Hey buddy! Nice shoes! Did you ever stop to think about where they come from? And I don't mean "the shoe store" or even just your favourite designer... I mean how your shoes, and all the others that were sitting in identical boxes on the shelf when you bought them, were made. Sweatshop by Littleloud is a strategy simulation that puts you in the shoes of a newly appointed manager at a factory somewhere overseas. According to your boss, it's your job to make sure you meet the factory's quota on time, by managing the workers on the floor that struggle to create the items that come down the conveyor belt. Shoes, designer handbags, hats... they've gotta come from somewhere, right? The people you hire are willing to work hard for you... or maybe they've got no choice. And this isn't some home Etsy business, either; the production line has to be humming at all times, churning out dozens of items for the consumers overseas, or someone's neck is on the line. Will you be able to treat your workers well when the pressure is on to deliver the goods?
On each stage, you'll be required to have your workers complete a certain amount of items (displayed in green in the upper right corner) without ruining more than a few (the number displayed in red.) As unfinished items move from one end of the conveyor belt to another, nearby workers will attempt to complete it as it moves past them; you can hire more workers, some of whom are better at particular items, by clicking on their icon at the top of the screen and dragging them to where you want them to work on the line. This, as you'd expect, costs money, which you only earn when an item is completed. On the left side of the screen is an arrow button that you can press to modify the speed of the conveyor belt; click it once, and the belt will move faster, but your employees will have to work harder to keep up. Eventually, your workers will require watercoolers nearby, which helps keep them hydrated so they don't collapse, but costs a chunk of change each time you use it. If you're willing to spend the cash, you can also click on a worker and click "upgrade" to train them, which refreshes them temporarily and makes them work faster.
At the end of each stage, you'll be graded on a percentage based on how quickly you made your items, and how much cash you had left over. There are three factories you'll have to take charge of throughout the course of the game, and the conditions for success get more demanding as you go. You might even be tempted to hire a child laborer or two... after all, they don't work fast, but they're cheap, and more money means a higher score... which is what matters, isn't it?
Analysis: Sweatshop is easy as pie to pick up, but if you really want to maximize your output without sacrificing your workers' well being, it becomes a lot harder. If you're a high-score hound then it's going to become even more tempting to cut corners and push your workers harder just to boost your percentage. Littleloud has also managed to make the whole thing look great visually, with eye-catching colours, exaggerated characters, and catchy music. There's even a bit of humour to be found in your cartoonishly overdone boss who berates you and delivers backhanded compliments, his hairpiece flying askew whenever he's excited or angry. Some other jokes, such as cheerfully talking about eating the family pets, may make you raise an eyebrow. Is the cheery design and humour appropriate? That likely depends on how you think the game executes its concept and message. Sweatshop is, after all, one of those games where the premise makes you wince a little when you stop to think about what you're really doing.
I was initially fairly skeptical at Sweatshop's ability to deliver its message as well as, say, a game like Ayiti: The Cost of Life. With most of the gameplay's serious material handled in what feels like a cautiously cartoonish fashion, the majority of the important information falls to be delivered by the adorable moppet between stages, and unfortunately it fails to really have much of an impact since it sits on the periphery of the game itself. As time passes and you start to feel the pressure more and more from your employers, however, you do start to grasp just how difficult it can really be to maintain a healthy, productive work environment when the people you answer to really couldn't care less. The game is actually pretty good at representing the pressure that comes in from all sides to make the supply for the demand, and it's easy to see where the people doing all the hard work get lost in the shuffle.
Games designed around important but uncomfortable issues are difficult to make, or at least difficult to make well. Be too heavy-handed and the thing isn't fun to play, which means people aren't even going to be interested, but if you pull back on the tone too far you risk offending people who don't think you're taking the subject matter seriously enough. The thing here isn't to wallow in guilt, but to raise awareness and to get people to start thinking and looking into where the things we normally don't look twice at come from. (If you want to know more, you might want to check out the fairly excellent British documentary miniseries Blood, Sweat, and T-Shirts.) Sweatshop is a bit of an odd duck that doesn't quite nail the formula necessary to become as impactful as it could have been, but it's still more than worth a look.