It’s hard to imagine that a tiny indie game hub tucked into the heart of Gastown—with just 30 “hemployees”—is responsible for a product beloved by millions of pocket gamers the world over. That is, until you step into the headquarters. Lining the walls of LBC Studios are intricate art, handwritten letters, and smiley selfies, much of which has been submitted by fans crediting the company’s inaugural product—a weed-themed game—with helping them overcome depression and isolation.
“I can’t believe some of the stories I hear from our players. It’s overwhelming,” says CEO Solon Bucholtz while touring a Georgia Straight reporter around the studio. “We set out to make the world’s best cannabis game but have managed to create a huge social platform for the community inside of the world’s best cannabis game.”
In 2016, cofounders Bucholtz and Dennis Molloy launched Hempire, a smartphone simulation emulating the challenges and triumphs of a budding legal-cannabis industry. The goal of the game, which has now hit 10 million downloads, is to restore economic stability to a player’s city by cultivating, harvesting, and trading pot.
After mastering the grow process, players can crossbreed genetically accurate cultivars, run dispensaries, compete in the Hempire Cup, and renovate grow-ops.
After Hempire’s global launch in 2017, the international cannabis community was quick to adopt the game as a social sharing platform, which Bucholtz credits to the buzzing in-game forum.
Laura Hampson, a 55-year-old Vancouver Island resident, is a quintessential example of how Hempire is more than a tech solution to pass time. Two years ago, her wife, Lindsey, suggested she check out the “new hemp game”, and she has since become an integral part of its network.
“I first liked it because the story line breaks away from that stigma of everybody being airheads and instead discusses things like it [cannabis] being used for pain control,” Hampson says on the phone.
Throughout the game, players are tasked with cultivating for the likes of Cousin Kim—a character who struggles with PTSD and requires medical-grade products of a certain potency and terpene profile to assuage her condition.
Hampson finds these elements relatable, as she also uses the plant to manage “chronic sensitivity syndrome”. The painful condition affects the nervous system, keeping her housebound for much of her daily life, but the game meant a tangible connection to like-minded consumers and newfound friends in the Hempire team.
“I tried to commit suicide two years ago, and at that point I was just trying to figure out what to do to keep going,” she says. “I sent in a drawing of what I was doing in the game, and Jaymee [Mak, Hempire’s community manager] responded with great enthusiasm. She told me to keep at it. She gave me hope…and you don’t often hear of that: a game or computer company involved with their users in that way.”
She credits Hempire’s team with helping her through the dark time in her life and says the gesture won her loyalty. Now not only does Hampson submit her artwork to the company’s biweekly art competitions, she builds props inspired by in-game artifacts in her free time.
“She’s one of our most dedicated players,” Bucholtz says. “She volunteered at our booth at 4/20 last year and sat there with us all day. This year, she made in-game items and delivered it to our office,” he says, showing off several of Hampson’s plasticine figurines and papier-mâché props.
“The lifeblood of Hempire are these really active players who were not just talking about the game but taking bong rips together, sharing photos, spending time getting to know one another,” says Mak, the individual responsible for managing the vast in-game population.
Mak says threads in the Hempire café—the online forum—can hit up to 30,000 active users daily. “The forum is part of what makes the game so huge, especially in regions that have not reached legalization yet. People who use cannabis can’t make these types of friendships in public, necessarily. And the Internet can be a scary place because it’s very easy for an employer to search your activity. But no one is really searching in a hidden in-game forum.”
Mak knew immediately after coming aboard at LBC that the key to unifying the game’s rapidly expanding community was to empower its thread leaders: volunteer moderators taking it upon themselves to help other players. She has since enlisted “10 to 20 people” to a team she calls “the Mod Squad”. The commitment requires an in-depth understanding of the game’s code of ethics and rules, and about 10 hours of work per week.
“At first, it was just a great way to pass the time, but once I got into the café and started interacting with the people in there, I fell in love with the community,” says Jessica Krites, one of Hempire’s American moderators. Krites, who has played for more than a year, logs 600 to 900 “MQs” a month, moving and quarantining content in the forums.
“I’ve never kept a game on my phone for more than a week and a half, so this has clearly really stuck with me. And I think it’s because the people I meet, and the team I’ve built, are just so great.…My team has grown really close.”
In light of Hempire’s success, Bucholtz says, LBC is committed to creating more content to unite the cannabis community.
“Initially, we wanted to create the world’s best cannabis game. I think we did that. Now we want to be the category leader in cannabis games overall,” says Bucholtz, who then slyly teases a second game is set to launch at the end of this year.