Stardock Interview Part 2: Brad Wardell on PC Gaming

The first part of my interview with Stardock CEO Brad Wardell covered his company's upcoming strategy game Elemental, but it wasn't long before the conversation turned toward topics of a more general PC gaming-nature.

What does the Sins of a Solar Empire publisher think about the long-term viability of PC strategy games? Do PC sales charts actually matter? Why isn't Microsoft doing more to help the platform? And who buys PC games these days, anyway? All of these questions--and more!--are answered below. nope

Shack: It's great that you guys are able to make games like Sins and Elemental on a profitable basis. I think the perception out there is that complex strategy games--even if they're made to be approachable--don't sell. I'm a big fan of Civilization IV--

Brad Wardell: Which sold really well. Civ IV sold extremely well.

Shack: Yeah, right. But I am a little concerned that we won't see as many quality PC strategy games of that scope in the future, at least in the West. That the further we go...

Brad Wardell: ...the more dumbed down the games will get? Yeah. I don't know why that is though, because the sales don't... people said that about Sins of a Solar Empire. When Sins came out, there had been hardly any coverage on it, except Shacknews and a few other places covered it. But outside there, nobody wanted to talk about it, because they were saying, "Look, this is a niche game."

A lot of people keep predicting digital distribution is going to kill off retail, and that's not going to happen any time soon.
I would even see my own friends in the press--and I don't have much of a social life, so people in the press are my friends--actually refer to Sins of a Solar Empire as a niche game. And I'm like, it's probably one of the best-selling PC games of the last couple years. We're not talking about some game that sold 20,000 copies. We're talking about a game that's approaching a million full-priced units sold. How can you call that niche?

And Sins is about as un-dumbed down as it gets. If you want to play that in multiplayer, that's a two hour game, minimum. And Sins of a Solar Empire actually outsells Demigod pretty well at retail, even though Demigod is selling pretty well. But people that want to play these straight core games tend to play on the console. If I want to play on a PC, I want a mouse.

Shack: Right. And I think you have to take advantage of the PC's strengths. Elemental's extreme zoom is a good example of that. That's instantly attractive to a PC gamer, and it's something native to the platform.

Brad Wardell: Yeah, it facilities something that... Galactic Civilizations II had it in 2006, Supreme Commander had it in 2007, Sins had it in 2008. And it makes a big difference--it's something you can't do on a console yet.

Shack: Do you think that one of the reasons why your friends underestimate a game like Sins is that there's such a vague quality to PC sales charts?

Brad Wardell: That's because everybody lies about their numbers. It's really painful. I mean, on Galactic Civlizations II, we made an OEM deal where ATI or Nivida--I don't remember now--where it was like 10 cents per copy. Well on paper, we sold six billion copies of GalCiv. We don't use that, but you can bet your behind that if you opened up PC Gamer, you'd read "such and such a game sold nine million copies." No. No it didn't. Users want to know how many copies, either digitally or at retail, at full-price, at $40 or $50. You can never get those numbers.

Shack: And how do you solve that problem, especially going into a world where there are competing digital retailers?

Brad Wardell: You can't. There's no easy way to do it. I love Amazon.com, and this is not meant as a criticism, but I've seen places using Amazon.com's numbers. Well, I happen to know those numbers, because we've been number one on there. Number one on Amazon.com means you sold a hundred copies that day. Whereas Walmart or Best Buy might sell 20,000 copies of your game a week. Maybe you should call Walmart on their stats.

That was really painful. In the early days, when Galactic Civilizations II first shipped, it never showed up on the top ten lists. But we were at Walmart. We're number one at Walmart, where you're selling 10,000 copies a week. Whereas at store X, being number one might be selling ten copies.

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Shack: How much of the PC audience do you think is that guy who doesn't play a lot of games very often, but who walks into Walmart, looks at the back of a box, and walks out with a game once a month?

If Games for Windows Live maintains that strategy and they take over, I'm done. I'm not making PC games.

Brad Wardell: It's a lot. A lot of people keep predicting digital distribution is going to kill off retail, and that's not going to happen any time soon. Retail sales are still gigantic. Demigod has sold more copies at Walmart than anywhere else. Even though it's on Impulse--right now we have a sale this week, you can get Demigod for $20. But I guarantee you that Walmart sold more copies this week than we did, even though we sold thousands and thousands of copies this week.

Shack: How do you approach that situation? How do you target a game to that anonymous Walmart shopper?

Brad Wardell: Keep the box simple and explain what it does. Not dumb it down, but you'd be surprised how many of these games don't simply say: This is a strategy game. If people look at the Galactic Civilizations box, it simply says: This is a turn-based strategy game.

Shack: Do you have a sense for how many of those same people get frustrated by the PC as a platform? Do you think that overall, most people at this point are playing PC games without as much trouble as they have in the past?

Brad Wardell: It's gotten a lot better over the last year. I want to be clear, because I visit Shack and I read the comments--I am not saying the Gamers' Bill of Rights is the main reason for that change. But the awareness of things like the Gamers' Bill of Rights has already changed the industry considerably.

About a year ago, it was pretty common to buy a game and you would install three times and you couldn't install anymore. Now one year has passed and an increasing number of games aren't doing that anymore. Look at the difference between what EA or THQ [are doing]--it's changed. I think that's because there is a recognition that what Stardock has done is not because we are a bunch of Kumbaya guys or something, but because, if you treat your customers as criminals, you're going to lose them. Because they can go buy a console game and know it's going to work.

We obviously did not intend for Demigod to have the multiplayer issues it had, but on the other hand it was a silver lining in that we got to demonstrate the power and importance of letting people return the game for a full refund regardless of where they buy it. That means those people stay your customers.

What people don't realize is, a lot of PC gamers, they buy a lot more than one game. We've had a lot of people that re-bought the game, but we've looked and seen, "Why do people preorder Elemental?" And you can bet that if they had bought Demigod back in April when multiplayer was all screwed up, and they couldn't get back that refund, they're done. They're never buying anything from us again. And I think that's one of the things you're going to see, and you're already seeing, just, "Oh, yes. There's economic business justification for treating your customers better. It's not that Stardock is just a bunch of hippies or something. It's that they are just adhering to a good business strategy." There is a reason why the old phrase "the customer is always right" has been with us all these years.

Shack: Do you know why Microsoft isn't showing more leadership on the platform?

Brad Wardell: I don't know. I started out as a big Games for Windows Live advocate. I intended for Elemental to be on Games for Windows Live, but then as we got closer, the Xbox group took it over more and more. And they have things where, oh, if you want to use Games for Windows Live to update your game, you have to go through [their] certification. And if you do it more than X number of times, you have to pay money. It's like, "My friends, you can't do that on the PC."

[ed- Microsoft refutes this point, saying that "we do not charge or have never charged for TU updates, not since GFW-LIVE was launched 3 years ago."]

On the console, I don't have to update my game because an anti-virus program got an update and is now identifying my VB scripts as viruses and I have to apply an emergency patch. That would just add insult to injury. We've had to upgrade our games plenty of times over the years, not because we found some bug, but because some third-party program, or driver, or whatever screwed it up. If Games for Windows Live maintains that strategy and they take over, I'm done. I'm not making PC games. I would be done.

Shack: Do you wish there was a dominant force out there, beit Microsoft or something else?

Brad Wardell: I wish Microsoft would do a lot more in making the PC better as a gaming platform. For example, the Demigod fiasco with the multiplayer should never have happened. Developers on the PC should not have to license a third-party NAT facilitator. If I was making a game for the Xbox, I get that for free. But on the PC, some of us have to become network experts. I didn't sign on to become some sort of IT network guy. And I would love if Microsoft would make these servers available--and they do under Games for Windows Live--without having all these strings attached.

Shack: It seems like the laptop market is growing in comparison to the desktop market. You can certainly game on a laptop, but overall it's a platform less conducive to traditional, in-depth PC games. Are you concerned about that shift?

Brad Wardell: Not really. I don't think--well first of all, you can't always worry about the percents. The question is can you make a game profitably in the market you want to develop in. A lot of people focus on, "Oh no, the percent of the market that plays PC games is shrinking." That's probably true, but in absolute numbers it's still growing pretty good. What people don't realize is that traditionally the consoles had a huge part of the market, but there was a window there in the 90s where the console market just collapsed. All we've seen now in the last few years is that the console market has returned to where it was in the 80s and the 70s.

In the 80s, other than maybe the Commodore 64, it was pretty much a Nintendo/Atari world. And then it all fell apart, and in the 90s the PC took over for a while, and now it's back. So there's plenty of market for the PC. Look at Sins of a Solar Empire. There's clearly a market for these high-def PC games.

Shack: Thanks Brad.