By Alex Distefano
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Ah. The rush of kick-starting a company. The deep pleasure-chills of downsizing. The scent of acquisition in the morning.
Admittedly, the joys of doing business are perhaps an acquired taste. But in a time of feverish entrepreneurship on the Net from mom-and-pop porn outfits to day-trading junkies to 14-year-old Microsoft programmers hardcore capitalism has become mainstream home entertainment. The popularization is nowhere more apparent than on the NASDAQ exchange, home of the tech stock, where investors make their killings with the same alacrity as they do in shotgun fests like Doom. The trigger finger that keeps you alive in the video game now keeps you liquid at eTrade.com.
Crafty game engineers then asked why not just combine them? With titles like Capitalism, Entrepreneur, and the recently released Ruthless.com, the PC gaming industry has discovered the allure of corporate warfare. Even if you don't have the $4 million to put yourself on the map, you can act like it for $39.95.
Unfortunately, the games are woefully abstract you won't see two suits bludgeoning each other for dominance. The killer instinct is there, but it's cloaked in stock tickers and press releases. The games come off like flashy Excel spreadsheets, featuring graphed-out corporate reports, market research, and network security holes. To MBAs, they must come as a godsend. Trapped in cubeland? Let yourself go with a few rounds of software feuding in Southeast Asia. Phone calls never returned? Assassinate a virtual CEO.
The newest of the lot, Ruthless.com, was created by Tom Clancy's gaming company, Red Storm (redstorm.com). It asks the question, "What happens in a post-Microsoft world?" (Aren't all games forms of wish fulfillment?) In it, you're presented with a cozy grid of small, competing software companies, one of which is your own. Your task is to grow the company by creating "departments" in different buildings to release new products. This requires evaluating your need for legal and marketing executives and syncing their administration with the R&D departments. When things get dire, you can sue, hack other companies, or just poach their best people. Simply surviving won't get you anywhere the only winning tactic is success and the mantra here is quality control.
Too literal for you? That's exactly the point, says game producer Kevin Perry. "Pull up anything on the software industry in today's business journals," he says. "You can read excerpts of Bill Gates's e-mail and the way he talks about business, [like] we'll crush you, we'll drive you out of business. We just animate the rhetoric." But "animation" isn't exactly right. If anything, the games are just as discreet and opaque as real business dealings. Ruthless.com takes a detached view of the proceedings. You can order the murder of another executive, but rather than showing the deed, the game reports on it with a fake business headline. One is reminded of Orwell's line about the immorality of those "always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled."
Perry assures that "you don't need to be amoral to win." You can sign nonaggression pacts with competitors, release your source code, and try not to bother people. But cruelty is inevitable. "You have to keep your product quality up there, and if you do, you will be stomping on other people," he says. Part of the game's design was to ensure conflict by keeping the grid so small that players can't "huddle in a corner and hope everybody leaves them alone," he says. "It's comforting for human society to do that, but it's not good for the game on the whole."
Compared to the glossy, atmospheric Ruthless.com, the genre's biggest hits, Entrepreneur (stardock.com) and Capitalism (imagicgames.com), seem like economics primers. Entrepreneur trumpets "world domination through corporate warfare" in which "store shelf is your battlefield, product your artillery." But all the military mojo can't mask the more mundane obsessions of the game. You're stuck building South Seas manufacturing depots, endlessly monitoring the cost-to-price ratio, inventory, production rates, and a huge matrix of regional desires. (In Singapore, you're told, the market wants ease of use. On the West Coast, they prefer performance.)
The sheer amount of number crunching required is stunning. As game creator Brad Wardell admits, "When we were developing the game, we called it 'Quicken, the Game.' If there was no Quicken, I wouldn't have thought of doing it." It's a critical point home-use financial software gave consumers the same bar graphs and pie charts used by corporate VPs. It demystified the internal operations of big business, making high finance seem just a matter of scale. If you can balance your own monthly expenses, why not try your hand at a global conglomerate's massive bottom line?
Capitalism the granddad of the pack is so realistic that it has proved a legitimate training tool for young market mavens. (Try getting your head around this one: rating=QRxQC/60+BRxBC/60+ (Stdpr-SellPr)xPC/StdPr.) Stanford, Duke, the University of Pennsylvania, and Harvard Business School students faced off in giant, organized competitions of the game. One Harvard prof used it as part of a final exam. But students shouldn't look too closely at the business sims. Entrepreneur's Wardell confesses that the company made some "boo-boos" in the game design. In the effort to keep every region a certain size, the designers awkwardly gerrymandered some borders to fit the game, geopolitics be damned. "If you didn't think people in Greece played PC games, wait until you fuse Turkey and Greece," Wardell says. "The e-mail you get will show that they do."