It was mid-October when I pulled up to an unassuming two story, suburban office building, not entirely sure what to expect. Today was the day for eXplorminate to venture into “meatspace.” Thanks to a series of fortunate coincidences, I had the distinct pleasure of paying Stardock’s Michigan-based office a house call. Company head Brad Wardell, who we last interviewed over a year ago, agreed to meet with us and share the inner workings of the studio as well as a glimpse into Stardock’s current game projects.
Having now met Brad in person, my overarching impression of him is highly influenced by how passionate he is about the studio’s work. While quite candid about his company’s successes and struggles, a general aura of excitement flowed out of him as he led me around the studio on a brief tour. “Here’s our break room with the fitness stations,” he explained. “Here’s the team working on Star Control: Origins! Here’s a chart of our local star cluster (real space) right outside my office door! Let me take you downstairs to check out the team cranking away on Galactic Civilizations 3!” His excitement was immediately contagious.
During the tour, Brad elaborated on something I’ve heard him talk about before – DLC. Brad explained how the “old model” of development studios hiring and laying off programmers and artists as projects come and go was unfortunate. While people often complain about DLC, it nonetheless provides a way to keep teams involved and a way to continue paying salaries. “No one here is getting rich off DLC sales – but it pays the bills and helps keep people employed,” Brad explained. He lamented that the gaming audience doesn’t always see that side of things.
After the tour, we worked our way back to Brad’s office to dig into the interview proper.
Game Development Roots
I enjoy hearing about where people are coming from, so I started by asking Brad to share a little about his background and what got him into making games in the first place., Brad has always had an interest in the “tech” side of game development, unsurprising to those who have followed him in the industry. He talked about his background in electrical engineering, remarking that he was originally on track to be a “hardware guy.”
“But timing matters,” he said, pointing out that he got into gaming at a critical time when there was an explosion in the kinds of games being made. Civilization had a big impact on him. “I was impressed with how games could appeal to your imagination.” He rattled off a list of games likely familiar to long-time gamers: SimCity, Civilization, Wing Commander, Star Control. These were games, Brad said, that can “open up whole new worlds.”
Brad talked about his interest in OS/2 (the operating system) at the time – and how that interest coupled with a vision of creating a game about building a civilization in space. That ambition would culminate in the first Galactic Civilizations game, released on OS/2 back in 1993. Much of Stardock’s early years were coupled to OS/2 related development, until the company’s game development and other product lines switched over to Windows in the early 2000s. GalCiv1 was ported to Windows in 2003, and Galactic Civilizations II was released in 2006.
But Brad was already thinking ahead during those early days. “Someday we’ll have 32-bit games, and multi-threaded games,” he explained while also talking about his desire to make powerful AI processing that could be handled in the background.
I asked Brad what he thinks stands out about Stardock, its mission, or its approach that sets it apart in the industry. Brad said that the “tech” was always at the center of the business. “Cool new tech comes out, and we want to do something neat with it – what can we do that no one else has done?” Brad cited the AI for Galactic Civilizations being a case in point. “We like to do stuff with emergent gameplay and without relying on scripted events. You need to take advantage of the technology to do that.”
Galactic Civilizations 3
I steered the conversation towards Galactic Civilizations 3, noting that it’s a flagship title for Stardock and is getting renewed attention with the recent Crusade expansion. The game has seen a “total turnaround” from where it was a year ago, during a period where Brad said he felt like he was “trolling his own game.” At launch, GalCiv3 drew criticism for being “just a reskin of GalCiv2” and Brad wanted to change that impression and get more involved with the game himself.
I asked specifically why he thought Crusade was having such a big impact. “The original team is still working on GalCiv3, but there was a lot of hesitancy to change things up too much. The original mantra for GalCiv3 was to make it a new game, using a 64-bit multi-core engine, and build on it for years and years in order to make it more and more rich and alive. But when it shipped it was like GalCiv2, just prettier.”
“Stellaris came out and just sort of kicked our ass. But I think that was good for the team. And I don’t see these two games as direct competitors though – one is turn-based and one is real-time. I think Sins of a Solar Empire is more of a competitor for Stellaris. Some people find turn-based games too boring – and others find real-time pace too erratic. Getting the pacing and feel right in a turn-based game is hard, as you can’t just slow up or slow down the speed depending on what’s going on.”
“So, we went back and said ‘what are things we can do to take advantage of the tech?’ When we did Crusade…Part of our big advantage is that it’s turn-based, a 64-bit game, and therefore we can have the complexity in the game that the AI can handle. A lot of my time has been spent getting the A.I. to act intelligently. At launch, GalCiv3 was a case where you know who’s going to win within the first 100 turns. It isn’t just an AI problem, but a problem that pops up in the design of 4X games.” Brad wanted to change this.
At this point in the conversation, I raised the topic of closing exploits in the A.I.’s behavior. Brad’s response was illuminating. “The funny thing is that we fixed those exploits and then got nuked in the Steam reviews. When you look at the recent reviews it’s people complaining about their exploits being shut down. Players used to be able to make ships that move 75 spaces per turn – well, they weren’t supposed to be able to do that.”
“People used to be able to beat the game on godlike difficulty – and now they’re getting crushed. They can’t win with the exploit tactics for infinite money or godships and are getting frustrated. Unfortunately, most people don’t realize that their negative reviews can make a game invisible on Steam so that it doesn’t show up in certain searches. I realize they are criticizing it because maybe they love the game – but they’re also helping to kill the game by leaving negative reviews.”
Next, I wanted to try and frame GalCiv3, and its future, in a broader context. I pointed out that there have been a lot of space 4X games in the past few years, and many more still in development. I asked Brad what we thought about that.
“My weekends have been a lot more fun. Something people don’t realize is that a lot of game developers aren’t like other industries where we view each other as competitors. We have very friendly relationships. We all get into each other’s betas and test things out and get excited for each other’s games.”
“This is a golden time, and it’s a huge vindication for us. Not just for Stardock or Paradox or Amplitude. We were all being told by potential investors that our genre was dead. But our community and our fans have been there. People are on Steam playing these games, and look at the growth – even just with eXplorminate.”
When it comes to GalCiv3, Brad gets excited. “Our goal is to simulate the universe. We have another major expansion that is far along – but there are whole swaths of the universe simulation that are criminally undeveloped.” I asked if he had any examples. “There are some things that I want in the game right now. Like politics. We make the game Political Machine for crying out loud but we don’t have politics in GalCiv3? Or how come we haven’t solved the giant empire problem? Managing 70 or 100 planets isn’t fun.”
“One thing Stellaris did was try to create some internal politics. Paradox is usually really good at this kind of stuff too. Like in Europa Universalis when you get too big for your britches you end up with revolutions and they break off. But then you become allies because you have similar cultures. It’s interesting stuff. This is an area that more 4X games should be pursuing.”
“One of the problems is that 4X games eventually become a grind. GalCiv3 tries to solve this with the citizen system. If you have the resources, late-game, you can use your resources to promote these citizens into having crazy abilities. People might say they are ridiculous abilities. My perspective is that IF you have the resources to get the promotions, you’ve already won anyway. So why not give the player a bunch of cool new stuff to use and bring the game to close more quickly?”
I mentioned that it would be nice to see multiple A.I.s coordinate better with (or against) the player in the late game. Brad responded that the A.I. already does this in GalCiv3. “But, there is no way for the player to ask the A.I. to make these same decisions – so that’s a direction we need to go. But, more broadly, we still haven’t touched on culture, or dealing with alien species on different planets, or game mechanics for populating different planets or terraforming.” Clearly there is still a lot on Brad’s mind.
Brad switched gears and asked a question of me: “I’d love to hear what eXplorminate readers think about this: So we have GalCiv3 up to 2.5 patch – then we have Brad’s ‘reign of terror’ with Crusade and the 2.6 patch. The question now is, should we be moving towards GalCiv4 or keep going with GalCiv3? There are a lot of people that played GalCiv3 at launch and no matter what we do they won’t come back to it. So what do we do? After the next expansion pack – what do we do?”
I admit, I didn’t have an compelling answer. We went back and forth a bit on what types of changes would trigger the shift to a new base game. To Brad’s question: what do you, dear reader, think? Leave a response in the comment section of this article. We’d all love to know your thoughts.
Brad got really excited talking about his ideas for a new way to structure the galaxy map. “Most games use a linear zoom as you go from the planet or system level up to the galaxy – but for real space you need an ‘exponential zoom’ to capture these big changes in scale. Changing the map to work that way would be a huge shift and would seem to justify a new base game.” We both acknowledged that it’s a tricky situation to be in.
Star Control: Origins
Stardock has been working on Star Control: Origins for a while now, and Brad acknowledged that most of the Stardock team was currently working on it. I hadn’t paid very close attention to what the game was all about, but having played Star Control (the first one) on my Sega Genesis back in the day, I was curious. Brad started off by showing me the now-released gameplay trailer. Afterwards, I asked Brad what it was about Star Control: Origins that has him most excited.
“By far it is the living universe part of the game. The game uses the Nitrous Engine (from Ashes of the Singularity), and so it can have 100,000 different things doing their own thing in the universe without draining your framerate. Imagine Sid Meier’s Pirates – you’re leading your own story ‘about you’ but there is life going on all around you. That’s what what Star Control: Origins is about. There are refugees, merchants, travelers, pirates all doing their own thing. The gameplay is all about ‘you’ – but the universe itself is not about the player per se. It’s a sandbox with infinite side quests that come out of this living universe.”
“The other thing is that all of the universe is crafted in-game. Ultimately, users will be able to use the game to build their own narrative worlds and stories. Imagine being able to build your favorite sci-fi universe, all in-game.” Brad pulled up one of the opening menu screens to a section where you pick ‘your universe’ to start in. Brad explained that the Star Control: Origins universe is just that, a starting point for accessing, eventually, all these other universes. How incredibly meta, I thought.
“We can’t have this game be something that people play once and drop. We want players getting involved with building their own universes to share. We don’t want to spend years working on a game and have just 200 people playing it a year later. Look at Skyrim and how modding has made those types of games such a success.” Brad opens up SteamSpy and points out that Skyrim still has 14,000 active users as we speak.
“Players will be able to build everything in-game: ships, aliens, planets, factions, galaxies – using our procedural generation technology. Think about how much fun people had creating things in Spore with the creature creator. We want to make the act of creation to be a fun and rewarding game unto itself. So the tools have to be fun and easy to use.”
I mentioned that there was a recent announcement about the original Star Control developers creating a third title in the series. I was curious what that meant for Star Control: Origins. “We’ve been talking with the original developers for over four years, and we’ve reached an agreement with all the various parties. Their request was basically ‘don’t Star Control 3 us – let us (the original devs) make the next installment in the series.’ That in turn set the direction for Origins being a prequel of sorts. All in all, we’re in a good place and everyone is excited about how both projects are advancing.”
Sins of Solar Empire
Before we came back from the vast reaches of outer space, I had to ask about whether or not a Sins of a Solar Empire 2 is happening. Brad was quite candid: “Nothing I can announce today, but we are talking to Ironclad (the Sins developer) regularly – that’s all I can say.” I’ll take that as a positive!
Sorcerer King & Elemental Universe
When eXplorminate last spoke with Brad nearly a year ago (September 2016), he was working on the Rivals expansion for Sorcerer King. I was keen to know how Brad felt about the impact Rivals had on the game’s performance as well as its future prospects, if any. Many are quite enamored with Sorcerer King’s unique, asymmetric gameplay, and I wanted to know if we could expect anything more from that title in the future.
“I like Sorcerer King – but the blending of 4X and RPG is just too hard to market. Lots of people bought it thinking it was more like Fallen Enchantress (FE). FE still outsells SK, even today. SK is really more of an RPG with 4X elements, and a lot of people read that wrong.” Brad went on to say that given the sales, prospects don’t look good for continued work on SK.
Brad continued to talk about the game’s marketing woes: “We didn’t want to call SK anything with the name “Fallen” in it.” Since it was set in the Fallen Enchantress universe, that normally would make sense. But he elaborated: “We’ve been talking to Derek Paxton, who is the maker of the Fall from Heaven mod for Civ 4, for a while. Given that, we don’t want to pursue a new fantasy 4X with “fall” in the title.” Clearly that isn’t a confirmation of anything, but interesting nonetheless.
I asked Brad outright if we should expect anything else in the fantasy 4X genre. He explained that it is an even tougher niche within the 4X market. “Outside of Endless Legend, the numbers for fantasy 4X just aren’t that promising. Is Endless Legend the outlier or the norm? Fantasy games are a lot more expensive to make because of all the animation and organic models – so it takes even more sales to support them. Sins of Solar Empire has collectively sold over 5 million units – and only about a million of those are through Steam. Sorcerer King has only sold about 30,000 units by comparison.”
4X Genre: The Future
I was curious to know if this challenge extended to other, perhaps untapped themes for 4X games. What about apocalyptic 4X games, or a zombie 4X game. I asked Brad if he had any “dream” settings for a 4X game. “I still see a strong market for historical 4X games. But the challenge is that every game sold on Steam today has to compete against nearly every other game ever made. Ashes of the Singularity has to compete for sales with Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance – and on any given day, Forged Alliance is still outselling Ashes. Of course the price point is lower and the graphics are ‘good enough. Ultimately, Stardock tries to be an innovator with giving games a long shelf life. Paradox is definitely a company to watch in terms of long life-support as well. Although their engine is getting around 14-years old now.”
I remarked that the 4X genre has been going through a renaissance period, and it seemed the past 4-5 years have seen many more big releases from bigger publishers than any other prior time. Thinking about the genre as a whole, I asked Brad what he felt was missing from the design of 4X games today. Brad’s response was interesting.
“We developers kinda suck. It’s almost embarrassing. There is ‘what we want to do’ in games and then there is ‘what we’re able to do’ given the size of the market. I was as guilty as anyone for thinking the 4X market was dead – I should’ve believed that it was still there.”
“The good news is that we can translate that shame into action. What happens when the ‘board’ that you play a 4X game on becomes a fully simulated real world or universe with a deeper AI and a more engaging UI? Think about how much tooltips have clarified mechanics for how 4X games are played. The GalCiv3 icon is more pixels than the 320×200 resolution monitors of the past, where there was just no way to have all the UI elements we see today. Overall, I’d like to see a real historical 4X game that is truly deep and exists on top of a simulated, fully alive universe.” Brad mentioned, again, his excitement about Distant Worlds and how it comes close to simulating a detailed, alive universe. But he wasn’t done yet.
“Why has nobody made a successor to Master of Magic or Master of Orion? Even then, it was important that when you took over an enemy planet or culture you had deal with their population. This was a core mechanic back in a lot of older games – we need more of that. We have a lot of ideas for GalCiv4. I think emergent endings will be the next big thing for 4X games. Right now we have these fixed win conditions – but if you had it where there are lots of different win conditions for different factions or races it could be a lot more interesting.”
As our interview started to wind down, I threw a few more questions his way. I was curious if he had any advice to give to someone looking to get into programming or game development. “If you want to learn how games are made,” Brad explained, “Unity is a good path. There are a lot of good tools and resources and you learn a good language, C#, in the process.”
I asked about degree programs. “Go with computer science,” he said without hesitation. “Don’t get a game design degree – I get tons of interesting designs all the time but so many just aren’t at all feasible to build from a programming standpoint. People don’t always get how it works. We get suggestions all time for fixing our games – people say ‘all you need to do is A, B, or C.’ Well, they don’t realize that a simple ‘do A’ might take a year to implement.”
I asked, of all the games that Stardock has been involved in, which one has been Brad’s favorite. “Our strength,” he said, “is that our engines are good at procedurally generating things. So we tend to design around our strengths. Star Control: Origins is the most exciting for me. It’s the first time we really get to indulge in everything our engine can do. With Ashes and GalCiv3, we we’re making the new engine and the game at the same time. Now we really get to just exploit the engine we built because we don’t have to spend 75% of our time making the engine – it can all go into the game instead.”
I closed by asking Brad what he has been playing lately and what stands out to him. He jumped to respond: “I really do like Distant Worlds.I still like Civilization V quite a bit too, and Factorio is amazing. The guy who programmed that must be a genius.”
And with that – we wrapped things up.
I want to thank Brad Wardell, on behalf of eXplorminate, for taking the time to meet with us and answer so many of our questions. There is clearly quite a bit going on at Stardock and more to come. Stay tuned.