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Shafer's Next Step: From Civ To Stardock

Jon Shafer, lead designer on Firaxis' Civilization V, is now at Galactic Civilizations developer Stardock. Here, he explains his move from a major publisher to a small independent studio, his reaction to fan criticism for the well-reviewed Civ V and why he never felt he was living in the shadow of Sid Meier.

[Jon Shafer, lead designer on Firaxis' Civilization V, is now at Galactic Civilizations and Elemental developer Stardock. Here, Shafer explains his move from a major publisher to a small independent studio, his reaction to fan criticism for the well-reviewed Civ V and why he never felt he was living in the shadow of Sid Meier.]

Having shipped Civilization V, lead designer Jon Shafer recently announced he has left Hunt Valley, MD-based Firaxis in favor of Stardock, the Michigan-based developer and publisher of Elemental: War of Magic and the Galactic Civilizations series. Shafer will be working on the Elemental series and future projects.

What could tempt the lead designer of one of the most storied franchises in PC gaming history away from a job at a major publisher's owned studio? And do the recent problems Stardock suffered with the launch of Elemental worry him?

Gamasutra spoke to Shafer this week about what led to this change, what his expectations are for working with Stardock, and how he feels about the fan reception to Civilization V.

Are you settled in Michigan yet, or are you still out East?

Jon Shafer: I'm living in Maryland still right now. I'm here in Michigan for a couple of weeks just to get things set up. For now, I'm still out East.

So when do you actually start your job at Stardock, officially?

JS: I actually started on Monday. I'm going to be here for two weeks, getting set up with a laptop and that sort of thing. I'm going to be working remotely for the most part. I'll be making pretty frequent trips to Stardock headquarters here in Michigan, but for the most part, I'm going to be off-site.

You mentioned some of the things that attracted you to Stardock, like the personality of the company and how Brad Wardell [Stardock CEO] approaches making games for the PC platform. What exactly do you mean by that?

JS: The biggest thing is that Brad is the CEO and full owner of the company. So he has complete leeway to do whatever he wants. And Stardock is kind of unique because it has multiple divisions, one of which is business software and one of which is games.

The games side is, in many ways, just part of Brad's interests. He enjoys playing games, he enjoys making games. So that Stardock makes games at all is born out of his desire to make games. If he wanted to focus on business software only, that would happen.

So his unique situation there really means a lot of interesting things. Everyone knows that the launch of Elemental was a little bit rough, but because Brad is so committed to the game, making games -- making good games -- he's willing to continue development on that and stay dedicated to it, such as with the offer for people who bought the game last year, to give them the expansion for free. He wants to do right by people; he wants to do games he enjoys.

It's very much in contrast to pretty much any business, where definitely the end goal is always to make money. Stardock wants to make money on these games, but the main thing for him is making things fun, that he enjoys making. So that's really, really rare in this business. Everyone is here to make games, but the financial reality of this business is such that it's very rare to have this kind of situation.

It sounds like a pretty big contrast from working for a subsidiary studio of a publicly-traded company [Take-Two].

JS: I expect there to be some differences. The fact that it's private means that we do have more flexibility, and Brad is the ultimate stakeholder involved here. In terms of larger public companies, in that situation, there are other strengths and weaknesses.

Obviously there are a lot more people involved and a lot more is on the line. But you also have a lot more resources at your disposal, and can do things that you can't really do as a smaller developer. Whichever side you're on, you have to weigh what advantages and what challenges you have. It'll definitely be different. In terms of being a designer, I think it'll be a lot of fun.


But there's also a lot on the line at a privately-owned company like Stardock. Like you mentioned, Elemental had a rocky launch, but was then later patched, then the studio had to issue layoffs, before ultimately rehiring workers back. Did those issues worry you at all, coming on board just a few months after that happened?

JS: I don't think it's something that will really affect the long-term future of the company. Even though Elemental's launch was rough, and there were the layoffs, even before the game was out, it had already broken even with pre-orders.

That's from the approach that Stardock takes to making games. They don't have 500 people working on it; they don't spend nearly as much. So they don't need to sell 2 million units in order to break even.

The big issue with [Elemental's rocky launch] was just projecting future revenue for continued development, and Brad was having a hard time with that, but he's dedicated to the game and wants to make sure it gets what it deserves.

In the past, every Stardock game has done incredibly well, given how much it actually cost to produce. The issues with Elemental are very much a momentary blip, and that's part of the reason Brad wanted to bring myself and Derek Paxton in -- to help fill in some of the needs and bring some of the experience that wasn't there when Stardock was really focused on games as more of a hobby than major projects.

It's not something that really concerns me at all. I think we're going to be very successful. Stardock has a very smart plan about what's coming up in the future. I'm very confident about where things are going.


Elemental: War of Magic

About yourself, your career has a lot of Civilization in it. Can you explain what draws you as a game designer to strategy games? Is it something you've always enjoyed?

JS: The core inspiration is probably when I was young, my mother was an elementary school teacher, and she's always had a strong interest in books, particularly in terms of history books. So a lot of what I read when I was a child were those history books she had lying around. Even from a young age, I was really wrapped up in history.

And games are definitely a new way of experiencing -- I guess anything, really -- but especially history, because so often when you're learning that history or reading about it, it's soon gone, or irrelevant. But when you play a game about history, you're the one involved in it, you're the one, like in the case of Civilization, you're making the decisions as to how history itself unfolds.

So from a young age I've always had an interest in history, and that blossomed through playing games like Civilization and other areas. I definitely played a lot of different kinds of strategy games. I started with some of the more historical ones, I've played quite a few.

What about different kinds of strategy games outside of turn-based? Are you interested in real-time strategy games, or that kind of design?

JS: Definitely. One of my favorite games ever was actually Company of Heroes.

Oh, I love that game.

JS: I've played so much of that. But I've probably spent more time watching replays than I have actually playing. So that's one example, it's the one that I've definitely played the most of in terms of RTS. But in the last year I've bought StarCraft II, I've bought R.U.S.E. I try to keep up with everything. Strategy gaming, whether they're real-time or turn-based, it can be fun no matter what form. I try to dabble in everything.

Back to your job transition, you explained what attracted you to Stardock, but prompted you to leave Firaxis?

JS: Ultimately, the decision came down to what Stardock has to offer. Like I was talking about earlier, every company has different strengths and different weaknesses. As a designer, it's really unique to work for a company like Stardock, where Brad is so dedicated to the games. He very much enjoys working on the games, but he doesn't necessarily want to be the one designing everything himself.

A lot of times, what you'll see with the smaller, private companies, is the person in charge who's involved with a lot of things also wants to be a designer, and make a lot of decisions for everything in the game. But that's not the case with Brad. It makes Stardock very unique in that sense.

I really enjoyed my time at Firaxis. It was a lot of fun. Definitely working on Civ was an absolutely incredible experience. I got to know a lot of good people, but Stardock, with the opportunity I have here, it's something that's incredibly rare, and maybe even once in a lifetime. So I jumped on it when I had that chance.


Do you think at Stardock you could step out of this perceived shadow of Sid Meier? Do you think that you can make more of a name for yourself?

JS: Well, for me, at the end of the day, all we really care about is working on things that are fun. A lot of people ask me, "Are you upset that you're the lead designer for Civilization V, and yet Sid's name is on it?" And I always tell them that I'm not upset, because so much of what's in the franchise and in that game is due to things that Sid has done in the past.

Compare Civ V to Civ I, [Civ V] is much closer to [Civ I] than any other game out there. So much of it is passed on from the original design that he made that I think it's appropriate [to have Meier's name on the box].

As far as what I want to do personally, like I said, we want to do things that are fun. I'm not really worried about any of that stuff. It's just about making games, it's what I enjoy doing, and I'm about looking for the best opportunity to do that. I think Stardock is that opportunity right now.

Even though Civilization V was very well-received by the media, there are pockets of the internet that have pretty harsh words towards you personally about the direction that Civ V took. Does that kind of reaction affect you at all as someone that put forth so much effort in Civilization V?

JS: I think criticism affects everybody in some way or another, especially in games, because you put so much of yourself into what you make, and you want people to experience that. Ultimately, you're making a game, while you will play it, you're not making it for you, you're making it so that other people play it. And if there are people that don't enjoy it, then that's disappointing.

I think that with a game like Civ, as big as it is, and as big of an audience that it has, it's inevitable that some people are going to be upset with what you do. [The criticism] is a little bit disappointing, and my hope is that a lot of people that weren't happy with the direction of some of the other stuff I've worked on will be willing to try out some of the new stuff that I'm helping with.

Every game is different, and every game has different priorities and directives. You do the best you can with that, and each time you learn a little bit more. Nobody likes having their work criticized, but you just aim to get better, and hopefully next time they'll change their minds and we'll win them back.

What direction do you think PC gaming is going? Do you think there will always be a space for these very in-depth, boxed PC strategy games?

JS: I definitely think there will be. It seems more and more as the industry as a whole evolves, and particularly PC gaming because it has a little bit longer tradition than console gaming, you see the types of games that are made fall into different bands. So maybe in 1992, all games fell into the same band, they had roughly the same budget, roughly the same amount of people working on them. It's an exaggeration of course and I'm glossing over the details.

But nowadays, you might see games that cost $50 million to make, whereas somebody's releasing games on Facebook that are effectively PC games that might have required literally one person to make.

And on the other hand, you have companies that are doing things more like Stardock, where they're pursuing what I like to call a middle-market where they focus on an experience that is really big and in-depth, and really borrows a lot from some of the more traditional models of making PC games. But you're not spending humongous amounts of money.

So you can afford to diversify, you can afford to do what you want in the games, you can afford to diversify in terms of the types of games you make. I think there's definitely a future for all of these different types of groups.

The middle market is one that I feel is underserved right now, and one that Stardock is definitely aiming at, so I think that's going to make the company very successful in the future, just because there's not a lot of people in that space.

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