As developers look for cost-effective ways to give PC games value-added features like achievements and social integration, as well as combat piracy, the main contenders have been Valve's Steamworks suite and Microsoft's Xbox Live-like Games for Windows Live.
But now Stardock, the PC-only publisher of Sins of a Solar Empire
and developer of the upcoming Elemental: War of Magic
, is tossing its hat into the ring with Impulse Reactor -- and it believes the ease and customization features it offers will set it apart from its competitors.
"What we're trying to do with Impulse Reactor is come up with a system where we inject ourselves into the game to allow the developer to have all kinds of cool features in there, but they don't have to include a client," Stardock CEO Brad Wardell told Gamasutra in an interview.
"Historically, integrating these libraries into your game has involved one of two ways," he said. "You either get the SDK and integrate the source code into your game, or you get the SDK and make calls to an external client. One's the GameSpy way, and one is the Steamworks way."
"When you're taking a lot of source code into your game, you can customize a lot, and that's nice, but the implementation time can be a lot longer," Wardell continued. "The other way is easier to implement, since you can use the Steamworks API to call Steam and they show overlays in your game. The downside of that is that you have to actually bundle the Steam client into your game."
Wardell sees Impulse Reactor as offering the best of both worlds. It has the ease of integration of a client-based system, but developers don't have to bundle the Impulse client with their game. He says Stardock decided on this approach based on two primary factors: Stardock's historical experience with enterprise-level software, and direct feedback from video game publishers.
"The foundation of Stardock's success in the enterprise space is that we've developed technology to take our code and insert it into other process at a fundamental level," he said. "The most trivial example of this is to skin third-party programs by injecting new drawing code into the application." Stardock currently uses that technique in a number of its non-game offerings, including the Windows customization tool WindowBlinds.
Also of key importance to Stardock publishing partners, Wardell said, is an open system that doesn't tie games to a particular service. "Our publishers came to us and said, 'We're glad you don't require a client, but there's one other issue. Different distributors might object to our developers using Impulse Reactor if they have to create an Impulse account,'" he recalled.
Therefore, Impulse Reactor developers can effectively make the Impulse integration completely transparent. Users don't need to sign in with an Impulse account; they can alternatively access the Impulse-offered social features using an existing Facebook, Windows Live, OpenID, or Twitter accounts.
"You still store a piece of data on our database, but all the identifying information is stored by Facebook or any of these other services that the player already uses," Wardell said. "We don't end up with any contact information. We don't get the user's email address or anything like that."
Developers can Impulse Reactor to whatever degree of depth they choose, from including its basic functions as-is, to replacing the textures that cover the user interface, to completely redesigning the UI to meld seamlessly into the game's style.
At the basic level, a simple Impulse Reactor implementation can include elements like a friends list, chat, a player avatar, and achievements -- the latter of which can be managed by developers using a simple web interface -- but deeper integration allows access to features like Stardock's multiplayer infrastructure.
, a turn-based fantasy strategy-RPG, uses Impulse matchmaking to sort players into skill-based gold, silver, and bronze ladders. "Coincidentally, very similar to what Battle.net is doing with StarCraft II
," Wardell remarked. "Maybe it's because the Olympics were coming up."
The battle for developer support is heating up between service providers. In the most recent turn of events, Epic Games announced it would provide integrated Steamworks support
within Unreal Engine 3.
Like Steamworks and Games for Windows Live, Impulse Reactor is offered free to developers -- but unlike those services, it doesn't require users to maintain accounts on those systems. So what's in it for Stardock?
"The requirement is that the developer has to put their title on Impulse, non-exclusively, and the benefit to us is that they're not using Steamworks," Wardell said. "When someone uses Steamworks, that leads to everything being on Steam, and that's a non-ideal situation for us."
"If they spend $10 million making a PC game, they don't want an SDK to come in and steal their experience," he went on. "This is something we heard loud and clear about Games for Windows Live in particular -- 'I have my game, and all of a sudden here's this bubbly interface.' Hey, Games for Windows: you didn't spend the money to make the game; don't hijack the experience as if it's somehow your game. And that applies to anyone who tries to inject their experience into the user's face."