‘Startup Panic’ review: a steady investment

A slapstick entrepreneur sim that’s as frustrating as it is compelling

The experience of running a business sits somewhere on a spectrum between “harrowing” and “tedious”. When things are going well, it’s boring like any other job. When things are going badly, it’s the Interesting Times curse in microcosm. Startup Panic, tinyBuild’s foray into the cutesy wait-em-up biz sim genre – think Game Dev Story and you’ve largely got the gist – conveys this emotional continuum of fright to shite rather well. Too well, frankly.

A brief introductory cutscene shows you dramatically quitting your job. Soon, you’re a bedroom coder with a Big Idea and four-thousand dollars burning a hole in your pocket. The Microsoft Paperclip From The 90s (or a legally distinct version thereof) shows up to give you some advice and set the tone with welcome meta-humour. As a statement of intent, it’s a solid opening, setting out Startup Panic’s stall straight away as being a cute and charming doily draped over a clenched fist that can and will repeatedly accelerate into your face if you give it half a chance (more of this metaphor later).

The basic economic pushpulls of business are adequately simulated. You have to spend money to make money, so you start off by publishing a simple landing page for your Big Idea and then doing some contract work to fund its development. Odd jobs are in plentiful supply, at least in the early stages of the game, so you can always resort to it if your reserves are running low. Once you have some cash, you can start adding basic functions to your Website Or App, which you select from a big feature roadmap reminiscent of the skill tree of an RPG. It’s basic Myspace era stuff at first: posting. Image uploads. User themes.

Your website’s userbase is its lifeblood, and the point of the game is to expand it in order to increase revenue and market share. To do this, you must keep adding features, but also develop them to a high enough standard that they get (and keep) high scores in the categories of technology, usability and aesthetics. Of course, you can’t do this all by yourself. Soon, you must move to a proper office and hire some bodies. The expenditure of doing this may wipe out your war chest, but a roster of shit hot developers, artists, and marketers will be key to taking your project to The Next Level which, once reached, will require more staff to keep afloat and an even bigger office to house them, repeating the cycle anew. Later on, you’ll be hiring teams to run marketing campaigns in global markets, and fielding calls from angel investors. It’s a game of remarkable scope, much more so than its art style would suggest.

Startup Panic
Startup Panic. Credit: tinyBuild.

But the best laid plans of Internet CEOs are often thwarted when they get punched in the face by fists lurking under doilies (more of this metaphor earlier). Startup Panic’s narrative takes some pretty wild twists, and one relatively early scripted encounter basically serves as a litmus test for players. In it, a Korean pop star decides to use your social platform to launch her album. You don’t have a say in this, but are entered into a contract whereby your technology must be capable of handling the enormous traffic demands of a live concert and if it isn’t, her management company will litigate you to death, causing a dreaded Game Over screen.

What follows is a frantic in-game year of technical revisions to your existing features. First time players will almost certainly have a lot of work to do to rewrite their code, pushing each feature’s technical score up beyond the arbitrary 7 required to pass. It’s a stumbling block that many players fall foul of, as a cursory glance at the game’s discussion page reveals. It’s at this point, though, that the game properly comes alive. Everything comes into play – the perks you’ve unlocked to reduce dev time by single-digit percentage points. The Nice Furniture you’ve put in the office to buff your employees’ motivation stat; arguably the most crucial number in the game, kept high by wage rises, comfort items, and expenses paid vacations, and perennially lowered by entropy, failure, and irritating random events.

The k-pop episode aptly demonstrates how Startup Panic creates exhilarating challenges and end goals with very high-stakes consequences. Failing it throws you back in time by one year to have another crack, but after this point in the game, failure has a price: bankruptcy, and therefore permadeath. It’s not fucking around either: it’s proper permadeath that deletes your save and everything, leaving no evidence of the failed venture but a mosaic of your little CEO crying as their dreams collapse around them. Bloody hell.

Startup Panic. Credit: tinyBuild.
Startup Panic. Credit: tinyBuild.

The rush of success is intoxicating. Startup Panic at its best is a serotonin delivery system full of satisfying goals and minute to minute challenge, shot through with topical gags and zeitgeisty reflections on the nature of late-stage capitalism, but it also has a ghost that triggers and drops an atom bomb on your progress, setting arbitrary tasks and actively sabotaging your means of completing them until you get rid of it. It has pirates that take your employees hostage for ransom demands. This happens to a frightening degree, actually – the frequency with which your employees get taken hostage stretches one’s suspension of disbelief much further than when a ghost turns up and demands to be made CEO. Although not quite as far as the notion of an employer (you) sending their employees (some mardy coders) on a mandatory all-expenses-paid vacation to relieve burnout. These guys must have some union.

There’s a tough balance to be struck here. The general plate-spinning required to grow your business, balancing the often conflicting demands of maintaining a skilled and healthy workforce, while hitting growth milestones, is challenging enough. But, without the odd spanner in the works or outright curveball, you’d be spending most of your time simply watching progress bars fill. And, make no mistake, you will spend a lot of your time doing that. Even on the fastest time setting, the pacing slows to an excruciating crawl if your employees are all Doing Something, which feels like a hangover from its origins as a smartphone game designed perhaps to be half-engaged with on the commute; a game that periodically plays itself while you sip a train station latte.

Which is perhaps why the PC release necessitates new content, events and questlines to keep hyper-focused players engaged. Besides, the game is arguably not in spinning the plates, it’s in catching them before they smash on the ground. Whether Startup Panic gets the ratios right on this point is largely down to individual preference – video games are all about managed frustration, really – but many players will find it dipping into pirate infested waters a little too often.

What can’t be denied, though, is that it’s a competent and engaging title that’s an absolute blast when it’s firing on all cylinders, and mostly forgivable when it isn’t. If only the markets were so clement.

Startup Panic is available on PC and mobile platforms.

The Verdict

An endearing and smartly written business management sim with depth that transcends its mobile origins, but pacing issues that betray them.

Pros

  • Genuinely quite funny
  • A proper business simulator under the hood
  • Gets its hooks in you for “just one more go”

Cons

  • There’s a lot of sitting around
  • There’s a lot of one step forward, two steps back
  • There’s a lot of bullshit, frankly
  • …Maybe it’s too much like running a business
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