In recent weeks, Stardock has made a number of moves that point to a very different direction for the Michigan-based publisher-developer. In addition to announcing a new edition of their Galactic Civilization franchise, they have also helped fund and launch Civilization IV developer Soren Johnson’s new studio, Mohawk Games. They also helped found Oxide Games, a new developer that’s working on a 64-bit engine specially designed around strategy games.
It’s all driven by something called the “Stardock strategic investment fund”, which sounds a bit like something a supervillain would use to fund the construction of an underground bunker and cyborg research. It’s how Stardock are reinvesting the proceeds of the sale of their digital platform, Impulse, into repositioning the company as a more diverse publisher and a more professionalized developer. Given how ambitious Stardock CEO Brad Wardell’s plans for the company sound, however, the underground bunker may not be far behind.
To understand Stardock’s direction today, you have to understand what happened with Elemental: War of Magic. In many ways, Stardock is still shaped by that game’s disastrous launch.
Prior to Elemental, Stardock still very much styled itself a tiny indie developer, despite some major successes to its credit as a publisher and developer and a rapidly growing development studio. Brad Wardell oversaw everything, both on the game development side of the company and the software side, where Stardock has a lucrative business developing customization software for Windows. He was also one of the line developers, doing coding on his own projects in addition to trying to oversee them.
“Up to [War of Magic], my answer to problems was, ‘I’ll just work longer.’ People use 100 hours a week euphemistically; I meant it literally,” he says. “I had a day or two a week where I would work all-nighters as part of my regular schedule. After War of Magic, I was like, ‘This is horrible. I can’t work like this.’”
Nor could the studio. Elemental: War of Magic released to poor reviews and widespread condemnation of broken or absentee game features. It was the biggest failure in the studio’s history, and sharp notice that whatever Stardock was doing, it was no longer working.
“It was ignorance,” Wardell admits. “We’re located in Michigan. There are no game companies nearby. Everyone who worked here had never worked anywhere else. We had no idea what other game companies did. I would tour them, but I had no idea of their structure. There wasn’t a huge curiosity about it. But after War of Magic happened, I talked to my friends in the industry, and talked to Jon Shafer and Derek Paxton, and that’s when we decided to reorganize.”
Over the next year, Stardock completely changed direction. They sold off Impulse, abandoning their dreams of running a strong Steam-like digital distribution platform. They went to work salvaging Elemental while also overhauling the studio’s structure. The “big indie” style that had grown up over the 2000s gave way to a far more professionalized model.
“The reason we were so slow to make these changes was a lack of realization that we weren’t just some little indie anymore,” Wardell explains. “You see the same people day in, day out, it’s really hard to wake up and realize it’s not the same company anymore. It’s not 2000 anymore. In 2010 there were 60 of us, and we were still operating like we were ten people.”
The new Stardock is filled with industry-standard positions that simply did not exist in the old structure.
“I was forced to begin building a real management team, and that turned out to scale massively. We had a lot of untapped potential, because I was the bottleneck,” Wardell admits. “Starting with the game side, we brought in Derek [Paxton], and brought in producers. Entire layers of people whose jobs didn’t exist. We hired producers, leads, project managers. The same was true on the non-game side of the business. Now we have project managers, and team leads, and it results in a much more organized, much higher morale company. Ironically, it’s made us end up being a lot more profitable. We also hired a nutritionist and trainer, which turns out to have made a lot of people really happy.”