bard’s Tale in games. A few laughs in Conker and Bully, but nothing as funny as you. Have I been missing out on anything? What are your influences? Did you watch a lot of TV as a kid?
First of all thank you for your kind words. It means a lot to us that you like the humor. We feel that this is what really sets us apart, our characters, story lines and humor, along with the gameplay, of course. As far as influences go, I try to maintain a healthy balance between books, film and TV, so inspiration is flying in from a variety of worlds, and those include such greats as George Orwell, Franz Kafka, J.R. Tolkien, Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick, Douglas Copeland in literature, on over to Alfred Hitchcock, Wim Wenders, Tom Tykwer, Michael Winterbottom, David Fincher, David Kronenberg, Alex Proyas in film, and in terms of TV, Star Trek (of course), a lot of British TV from various decades, including Jeeves and Wooster, Fawlty Towers, Black Adder, Black Books, Mighty Boosh, The Office (UK), Ideal, and then jumping across the Atlantic, there’s The Simpsons’ and Breaking Bad, and of course tons of other TV shows that do not deserve to be mentioned. I’m also a huge fan of stand-up comedy, especially guys like Louis CK, Ricky Gervais and Bill Burr. I have no idea how much of that finally shows its face in the dialogue in Weed Firm, maybe not a lot, but believe me, it’s there.
Now, when it comes to my editor and co-writer Jim, he grew up on a steady TV diet of The Twilight Zone, Mad Comics, Saturday Night Live, Monty Python, and countless movies. As far as books go, he began reading at age 3.5 and has never stopped. Some of his favorite authors include Carl Hiaasen, Jonathan Safran Foer, Vladimir Nabokov, Sandor Marai, Daniil Kharms, and others.
Do you have any comedy rules about repetition or farts or what is in bad taste?
I have a kind of internal sensor when it comes to bad taste. What I personally would consider bad taste, well, it’s not etched in stone or anything; it’s just that I know bad taste when I see it. Personally speaking, I would never make a fart joke, although I have to admit that on very rare occasions they can be funny, but I guess I just haven’t yet reached that level of comedy genius where I can make a fart joke actually funny. At the end of the day, humor is truly a slippery subject, and it’s way too easy to either go overboard, or not go far enough. I try to play it by ear. And like with anything that we love and care about, as time goes on, I feel that I’m finding my groove more and more.
How did you get into gaming in the first place? More and more liberal arts colleges are late in the vid-game and app-game stakes after they see the usual suspects among trade and industrial schools out there. I mean it’s all kind of a brand-new, wide-open, wild-west-type field. Kind of like being a young, naive pot dealer in way. Did you go the film school route, or commit to something more tech- or arts-based?
I came to gaming in a sort of roundabout way. I actually have a linguistics background and am an aspiring writer and poet. I’ve written a couple of scripts for short films and television, but nothing to stand on the rooftop and scream about, really. If I can shift the spotlight over to Jim (my editor and co-writer) for a moment, he’s a self-taught writer and writing teacher. In the past he was a paratrooper, undercover detective, massage therapist, voice-over artist, and more, although not all at the same time. And my friend and partner in Manitoba Games has a solid tech background. He and I both like games, especially games for mobile platforms. One day we sat down together and brainstormed this idea about making a pot smoking game for a friend of ours who liked to savor an occasional joint or two but, sadly enough, had been restricted from smoking by his doctors. It took us about a year to come up with the first build. We knew we had something from day one, but we never imagined it would become as popular as it has.
I may have my dates and numbers wrong here, so please correct me if I’m in error. Actually, if anything, there’s been too much information shared by the way-too-piranha-hungry tech press. The original game was released on Monday May 5, 2014, before being yanked off iTunes by Apple on May 21. That’s sixteen days. That had to have been one hell of a ride from zero to number one hero and then back to zero. Did you feel pretty beat-up, or are you blessed with a mellow personality that tends to roll with the punches?
Yeah, that pretty much sums it up. Keep in mind that we were also available on Google Play for about a year before that. We had just under 3 million downloads total at that point but didn’t make it onto the charts because Google Play doesn’t allow games with high maturity content to show up on the charts. You can check out the Apple statistics for yourself.
What we were amazed about is how it rocketed up the charts as fast as it did on the App Store. Sure, no doubt about it, we were definitely disappointed that the game was pulled, but the most important moral of the story for us was that we could actually make games that would hit the top of the charts. With that little nugget of confidence in mind, we continued developing games.
Yeah, censorship! Aside from publishing a disclaimer, how do you feel about free speech, freedom of expression, etc.? Politicians and right-wing ‘intellectuals’ like Bill O’Reilly tend to zero in on the idea that games like Weed Firm, Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row are a gateway to a life of crime…
I firmly believe that adults should be able to do whatever they want as long as they’re not hurting anyone in the process. If you start digging too deep and holding up a magnifying glass, anything can be seen as a gateway to a life of crime, whether it’s Grand Theft Auto (or a million other games) or F. Scott Ftizgerald’s classic novel The Great Gatsby. I can’t imagine that Bill O’Reilly would even think of trying to ban Fitzgerald, now would he? How things are seen is truly in the eye of the beholder. Some people will watch the movie Saw and then go on up and tuck their children into bed and kiss them on the cheek after a prayer, while other folks will “become inspired” by Thomas the Tank Engine and then march right off to their local shopping malls with assault rifles stuffed in black duffel bags.
And, you know, further to that, you are a creator saddled, some say, with some politician’s notion of ethos and morality because so many adolescents and young adults lack supervision… Blah! Blah! Blah! I don’t know if you’re a parent, but does anything like that get factored in while you conceptualize games?
Some of us here at Manitoba Games are parents of children of various ages, and we wholeheartedly believe that minors should be sheltered from content such as Weed Firm. That’s why we assigned the highest possible maturity rating to the game. I personally answered a few emails from disgruntled parents of kids playing the game, and even from one school principal somewhere in England who was concerned about a rising number of his students playing Weed Firm. I explained how to set up parental controls, although this isn’t really my job, and, seriously speaking, let’s take the spotlight off Weed Firm for a second, because there are far worse things out there that can really damage a child’s mind. Games and films and music are easy targets for critics and censors, while the real causes of youth problems in society are much deeper and more complex. But still, we at Manitoba are concerned and mindful, so we will continue to do everything we can to create games that bring pleasure and positivity to the lives of our fans and to the world we all share.
I know you may be reticent about going into detail, but could you discuss the vetting process as practiced by Apple on companies like Manitoba Games. How and why did they end up changing their minds? Was that from outside pressure rather than the people in Cupertino itself?
I really can’t say at this point and would rather not try to dive into that.
So further to that, what’s different about the iTunes vetting this time? Have you softened the content? I get a kind of sitcom picture of Tim Cook sending Harvey Keitel in his Warner Wolfe/Cleaner persona from Pulp Fiction coming down to see you in advance to create some kind of understanding with you guys. From my point-of-view Apple did themselves no favors, especially not PR-wise with the public, especially not youth, when they pulled out the rug from under you guys.
Again, I would really prefer not to even get into the topic of Apple’s vetting process. Like so many things Apple, this process is an enigma shrouded in mystery, and maybe it’s better if it stays that way. We did tone down the content, as we firmly believe that the game can succeed even with such changes. Our unique blend of gameplay, characters and humor is what sets us apart from the competition, and we will do our best to make it available on every platform under the sun, even if that means we will have to tweak a few things and make adjustments here and there.
I don’t know if you’ve done any surveys of your customers vis-a-vis women playing Weed Firm. All I can say is that my wife was having quite a bit of fun on your app until the dumb chickie-poohs appeared. She gets weirdly sensitive about stuff like that. Do you care about that kind of criticism, or are you simply giving a mostly male audience exactly what it wants? Truth be told, I still love all the massive boobs in The Bard’s Tale and the way they obey gravity. Plenty of hypocrisy to go around everywhere. Are you committed to a male audience?
Nope, not necessarily, we’re happy to say we have a lot of female fans around the globe. I can’t quote you an exact percentage, but it’s pretty significant. I’m sorry your wife was disappointed by some of our characters. Hey, such things are bound to happen. Most importantly, we want to keep the edginess of the humor, and if that means disappointing some of our audience, well, then I guess that’s a price we might have to pay now and again. We’ve found that the greatest mistake you can ever make is trying to please everyone. The result is something watered down and not at all spicy and memorable. As the old saying goes, “Be yourself, everyone else is already taken!”
Are you guys actually from Manitoba? You would then be purveyors of wheat field wit and, ultimately, famous folks from a place where virtually no one famous at all comes from.
Nope. We just liked the sound of the name. Even more so, for many Native Americans, the name ‘Manitou’ refers to a spiritual and infinite life force. To be honest, we found that out only after we had already chosen the name, but this definition seemed to fit nicely with what Manitoba is all about.
Finally, what’s next for you guys at Manitoba Games? Anything you’d care to share. Do you plan to expand or move if you get bigger.
More great games of course! Part 2 is just starting to poke its nose around the corner: I don’t want to share too many details about it right now, just in case our competitors who have already borrowed a couple of our ideas after we topped the App Store charts are by some chance reading this article! But I can promise you that it will be great! And just as before, it will be appealing mostly for its gameplay, not simply because it’s a game about weed.
We have a couple of new titles in the pipeline too, but again I am all too paranoid about the details leaking out and someone snapping onto our ideas before we even have a chance to bring them to life, yet I will be happy to share more info about the games when we get closer to the release dates.
Keep a look out for news on Weed Firm 2’s upcoming launch. In the meantime, you can enjoy the revamped version of the original Weed Firm, now called Weed Firm: Replanted, available for iOS as Tea Firm: Replanted. Time to get harvesting!