In-Depth: Wardell, Taylor On Stardock's New PC Publishing Paradigm

PC developer Gas Powered Games (Supreme Commander, Dungeon Siege) and PC publisher Stardock (Sins of a Solar Empire) are teaming up on the upcoming Demigod -- company CEOs Chris Taylor and Brad Wardell talk to Gamasutra about S
For ten years, Gas Powered Games has developed PC games like Dungeon Siege and Supreme Commander for large, multiplatform publishers including Microsoft Game Studios, THQ, Sega, and 2K Games. With its upcoming RTS/RPG hybrid Demigod, the studio is taking a very different publishing path, teaming up with emerging publisher Stardock, which developed Galactic Civilizations and worked with Ironclad Games to publish Sins of a Solar Empire. The latter game became a breakthrough hit -- Stardock CEO Brad Wardell tells Gamasutra it has sold over 400,000 full-price units at retail, and around 100,000 further copies through online distribution, on a budget of less than $1 million. Both companies are independent developers which have made names for themselves in the relatively small but dedicated community of hardcore PC gamers. It's a community Gas Powered and Stardock believe is growing, but which has been often mishandled and mistreated -- hence Stardock's newly-announced Gamer's Bill Of Rights, repoted elsewhere on Gamasutra today. Everybody Was a Rock Star According to Chris Taylor, who founded Gas Powered Games after designing Total Annihilation at Cavedog Entertainment, part of the appeal of working with Stardock is that it recalls the early days of the PC game development industry. "I got involved in '88, when everything was kind of earthy," he says, in an interview at Gamasutra's offices. "When Trip Hawkins founded Electronic Arts, Electronic Arts meant 'electronic artists.' Everybody was a rock star; it was really personal; everybody was really cozy. It always came back to the game; it always came back to the art." As it turns out, the companies ended up together in part by way of another veteran of that era: Gas Powered's biz dev exec Kellyn Beck was responsible for late-80s titles like Defender of the Crown and Rocket Ranger, with a later stint at Cavedog; he introduced Wardell to Demigod. ("People at GPG didn't even know that their 'suit' guy was a former serious software developer," laughs Wardell.) In The Bullpen As publishers grew, they relied more on consummate businessmen to call the shots, Taylor says: "It became the status quo that you had a CEO who probably hadn't played any of the games their company had put out." While the designer admits there are justifiable reasons for that evolution, he is clearly impressed by the Stardock's unorthodox but successful management style. Taylor describes Wardell as "a CEO [who] is not only playing your game, not only actively involved in the design of your game -- he can even roll up his sleeves and get in there and code with the team." Wardell corroborated those claims, speaking to Gamasutra via phone from Gas Powered's Redmond offices. "I'm literally in the bullpen," he laughed. "They offered to give me an office, and I said, 'No, no, I'm going to be there with them in the code." A New Covenant After self-publishing Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords to critical and commercial success in 2006, Stardock moved into third-party publishing with Sins of a Solar Empire. Demigod is its second such project, and the company plans to stick to its publishing plan -- a young plan, but a proven one. "We have a different business model than the typical publisher/developer relationship," says Wardell. "We started this with Ironclad. There isn't a publisher team and a developer, it's actually just one big team" -- thus his presence in the development "pit," as Taylor calls it. More than anything else, Stardock moved beyond pure development because it saw an unfilled niche for a publisher that works on a more personal level, with more accomodating contracts. "We came to the conclusion, after not being paid so many times over the years by publishers, that we could do it in a more ethical way, which the developer ends up doing well and the publisher ends up doing well," Wardell says. "If we combine our resources, we can make a much better game." The Contractual Long Tail A big part of Stardock's approach has to do with knowing the audience -- since Stardock's roots are in PC development, it knows what PC gamers expect, and it knows what developers need. Most development contracts are heavily based on advances, Wardell explains, whereas Stardock's contracts also include royalties that are not recouped against advances. "On a typical game, once it's released, [the developer] won't see another penny from it," he says. That's a problem not just for the developer, but for the gamer as well, he claims -- after all, it's tough to justify supporting and enhancing a game post-release if there isn't sufficient post-release funding to employ the necessary staff to do so. "In current models, why should the developer do anything? They're not getting paid," he points out. Even so, developers often choose to support their games "for ethical reasons; they actually take a loss doing the updates," but Wardell calls that unfair. "In our agreements with both Ironclad and Gas Powered Games," he says, "they see money when they do these updates." Illustrating the results of such an agreement, Sins of a Solar Empire has an update releasing next month that Wardell calls "expansion pack-level" volume of content, including a new multiplayer system. The Blizzard Model The reality of such a developer-focused business model is that Stardock cannot realistically take on numerous projects simultaneously, but Wardell isn't concerned. He cites a recent NPD report naming Stardock the ninth-largest publisher on the PC -- no mean feat for a company that's been in the publishing business for just a few years, with only three games on store shelves. "If you put out tons and tons of mediocre games, they're largely forgettable," says the CEO. "We tend to like the Blizzard model. They only release a game now and then, but when it's a Blizzard game, you know it's a great game. That's how we'd like to see ourselves. If you see Stardock on the box, you know it's going to be a good game."

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