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Stardock Entertainment is girding itself for battle with the genre that nearly destroyed the company: fantasy strategy.
The developer’s first attempt was Elemental, starting in 2010 after seven years of success with the Galactic Civilizations 4X (“eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate”) space strategy series.
Rushed and buggy, Elemental: War of Magic was a flop that led to the company’s utter metamorphosis. Stardock went from a PC business-software company that happened to do games to a game house with a division that does PC software.
Tomorrow, Stardock plans to announce a new game in the genre. I visited the company’s airy, luxuriously appointed studios in Plymouth, Mich., to find out more about why it was willing to jump back in.
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“Elemental was the fire that burned Stardock down so we could fly,” brand manager Adam Biessener said, catching his dramatic tone mid-sentence and adding with a smirk, “… like a beautiful bird. Our games are much better, honestly.”
It’s a story of rebirth and revival for one of the oldest surviving independent game developers.
A software company that made ‘nerd games’
Stardock started out as an OS/2 software publisher (an old IBM operating system), going on to make utilities for Windows. At one point, the company was earning money from every Windows PC sold. The gaming side of the business was always an afterthought, born from president and chief executive Brad Wardell’s interest in the hobby and in strategy.
“Basically, Brad was a huge nerd, and he wanted to make nerd games,” Biessener said.
A former Game Informer editor, Biessener joined the company last year, stuffing his office with poster-sized enlargements of cover stories and assorted gaming tchotchkes.
Wardell said most employees thought of his desire to develop games in the same way they thought of his beekeeping or other hobbies, even after Galactic Civilizations did well. Because of legal and distribution agreements, Stardock didn’t see any profits from either of the first two GalCiv titles, so Elemental felt like the first “real” project, he said.
“Up until that point, Stardock was basically a software company,” Wardell said. “The games were considered ‘Brad’s hobby.’ I had the bees, and I had the game.”
He did a little of everything along with his team, ranging from programming to dialogue. “My design document for Elemental was ‘Master of Magic with multiplayer. I’ll be back in two years to see what you’ve done.'”
A mad dash to fantasy strategy disaster
When it came time to release Elemental, Stardock went through a push familiar to most in the industry. Wardell said he would arrive at work Monday and not leave until Wednesday, snatching naps when he could, for four to five months straight. He wasn’t a coffee-drinker before, but that didn’t last.
“I knew when Starbucks opened and closed every night,” and remains an addict to this day, he said. (Indeed, he ordered a mocha Frappuccino from the local franchise at one point during our afternoon-long chat.)
Stardock couldn’t push back the Elemental release date because distribution contracts signed long before would have resulted in lawsuits. It didn’t have a producer.
Biessener said employees then scoffed that they didn’t need anyone but programming staff. The finished game showed it, and the reviews were scalding, calling it “disastrous,” an “excellent idea killed by ambitions,” that it had “the worst A.I. we remember so far,” and “the ugliest visuals since finger-painting class.” These also noted that it crashed constantly. And those were the professional reviews. You can imagine how gamers reacted.
A new direction and a mountain of cash
“It was horrible,” Wardell said, admitting that Elemental: War of Magic deserved its vicious reviews. He was nearing 40, and the fiasco made him and the rest of Stardock’s leadership seriously consider where and what they wanted the company to be.
“What is Stardock going to be about?” he remembers thinking at the time. “If we’re going to make games, we’re going to have to do it right.”
So the company made a dramatic shift. Stardock had developed Impulse, a digital distribution and multiplayer platform. Wardell said that process had become increasingly corporate, all about negotiating agreements and not about making games, and they decided to sell it to GameStop.
GameStop made the purchase and the separate acquisition of Spawn Labs from an earmarked $100 million fund in spring 2011.
People thought the sale was because of Elemental’s failure, that Stardock needed the money, Wardell said. But in reality, the game made money, and the company was still turning a profit from the PC software side. That’s just not the side he and the other executives wanted to concentrate on any more.
So they used Impulse to bankroll their rebirth as a gaming-focused company, eventually spinning off PC operations into a separate division called EdgeRunner.
“We suddenly had infinity dollars,” Wardell said.
Getting serious about games and employees
Stardock took the obvious steps first, hiring Derek Paxton to run the game studios like a real business and staffing up in all those “superfluous” jobs no one thought they needed before, like producers and managers.
Paxton was the lead designer for the Fall from Heaven mods for Civilization 4. He would become the lead designer for Elemental: Fallen Enchantress, a completely revamped version of the flop. Anyone who had purchased the original game was given the second, almost as a corporate apology.
But Stardock didn’t just decide to start acting like a real game development company: It went much, much further. With Wardell hitting middle age and the money raining down from the GameStop deal, he knew he had a choice. He could buy a Ferrari, or he could dramatically improve the company for its employees.
He took that charge seriously, rebuilding Stardock to appeal to industry vets, especially middle-aged ones like himself.
Midwestern quality of life, coastal quality of work
“You get in your 40s, and it’s like, ‘What have I done to myself?’” Wardell said. His next thought was for his employees. “It’s like, ‘Oh, god, I can’t do this to them.”
The company’s new headquarters in Plymouth has a deck overlooking a pond with frogs and turtles. Huge windows let in the gentle northern sunlight, and the finishes in every room are crisp and high-end.
Arrow, a gentle gray Weimaraner, guards the front desk and gets treats from visitors, providing he sits and shakes hands first. Other dogs, including Wardell’s own hound, Bailey, wander the development floor, where “The Doodle Room” allows designers and programmers to brainstorm on white boards made of glass.
The company’s cafeteria has been reborn as a gourmet kitchen, with round granite tables bearing the company’s Saturn-like logo. Twice a week, a nutritionist comes to cook a healthy lunch for the staff.
The company holds wellness classes, “5 minute fit Fridays,” and stretching sessions for its employees. The company gym includes TRX straps, a heavy bag, yoga balls, and fitness machinery, with more windows looking over the lush landscape.
“We wanted to have a place that was more fun to work at. If there’s healthy stuff around, a lot of people do it,” Wardell said. “We’ve had people who have lost a lot of weight.”
Achievement unlocked: Steady game development income
Wardell relaxes back in the desk chair in his large corner office during the interview, feet crossed on the deck, alternating between contemplating his shelves full of Stardock software, looking out the window at the birds that fly down to the pond below, and getting up to furiously scribble on the ever-present white board.
Stardock no longer has mad pushes now, no late-night development sessions, Wardell said; products run on time. In this age of digital distribution, if something isn’t ready for publication, it just holds until it is. Galactic Civilizations III is releasing next year in “spring,” Wardell said. “That’s a lot different than saying it’s coming out March 13.”
“We don’t crunch on anything any more,” Biessener said. “The studio’s much happier now.”
The company took the money left over from its rebirth and invested it, creating a fund that’s bankrolled a host of new projects. “Last year our portfolio was our single most profitable product,” Wardell said, laughing. Digital distribution means that Stardock’s back catalog continues to bring in the bucks.
“We cover a ridiculous portion of our expenses with back catalog sales,” Biessener said. “We still make millions on Galactic Civilizations II. That’s insane.”
Offering veteran developers a chance to level up
Stardock started approaching other developers, offering to publish their passion projects, especially senior designers thinking about getting out of the game.
“The game industry loses its best talent around this age,” Wardell said, as those developers stop wanting to work ridiculous shifts and start wanting things like families and health benefits. (Stardock offers the full suite to its employees – health, retirement funds, you name it.) “All this amazing talent disappears.
“We started talking to people. ‘We have a whole lot of cash here. How about if you have your own company and you can make what you want?’ ”
The developers agreed. Stardock now has publishing and development agreements with Mohawk Games, Oxide, BonusXP, and others the company hasn’t announced. The company is releasing what Wardell characterizes as seven “huge” titles in the next two years.
For more on some of the games and platforms the company is working on, see our announcement of their recent agreement with BonusXP.
Many are from developers with terrific industry cred, the lead designers on triple-A games for Firaxis, Ensemble Studios, Microsoft, id, and Blizzard Entertainment. Stardock will announce one game at the Consumer Electronics Show this January, where it will be featured in the booths for Intel, AMD, and Microsoft.
One company, many services, from the same employees
Stardock now focuses on providing those developers with the core talent they need to call on for each game, whether it’s support for multiplayer league contests or a fully staffed cinematics department.
“Now we can help them do what they do best. It’ll be interesting to see how it works out,” Wardell said.
As a result, Stardock’s staffing is remarkably stable. Many game companies hire up during development and cut staff after release. Because the company has so many projects in the air, it just re-shifts workers to the next project after the current one hits the street.
The company’s total number of game development employees has risen steadily, with a boost of 50 percent in just the past three years. It’s at 30 now, not including publishing, support, or PC software staff.
“We’re the only industry that I’m aware of that, as a business model, treats employees as disposable,” Wardell said. “If [web inventor] Tim Berners-Lee was in the game industry, he would have been laid off.”
Not at Stardock. Not any more.
“Morale is high. People are happy. Turnover is basically zilch. There’s no such thing as hiring up and firing down any more,” Wardell said. “We can get this amazing talent that’s out there, and make it a fun place to work, and not have to fire them because the product’s done.”
Stardock’s games have improved since the revamping, with high average scores on gaming reviews aggregate site Metacritic.
Gamers will have to see whether a pile of money, a new approach to designing, and a focus on quality of life can translate to a good fantasy strategy title. It would be the ultimate redemption for a mature company in an immature business.
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