Frontrunner: Monmouth firm produces presidential election game

by Norm Winick

Magic Lantern, a small game company in Monmouth, is about to burst on the national scene with the first political simulation game for the 2004 election. It’s a project combining the skills and knowledge of their nine in-house developers, a few external contractors and testers, some political scientists and a political campaign manager to help them "keep it real."

Paul Schuytema, producer and designer of Frontrunner, says that the game should be out by April. "Our goal is to be testing the beta of Frontrunner in early ’04 and get it out before the end of Q1. One challenge that presents is making sure we have the right tickets for the player to choose. We may do some sort of download for the players once the candidates are announced."

The primaries won’t interfere with the schedule because Frontrunner will be limited to the presidential election, says Schuytema. "It will simulate late July through election day ó about 90 days real-time. We contemplated the primaries, and there are some interesting aspects that we could exploit, gameplay-wise, but we made the call to focus on just the big fish for now ó though adding primaries might be a great option for an expansion pack."

"In Frontrunner, we wanted to, first and foremost, create a fun game to play. We’ve seen a number of election games in past years that are basically 'spreadsheet games’ and that’s not what we wanted."

"You start out by selecting which campaign/candidate you’ll play (there will be a number of actual, fictional and historical campaigns included), and then you can select from one to three competitors."

"The game is ‘real time,’ meaning that time ticks off even if you do nothing. Your goal is to build your foundation of support across all 50 states (and D.C.) so that, when election days arrives, you’ll be the frontrunner and have the best chance to secure the needed votes."


"As a campaign, you’ll control your candidate and his/her running mate. You can travel them from state to state, run advertising campaigns, host fundraisers or even speak passionately about a subject."

"All of this happens in 3D with a ‘CNN-style’ U.S. map that allows you to view all of the campaigns and their activities, learn about states and even manage your organization at the state level."

"All the while, each state’s population, broken into three to four like-thinking interest groups, think through and render their support for a campaign (this happens once each game-time day). The game plays no party favorites; it has no preference for Democrats over the Green party (for example). While this might not be historically accurate, it does create a better-feeling game."

"The most unique aspect of the play is the way we handle issues. Think of them as poker chips that are won during the game ó and there is only one for each issue or endorsement ó so only one campaign can be the ‘pro choice’ campaign or only one campaign can get a Teamsters endorsement. This abstraction of issues reflects how we really see candidates. The only things that really percolate to the surface and differentiate the candidates are these polar issues (pro-life/pro-choice, more defense spending, cut defense spending, etc.). It also creates a very exciting gameplay approach, because you, as a player, have to make a lot of risk-reward choices when you select an issue since you’ll garner support but also alienate some potential voters."

"You can also participate in debates and Sunday morning talk-shows. These are ‘mini games’ that allow you to work with your candidate’s support on key questions. Perform well and you’ll earn a change to grab a few more issues or endorsements for your campaign."

"You play against one to three computer controlled campaigns (with three difficulty levels). The computer controlled ‘campaign managers’ work very hard to make sure their candidate stays ahead of the pack so there is quite a bit of challenge. The state populations are also controlled by artificial intelligence based on demographics, census data and voting patterns. Rural Iowa thinks about things quite differently than Seattle or San Francisco."

"We have an event system which simulates regional, national and international changes during the general elections. These events often allow the player to take a stand (that is, grab an issue coin) that will affect the voters over time. For example, a ‘Saudi Oil Embargo’ event might present two issue coins: More Investment in Renewable Energy or More Oil Drilling in Alaska ó each with potential risks and rewards ó and the player might have the opportunity to select only one."

"Candidates and running mates each have Charisma and Stamina values that affect their performance in the game. If you pick an existing campaign, the two will already be paired together. If you create your own campaign, then you can set up each member of the ticket."

"It’s the blending of the issues a campaign selects, the time they spend campaigning, the advertising (what markets and how much money was spent), the fund raising and managing the organization ‘machine.’ Couple that with some very active performance in debates and talk shows, and you’ve got a lot of variables contributing to a campaign’s success or failure."

Dawn Maye, publishing director, added that Frontrunner "…is not tied politically to any specific candidate or party. The idea behind the game is to get individuals in the habit of having fun with the election process no matter what their political beliefs are. Any candidate can conceivably ‘win’ depending on the issues."

"As in real life, money is very important to the candidates in Frontrunner. Each candidate has a specific amount of money that they begin the game with. They use this money throughout the game to pay for ads, canvassing, travel, etc. All that can chew through the coffers pretty quickly, so candidates must fundraise early and often."

"We allow the players to represent any party that they choose. We also have built in a feature that allows them to run as themselves ó by uploading a photo and choosing issues they feel are important. They in turn can play against the computer generated political intelligence."

"We designed this game to be open-ended so that we can have the opportunity to recreate historical elections ó from the campaigns to the issues to the way the state populations think and vote. Hopefully, it’ll give us a chance to create a series of exciting election simulation products down the road."

When asked why a firm producing such a sophisticated product is located in Monmouth, Schuytema explained: "My wife and I settled in Monmouth after we both finished grad school and I worked as an instructor at Monmouth College. Honestly, the small town drove me crazy! We moved to Dallas for several years where I managed a game development team. It was that experience that made me realize that I really wanted to be back in Monmouth and that it’d be a great place to run a business."

"We moved back and started Magic Lantern in late ’98 and we’ve grown to 10 developers. Nearly all of them have relocated to Monmouth and we’re very bullish on the community and rural Illinois. I truly believe that this is not only fertile ground for corn and beans, but also small technology-based businesses."

Schuytema says that as part of the testing process "We set up a test game with Al Gore running against George W. in 2000. We gave them all the same issues they supported in the election and we watched the states weigh in with their support. All the states went the same way as the did in the general election with one exception; Florida switched back and forth between the campaigns like a light switch. That was the point when we realized the game was truly heading in the right direction!"

When it first hits the market, Frontrunner will only be available for computers running Microsoft Windows. "In the future, we might conceive of moving in the Macintosh realm if there is enough interest," added Maye. She expects Frontrunner to retail in the $19.95 to $24.95 range.

She also says there may be another purpose to the creation of Frontrunner. "First of all, our bottom line is for people to have fun, and they will. Frontrunner is strategic fun for everyone ó students, families, and friends but we also have the ulterior motive that Frontrunner will get people excited about democracy again and will stimulate their interest in politics. We hope that Frontrunner can help people realize that they can make a positive impact upon the world by making educated choices about their political representation and then to get out there and vote."


Follow progress of the game as it develops: