Stardock Interview Part 1: Brad Wardell Speaks Out on His Plan to Save PC Gaming

Stardock CEO Brad Wardell made headlines recently with the debut of the "Gamer's Bill of Rights," a ten-point plan to revitalize PC gaming that he developed in conjunction with Gas Powered Games CEO Chris Taylor.

Always honest and never shy, Wardell has gained a reputation as an outspoken critic of many conventional responses to the problems facing the PC platform. Recently I caught up with him for a lengthy interview, covering everything from the Bill's conception to his controversial views on piracy.

That is his answer to charges of setting unrealistic goals in the interest of a publicity stunt? What does he have to say about Crysis developer Crytek's conservative stance on piracy? Does the Sins of a Solar Empire developer read the Shacknews comments? Read on to find out.

Shack: Tell me about how the Gamer's Bill of Rights came about.

Brad Wardell: The genesis of it was.. a friend of mine, who's been a hardcore PC gamer, bought Oblivion for the Xbox 360. And I asked him, "Why did you do that? You're a PC guy. Why would you want a.." I'm not anti-console, but I wouldn't want, I couldn't imagine--I was really surprised.

And he says, "I'll tell you why. I buy it for my Xbox, it's gonna work. Period. It's just gonna work. I know it's going to be finished, and I know it's going to work."

So I started talking to him, and then I got to talking to other people who are--they're not the people who hang out on Shack. These are people who are normal, day to day--

Shack: Oh, normal people. [laughs]

The people who are going to buy stuff are going to buy it, and the people who are never gonna buy it, well, who cares about them? They're not a lost sale.

Brad Wardell: Yeah, I mean, it's funny. I'm at PAX, and I'm trying to find out what's happening at PAX, so I'm logging onto Shacknews to find out what's at PAX, but I'm at PAX. [laughs]

But we're into it, we're into the gaming community so to speak. So these are just regular, more casual gamers, but they buy games. And it came up over and over again. One guy had gotten a game with Starforce on it, and it had actually messed up his ability to burn DVDs. I'm not a Starforce expert, but--

Shack: That's actually happened to me.

Brad Wardell: It did? But you know how to fix that stuff, right? Basically his solution was to reinstall Windows. And he says, "I'm done." He's not buying games from anybody, because he doesn't know what uses it and what doesn't.

And another guy bought a game, and he's in the armed forces, he's in Iraq actually. And the people there, not everybody there is in combat all the time, they're just stationed there, and they often don't have internet access. So he gets a game, it's single-player only--you can probably guess what game it is, pretty big-name game. And he can't play it because it insists on connecting to the internet to play it. And he's just like, "That's it. I can buy an Xbox 360 or a PlayStation 3, and I'm not putting up with this. It just works."

So we collected all these things, and over the last couple years we started changing our own policies to fit this. Because it's easy to go and say how the game is and how it should work if you're not going to walk the walk.

So we started saying, "Are these things doable? And if they are doable, are they doable and profitable?" Because we're not doing this because we're nice guys per se, we're doing this because we think it'll make our business stronger, and the industry stronger business-wise.

One of the first things was our copy-protection, not putting CD copy protection on there. And sure enough, that increased our sales, because you'd have a lot of people who'd buy the games, who knew about this because they knew it'd just work--knew that we're not installing anything.

And then we started doing the after-release updates a lot. Every time we do an update to our game and it gets announced somewhere, our sales at retail go up. You know the industry well enough to know that it's unusual for a game to come out in February and make it into the following Christmas season at Wal-Mart and Best Buy--but Sins of a Solar Empire is. And one of the big reasons for that is that every time the sales start to slow, we release an update, a meaningful update that gets people excited again, and the sales go back up at retail. So that was another thing. We thought, "Well, if people start doing that they'll see their sales increase."

And then the last thing was refunds. That was the one we were most nervous about. If I get a game, and it doesn't work, getting a refund. Well what if the people lie? They get the game, they make a copy.

So we started doing this to see what the impact would be. And it turns out, hardly anyone returns their game, but the fact that they know they can if it doesn't work on their computer greatly increases sales.

Shack: So are you thinking about this as more of a public relations initiative?

Brad Wardell: It's not so much a PR value, it's more of a security value. What happens is that a lot of people buy the game for their console because they know it's going to work on their console. They buy it for their PC and it's like, "What is Pixel Shader 2? I don't know what that is." And so their game doesn't work. "But I got a GeForce! It should work, right? GeForce!" "What kind?" "I don't know! An Nvidia one!"

And it doesn't work on their machine, and they go back to the store, and the store goes, "You can't return a game, you opened it." And so they're like, "Screw this, I'll just get a console game."

In the console market, you can't pull this crap.
So what we started to do is, if you send the game back to us, we'll pay you the full price you pay at retail, even though we're going to eat it. So there was a lot of nervous people around here saying, "Gosh, you could end up with 10,000 people sending back this game, which we're eating $20 a unit on it." Because our wholesale price is like $20 on a $40 game. So if someone comes back and we're sending them a check for $39.95, they're just like, "Oh no."

But it turns out people see this policy and hardly anyone ends up returning it, because it does work on most people's machines. It's like a tiny percent that don't. But because they know it will work, we get people buying it who would not otherwise. So then it becomes a question of, are you going to gain more sales because people are confident it's going to work for them, versus the number of sales you lose because people returned it. And so far it's been a no-brainer.

So then I got talking to [Gas Powered Games CEO] Chris Taylor about this last spring, and I said, "Well, you know, Stardock's kind of small." I mean, if I were a gamer and I saw this from Stardock, I'd go, "Well who the hell are they? Aren't they those Galactic Empire guys?" I mean, how presumptuous.

And Chris said, "No, we should totally do this. And if it gets enough attention you might actually get other publishers who might want to get together, and we could create some sort of like--you know, if we made a contract, then you start putting this on your boxes or something, then people can go, 'Oh okay, it adheres to whatever these principles are.'"

So from there we started working together and came up with exact principles. And we said, well, let's make them vague. And if people like them then we can start meeting with other publishers and actually make it into a more legalese thing that spells out--it's almost like a license that people have to agree to. Because obviously who determines if a game is done? What exactly is "done"? What is "meaningful updates"? What do you mean "treating players as criminals"?

So that's what we did. We announced it at PAX. And it's worked out great.

Turn the page for more. _PAGE_BREAK_

Shack: What has the reaction been like from developers and publishers so far?

Brad Wardell: I've already gotten calls from Microsoft, from Take 2, and other publishers who are interested in moving forward on this. Obviously the first step is we have to really define these items. And I've had other developers and publishers who have come back and said, "No, because it's not flexible enough."

At the end of the day, the only ones that are gonna really make this happen are the gamers themselves.
For example, what happens if someone wants to do a policy where there's CD copy protection, but after the first month [consumers] can download a patch that gets rid of it. So obviously that's a perfectly good solution too, but our thing eliminates the ability to do that. So those are things that we'd have to negotiate and figure out, well, that's a good point--is that something that we can compromise on, or find some other way around?

But I think you're actually going to see something come up, either through an independent organization or as part of Games for Windows or something, where there's going to be some standards. I think you may see some of these actually become more industry standard, like being able to return your game. Because that's something we've got data on, we can prove that generates revenue. Or everyone agreeing not to install rootkits. I think that's a pretty straightforward thing. [laughs]

Shack: [laughs] You would hope.

Brad Wardell: Well, I would have a thought. Yeah, don't be installing stuff that doesn't let me burn a CD, good grief. Especially now that I have a Blu-ray burner.

Shack: When the Bill of Rights was announced, there were a few critics who said this was more of a publicity stunt than a realistic set of goals--

Brad Wardell: Well certainly it's a publicity stunt. The idea is to get the word out there. Because at the end of the day, the only ones that are gonna really make this happen are the gamers themselves, if they start to make purchasing decisions based on those who would adhere to some kind of standard.

Because I mean, I've seen on Shacknews plenty of times: "If a game is not finished, don't support them with your buying dollars." But the problem is, nobody knows if a game is adhering to anything until after they've bought it.

Whereas if we can come up with something so that a company or a publisher has fined it.. really it's a publisher. Gas Powered Games is a developer, so they don't have a lot of control. They could be fully behind it and get signed by company XYZ to publish, and they might put a rectal probe as part of the CD copy protection. But still, if gamers know that, okay, this publisher is signed on to this, then I can assume I'm going to get these certain basic..

Shack: More or less trying to put a set of expectations out there for consumers.

Brad Wardell: Right, and what people need to realize is that it's just business. The goal of this is to generate more revenue for our industry. Because in the console market, you can't pull this crap.

For example, and a lot of people don't realize this--I was reading the Shacknews comments extensively, and I was like, "Guys, try pulling this stuff on the Xbox 360." Microsoft certifies not just--it's not like you give your thing to Microsoft and they say, "Okay, thank you," and they certify it. They test for basic performance on these games, they test for quality, they go through a whole bunch of things. They make sure it's truly finished. There's nothing like that on the PC.

Shack: So at this point, do you think Games for Windows needs to be more aggressive? Because they have those 21 rules or however many there are, that they hold publishers to--

Brad Wardell: Yeah, but their rules, I don't like some of them. And I met with [Games for Windows GM] Chris Early and those guys over there to discuss this before PAX, and they're onboard, they like it. I mean, they like this concept. And I talked to the PC Gaming Alliance before I went to the show as well. But the thing is that, you know, some of these things are more technical. What we need is..

Shack: Concepts that average consumers can understand?

Brad Wardell: Well yeah, I want something consumers can tangibly understand. And I want something that they--for example, if I sign a contract with Games for Windows, and it says, "I am going to adhere to these standards, and there is a legal punishment if I don't."

A lot of people will go and say, "Oh, what about Crysis," as if there was some universe where Crysis was going to sell four million copies on the PC if it only weren't for piracy.
I'd rather have that than to have to wait four weeks after I'm "done" with my game for Games for Windows to certify. Because the ESRB adds an extra month to our game development time, because you have to wait until the end to have them look at it. And then it takes six to eight weeks to manufacture your manuals and stuff.

So I don't want developers to have to go through some extra hurtles to get their game out, but at the same time you want to have something out there that gamers can see on the box, or somewhere, that this game adheres to some basic rights for the consumer.

Turn the page for more. _PAGE_BREAK_

Shack: So you would say the "PC problem" needs to be solved with significant action, rather than just words?

Brad Wardell: It's not a PR problem. The people I'm talking about or I run into, they don't pay attention to the marketing at all. They just know they pay $40 for a game--$40, who am I kidding--they pay $50 for a game at Best Buy or wherever, they take it home, it doesn't work on their computer. And not because the game minimum requirements were just bull, or because it installs some weird driver on their machine that didn't test the copy protection right.

If game X comes out for Xbox 360 and the PC, and piracy is the scourge, then why wouldn't it also affect the Xbox 360 sales?
Or here's one of the things I find funny--we as an industry can't manage to get multiplayer games to connect correctly half the time. How many times do you run into that, where you didn't install such-and-such port router. We can't get that to work, but we're smug enough to think that we can get some sort of sophisticated product activation for people who didn't buy it online, who bought it at a store. I mean, good gravy.

Shack: A lot of people think the solution is making games that are so connected with the online experience that everything is validated online, patched online, controlled through the internet. But what you're talking about is an offline, almost traditional solution.

Brad Wardell: Well I think [we need] a combination. You have to be able to protect your intellectual property. And I'm a big believer in activation. Our games, not all of our games, but Galactic Civilizations uses activation for downloads. Basically, our system has always traditionally been that you purchase a game, it has no copy protection, but if you want to update it you have to get it from us with your serial number, and we validate who it is.

But if you're not connected to the internet, if you're in the service and you're overseas, and I just want to play the freaking game single-player, I should be able to just play it and not have to worry about it. But if you want to get updates, obviously if you have interent access, all bets are off, it's fine.

As an example, if someone can update their game, they clearly have internet access, and at that point it's perfectly valid to make sure they're a customer. But if it's a single-player game, and if it doesn't have updates to it, there's gotta be a way so that people who aren't connected to the internet aren't going to be jerked around. Because they don't have to go through that with the console.

Shack: I always love interviews about piracy where the developer says, "There's a better solution--I just don't know what it is yet." Do you know what it is yet?

Brad Wardell: We come from the shareware world on the non-game side of things, so we know all about piracy. To us, these game developers complaining about it, it's like, "Welcome to the party. We've been dealing with this for a long time, when you guys were still making cartridges."

The answer is that you focus on people who buy your stuff, who will buy computer software. The game industry is the only industry that I know of that sweats people playing their games even if they were never gonna buy them. It's completely different form the software industry in this regard. Adobe for example--I'm sure they don't like the fact that people pirate Adobe Photoshop, but I doubt they're losing sleep over it. There's no major common business software that I can think of where they go through the elaborate lengths to control piracy that the game industry does.

And the difference is that in the game industry, the emphasis is on keeping pirates from playing the game, regardless of if they're ever gonna purchase your product. Whereas in the software industry, the emphasis is on making people who would otherwise buy your product to buy it. And I know that seems like a subtle distinction, but it's a lot easier to focus on getting people who might otherwise buy your game to buy it.

And that's where things like providing updates comes in--where the source is secure, where you have to get it from Stardock. Or you have to get your update from Microsoft, and you have to install Windows Genuine Advantage. Some people get annoyed by it, but the average user does not care about installing an ActiveX controller to run the Genuine Advantage thing. They don't even think about it.

But why does Microsoft have that? Because if you want to get some extra feature out of Windows, then they want to make sure you're a customer. Verified at the time they want to make use of one of your services. They don't sweat as much whether someone's installed an illegal version of Windows in the beginning. Because the people who are going to buy stuff are going to buy it, and the people who are never gonna buy it, well, who cares about them? They're not a lost sale. I mean, it annoys me if someone playing my game didn't pay for it, but I only really care if they are someone who might have bought it.

Shack: So you take the stance that the majority of pirates would never have purchased the game in the first place?

Brad Wardell: Well, I don't know about "majority"--yeah, I would say probably, it depends on the title.

A lot of people will go and say, "Oh, what about Crysis," as if there was some universe where Crysis was going to sell four million copies on the PC if it only weren't for piracy. And it's like, oh come on. If you're making a game for a demographic that's mostly 15-18 year olds, who probably don't have jobs, but it requires a $4,000 computer to play, where are these kids getting the machines?

Crysis and other games like that need a high-end PC to get anything out of them. Look at the Tom's Hardware benchmarks on even the latest cards. "Oh look, I'm getting nine frames a second with the new GeForce, the 9800 GT or whatever." And then they come out, and they're like, "We've sold fewer copies than we had hoped. Look at all the copies on Bit Torrent." Well, those people weren't going to buy it. How were they going to buy it? With what money?

Shack: One could make the argument that if the pirates downloaded it and played it, you can assume they have a computer that can run it.

Brad Wardell: Well no, they have a computer that could install it. But do they have a computer that can really run it decently? I don't know.

Turn the page for more. _PAGE_BREAK_

Shack: Are there studies on piracy that you guys refer to? Are there any numbers you can point to when you're debating this issue?

Brad Wardell: Well when we debate it, we know--we certainly have the hardware specs of people who play our games. Just as Valve's Steam has the hardware specs of people who play their games, and that's a pretty large sample.

And so if you go and just use--and let's just use Steam, because they're a competitor of Impulse, so clearly I'm not biased in their favor. So let's use their stats, and then look at the systems that they have, and say, "How many people can literally run these games that come out, based on those stats?"

Intel did not do us any favors with those embedded video cards that made a lot of games not work right.
As an example, Valve has been very successful with Steam. They've got 15 million users, right? So after three years, 15 million users, and the hardware requirements to run Counter-Strike are nothing. Wouldn't that say to you then that your best case scenario on a PC game would be 15 million users right now, by definition? And if you're just using those stats, how many of them could potentially play some of these super high-end games that are complaining about sales?

And then you figure out what percentage of those people are likely to have actually bought it? Because you're obviously not going to get 100% penetration. Remember the old business plan argument that, if I can get 1% of such-and-such market I'm doing great? 1% of 15 million is 100,000 people.

Shack: There are a lot of multi-platform ports that will hit the PC and require Xbox 360-level hardware. What would you say to publishers who are trying to stay competitive in the PC market while still serving the consoles? For instance, EA canceled many of its PC sports games this year.

Brad Wardell: Part of the problem is you really have to make the right game for the right platform. We make PC games because the PC is the best platform for the game we like to make. But if I was making a sports game I wouldn't even consider the PC, and it has nothing to do with piracy--it has to do with the controller. I know that my players are going to have this controller, and it's going to work, and I know they're all going to have relatively equal hardware specifications.

But the example I usually hear is that a game comes out for the PC, and on the console it sold five gazillion copies, but on the PC it only sold a tiny number. Well first of all, if piracy was the cause of it, if piracy is so rampant on the PC, then why are the console numbers still high? If game X comes out for Xbox 360 and the PC, and piracy is the scourge, then why wouldn't it also affect the Xbox 360 sales? I mean, what's the percentage of Xbox 360 owners that don't own a PC? So that begs the question, I mean you can do a Shack survey: how many Xbox 360 owners do not own a decent PC?

The second question is, how many of those Xbox 360 purchasers bought it because they knew it would work? They could install it, they could put the DVD in and it's going to work. Whereas my friend who got Oblivion, he didn't even consider the PC version because he didn't know it could work on his computer and he didn't have time to mess with it.

Shack: So would you say the future of the PC development is a lineup of games solely developed with the PC in mind?

Brad Wardell: Actually I wouldn't. Well, I think it will become that way if we don't clean up our act as an industry. If we don't create the same gaming environment that you already have on the consoles, where someone can go to the store and have some confidence that it's going to work on their machine, then that's going to happen.

For example, Intel did not do us any favors with those embedded video cards that made a lot of games not work right. I mean, one of the concepts behind Impulse--a lot of people look at Impulse and say, "Isn't that just Steam?" And it's like, well, no, it starts out similar to Steam, but it really is a platform. I mean our whole company objective with Impulse--and the Gamer's Bill of Rights is related to it--is to provide a standardized platform, not just for us but for everybody. And they're not tied to Impulse, but we just want to provide these services that make the PC gaming experience better.

Impulse has video card updating built into it. So if you get Demigod, the Demigod beta for example--I had the default Vista drivers on my own box, I'm ashamed to say. It's a relatively new install, but it had literally 2006-era drivers. So I load up Demigod and it has graphical corruption. So first of all, that's a strike against the PC game experience right there, right? If I had a Demigod for the console, it's just going to work.

Impulse at least takes the first step of letting me update my drivers within Impulse, which is nice. Obviously the next step is for it to automatically update my drivers, which we have to formalize our agreements with Nvidia and ATI to get that going. That's not in yet--that's the long term.

But to speak to your question, if we don't want the PC to be a niche game platform, then we have to clean up our act. We've got to make the PC experience better. Period.

Come back tomorrow for part two of the interview, in which Wardell and I discuss Stardock and Gas Powered Games' upcoming title Demigod, as well as his company's mysterious 4X fantasy title.