Founded in 1991, developer Stardock released its first title, the turn-based strategy Galactic Civilizations, in 1995 for the OS/2 platform only to run into problems with the game’s publisher, which led to the company publishing the game itself.
The company also moved into desktop enhancement software around that as well, but were caught by surprise when IBM ceased its support and development of the OS/2 operating system for individual users in the late ‘90s.
Switching to Windows development in 2000, Stardock has since continued to release desktop enhancements, including the popular WindowBlinds and Object Desktop packages. It also set up the TotalGaming.net download service in 2002, and released a number of titles through this and traditional retail avenues, including a new version of Galactic Civilizations, last year’s Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords, and a recent expansion pack.
For the future, the company plans to publish Ironclad Games’ Sins of a Solar Empire, as well as continuing to work on its own real time strategy MMO Society, and an as-yet-unnamed fantasy strategy game due for public beta next year, according to CEO Brad Wardell.
Gamasutra recently spoke with Wardell to discuss the company’s history, its current business focuses, and the challenges involved with being a publisher and developer focusing on the turn based strategy genre.
When was Stardock formed, and what were the long term aims of the company at the time?
Stardock was incorporated in 1993 for the purposes of developing PC software. From 1993 to 1999, Stardock focused on developing software for IBM’s OS/2 operating system. In 2000, Stardock migrated to Windows and has been releasing PC games and PC desktop enhancement software ever since.
What role was the first Galactic Civilizations intended to play in the company's future, and how was this affected by the issues with the publisher at the time?
The first Galactic Civilizations was written for OS/2. I was in college at the time and couldn’t afford to publish the game. The company that became the publisher for it turned out to be just some guy working out of his house with few resources and never paid us royalties on the game. It was a total disaster and set us back considerably.
But because the game was so well received, our company’s reputation became very strong with OS/2 users, which allowed us to become our own publisher on the OS/2 platform, enabling us to grow as we created and published new OS/2 software.
Where did the idea to focus on desktop software rather than games come from?
It’s always mystified me that personal computers are so impersonal. Every other product I can think of comes in different styles, shapes, colors, etc. Yet on the PC, everyone’s desktop looks basically the same other than wallpaper. So we set out from an early stage to develop technology that would allow people to design their own personalized desktop experiences.
The reason we focused more on desktop enhancements really has to do with the channels. With PC games, you have to be at retail in order to sell enough units to pay for a decent budget. But with desktop enhancements, people are used to buying those online, so we could realistically create and release that kind of software with far fewer resources.
In recent years, as our company has grown and had more capital to make use of, we have begun focusing increasingly on the gaming side of things. There’s a lot of overlap between the two sides of our business, since desktop enhancements are pretty art intensive and require really talented software developers who can also help out on the games as well.
What place do the desktop tools and utilities play in the company's overall business plan at the moment?
The desktop enhancements continue to be our major focus. For example, we have embarked on a major endeavor called MyColors. The idea is that we team up with sports teams, movie studios, car companies, you name it and produce branded desktop themes using a combination of our technology and our art resources. One can imagine a day when someone buys a PC, they’ll be able to choose the desktop theme they want - favorite college or car or movie theme or something inspirational - just as people choose options for the interior of their cars.
What effect did the company's string of problems in the '90s have on its direction? Would things have been different, for example, if Stardock had been aware of IBM's intention to abandon OS/2?
It made a huge impact. The implosion of the OS/2 market probably cost us three years of growth to recover from. When one looks at Stardock’s releases, one would almost think that we really started in 2001 rather than 1993.
2008: Sins of a Solar Empire, Object Desktop 2008, DeskScapes 2, The Political Machine 2008, ObjectDock 2, MyColors
When the TotalGaming.net service launched, what level of success were you hoping for it to reach at the time?
At the time we didn’t think it would do as well as it ended up doing. Our view was that we needed to create a service in which our games could be digitally distributed and since we had to build a lot of infrastructure and technology to do this we could make it available to others.
As its success has grown over the past couple of years, we’ve begun to develop a whole new backend and front end to create a truly next-generation digital distribution experience.
What challenges have you faced in running the service? Have there been times when its financial benefits have been outweighed by its costs?
For us, TotalGaming.net has always been win-win. Even if we only had our own titles on it, it would still be worth it. When Galactic Civilizations was released in 2003, we ended up making the majority of our revenue from TotalGaming.net as opposed to at retail.
Even with Galactic Civilizations II, which had a wide retail presence and sold over 200,000 copies in stores, we still ended up making about a third of our revenue via TotalGaming.net, which is pretty spectacular given the vastly lowered cost of doing business digitally.
What role does the service play in the overall business plan for Stardock at this point in time?
The next phase for TotalGaming.net is for it to get more of its own brand. Right now, a user buys a game from TotalGaming.net and then uses Stardock Central to manage the purchase. There are some branding issues with that. The next generation will give players a TotalGaming.net client that lets people seamlessly get updates, buy new games, etc.
I’d like to even see it be able to support users who didn’t buy the game from us. For example, if someone buys game X at the store, we want to make sure they can get their updates seamlessly through TotalGaming.net. We already have this working on our games: you can buy GalCiv II in a store in, say, Italy and still use TotalGaming.net – for free – to download the entire game from us as long as you have the serial number.
Did you anticipate the level of success and acclaim of Galactic Civilizations II?
Not at all. I think the lack of copy protection on our games helps. I know that the gamers here (myself included) tend to shy away from games that we know have intrusive copy protection because we don’t want things messing with our computer setups or having to worry about losing a CD/DVD. We weren’t certain how many other people felt that way too and it turned out that a lot of people feel the same way.
What level of success do you believe games in the turn-based strategy genre can reach? Is it still a niche genre?
Turn-based strategy games will probably always be a niche. However, they are a steady niche. As a developer, I have a pretty good idea what a well-produced, well-marketed turn-based strategy game will do. By contrast, if I’m making a first-person shooter, for instance, I really have no idea how well it will sell. It could be a major hit or it could totally bomb regardless of how well produced and marketed.
What is the adoption rate for the game's expansion pack at this point?
It’s around 25% of the GalCiv II installed base have purchased the expansion so far. We hope to get that number to 33% by the first anniversary.
Are separate retail expansion packs still a viable option for the company? Does the option to sell the packs via your online service make them a more viable option?
It’s really hard to justify doing separate expansion packs at retail. If the base game is a huge seller (i.e. a 1-million-unit seller) then retail makes sense. But even at 200,000, the industry average - according to Gamasutra, I believe - is about a 25% conversion rate: 25% of the original players getting the expansion pack. And that’s with retail. Given that we’ve surpassed that with it being online only, but make four times as much, retail is a hard case to make. We would probably only do it if retailers explicitly requested it.
What was the inspiration behind the recent graphical revamp? Was that in response to fan demand?
For the most part, we wanted to future-proof the game. We know we won’t get to a Galactic Civilizations III for some years and we wanted to make sure fans of Galactic Civilizations II wouldn’t feel like their game was dated.
We’re working on a second expansion pack that will take this concept further.
How was it decided to include this in a free update, rather than in a future expansion pack?
It was a pretty easy call. The game has done so much better than we ever thought, so we can afford to give out free updates to players who helped us become successful. And it wasn’t that costly to do, since we just updated the resolution on some of our renderings. Whereas in a future expansion, we’d be doing completely new texture designs.
What challenges do you face as a publisher focusing on a niche genre?
Marketing clout is probably the biggest challenge. Gamasutra, for instance, has really been the exception in that it’s covered what we’ve been doing from the beginning. In fact, I wrote an article for the first or second issue of Game Developer way back in 1994. But most of the media doesn’t pay attention to the outer corners of the game industry like Game Developer and Gamasutra have done.
So for us, it’s been a challenge to show off some of the cool technologies or game mechanics we developed (or get credit for them) because we’re not as well known in the wider industry. For instance, will people 10 years from now know that Galactic Civilizations was the first PC game to be released at retail and for digital download at the same time? Or that TotalGaming.net was the first online digital distribution network? Or that GalCiv was the first multithreaded retail PC game?
When people think of cutting edge, they think of first-person shooters or similar genres; they don’t think of strategy games in general and especially turn-based ones. So it can be a real challenge sometimes to build awareness to some of the innovations in that genre.
Why do believe now is the time to be developing a MMO RTS, given the lack of successful attempts at the genre in the past?
Well for us, doing an MMO RTS is a long-term project. We’ve tried not to talk too much about Society - Stardock’s MMO RTS in development - because we know it’s going to be quite awhile before the back end infrastructure is in place.
But the reason we think most MMO RTS concepts have failed is because they try to take the MMORPG template and make an RTS out of it. Whereas our concept is really more akin to a giant, persistent board game in which people can come and go as they please without fear of waking up to see their empire gone.
Where do you feel the 4X genre can go from here? Is it still of interest to anyone other than hardcore fans and how can its audience be expanded?
I think there’s tremendous growth for 4X strategy games in the future. One area we want to expand into in the future is being able to appeal to less hardcore users. This can be done without compromising the sophistication of the game by focusing on the interface and player experience. 4X games have a reputation for being needlessly complicated in their UI but a lot of that complexity is due to poor UI design and a poor initial experience for the player.
What plans does Stardock have for the future?
Most of our game development team is working on a new fantasy strategy game with a 2009 release date; public beta next year. It’s a turn-based game with tactical combat which is also turn-based. One could describe it as part Master of Magic, part Populous and part X-Com. We’ve developed a pretty extraordinary graphics engine for it. I wish I could take credit for it but the stuff’s way beyond my meager capabilities; the engine team we’ve put together over the last couple of years is just amazing.
You can zoom out and see a cloth map of the world - and these are randomly generated worlds that look as if someone painstakingly created it with a sophisticated map editor, which the game does have built-in, too - and then zoom all the way in to a leaf on an individual tree in a forest in one smooth loop, where the ground and trees look as good as you’d expect in a high-end first-person shooter.
The other big thing coming up for us is MyColors. We think that’s going to become pretty significant as people start to want to be able to press a button and choose how their computer works. We’re working closely with Microsoft and PC manufacturers and others on this in order to deliver the best and most robust user experience on that.
And if all fails, I’ve taken up bee-keeping, so there’s always that!