It’s early 1998 in Above the Fold, when the internet was still a slow-loading hell of animated GIFs and your flip phone was strictly for making calls. You’re the new editor-in-chief of a small newspaper in the city of Goodbury. You’ve got a (small) pile of money, no staff, no stories, and a city to cover.
The general idea is that you can build up your fledgling newspaper into whatever you’d like it to be. Focus on entertainment, celebrity gossip, harmless fluff or hard-hitting politics while hiring staff to help meet your goals. Every day, you set out looking for people to hire and stories to cover, in an effort to find whatever you possibly can to fill the front page. You have to balance your output against your audience, your stories against the reporters you’ve hired, your actions against the owners’ desires, and your actual ability to do anything against however much ad space you’re able to sell.
Above the Fold is currently in Steam Early Access, available for digital purchase for $13.99. At time of writing, it’s been out for about a month and a half, and four big patches have been released so far. It’s a one-man show from Seattle-based programmer Rasmus Rasmussen, formerly of Valve and Microsoft. (And, to put all our cards on the table, an early GeekWire contributing writer.)
“I’ve wanted to make this game for quite a while,” Rasmussen told me, “but there was a lot of stuff I had to learn before I could get started on it. I like simulation games, and I feel as if most simulations have been done to death already. Most of them are great, and I can’t compete with otherwise great games, so I had to find my niche.
“As a young, idealistic teenager, I used to work at a role-playing game magazine in Denmark,” Rasmussen added. “Later on, I got a little experience working in the print industry, at various magazines and newspapers, back in the old country. That combined in my brain, and I thought, ‘OK, this sounds like something I could do.’ I spent some time mulling it over and trying to find the approach that I wanted to take.”
At the beginning of a new game of Above the Fold, you get a randomly-generated newspaper with a small number of existing subscribers. On day one of your new job, you set try to find reporters to hire and stories to cover, which randomly appear across the map of the city. When you’ve got as many writers as you can afford and they’ve all been assigned to stories — ideally stories that match their personal fields of interest — you can skip to the end of the day.
At this point, you arrange articles on your daily edition’s front page and you are scored based upon the reaction of your audience. If you got stories that match your audience’s biases, and assigned them to reporters who like to cover that particular beat, you’re scored highly; otherwise, you’re punished with lost subscriptions and lowered staff morale. You also get hate mail, but much like real life, you’re going to get some hate mail regardless of whatever else you do. (It’s not really a newspaper unless you’ve got at least one angry crank.)
In play, it’s a lot like spinning plates. There’s no way to quickly scan the city map for new opportunities or hires. Instead, you’re randomly running around, hoping that the stories and reporters you want will fall into your lap, and won’t expire before you can get there. It’s easy to have a full staff of specialists in a given field, or a particular political persuasion, and get a full day’s worth of stories that don’t match their expertise at all.
On the one hand, it’s obnoxious that the game is entirely random. Like a lot of procedurally generated games, it means your experience is entirely in the hands of a random number generator. Every day in Above the Fold is a frantic race around the map to find just the right story, or reporter, or match thereof, and finding it is like a gold strike.
On the other, the lack of hand-holding and the attached spontaneity makes it feel a lot like being an actual reporter. You can’t control where the news will come from or what it’ll be, or who’s going to be interested in running ads in your paper. All you can do is try to stay light on your feet and take what you can, as best you can, before the opportunities vanish.
In practice, this is a lot more about risk management and calculated plays than the model-train-set feel of a lot of simulation games (your various Tycoons, your management simulators, etc.). Above the Fold is very much a game where you can barely control anything, and that’s by design.
“One of the things that I feel is a hindrance with simulation games is that the barrier of entry is quite high,” Rasmussen said, “and many games are quite detailed. I wanted to make a game that didn’t necessarily have a required level of intricate micromanagement. You can do that if you want, but it’s not necessary to enjoy the game.”
At present, Above the Fold is entirely made in Game Maker by Rasmussen himself. The graphics are deliberately placeholder images for the time being, with new sprites and maps underway for a future version, made by freelance artist Kay Lousberg. Rasmussen has also promised, via Twitter, that the next big feature to be added is reporters’ personalities affecting their work.
With quests, the next big feature to add in #AboveTheFold is personality traits. Your reporters already have them, but until now they haven't had any in-game effects. That will change soon. Get this growing #indiegame on Steam and manage a newspaper! https://t.co/YADNW1fKNt
— Rasmus Rasmussen (@theprint) January 14, 2019
Above the Fold is currently near the start of what’s planned to be a two-year development cycle, with a theoretical final version aiming for 2020.