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Postmortem: Stardock's Galactic Civilizations 2: Dread Lords
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Postmortem: Stardock's Galactic Civilizations 2: Dread Lords

April 5, 2006 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

What Went Right

1. Publishing Victories. One of the best decisions we made was teaming up with Take 2. We had worked with them before on The Corporate Machine. Back then, they were the publisher. But they were always honest, professional, and competent. One thing that many aspiring developers need to be aware of is just how many incompetent people you have to deal with. Without getting too specific, think carefully about the kinds of jobs some people take and imagine "Well, do the best and brightest people grow up and dream of being ?"

Usually, when you're working with large companies of any kind you essentially have isolated gems of super competence surrounded by utterly depressing levels of incompetence. To a small developer, that can be death because you simply can't control how things go. You're at their mercy.

Also by publishing the game on our own, we were free from outside interference. We could put our own ideas into action without having them vetoed. Whether that's a good thing or not remains to be seen.

Now for all I know, Take 2 has those issues too. But if they do, their super competent people have the dead weight hidden in closets or something because the people we worked with were very sharp. For Galactic Civilizations II, they were the distributor, not the publisher. Their job was to take our game and put it into stores. We would be responsible for doing all the marketing and taking care of all the market development funding for retail. They helped make the process much smoother by laying out in black and white what needed to be done.

Stardock was able to design game ads without third-party interference.

The business plan we developed to get Galactic Civilizations II into retail in significant quantity was put together almost like a cookbook recipe -- do this, then this, then this and voila.

We also hired Brian Clair, who had been running for many years to be in charge of our publishing efforts. Combining him with Take 2 resulted in having a first week sell-in to retail that was 3 times what the original had.

We also partnered with AEG who took over our media relations efforts. The results were immediate and astounding. Vast preview coverage in virtually every publication. This in turn helped our retail efforts to show that there was excitement behind the game and that we could effectively market our game.

2. Artwork. Anyone who's followed Gamasutra for a long time and seen Stardock's games mentioned in the past knows one simple fact: Stardock's games look like crap. Some games looked more crappy than others but art was our weak spot. In 2003, we got tired of being beaten up about how ugly our games were and started leveraging some of the advantages we have.

For example, Stardock runs the world's largest graphics design community -- With over 20 million monthly visitors, it is one of the most popular sites on the Internet. And yet we never tapped into it for our game side. For Galactic Civilizations II, we started tapping. Popular artists like Paul Boyer, Mike Bryant, and others began working with us. We also built up our in-staff art department in other ways as well. For instance, I'd like to take this moment to thank Electronic Arts for securing monopoly rights on the NFL franchise of games. By doing so, they eliminated many other football games that were in development which in turn made a lot of very talented artists available.

The result was that we were able to make a game that had competitive graphics for any AAA strategy title. And they're getting better and better.

Galactic Civilizations II boasts the best graphics on any Stardock production to date.

3. Original team intact. The small development team that had made the original Galactic Civilizations was intact. Even on the art side, we had no losses other than one person who went to Ensemble to work on Age of Empires III. And even there, he didn't go until he had finished modeling all the aliens for the game (i.e. he waited until he finished his major milestone).

This was a very important accomplishment because it meant that the team that knew the game would be able to continue forward with it already knowing the underlying technology and passing that onto new people we brought in.

4. Community Building. Like the first time around, we knew that the secret to the game's success was not in advertising or PR, it was in word of mouth. This strategy hinged on a number of things:

  • No CD copy protection. The best way to win goodwill we feel is to treat your customers with respect. In a single player, turn-based strategy, CD copy protection seemed a little excessive. Why inconvenience them? A lot of people, like myself, feel strongly on this issue. I know I make buying decisions based on whether I have to lug around a CD as if it's a dongle to play the game. And our experience from the first Galactic Civilizations confirmed that it does increase positive word of mouth.

  • Similarly, we reserved budget so that we could continue adding new features and gameplay tweaks based on player feedback. If players could see their requests and suggestions made real, the hope is that they in turn would feel comfortable recommending the game to other like-minded people. Or put another way, being good to customers seems to make good business sense.

  • A new website. The site is based on the latest/greatest AJAX/Web 2.0 "stuff". I don't know much on that but I know how interconnected it is and it allows users to gain access levels, win medals, get ranked, etc. for participating in various degrees. The goal was to create a community that in turn would encourage modding and other things that would extend the life of the game.

5. Future Protection. I can't really think of a better term for it. We wanted to make a game that even 2 years from now, would still be viable to purchase and play. Typically, games start to look and feel dated quickly. There are some notable exceptions, particularly in the first-person shooter market.

So we made an engine that would readily support 3 things that we believed would ensure that the game's lifespan was very long:

  • Resolution Independence. Using DesktopX, we developed a SmartScaling technology. In essence, the game will run at any resolution at any aspect ratio. And it won't do it through standard scaling/stretching techniques. The DesktopX technology allows different screens to expand at different rates on a per control basis. The bottom line is that even when resolutions are 3000x2000 in a few years, the game will run at those resolutions natively.

  • Unlimited Polygon engine. The 3D engine has no cap on polygon count. If your machine can handle it, you can have ships with a million polygons in it. It already supports bump mapping, specular lighting, and every other 3D trick we know of. Textures can be any resolution the designer cares to make them. So over time, more and more advanced models and textures can be put into the game. This really helps in the ship battle screen that one of our developers put together.

  • Modding. Of course, the two things above would be weakened if users were at Stardock's mercy to add new models and interfaces. So it was decided that we'd use open formats where ever possible. The UIs are in DesktopX's .dxpack format. The graphics are .PNG, the models .X files and the data .XML. Everything is moddable.


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