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Interview: Stardock's CEO talks about Elemental and other topics

It's been an interesting week for game developer and publisher Stardock. On Tuesday Big Download was the first to announce that the company had hired Jon Shafer, formerly of Firaxis Games and the lead designer behind Civilization V, to come on board Stardock to continue to develop the company's 2009 released turn-based strategy game Elemental War of Magic. Stardock also announced it had hired former Pocket Book editor Dave Stern to the team to expand on the game's lore.

Things were not looking as bright back in August as Elemental's launch hit a brick wall due to numerous bugs that were not discovered even after months of beta testing. Stardock laid off some of its team members a few weeks afterward as it tried to fix the problems. Stardock remains committed to Elemental with at least two paid expansions planned along with more free updates.

At the center off all this is Stardock CEO Brad Wardell, one of the most open and available game developers and executives to both the media and fans. Big Download got Wardell to answer some more questions about Elemental's future. Wardell, as usual, is honest about how Elemental could actually turn from a profitable game to one that will lose money and how he is OK with that if it happens. He also updates us on other topics, including his Impulse PC game download service.
First, you have stated that after Elemental's rocky launch in August, sales plummeted in September but have since gone up in October, November and December. Can you share any concrete unit sales for Elemental and also are you becoming more encouraged that the game will be able to be profitable in the long run?

Elemental's sales have closely followed the overall improvement in the game. At this point, Elemental has made a profit for us. However, in September, we made the decision that we would prefer to lose money on Elemental than betray the trust of our customers and decided to staff up and continue working on it for all of 2011 and into 2012 with a full team.

I anticipate that by the end of 2Q2011 Elemental will likely cross the line from being profitable to having lost money. But in the bigger picture, the value of PC gamers knowing that if they buy a game with the Stardock name on it means quality and support far outweighs the necessary loss of profitability on one title.

A few weeks after Elemental's release you made the decision to lay off about seven Stardock team members due to the expectations that sales of the game would be lower than expected. Yet you have now hired Derek Paxton, Jon Shafer, Dave Stern and one other person to work on Elemental. Is Stardock back up to its previous level of employment and were any of the people who were previously laid off been rehired?

Some of the people we laid off got new jobs almost instantly so we weren't able to bring them back. We're a small company but our team really does represent the "best and brightest". Some of the others we rehired and a few people we weren't able to bring back because the positions were no longer applicable. Overall, the Elemental team has more people on it today than it had during active development. However, the organization of our game unit is radically different than it was prior to its release.

How did the hiring of Jon Shafer come about? Did he come to you or did you approach him?

Jon and I have known each other for some time. I was very impressed with not only some of his design decisions in Civilization V but even more so his background in being able to take game X and turn it into game Y using modding. We believe strongly that games themselves will become increasingly platforms unto themselves. We've already seen this in the 1st person shooter market and to a lesser extent with Never Winter Nights and the Blizzard engine (see DOTA). But our strategic objective is to make it so that the game system underneath Elemental can eventually be extensible enough that someone could take it and create entirely new games with it.

Some Elemental forum members have expressed concerns about the hiring of Shafer due to his design decisions on Civilization V. What is your response to these comments?

People tend to want to latch on to a single person to blame/praise for a given game. Unfortunately, in a world of NDAs, people never get to find out the truth. I mean, look at Elemental. Technically, I designed that game. If gamers placed all their dissatisfaction on Elemental at the designer's feet then they'd probably never want to buy anything I had my name on again despite my nearly two decades of game design work. Nothing is as simple as it seems. It's a cliche but in this case, it can only be reemphasized.

You have also hired novelist and book editor Dave Stern. Why was this decision made and what will he be doing for Elemental and Stardock in general?

I felt that both GalCiv and particularly Elemental were too bland from a lore point of view. One only has to look at games like Alpha Centauri to recognize what is possible when the game lore is properly integrated with the game.

Are you planning on hiring more people in the future to work on Elemental and other future games?

Yes. Right now we are searching for a few more key people to bring in. Most notably, the studio needs a strong lead developer. This past Summer when I stepped in as Producer on Elemental to try to get it back on track (which led to me getting far too involved and eliminated the disinterested evaluation that the Executive is supposed to provide) I also took over as lead developer -- a position I'm still holding. As much as I love making games, I can't justify remaining the lead developer much longer.

In a forum post you said you have now approved a budget to continue development of Elemental for the next two years. What can you tell us about what players of the game can expect in both the near and far future?

The main things to expect from Elemental will be two very large expansions. While many gamers have seen tremendous progress in v1.1 and v1.11 of Elemental: War of Magic, it's going to take a significant new launch with some major enhancements to win players back and put the game back on track to being counted along side classic fantasy strategy games like Master of Magic and Age of Wonders. I'm also glad that everyone who bought Elemental last year will get that expansion pack for free. Our customers won't have to feel like they had to "pay extra" to get the game they expected to get in the first place.

Can you reveal anything about Stardock's future games that it is developing internally?

Right now we're focusing on making Elemental into a great game.

Can you give us any hints about Stardock's third party game publishing plans for the next year?

There's a lot of cool stuff being made but I can't comment on what is in our publishing pipeline.

Many people are awaiting word on Ironclad Studios' (Sins of a Solar Empire) next game which you have hinted in the past that Stardock will publish. Can you give us anything more about that?

Ironclad is a great company and their team is amazingly talented and good friends. There's nothing to reveal right now though.

Finally can you give us any info about the future of Stardock's Impulse and Impulse Reactor businesses?

I don't have the final numbers for 2010 yet but Impulse's third-party revenue roughly doubled last year. We anticipate even greater growth this year as the transition from retail to digital distribution migration continues. Impulse::Reactor continues to be in development. We used it in Elemental:War of Magic for its multiplayer connectivity which worked very well along with providing robust protective features that we fully enabled during our beta process.

We were somewhat disappointed that we were not able to release Impulse::Reactor to the general developer community in 4Q2010 as we had intended. We have gotten the message loud and clear from developers that they want an alternative to Steamworks and plan to increase Impulse's staffing levels during 2Q2011 to make sure it's ready for developers as soon as possible to use in their games.


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