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Master Of The Galaxy: Stardock's Brad Wardell

In today's exclusive Gamasutra interview, we talk to Stardock's Brad Wardell about the future of his Galactic Civilizations franchise, upcoming MMO Society, the trouble with copy protection, and the need for a creative revolution.

Brad Wardell is an interesting man. One part Windows developer, one part game developer and one part hardcore gamer adds up to someone who is devoted to making games that he wants to play. As the president and CEO of Stardock, head of the TotalGaming.net subscription service, and the developer behind Galactic Civilizations and Galactic Civilizations 2, Mr. Wardell has a very busy schedule. Luckily, he took an hour of his time to sit down and talk with Gamasutra. We discussed many different subjects, but one theme constantly came up: we need a creative revolution.

Gamasutra: So, how's it going?

Brad Wardell: Pretty good. We're just hiring up for our next game project.

GS: Oh yeah? I was going to ask you about that. What have you got coming up?

BW: Well we've got Galactic Civilizations 2: Dark Avatar, which is in development. It comes out in February. We're publishing a game called Sins of a Solar Empire, next August, which is kind of like Homeworld but larger scale, with multiple star systems.

GS: That sounds pretty good.

BW: Then, we're starting up a fantasy strategy game right now, but that won't be out for a couple of years.

GS: That's one of the things I wanted to ask you about. I wanted to ask about the Master of Magic license. You guys looked into that didn't you?

BW: Yeah, we did. We pursued it. Actually, Atari came to us a while ago. I thought they had a pretty good idea. That is, over the years, Atari has collected a lot of good IP (Intellectual Property) like X-Com, Star Control, Master of Orion, Master of Magic and a lot of others that a lot of people didn't realize that they held. So they came to us and said "We're not really interested in publishing these things ourselves, but what we'd like to do is license out the trademarks to third parties like you guys and we'll make a royalty off of them." So, we sat down and decided that Master of Magic would be our first, since it's close to something we'd done and Master of Orion 3 had already come out. We were able to agree on the money, so we thought everything was set, then their legal guys got involved, and that's where it stalled. They wanted the right to approve any marketing we did with a mutli-day stipulation. Say, for instance, me talking to you right now would be considered marketing and I would have to have approval first. That sort of thing. Then there was the weird thing, like if the game was manufactured overseas, someone from the company would have to be onsite to make sure there was no child labor.

GS: That's pretty odd. Do you mean from you guys or from Atari?

BW: Oh, from Stardock. So if we were doing a Korean or Russian version, someone from here would have to be there. There were all sorts of things in there that made it difficult to do. Then Atari ran into financial difficulties and we just decided to do our own fantasy strategy game. At that point, no one was really doing a Master of Magic. I think that there's a strong market for a fantasy strategy game that has some of the elements of Master of Magic like random maps and building your own cities. It's not really a competitor to an Age of Wonders or Heroes of Might and Magic, they're completely different game mechanics.

GS: Right, Master of Magic was random maps. Will there be multiplayer?

BW: Yeah, multiplayer will be in there.

GS: Ok, I just remember that in Master of Magic you had to do all sorts of crazy things to get multiplayer going, and then it was only hot seat.

BW: (Laughs) No, no, what we have now is Society which is our massive multiplayer game. That's going to be many years from now, five or six, but the building blocks from that are going into our other games. We've been using the multiplayer libraries in Galactic Civilizations and integrating them into the fantasy strategy game and other games.

GS: Makes sense to use as much as you can.

BW: Exactly.

GS: I guess that the Master of Magic game is out of the question now with Atari's problems.

BW: I'm not even sure what's happening there. We went to them and offered to buy the rights for six figures and they turned us down. They wanted all or nothing. This game is over ten years old. I mean, it's just the name. I could come out with Lords of Magic; we wouldn't do that because it's cheesy.

GS: Yeah, that's pretty close.

BW: Yeah, but we're talking about a ten year old game. There isn't a trademark for it; it expired, not that we'd name that. I was very surprised at how high they valued it. It definitely has value, but I was surprised that they were that aggressive about it.


GS: It's really strange because Master of Magic itself, though I'm a big fan and I know quite a few others who are, but it's not that huge of a name.

BW: Exactly. Personally, I'd love to get a hold of all those titles. Master of Orion 4. If someone went back and took Master of Orion 2, updated the graphics to modern standards and extended gameplay in areas that make sense, I think people would like that.

GS: There were a lot of people that were disappointed with Master of Orion 3.

BW: There are a lot of people who liked it, but it wasn't what people expected. I think that if you make something the third in a series, you can't just go on and pursue your own vision.

GS: That does seem disingenuous.

BW: Yeah.

GS: So, now you have the latest expansion for Galactic Civilizations 2 expansion coming out. What can people look forward to in that?

BW: My favorite parts are different than the rest of the game team. I always like the AI stuff, because I program that. The biggest gameplay differences will be, for one, the planets now have environments. In Galactic Civilizations you had this thing called the colony rush, where you'd send out as many colony ships as fast as you could to mark your territory. In Dark Avatar you can't colonize the planets initially; you have to get the right environmental technology.

So if it's radioactive, or underwater, you have to research technology in order to colonize those worlds and it costs a lot of resources to do that. That completely changes the initial part of the game. Another big area that has changed is that there are now asteroids on the map. You can mine these asteroid fields, but the further away the field is, the less you get out of it. You have to make a lot of strategic decisions based on that. Like, I may have a really great industrial planet but it's far away, or I could use the closer planet that isn't as industrial.

GS: Yeah, but you get quicker money from the closer one.

BW: Right. My favorite feature is that you can now design - and I think this is something that's going to become more common when people see it - your opponents. You know how a lot of times an expansion pack will come out with five new races to play against, which we'll have too, but now you can actually design them –design what they look like. You can design their ships and assign races to what ships they use. It's really cool in action. If you ever wanted to have that Star Wars vs. Star Trek vs. Babylon 5 battle, here you can do it. You just sit there as a player. Did you play much Galactic Civilizations 2?

GS: Sadly, I haven't had much time with it.

BW: Ok, did you ever play with LEGOs as a kid?

GS: Oh, yeah, of course.

BW: The ship design in GalCiv 2 is basically LEGOs. It's not like ship design in any other game I've ever seen. You literally can design any type of ship you can imagine - both how it functions and how it looks. People on the forums have designed every type of ship you can imagine from the Enterprise to their own creations, which is the most common.

So, with Dark Avatar, you can actually assign what the ships look like, what the races look like, what strategy they use - like whether they're a turtler or a rusher. How much CPU power should they get versus the average player. Whether this player should be given more money. The difficulty has been split between whether they should have more money or use of the smarter algorithms. You can actually pick between the two. For me, that's a big deal. I like the idea of having a customized game where I'm playing exactly the game I want to set up.


A portion of a memory test spreadsheet from a mid-development build of our last project.

GS: That's pretty cool.

BW: There's a whole bunch of other stuff, too. If you go to galciv2.com/darkavatar, it'll give you the rundown. We kind of got out of control on the feature set. We realized that we're going to be on this fantasy strategy game for quite a while, and there are all these cool ideas that players came up with. I didn't want to wait years for some sequel to come out to add them.

GS: You add a lot of replay value that way.

BW: Exactly. There's other stuff too. In GalCiv 2, all of the races are the same except for graphics. Dark Avatar adds powers for each race.

GS: That sounds great. I was talking with Simon [Carless] and we were talking about how you make games for a very specific market. Do you ever think you'd like to do something with more mass appeal?

BW: I think that a real time MMO would be mass-oriented. There's a market for that. We also want to make a role-playing game at some point. Not in an Elder Scrolls style, but more of a Baldur's Gate kind of thing.

GS: Yeah, that would be very popular. There's been a big movement away from that kind of thing.

BW: Didn't Baldur's Gate 2 sell like a Gajillion copies?

GS: It was huge. I don't know why they haven't made any more. They made Baldur's Gate 2 and Icewind Dale.

BW: I'd buy a Baldur's Gate 3. Did you play Planescape Torment?

GS: Yeah.

BW: That game is awesome. Where's Planescape Torment 2?

GS: It's strange that they got away from the whole feel of those games and went towards Knights of the Old Republic. Now they're doing Mass Effect.

BW: I think those would be wide appeal. I think the hardcore would like it because they can get really into the numbers, and a casual user doesn't feel overwhelmed because it's not as arcadey. Though Knights of the Old Republic is probably my favorite game of all time in terms of role-playing.

GS: It's a great game, but it's a huge move away from the Baldur's Gate style of play.

BW: Yeah, it is.


GS: You know, speaking of MMOs earlier, didn't you just shut down an older game of yours along those lines?

BW: Stellar Frontier. Yeah, that's right. We had that up and running for ten years. It got to the point where, and all these MMOs hit this point, they have a problem with hackers, cheaters and that kind of thing. Eventually, I feel that it's always a losing race in the long run. As long as the game is selling enough, you can justify putting resources into thwarting the latest griefer who has figured out a way to packet sniff something that makes him invincible. Eventually, though, x number of years later, the sales aren't enough to justify that kind of thing. We stopped selling the game a long time ago, and we just kept it going. Finally, there were just too many people who had cracked the system. I couldn't imagine having our developers dig into that ancient server code. It was written with OS2 in mind, to give you an idea of how old it was.

GS: That's old.

BW: Alright, do you remember named pipes? That's old. I shouldn't say that, because someone's going to say something about networking code. Anyway, yeah, we had to shut that down.

GS: What are you guys doing for your new MMO? Can you say anything about that?

BW: Well, Stellar Frontiers was written in the mid nineties, back in the age of kumbahyah. This was before Ultima Online. You remember that?

GS: Oh yeah, I played it a lot.

BW: Alright, I'm mining and I'm going to go out. This is before we knew how horrible people can be to each other online. We had some inkling, but not people that can dedicate serious time to making people miserable. Now we know better. Now we program these games so that the desktop is basically a terminal. It hosts all the art content, but everything that matters is done server side. That's what we have to do.

GS: Yeah, but then you run into problems like EverQuest did with people running Linux boxes for packet sniffing to show where all the items were in a zone. Where there's a will there's a way.

BW: I think it's a matter of encryption. I don't think EverQuest was encrypting their packets.

GS: I can't remember, but you're probably right about that.

BW: With EverQuest, they weren't in the age of kumbahyah. Did you see that World of Warcraft episode of South Park?

GS: Yeah, it was pretty great.

BW: It was before the development community understood that there were people out there who wanted to do nothing but grief. That episode hit close to home. You play much World of Wacraft?

GS: Oh yeah, I've been playing since Beta 3. I'm doing some work with the Burning Crusade now.

BS: Were you using Ventrillo?

GS: Sure, we've used it a good bit.

BW: That episode hit really close to home. "What's the DPS of that sword? Nice...."

GS: The episode was pretty perfect. I love the fact that Blizzard worked with them on that. World of Warcraft has had such a huge impact.

BW: The only request that I've ever put in is that level sixty guys should be able to create quests. When I hit level forty, there weren't anything that wasn't elite. There are people like me who like killing ten skeletons. Those quests dry up like we're above them. I'm not above that. You need five thigh bones? I'm your man, I'm happy to help out.

GS: You're happy to help out. With that in mind, what are you guys planning for your MMO?

BW: With Society, the site is societygame.com, right now is we're building up the infrastructure for it. It's on development hiatus. I shouldn't say that, because the back end is in full development mode still. As we saw how popular Galactic Civilizations became, we realized just how much server infrastructure we were going to need in terms of account handling and that sort of thing. We were very naive. Our non-game side does really well, so we figured we'd buy a hundred really powerful servers and throw them up and we'd be fine. No, there's a lot of load-balancing that has to be done. I have some friends at Blizzard that were giving me tips on some of this stuff. So, I came to realize that we were being naive, so we're moving forward on that.


Society

In terms of the game itself, the idea is that it's a real time strategy game that makes you the monarch of your civilization. Instead of having levels, there's an endless technology tree where the equivalent of level sixty in World of Warcraft, that would be the top of the technology tree. You, the player, have a royal family that helps run your civilization and you can marry them off to other players. Each player is running their own society.

Most of the time you'll spend building up your cities. In a way, you can imagine the game being The Sims meets Total Annihilation. You spend a lot of time building things up, but to also expand your region, you have to build up armies and send out expeditionary forces to conquer other realms in order to get more resources.

GS: It has a way to fight other players?

BW: Exactly. Where a lot of our time went into the game design is you don't want someone to wake up in the morning and find their kingdom has been wiped out by some catasser who has spent the night wiping everyone out. What we came up with is that players can designate some of their regions to be unattackable, and those regions stay unattackable for x number of days. They'll become more vulnerable the longer you're gone. So if you're gone for three months then you could possibly come back to only having your capitol left. Generally speaking, you can be gone a few days and you'll probably be fine.

GS: When are you guys planning on having that done?

BW: We're hoping to be out in beta within the next year and a half or so. The engine part isn't so bad, it's just the back end. If we can control the number of players and see just how bad it's going to be…I mean, you remember all the problems that World of Warcraft was when it shipped. They were in beta for over a year. They still had these problems that I can't even imagine. In our case, we plan for Society to be free in its basic incarnation. So people can just get on, download the client and start playing. We could have a large user base really quick.

GS: So the base client is going to be free. Are you going to charge for extra turns or something like that?

BW: The income comes from a couple of different areas. One is from the queues. You know, like those download services. What does Blizzard call their servers? Realms, that's it. We call them worlds. So, you want to play right now, but our worlds can only handle so many players. If you're free, you may have to wait in line if it's a really busy world, but if you pay, you go to the front.

GS: Like FilePlanet?

BW: Precisely. There will also be servers for people who pay, because we expect there will be more griefing on the free servers. The people who pay will also have access to the single player game. This is one of those things that will be different about this game is that since it's a real time strategy game, you can play off line and only the paid version would have that.


GS: Speaking of single player, how do you feel about copy protection?

BW: I've always been pro copy protection in the general sense, but I don't like the way game companies approach it. It's like the game industry has lived in this cocoon that the rest of the software industry has already broken out of. I don't like having to keep a CD in my drive or having something installing spyware on my computer to tell me what I should be doing. When I want to run Photoshop or Word I don't have to put a CD in the drive. Microsoft and Adobe aren't installing drivers on my machine to monitor what I'm doing. "Oh look, you have a CD burner on your machine, I won't work." That's the sort of thing I really object to. I think so many game publishers are behind the time. The software industry went through this as well. Remember dongles?

GS: Oh yeah. I used a lot of 3D Studio back in the day.

BW: There were all kind of goofy things on all kinds of software, but they grew out of that. They realized that the goal of copy protection isn't to stop people from pirating but to increase sales. That's an important distinction. I don't like people pirating my game.

GS: Naturally.

BW: I find it annoying on principle. The question is "would they have bought the game anyway?" If they wouldn't have bought the game, then why should I be concentrating on them? I should be concentrating on maximizing my overall sales. Don't inconvenience legitimate users but inconvenience illegitimate users. Some percentage of them will buy the game.

GS: You don't waste that time and money stopping someone who won't buy your product anyway.

BW: Right. Did you hear that twenty eight percent of gamers won't even buy a game? This was a study put out by one of the copy protection companies as proof of why copy protection isn't negative. This study says that ONLY twenty eight percent of gamers won't buy a game with copy protection. I was thinking "HOLY COW, that's a disaster!"

GS: That's a huge number of people.

BW: I never thought it was that high. I would have thought five or two percent. That makes it a no brainer.

GS: Especially since you had your run-in with Starforce, which was completely ridiculous.

BW: I was really surprised. I just think it's a cultural difference. We Americans can come across reckless to Europeans, but compared to some Russian businesses, we can seem fairly placid.

GS: I guess there's some fear of not being there the next day. Still, twenty eight percent is a very high number.

BW: It is. If piracy is really killing sales that much, as we're constantly told, then why did Galactic Civilizations 2 just pass the two hundred thousand sales mark worldwide? I think that's pretty good for a game made by a half dozen guys.

GS: Yeah, that's pretty good. I'm sure it also helps that you're now doing your digital distribution.

BW: Yeah, I think that's a big part of it. Like one of the things that we do, that some people object to, we require that you register the game to get updates. The game comes with a serial number that you don't have to do anything with. If you want the upgrade, you have to type in that serial number so that we know you bought the game.


A portion of a memory test spreadsheet from a mid-development build of our last project.

GS: I remember that with the original Galactic Civilizations. You required the serial to get the patches or they came out to the public after a couple of months.

BW: Now we basically hooked it right into the update process. You have to register the game. If you're downloading it, you probably have Internet access at some point. Even if you don't have Internet access on the game, there are instructions so that you can email this quasi-automated thing that will spit back the code you have to type in.

GS: That works. If you can't stop people from pirating the game, you can at least make it to where they don't get updates.

BW: Right. The key on that sort of thing is that we have to be extra careful that the original release has nothing on it at all. When you buy the game at the store, there's nothing, it's just a CD, you put it in your drive, you install it and you can throw it away if you want. It makes it very important that the game not be buggy or seems incomplete in any way. You can see how this can be abused by someone cynical who says, "We'll put out a game that isn't done and force them to get updates." We don't want to do that. That's why it was so important that the game come out solid and be well received initially.

GS: That in mind, you also add in the digital distribution, which has to be much more profitable for you.

BW: Oh yeah. The expansion pack won't be available retail. It's only going to be available on Total Gaming.

GS: You're publishing other people's work now, too.

BW: We distribute other people's games digitally, but we don't publish them. The games we publish, like Sins of the Solar Empire, will be available worldwide at retail, as well as digitally on Total Gaming.

GS: You have any other current publishing deals?

BW: We have a couple, but I can't really talk about them yet.


GS: Have you read about the XNA for the 360?

BW: We're very familiar with it actually. I think it's a great concept but I don't think it's quite ready for prime time yet. It's C# and I'm kind of a coward when it comes to gaming technology. I really want someone to prove it before I say I want to make a major C# game. Remember those first Java games?

GS: Oh yeah, they were bloated.

BW: Precisely. There was that political one, years ago, like Politica or something like that. It was a slow Java game with a lot of problems. I don't want to make an Xbox 360 game and it be really pokey.

GS: Well, Marble Blast Ultra is out on the 360 and it was created in Torque.

BW: How about a MAME emulator for the Xbox 360?

GS: That would be great, but you might run into some licensing issues.

BW: Just the emulator, not the ROMs.

GS: Have you guys considered something for the Live Arcade?

BW: Yeah, we have, I'll tell you what game we've been thinking about. We have a co-op working on that right now. Did you have a Commodore 64?

GS: Yeah.

BW: Did you ever play a game called Paradroid?

GS: You know, it sounds familiar but I can't place it.

BW: It was this game where you were a robot and had to wipe out all the other robots. You could take over the bodies of other robots which brought up a little puzzle game. It was a lot of fun, and I'd love to see that on the 360. That's basically our test project.

GS: It couldn't be too terribly hard to do.

BW: Oh, no. I think there's even a Flash version. We're not making that game, but that style of game.

GS: As a developer, what do you think about the XNA?

BW: Oh, I love it. I'm not a real game developer; I'm a gamer who learned how to program so that I could make the games that I wanted to play. I figure the more they open it up for more people to make games, the better off we all are.


Society

GS: Even if there are hundreds of bad projects, there's bound to be a few great ones.

BW: Oh, sure, let the best rise to the top and you'll get some great ideas. We're so starving for ideas. This is a whole different topic, but the game industry is so stratified right now that it takes a guy like Will Wright, who's been around for five thousand years, to come up with something like Spore. Everyone says "Oh wow, that's so cool!" In the old days, we had a game as innovative as Spore coming out every year. Nowadays, they're so few and far between that we're starving for innovation. Something like Xbox Live Arcade can open up the doors for the next generation of game developers who will come up with clever stuff.

GS: It's been a long time since Ultima 7.

BW: I have bad memories of Ultima 7 because of the inventory bug. However, when they fixed it in Ultima 7 part 2, it was a great game. Oh, or Ultima 4 with the Avatar concept. I loved that.

GS: Then there's Ultima Underworld.

BW: Oh yeah! When was the last time you saw an Ultima Underworld type game? Did the market disappear?

GS: Something like Oblivion is about as close as you get lately.

BW: Oblivion sold over a million copies; you'd think someone would see that and want to do another Underworld.

GS: I've heard that the new game, Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, has a kind of Underworld feel to it.

BW: Yeah, that one's done in the Unreal Engine and it's like a more action oriented Oblivion.

GS: Like Hexen?

BW: Yeah, like that. You remember things like Archon? Where's the new Archon? I can't even find a new Battle Chess for that matter? Think of what people could do with Battle Chess nowadays. We could really have them sock it to each other. People will argue that they'll no longer make it at retail, but what about on Xbox Live Arcade?

GS: Well, yeah, look at PopCap.

BW: Exactly. I'm looking for something a little more than PopCap, but nothing that's huge. Something like Loom. Remember Loom?

GS: Oh yeah. I love LucasArts.

BW: How hard would it be to do a Loom-type game now? It's a little more than you can play on a website, but you can see people having fun playing a modern day Loom on the 360.

GS: Sam and Max are still popular. The Longest Journey 2 did pretty well.

BW: That's what I'm hoping for. I want to see a lot of young developers who can develop things on their PC, burn it to a CD and play in on the Xbox 360. I can think you can make the Xbox Live Arcade into something like that. They can send it through an approval process. The 360 still uses the old console model of: the publisher has to pay Microsoft for every copy sold. Maybe they can make it to where the submission process to Live Arcade is fairly seamless.

GS: Something like that could open up a whole new world of development.

BW: I certainly hope so.

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