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Meet 'The Tenants,' The Video Game That Could Change What People Think They Know About Landlords

Anyone who has owned or managed a rental property knows it takes a whole lot more than cashing rent checks.

So even if newly released video game The Tenants isn’t the virtual equivalent of walking a mile in a landlord’s shoes, it carries the potential to add a little nuance to the public perception of the business — and asks the question, can this often-maligned profession get a little love?

A tenant sleeps in a rental unit in the game 'The Tenants,' as messages from the tenant are displayed on the phone widget.

Despite its title, The Tenants places players in the role of landlord, giving them several different areas of multifamily real estate to play with, from renovating units to managing properties to selecting and managing tenants.

At its heart, it's a video game about time and resource management at a level so granular a player can choose the color of a toilet paper holder. But the subject matter makes the game stand out in a way that is refreshing, disorienting and serves up food for thought. 

In order to make it fun, the creators had to cut or drastically simplify some of the most boring parts of being a landlord — which, of course, makes the job seem a lot easier than it is. 

“It is a tough business that is more than just about money,” said DMH Investments President Daniel Harvey on what he would want a video game to teach players about being a landlord. “I don’t know how you’d get that across necessarily. But if [players] had to make tough decisions that they seem to think are so easy … That realism, seeing how difficult it is, seeing that we’re human? That would be the most important part, to humanize us.”

The Tenants was officially released on the Steam platform for computer games on Oct. 20 by Poland-based developer Ancient Forge Studio and publisher Frozen District. Ancient Forge co-founders Dushan Chaciej and Maksymilian Strzelecki developed The Tenants from an idea Chaciej had while watching the TV show Shameless in 2017, and built it on Strzelecki’s love of in-depth management games from the 1990s like Airline Tycoon.

“Everyone has opinions about landlords, at least, so the game seems relatable,” Strzelecki said. “When we give someone the elevator pitch, they respond, ‘Oh that’s cool, I’ve always wanted to be a landlord but I can’t afford to in real life.’”

In The Tenants, the player starts as an aspiring landlord given a manufactured home to renovate and rent out by kindly Uncle Steve, who acts as the player’s guide, mentor and handyman. Eventually, they become a property magnate: owning apartments, flipping investment properties and managing a portfolio’s worth of tenants. 

Along the way, a player is faced with choice after choice and consequence after consequence. The player can hire a professional to fix a unit’s broken pipe, see if Uncle Steve can handle it or blow off the tenant’s request.

If a tenant is often late on rent or makes life unpleasant for neighbors, one can use the carrot or the stick approach: Entice them to behave better with a gift basket, or harass them into breaking their lease by hiring a trumpet player to bother them from the other side of the wall.

Aesthetically, it bears a strong resemblance to The Sims, but it plays more like an incredibly in-depth SimCity. Playing the game unlocks more types of jobs and more functions, from different furnishings to place in an apartment to a greater variety of lease terms. The element that has been drastically simplified, even from what Chaciej and Strzelecki originally planned, is bookkeeping.

A bird's-eye view of the town of Wondersville, one of the first images a player sees upon firing up the computer game 'The Tenants.'

“At the beginning, our vision focused more on the deals stuff, and we even had some crazy mechanics for bill-paying, but it’s definitely not a player fantasy to keep on paying bills and focusing on that,” Chaciej said.

“We eventually just made a button to click to pay all the bills [at once],” Strzelecki said. “That’s something people asked for, but we initially didn’t want to have that because it’s not part of the experience of being a landlord.”

Although owning rental property is about money in general, and about optimizing costs and revenues specifically, landlords know that balancing a metaphorical checkbook is the most tedious part of the job.

“Bookkeeping is the bloodline of your business, but it’s the most boring part,” said Babb Properties founder Kim Avant-Babb, who owns rental properties in Philadelphia and runs a business training property owners in being a landlord.  

Another area where The Tenants eschews realism in favor of fun is what happens to a player’s company as they scale up: basically, nothing. Finances notwithstanding, the player remains in charge of the granular decisions throughout — much like a small landlord.

“No one wants to deal with bookkeeping, updating [multiple listing services] and all that,” Holloway Realty founder Michael Holloway said. “Larger companies probably have assistants or software to help with that stuff.”

One of the defining distinctions between large and small landlords is in dealing with tenants, since large landlords either have whole teams devoted to property management or hire third parties for it. For small landlords, dealing with tenants can be the most difficult part of the job; for The Tenants’ creators, it has been a subject of frequent tweaks to find the right proportions of realism and fun.

“We had to make a balancing act between positive and negative actions,” Strzelecki said. “Obviously in real life, you’re simply expected to not be a piece of shit, but in a game, you want to have a little more positive things to do.”

The negative experiences a landlord can have with a tenant in the game range from late payment or nonpayment of rent to being a nuisance to neighbors, and can even go so far as starting a crystal meth lab in a unit.

The negative outcomes from a bad relationship with a tenant can include their refusal to pay more in rent when the lease is up or breaking a lease early and leaving a unit vacant (and possibly filthy). More creative ways for tenants to show displeasure were considered but not included, again in service of keeping the playing experience pleasant.

The renovation function of the game includes a wide variety of options for every part of an apartment, from floors to fans to food bowls.

In some instances, that worst-case scenario of a tenant breaking a lease may be worthwhile — hence the sabotage option.

But even though Chaciej and Strzelecki envisioned players leaning into the misanthropic fun of a digital world without consequence, most have instead opted to be a better version of a landlord than they see in real life.

“If you ignore a repair for a certain amount of time, tenants call you an asshole,” Chaciej said. “And we changed that word in [the] English [version], because people were like, ‘These tenants are so mean! What can I do now? I don’t want to be an asshole.’ So they wanted more chances to make amends and apologize. If anything, more people want to be nice and a good landlord.” 

“When it comes down to it, you find out that you’re not evil, after all,” Strzelecki said.

To many playing the game, the fact that landlords can do any positive things for their tenants rings false, Chaciej said, underscoring the negative perception that landlords have in the popular consciousness.

But Avant-Babb does give gifts to tenants with whom she’s on good terms, and coaches her students to do so as well, she said.

“We have an annual tenant appreciation gift, which I’m preparing for right now,” Avant-Babb said. “At the end of the year, I send a card and give a gift card to thank them for being an awesome tenant … If you talk about a tenant relationship, it’s so much about the psychology of how you set the tone and how you move through that relationship.”

The easiest way to have a good relationship with tenants is to select the right ones, and there are a couple of tenant screening methods in the game, which came from discussions the game makers had with real-life landlords in researching The Tenants.

“This American landlord named Joe would watch visitors coming to open houses, look at their cars, etc.,” Chaciej said. “If there’s a lot of trash in their car, then [he would assume] they’re not going to keep an apartment clean. So you have to be kind of a judge of character.”

Other than bookkeeping, the most common element of being a landlord The Tenants skips is dealing with the government, whether in terms of building codes and zoning or court cases with tenants. More of that will be integrated into Ancient Forge’s follow-up game The Constructors, currently due to be released in 2024.

“We’re planning on involving more of the serious stuff like city regulations, where you have to adhere to special requirements like the number of windows, distance between walls and stuff like that,” Chaciej said.

Even in a simplified, cartoonish version, The Tenants can demystify the job of being a landlord and perhaps teach players to be a little more understanding, Chaciej and Strzelecki said.

If that comes to pass, then it will be hailed as an achievement by landlords. But a fun way to learn about what being a landlord could even have more direct benefits to the real estate industry for those willing to get creative.

“It could probably be a great property management training tool that seems fun, or at least more fun than how I train my management staff,” Harvey said.