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[Jon Shafer, lead designer on Firaxis' Civilization V, is now at Galactic Civilizations and Elemental developer Stardock. Here, Shafer explains his move from a major publisher to a small independent studio, his reaction to fan criticism for the well-reviewed Civ V and why he never felt he was living in the shadow of Sid Meier.]
Having shipped Civilization V, lead designer Jon Shafer recently announced he has left Hunt Valley, MD-based Firaxis in favor of Stardock, the Michigan-based developer and publisher of Elemental: War of Magic and the Galactic Civilizations series. Shafer will be working on the Elemental series and future projects.
What could tempt the lead designer of one of the most storied franchises in PC gaming history away from a job at a major publisher's owned studio? And do the recent problems Stardock suffered with the launch of Elemental worry him?
Gamasutra spoke to Shafer this week about what led to this change, what his expectations are for working with Stardock, and how he feels about the fan reception to Civilization V.
Are you settled in Michigan yet, or are you still out East?
Jon Shafer: I'm living in Maryland still right now. I'm here in Michigan for a couple of weeks just to get things set up. For now, I'm still out East.
So when do you actually start your job at Stardock, officially?
JS: I actually started on Monday. I'm going to be here for two weeks, getting set up with a laptop and that sort of thing. I'm going to be working remotely for the most part. I'll be making pretty frequent trips to Stardock headquarters here in Michigan, but for the most part, I'm going to be off-site.
You mentioned some of the things that attracted you to Stardock, like the personality of the company and how Brad Wardell [Stardock CEO] approaches making games for the PC platform. What exactly do you mean by that?
JS: The biggest thing is that Brad is the CEO and full owner of the company. So he has complete leeway to do whatever he wants. And Stardock is kind of unique because it has multiple divisions, one of which is business software and one of which is games.
The games side is, in many ways, just part of Brad's interests. He enjoys playing games, he enjoys making games. So that Stardock makes games at all is born out of his desire to make games. If he wanted to focus on business software only, that would happen.
So his unique situation there really means a lot of interesting things. Everyone knows that the launch of Elemental was a little bit rough, but because Brad is so committed to the game, making games -- making good games -- he's willing to continue development on that and stay dedicated to it, such as with the offer for people who bought the game last year, to give them the expansion for free. He wants to do right by people; he wants to do games he enjoys.
It's very much in contrast to pretty much any business, where definitely the end goal is always to make money. Stardock wants to make money on these games, but the main thing for him is making things fun, that he enjoys making. So that's really, really rare in this business. Everyone is here to make games, but the financial reality of this business is such that it's very rare to have this kind of situation.
It sounds like a pretty big contrast from working for a subsidiary studio of a publicly-traded company [Take-Two].
JS: I expect there to be some differences. The fact that it's private means that we do have more flexibility, and Brad is the ultimate stakeholder involved here. In terms of larger public companies, in that situation, there are other strengths and weaknesses.
Obviously there are a lot more people involved and a lot more is on the line. But you also have a lot more resources at your disposal, and can do things that you can't really do as a smaller developer. Whichever side you're on, you have to weigh what advantages and what challenges you have. It'll definitely be different. In terms of being a designer, I think it'll be a lot of fun.