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Interview: Stardock's Wardell On Matchmaking Out The 'Jerks'

As Stardock expands its Impulse PC digital distribution service, aiming to play online matchmaker for gamers, CEO Brad Wardell tells Gamasutra why he's solving the problem that "random people are often jerks".
PC developer and publisher Stardock launched its Impulse PC digital distribution service a little over a year ago, and in that time it has partnered with nearly all the major publishers. But in its forthcoming update Stardock will expand Impulse's scope, aiming to play matchmaker for gamers -- without needing console-style matchmaking. Impulse, whose primary competitor is Valve's Steam, recently added Ubisoft to a partner list that also includes Activision, Capcom, THQ, Paradox, Atari, and dozens of others -- chiefly Stardock itself, whose Galactic Civilizations II, Sins of a Solar Empire, Demigod, and other titles are amongst the store's most popular. Impulse Phase 4 will include a feature called Ready to Play, which will match up PC gamers who own the same game and who share various gaming priorities, allowing them to virtually befriend each other and then set up matches of their chosen games. It's part social networking, and part matchmaking -- but since it just brings the gamers themselves together, it uses whatever multiplayer system the developers included in the game, be it matchmaking or server browsing. "When you play online with random strangers, how many people are jerks? I don't know how else to put it. Random people are often jerks," Stardock CEO Brad Wardell told Gamasutra regarding the reasoning behind Ready to Play's conception. "I wanted to come up with something that solved that problem." When you launch a title through the system, Ready to Play knows you own that game (and since it identifies games based on their executable files, it works for any game, not just those bought through Impulse), and it will attempt to find other players who both own that game and who score similarly to you on a rubric of gaming priorities. "You [rank] a bunch of categories, like how competitive you are," explained Wardell. "What matters to you in someone you want to play? Are they a similar age to you? Do they have a good PC? How competitive are they? Are they all about winning, or are they about having fun? Do they value their time? You don't just get to say, 'Yeah, max them all out.' You put them in order of importance." Those self-identified traits are used to match up gamers. If you aren't online when a match with your game is found, you'll see the notification when you log in, and you can send a friend request if you choose. "I say, 'Alright, I want to play Sins of a Solar Empire or World of Warcraft or Team Fortress," Wardell continued. "I can choose either a particular group of buddies I want to play with, or everybody on my friend list, or someone who's similar to me, even if I don't know them. "Then it will tell me, 'So and so, who is 84 percent compatible with you, is going into Sins of a Solar Empire. Do you want to launch Sins of Solar Empire?' It launches the game, you find that person, you get together, and play with them." Added the CEO, "The idea is that now you can play with people who are similar to you, rather than some 14-year-old griefer who's shooting you in the back every time because he thinks it's funny." Of course, games with smaller communities will be less picky about their players' priorities -- and being able to find any players of older or less well known titles is one of the key strengths of Ready to Play, said Wardell. "In our own internal tests, it's amazing how quickly what seems like a dead game can come back to life," he said. "One of our tests was The Corporate Machine. That game was like several years ago. You tell it, 'I'm going to play The Corporate Machine online.' Even though there was no one online at first, you broadcast to your buddies. There's are only 500 people, but suddenly it identifies three or four people [who own it], and they're people like you. You can get a game going." Players can also set up scheduled matches for particular games, both amongst their own existing friends as well as to find new friends. Ready to Play will be launching in beta form in September, alongside a substantial overhaul of the main Impulse storefront designed to streamline Impulse's look and feel, and cope with the service's growing list of games. Stardock told Gamasutra it plans to announce further publisher deals in the coming weeks.

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