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Big Download Interview: Stardock CEO Brad Wardell

Is PC gaming dead? Not if Stardock and its CEO Brad Wardell have anything to say about it. The company has developed and published its own games like the Galactic Civilizations and Political Machine series but has also been an online and retail publisher on a large number of third party games. Last February, Stardock and developer Ironclad Games shocked the industry with the sales success of Sins of a Solar Empire. The space strategy title got great reviews as expected but no one expected the game to be a huge sales success as well, staying on the NPD Group's top 10 sales list for PC game software for over three months straight.

But that;s not all Stardock is doing. Their just released 2008 update to The Political Machine also has the debut of Impulse, the company's new digital download service for games that's also aiming to simplify how PC gamers install and play games in general. The company already has agreements in place with Epic Games, THQ and other developers and publishers to use their platform.

Big Download got a chance to ask Wardell a number of Stardock related questions, including some updates for Sins, their plans for Impulse, The Political Machine 2008, and some hints about Stardock's future game plans.

First, Stardock has always been a profitable company but with the release of Ironclad's
Sins of a Solar Empire it is now in a position to be a rival to even the biggest PC game publishers. First did you ever think that Sins would sell as well as it has?

I must confess that we have been pleasantly surprised with the sales levels of Sins. It has sold and continues to sell at over twice the rate that Galactic Civilizations II sold at which, in itself, was a big hit for us.

Can you give us a breakdown on what the retail sales have been like versus the digital download sales?

Digital sales had a big lead early on with a 60/40 split in terms of revenue. But I suspect by the end of the quarter it will have reversed with retail being the source of the lion's share of the revenue.

Sins, like other Stardock games, ship without any DRM copyright protection. Do you think that's one of the keys to the game's success?

Definitely. Piracy is a major issue for the PC game industry. But the issue has to be kept in perspective – the people who actually buy games don't want to be inconvenienced or treated like a criminal. Everyone who buys games knows they could easily have gone out and stolen it if they wanted to. Customers expect to be treated with respect.

Your next game is an 2008 update on the 2004 strategy game The Political Machine. First what were the main goals in updating the game?

When we did the 2004 version, it was something we just cranked out pretty quickly. The whole thing was done in like 3 months by as many people. Then it went out and sold a ton of copies so this time, we went back and completely remade the game with a much better engine, better game mechanics and a lot more "stuff".

While the game is technically a budget title it seems to have rather deep gameplay. What are some of the more interesting features in the revamped game?

What we wanted to do was make a game with AAA production values that just had a bit smaller scope. I think we lose a lot of cool games because their scope isn't big enough to get that $50 price tag. So we set out to make a game that has the polish of a $50 game but the scope of a classic title.

My favorite features in The Political Machine are the operatives. These are special units you can bring on to wreak havoc on your opponent such as spin doctors, smear merchants, kooks, hecklers, etc. Another thing I really like about the new version are the scenarios. I can replay the election of 1860 or try the "Europa" scenario which is Europe as seen through the eyes of a typical American high school student.

In real life this has been the most interesting presidential election year in recent memory. Do you think this might help the sales of the game?

I hope so. The gas costs on for my gold plated rocket car are out of control.

How do you go about marketing The Political Machine 2008 to the public? Do you go to gaming media outlets or do you have the freedom to go to more mainstream news outlets?

We're primarily going to go after the mainstream media as this is the type of game that we think appeals to the mainstream.

The Political Machine 2008 is the first that will use your new Impulse delivery system. How is this different from what you have been using before in Totalgaming.net?

Totally different. TotalGaming.net was a web store that used Stardock Central as a download manager. Impulse, by contrast, is a complete platform. For instance, Impulse has APIs built in that developers can make use of in their games. Moreover, even the store element is part of the application and there's a ton of third-party games and applications going onto Impulse. By contrast, with TotalGaming.net, we pretty much stuck with our stuff and any indies that wanted to use our service.

Do you agree that the future of PC gaming sales is in digital downloads or will we continue to see PC games sold in retail stores?

Retail isn't going to go away. Not anytime soon. But I am very thankful that digital distribution has become so accepted as it allows us to make much riskier games (like The Political Machine).

How do you feel about ISPs thinking about metered Internet service and if they decided to go with this kind of system how will that affect Stardock and PC gaming in general?

It's a tough call. Because on the one hand, a tiny percent of users are using the majority of the bandwidth. It's hard to really feel sorry for guys who are basically using their cable modems as giant warez routers for movies and TV shows. But on the other hand, once you start introducing metered Internet usage, it becomes easier and easier to make everyone end up paying and that would be harmful to everyone.

Can you give us any hints about updates to Sins of a Solar Empire, including when we might get an expansion pack?

Right now, Ironclad is working on v1.1. It has a whole new multiplayer system that is designed to eliminate the whole port forwarding nonsense that PC games constantly run into. We intend to use this kind of technology in Impulse and let third parties start using it. As for an expansion pack, we're hoping to get one out early next year. We have a lot of features that we want to get in there.

Is it true that we may have to wait a while before we see a Galactic Civilizations III?

Indeed. There won't be a GalCiv III this decade.

A few years ago you announced plans to release a free MMO game called Society. Can you give us a status report on that game?

Indeed, we're still working on it. The challenge is not so much the game but the infrastructure for it. Essentially, to do it right, we've had to have a development pace that is very slow to match Stardock's natural growth.

There are also reports that Stardock is working on a Might and Magic style fantasy strategy game. Can you confirm that and if so what can you tell us about it?

I would say it's more similar to Master of Magic than anything else but it's really its own animal. It's a turn-based fantasy strategy game that lets people build up a civilization in a world filled with magic. That's our next game after Demigod.

How is the development of Demigod coming along?

Very well. For the last month or so we've been putting to bed the single player design. Stardock considers the single player experience on games at least as important as the multiplayer. By teaming up with Gas Powered Games, we've been able to increase the budget some and put together our teams to make something really special. Demigod, I think, is going a landmark in PC gaming. That is, I think people will be playing it in large numbers 3 or 4 years from now still.

Finally what else does Stardock have planned for upcoming PC games from its own studios and third party developers?

Yes but I can't talk about them yet. There are some very big things in the works that we plan to announce later this Summer.

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