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Atomic City Adventures hits PC on August 15th

Aug 04
// Brett Zeidler
After Ensemble Studios closed its doors a few years ago, the staffers went their separate ways and some even created their own development houses. Windstorm Studios is one such company that was created by former Ensemble dev...

Trade in games for a digital copy of Deus Ex at GameStop

Jul 29
// Alasdair Duncan
One of the central themes in Deus Ex: Human Revolution is the clash of ideologies; on one hand, the purists who value the physical shell, and on the other, the futurists who favor the augmented. So it seems strangely apt that...

Brad Wardell on the future of Stardock and gaming

Apr 10 // Maurice Tan
Now that Stardock has the chance to once again focus on what its core businesses traditionally were (desktop software and games), it also allows its employees to actually lead normal lives again. Wardell explains: "Case in point, Elemental: War of Magic that we released last year. It got terrible reviews and if you look at our Metacritic scores, anything under 90 was considered a failure for Stardock. But then War of Magic came out, why did that happen? "Well part is because I was working over a 100 hours a week all summer [of 2010]. I was doing two all-nighters a week because part of my day was working on Impulse and part of my day was spent working on the software side. And then we had multiple game projects, and like I said multiple software projects, and I wasn't the only one starting to work crazy hours. "I mean we were spread very thin because we wanted to do it all. But at some point you either have to break down and build up a much larger company, so that you're not spreading yourself thin. Or you have to make some tough decisions and say: 'Well, I think we'd rather not become a gigantic company but instead we'll find some good parent for our baby here, our Impulse baby, to take it to the next step so that we could focus on making cool new stuff.'" Cool new stuff like more Sins of a Solar Empire or Galactic Civilizations? I asked Wardell about the future of Stardock's franchises because besides Elemental: War of Magic, which is set to receive the Fallen Enchantress expansion/redesign this year (free for Elemental owners who bought the game before 2011, and discounted for other owners, to make up for the game's state at launch), Sins is getting the new Rebellion expansion as well. "Yeah and now I finally get to spend some time on it! Case in point, I barely got to spend any time on [Sins of a Solar Empire:] Trinity. I don't want to steal any thunder early, but yeah we have some really cool stuff that's been in our lab that our guys had been wanting to do stuff on. And now obviously we have, you know, an abundance of capital that we can invest in all kinds of other things that we just wouldn't have been able to before." I asked if that included a Galactic Civilizations III, but he couldn't talk about that. Drat. Stardock's focus has been on OS/2 on PC over the years, the latter of which Wardell likes because "it's open and I'm free to make whatever I want," it doesn't necessarily mean the company will always develop for the PC alone. At GDC '11, Stardock's Jon Shafer -- former lead designer of Civilization V at Firaxis -- was part of a panel of strategy game luminaries that fired back against comments by Cliff Blezinsky, who said that "middle-class" games are dead. Because there are a ton of strategy games that can be considered "middle-class" between big AAA blockbusters and small indie games. And with handhelds, tablets and mobile devices becoming increasingly complex and viable gaming devices, there could be market for 4X games outside of its traditional PC home. I mean, who wouldn't want to play Sins or GalCivII on a tablet? Even though Wardell uses both PCs and Apple products for coding and personal use, and Stardock has "other people here doing some very interesting things with Xcode and looking at Android and all kinds of other things," I didn't get the impression that we're getting a Stardock 4X strategy game on XBLA or PSN just quite yet, but the developments in the past years did impress Wardell. "This is the greatest time in gaming since I've been into games. I mean think about the past, let's say, 18 months. If you'd look at the releases of interesting things, it's so cool! We now have social gaming, the handheld games are now far beyond making the old Pac Man or old classic arcade games -- you know yet another iteration -- but [there are] truly innovative games on all these platforms. "I mean look at Minecraft, right? Would Minecraft have been possible 5 years ago? This is the greatest time in gaming history, and we get to be part of it. And [...] the problem is I have a hard time sleeping because I don't want to miss anything! "I mean, there's just so much cool stuff coming. And heck look at what else is coming. We have WebOS in the pipeline, who knows what that is going to bring into play, and [...] I get tingly just thinking about it. Can you imagine if we were stuck in our prime when the console market was dead? I remember the old days where, you know, [if] you wanted sound you had to use Adlib or Soundblaster and [...] our options were so [limited]. "And if you made a game, your only hope was getting picked up by a publisher and being in a box. And now we've got Xbox Live Arcade and there's the PlayStation thing and Wii is doing stuff and, you know, there's so many different options." After talking about different games and genres for a bit, it became clear that while Wardell loves the new opportunities that new technology has brought in terms of gaming devices and digital distribution platforms, he is still a tech guy at heart. Nothing made this more clear than what he had to say about the future of 64-bit graphics. "If you think it's cool now, right now games are about to make this jump to 64-bit. And most gamers [who are not] programmers don't realize the significance of that. Because we're gonna go from messing around with these 2GB limits to having essentially unlimited memory, and people don't realize what that means. "But it means we're gonna have these crazy high resolution textures. That's what's holding us back, that's why graphics haven't got that much better in the last few years. It's because [with regard to] the texture memory [it] doesn't matter how much is on your videocard, we only have two gigs to play with. Give them another year or two and we're going to see some really crazy stuff." Does he think console makers will jump on this development? "I'll tell you, the next generation console had better be 64-bit. [...] I'll put it another way, if they don't make it 64-bit, then what will happen is that the PC games will get so far ahead of console games visually that they'll be in for some real hurt. "I mean, even today the video cards are capable of creating essentially photorealistic real-time 3D, but they can't realistically do it because of the memory. And that's why you end up with these interesting art styles that are a little cartoony. It is because the memory on the 2GB limit on [32-bit] Windows is holding them back. But two years from now when everyone is running 64-bit Windows 7 or what have you, that's not gonna be a problem." I asked him if he had seen the new Unreal Engine features demonstration, to which he said: "Yeah but you can bet your butt that was running 64-bit." So the future (outside of new devices) really is 64-bit? "Yeah, that's why I can't imagine consoles not [becoming] 64-bit. Because the graphical difference between the two, and again not because 64-bit is faster or anything like that, it's just a memory addressing thing and that's it. I don't want anyone thinking that there's some magic about it other than that you can have very very very large textures being juggled in pure RAM all the time. "Until we get to 64-bit where the memory for these video cards will get to show their stuff, we're kind of at a standstill." It's been 11 years for me since I did exams in memory addressing, so I'm not even going to try commenting on the future of 64-bit graphics with regard to current-day video card memory handling. But the move to 64-bit OSs has been a slow one (anyone remember Windows XP 64-bit?) in terms of consumer adaptation towards having that as a standard. Regardless, it sounds like 64-bit graphics technology is something we should keep a closer eye on in the future. It will be interesting to see where the next Xbox or PlayStation will go with that. Especially now that the Wii has shown the profitability of a low-tech console with mass appeal, and Microsoft and Sony have since both released their own motion controllers, the two rival companies will eventually have to decide on the future of their console platforms (if they haven't done so already). Will they focus on high-tech features to keep competing with the PC as a gaming platform? Will they settle for the bare minimum that supports the new Unreal Engine for the graphical jump from current generation hardware, so they can say "Hey look at how great this looks, go buy it!"? Or will they incorporate both so we can have a $700 motion controlled Kinectimal or EyePet with photo-realistic DirectX 11 fur shaders? Whatever the future of gaming graphics and technology brings to those platforms, please give us Galactic Civilizations III and Sins of a Solar Empire 2 first, Stardock. It's not like you have to worry as much about Impulse anymore.

Following his elaboration on why he sold Impulse to GameStop in a recent interview, Stardock's Brad Wardell slowly moved away from the business mindset of representing a company involved in a major industry deal, and slowly opened up about how Stardock's renewed freedom will affect its games as well as providing insights into his vision for the future of gaming.

Stardock's CEO on the Impulse/GameStop deal

Apr 09 // Maurice Tan
For starters, Stardock will be actively involved with the transition of Impulse to GameStop and run much of it from a day to day basis, with the whole Impulse team transferring to GameStop in its entirety. Wardell himself, a key driving force behind the service, will stay involved with Impulse for the next year to advise and consult on the platform's future. So worries about the lack of his leadership being a detrimental factor in the digital distribution service's future would appear to be mostly unfounded. For the time being, at least. When asked about how he thinks Impulse will affect PC sales in the future -- and indie game exposure in particular -- after GameStop takes over, Wardell was keen to point out the shelf-space issue that brick and mortar retailers traditionally have. Having worked in a retail bookstore as a youngster, and later at Software Etc. and Babbage's (which later merged into GameStop), he experienced first-hand how only the highest selling products get shelf-space in these mall stores. Wardell elaborated that "there's never really been a time, even going back to the CompUSA days, where indies were getting their titles in a store. That time never happened. It's not like I went in there and I was getting Space Empires III at Best Buy, even though it's one of the best games ever." But the emergence of digital distribution is where indies have gotten their chance to shine. One could argue that looking back on the past five years or so, the acceptance of digital distribution by consumers has gone hand in hand with the rise in indie games development. Of course, the emergence of easy and cheap (or free) tools has had a hand in that as well. But without a way to sell your game without being drowned out, those tools by themselves aren't all that useful for keeping you off a ramen-only diet. Naturally, Wardell was happy to explain that Stardock's Impulse infrastructure makes it really easy for developers to release multiple titles per day. The tech behind Impulse, in particular Impulse::Reactor (basically a Steamworks platform variant) and its GOO DRM solution (which combines an executable with Impulse::Reactor into a single encrypted file) are meant to facilitate indie game publishing rather than obstruct it. "When we say that Impulse is very technologically advanced, this is one of the areas I'm talking about. [...] I think most developers and publishers -- especially smaller ones -- who've had to update their game can attest that getting something updated on Impulse is very quick versus other platforms. And that's because our system has been designed over the years and years, when we were doing just our own stuff with Object Desktop where we might do multiple updates per day, to make it very inexpensive and easy to update things. "And that's really important to indies, because if you're making a small game and you want to get it up, let's face it, all these digital distributors are businesses, they're in it to generate profit. So by having a system where it's very inexpensive to release updates and get new titles up is one of the reasons why I have no fear of indies going by the wayside with Impulse." Of course while Impulse itself might be a fine digital distribution service for developers, the concern of indies in particular, and the vocal online community in general, is not with the service itself, but with GameStop. Wardell doesn't blame users for being anxious about the impending takeover: "[With] Any sort of change you don't know what's going to happen. I worry about stuff all the time [and] I spent a lot of time when I was younger worrying about OS/2 vs. Windows so I can relate. I guess the best thing I can say is just wait and see. Give them a chance to prove themselves, or to fail to prove themselves. "But either way, no matter how you slice it, having more than one option for PC gamers is just so critical. It doesn't require any leap of faith to look at the pricing of PC games and compare it to console games over the past 10 years. And there's a reason why PC games have come down in price and the reason is competition. There's so much there to keep prices from going out of control. And that's why you want to have as many places as you can to buy these things and as many developers as possible to get their stuff out there." Since I'm a cheap Dutch bastard I pointed out to Brad Wardell that some games, like Crysis 2, were recently launched as $60 PC games, the same price of the console versions. Being the eternal debater he is, Wardell countered this by reminding me that PC games were even more expensive in the past. "I remember paying $59,95 for some of the later Ultima games, and add in inflation and you get about a $90 game by today's standards. [...] I believe that if you have enough consumers out there making decisions, that they'll vote with their buying dollars and that's what is making the prices go down. It's not because of any benevolence by any company, it's because the consumers are making conscious choices. "That's one of the reasons I'm happy to see Android games and iPhone games, because the more channels that we game developers have to get our stuff out there, and the more places that gamers have to be able to buy our stuff, the better off we both are to keep anyone from becoming too entrenched." But how does Impulse factor into that, and how will it factor into increased opportunities for consumers? In other words, will the GameStop takeover of Impulse turn it into a stronger competitor to Steam? Wardell thinks it does stand a good chance, and that while Stardock has been working on a lot of technology like Impulse::Reactor over the years, the company just doesn't have the resources to continue down that road by itself. "I mean let's face it, you're running major publisher XYZ and in front of you, you have three platforms. You have Steamworks, Games for Windows Live, and you have Impulse::Reactor. One's made by Microsoft, one's made by Valve, and one's made by... what are they, Stardock? Starrocks or something? Which are you going to pick? "The technology isn't what determines the winner. Building the best mousetrap on its own isn't enough. You have to [be] on the cloud and [have] the sales force and the support infrastructure to really go out and make it successful. And that's something that GameStop really takes to the table on that." The new Impulse might be more competitive through the support GameStop can provide, which is what is required to drive it forward in the future. But it also raises the question of whether that future will have fewer, more dominant digital distribution channels for developers and consumers, which would actually lead to less competition. Being able to support a digital distribution platform is what appears to be most important in securing its future, as Wardell explains when I asked him where he sees the current five largest digital distribution services in two years time. "Oh I think they'll all still be there. One of the things is that [concerning digital distribution services] I think there could even be more than that. I think it could even be more fractured, if anything. So it'll be interesting to see how that goes, because it's so lucrative. I can't speak for GamersGate or Direct2Drive, but I imagine that all of them are running very high margins. Because running a digital distribution service is a lot like a casino, except that you don't have to hand out free margaritas. "I mean, you're dealing with virtual goods. There's no shipping, there's no manufacturing involved, there's no sales people, it's all handled by machines. And the cost [...] is really on the back end of having account managers and having developers to keep extending the platform. "But if you'd ask me where I see things going in 5 years, the next big battle is going to be the Platform War. And that is, on the one side you have essentially the web stores, which I don't know what's going to happen to them. I don't think they're going to go away, because the margins are so high. "But if you're just a web store, that's going to put you at a disadvantage to someone who has a platform like a Steamworks or an Impulse::Reactor or Games for Windows Live. Because when you have those things, then there's a mechanism for developers to integrate features into their games that can build communities and that sort of thing. Whereas if you're just a web store you're gonna ultimately have to bundle a third-party platform [...] onto your store." The concept of an impending Platform War is interesting enough and given the current integration of services into digital platforms, like we see on things like Steam, Xbox Live or even Facebook, it doesn't seem all that far-fetched. Which is probably one of the reasons GameStop is jumping on Facebook as well. But that's the future, and this is the present. Or this is. Or this is. What's more important right now is how the sale of Impulse to GameStop will affect Stardock as a company, and how GameStop is approaching the platform's future. "We're a relatively small company. And I really like digital distribution, but that's not what I want to wake up to in the morning and do as my job all day. I like making tech, and I mean if you look at Stardock's homepage, people are always shocked at how many products we have. We're around 50 people and we have dozens of products. It was never my intent for one particular product or service to dominate the company. "And in the past year, our company's had more and more resources put into Impulse because, frankly, it was generating so much money that it was really hard not to put in that kind of focus. But that meant our Object Desktop programs (the kind of software that gets packed-in with HP and Dell pre-built computers - Ed.) were not getting any attention they would get, our gaming products were starting to not get the attention they should get, and there's been some effect on that that's been reported in the past year on our other non Impulse-related endeavors. "And you know, I like making tech. Stardock is a technology company, and we have a lot of really cool things that are in the pipeline that we want to be able to focus on. And in order for Impulse to remain competitive, for 2011, 2012, Impulse is in good shape. But to take it to the next step, you really need to have account managers, sales people, lots of sales staff, account engineers, and on and on and on. Those are things that we were just not prepared to do. "But on the other hand, GameStop already has these kinds of people. And they've assembled an amazing team of people from our industry. A lot of people don't realize this, but besides the fact that the Impulse team is going over as an intact team, GameStop has assembled some amazing people with it, I mean they have Steve Nix from id over there, he's my successor! "I'd like to think that people would feel that it's in pretty good hands. Just because a company is a public company doesn't mean, I mean, one should always remain skeptical but at the same time there's a line between being skeptical and cynical." And does that mean that now that Stardock has sold Impulse, it can focus on more fun things like developing games? Wardell says: "Yeah exactly! I've been having a lot of fun doing heap fragmentation coding! Here's something people talked about, [and] I wouldn't be surprised if you'll feel similar to how I do, people always say that money isn't the only goal in life. But it's amazing how skeptical they are when they see someone actually choose. I mean obviously we were well compensated too, but my goal in life is to do cool interesting things. I'm not looking to run a multi-billion dollar company. So if I can go and spend time doing cool stuff, that's what makes me happy and that's what makes our team happy." So, Stardock has sold the profitable Impulse digital distribution service -- for quite a large amount of cash one would imagine -- to a company that was better suited and more willing to grow it and remain competitive, with all the sales and support infrastructure that requires, in order to focus on the core products like it did before Impulse started to eat into their time. Rather than choosing to try and become another Valve, Stardock chose to sell Impulse and focus on what they used to work on instead. Which probably also means that something like a future 'third episode' of a game franchise shouldn't take a huge amount of time to release. Hell, it it means I'm getting Galactic Civilizations III faster, I'm all for it. Brad Wardell also had some interesting things to say about Stardock's future in gaming in particular, and his vision on the future of gaming technology, but you'll have to check back tomorrow for that.

Earlier this week, one indie studio had to make a snap decision (based on a lot of factors) and decided to stop selling its game on Impulse, Stardock's digital distribution service, after GameStop officially takes over. When ...

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