If you were a Silicon Valley CEO, would your goal in life be to reshape society with world-changing products, or simply make as much money as possible and grow as fast as you can in the shortest amount of time? That’s the blunt and much-needed philosophical debate at the heart of The Founder, a free browser-based game from designer Francis Tseng. Launched earlier today thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign, the game blends the open-ended decision-making made popular by The Sims, the business management Kairosoft titles, and a heaping helping of tech industry satire.
You start by naming your startup, choosing a co-founder, and picking a location to base your business. From there, you’re encouraged to start developing products and expanding endlessly.
Tseng incorporates a comical and wildly diverse number of real-world elements to The Founder that clash with the cartoony, cone-shaped avatars that slave away in a small simulated office space. For instance, you can develop products with the jargon of a marketing director and the ease of a cocktail bartender. A few clicks and you’re splicing together advertising and social networking, or e-commerce and mobile. Or you can just branch outwards with new verticals, like entertainment or finance.
When launching a new product, the game will switch over to a grid-like mini-game that pits you against an AI competitor in a contest for market share. The outcome of the contest then determines how much money your product generates.
But those elements barely scratch the surface of The Founder. Tseng’s simulation is so deep and comically accurate as to be a disturbing to those who live and work within Silicon Valley and its ever-expanding orbit. Every aspect of the game contributes to the rate at which you earn or lose money. A timer in the corner tracks the passing of time, starting at the post-dot-com bubble of 2001 and speeding onward at about one month per minute.
All the while, your board of investors is represented by an expectations meter at the top of the screen that tracks the happiness of board members and the likelihood that you, as the founder, will be ousted.
There are a number of other hilarious touches that will strike close to home for tech industry workers. To develop products faster, you can hire more employees and even lower those candidates’ salary expectations by exploiting information you’ve gleaned from their social media profiles. To attend to impending hacks or overseas factory suicides (like I said, grim), you might have to take valuable employees off research projects and assign them to cloud computing or 3D printing or the blockchain. To stave off public outcry over privacy violations, you’ll have to launch PR initiatives that range from press releases to astroturfing campaigns to product placement and music festivals.
Tseng, in an interview with Fast Company, said the point of the game was to highlight the absurdity of Silicon Valley, a place where immense resources and talent is concentrated in silly and sometimes sinister ways. "I saw a lot of really amazing, technically amazing stuff happening in Silicon Valley, but the way it was being applied, the way [it] was being directed, just felt like a shame — it felt like a waste," Tseng says. "I was really interested in bringing that out in the game. That there's all this kind of marvelous innovation and technical development going on, but it feels like a lot of it is being squandered."
As you progress in The Founder, you’ll unlock the ability to grow beyond startup staples like social networking, advertising, and gadgets and into larger and more ominous industries like biotech, weapons development, robotics, and artificial intelligence. Some products become fantastical, like combining cognitive research with finance to generate “thought pattern-based credit scores” or combining social networking, analytics, and genetic research to establish a cloning facility. At some point, you can even invest in space travel to colonize Mars. Along the way, you can scoop up other companies that range from media organizations to global banks to shadowy government contractors.
The point, Tseng says, is to highlight the compromises and trade-offs of Silicon Valley’s appetite for innovation and quest for power. To even break into space travel and other futuristic industries, players will need to lobby the government for tax breaks, squash research bans, and influence the lowering of the minimum wage. At a certain point, it even becomes economical to influence the treatment of your enterprises in foreign countries. Each one of these points in the evolution of your company is represented by a simple on-screen card, something you can accomplish by simply investing time and money and resources.
“You have to keep expanding profit. As time goes on, it becomes harder and harder to do as you sort of saturate all the markets and you continue to try and build new products. But eventually it becomes harder and harder to innovate," Tseng tells Fast Company. "As you go further in the future, you get more and more of these crazy technologies, really futuristic ones. My hope is that at some point the player realizes, this is not a world I would want to live in."