Stardock's Wardell: Hardcore PC Games Still Viable

By Nick Breckon, Mar 24, 2009 6:26pm PDT The talk began with a quiz. On screen, a few colorful pixels and jagged, aliased lines.

"Who can name this game?"

A few murmurs. Finally, one brave answer, in the form of a question: "Loom?"

Correct. Star Control? Yes. Definitely King's Quest. And who doesn't know that's Ultima?

"These games were once mainstream games," said Brad Wardell, CEO of Sins of a Solar Empire publisher Stardock, speaking of them fondly as he cycled through screenshots. "How long has it been since you've seen an adventure game at retail? Exactly."

But the subject of Wardell's GDC lecture was not how low the PC market has sunk, but rather how these sorts of games can still be made--and do very well.

Digital Distribution
As a case study, Wardell released sales statistics of Stardock's latest products as proof that the market for hardcore PC games can be a profitable one.

Galactic Civilizations II

  • $1.2 million budget (original plus two expansions)
  • $500,000 marketing
  • $500,000 distribution
  • $10 million revenue
"I'll go out on a limb and say a ten-to-one ratio of investment to earnings is good," joked Wardell, who added that the marketing/distribution budgets include bribes and bonuses. "My jet fuel isn't cheap."

Sins of a Solar Empire

  • $1 million budget (original and one expansion)
  • $600,000 marketing
  • $800,000 distribution
  • $8 million in revenue so far

"Half of our revenue has come from Impulse," he said of Stardock's digital distribution application. Sins of a Solar Empire sold more copies at retail, but Stardock makes significantly less money on each sale as compared to copies sold through its own digital service.

Wardell explained that Stardock's marketing budget has actually declined in some cases due to the closing of many print publications, while distribution has shifted away from paying costly brick-and-mortar shelf space and toward the digital space.

"Before digital distribution, Comp USA was notorious for making you pay... they were real bastards. You would constantly have to write them checks to get them to carry your product. And I think one of the reasons why they went under--they couldn't leverage that anymore. We could walk to them and say, 'Hey, too bad, we can put our thing on our thing and we're still going to make a lot of money.'"

But Wardell cautioned against rooting for a single digital platform, repeating comments from a recent editorial where he questioned Steam's assumed dominance.

"Be careful wishing there is only one distribution platform. You want these guys competing, because what will happen is if you don't have alternatives, is that you do not want to have one distributor to lean on you to give them specials, or special pricing just for them. Because then your options as a game developer go down."

The Strategy Strategy
"First-person shooters are not dominating the PC market," said Wardell in defense of his company's preferred genre. "You'd think that strategy games are a niche. They're not. Civilization IV would kick the butt of almost every FPS in terms of actual sales."

Before Sins of a Solar Empire was released, publishers argued that the concept was too hardcore to be successful--that a real-time game set in space wasn't viable.

"The said, 'If there was a market for this, they would be making a Homeworld 3.'"

Wardell let Sins' subsequent sales numbers speak for themselves.

Whois Hardcore PC Gamers
To help fellow developers understand the modern market for hardcore PC games, Wardell listed a series of traits defining the average hardcore PC gamer.

"[Hardcore PC development] is not good if you want to pick up chicks," he began, with the slide stating that the market is roughly 90% male.

"In fact, are there any women in here? One, two," Wardell began counting, until he realized he had just counted Stardock public relations manager Stephanie Schopp. "Wait a second, you're our PR person! Seriously, are there only three?"

Wardell quickly changed the Powerpoint slide to read "98% male," receiving plenty of laughs from the manly room.

The average hardcore gamer is also over the age of 25, which Wardell believes can translate into a lower-than-average piracy rate.

"The piracy rate with hardcore gamers, believe it or not, tends to be less," he said. "The reality is that people who are 25 or older don't [mind paying for games], because they have what are called 'jobs.'"

The Beta Test Redemption
According to Wardell, the average hardcore gamer is also more prone to appreciate single-player titles.

"I happen to be a Steam fan," he said, pointing to Steam statistics as valuable resource in determining market trends--in this case, whether multiplayer games are dominating numbers-wise.

"As it turns out, multiplayer is not as hot of a thing as we thought. Of people who are into strategy games, they tend to want to have that single player experience, which is kind of nice."

Finally, Wardell zeroed in on the community-oriented nature of hardcore PC gamers as an example of its strength. Community modding and player feedback are resources that developers should use to enhance their games, he argued.

Wardell used the beta version of Sins of a Solar Empire as a prime example, stating that the choice to make metal a finite resource nearly ruined the game in its early state--before fans quickly expressed displeasure.

"No full-priced Stardock game has ever gotten a metascore less than 85. And one of the reason for that is that we have these long-gestation betas, where the game starts out a piece of crap, and by the time we get through that it turns out beautiful."

"It's like in [the film] The Shawshank Redemption," he concluded. "He's crawling through the sewer, and by the end he's clean."

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