What an Indie Publisher Wants

Stardock CEO Brad Wardell talks about what he's looking for in a game and why graphics do matter

In late February of this year, Stardock, which also runs the TotalGaming.net digital distribution service, launched Galactic Civilizations II. Critics and gamers alike welcomed the strategy game, as it sold 100,000 retail copies in North America in the first 90 days.

By comparison, the first Windows version of Galactic Civilizations (Wardell actually developed an OS/2 version in 1993) released in 2003 and sold 60,000 copies total in North America. Strategy First handled the publishing duties for that title.For GCII, Wardell decided that Stardock would publish the game itself. Once those in-house publishing components were in place, he thought that it just might make sense to keep those operations up and running, and publish outside games for other indies."With [GCII], we had to put together all of the infrastructure that a company needs in order to [publish a game]," Wardell said. "Developing a game is a completely different thing than actually getting everything together and making it available on the store shelves."When we released the game, we never really knew how we'd do. We'd never really self-published a game in a big way before. Since the game came out, it ended up selling really well. The manufacturing, marketing and distribution all came together, and we were able to get into a lot more channels than we thought we could ever get into initially."As time went on, Wardell decided that Stardock could serve as somewhat of a launch pad for indie developers. "We started realizing, you know, there are probably a lot of other good games out there that we could probably give this kind of attention to, and get them out to retail shelves and let them make the kinds of numbers that we're doing."Stardock's TotalGaming.net service provides the company with revenues from games and from software called WindowBlinds, which allows buyers to customize the appearance of Windows. The publishing arm will add additional game revenue between Stardock's own game releases, which only launch once every two or three years.Wardell plans to publish just one or two outside indie games per year, targeting the six-figure unit sales mark for each title.

He intends on keeping the business intimate."That's one thing that I can be clear on. We're not looking to become an EA or Take-Two, where we're releasing literally three games a quarter. We're looking to do one or two games per year, so we can give the games the same kind of attention we gave to Galactic Civilizations II."

Dragons vs. jets: not-so-muchAlthough Stardock just announced the publishing arm in late June, Wardell said that the company has already received an almost overwhelming amount of game submissions."I keep my ear to the ground, and I think that I know about all these games that are coming out, right? Man, there are a lot of games out there," he laughed. "We started getting inundated with all these piles of games that we didn't even know were in development. You get all kinds. It seems like every developer wants their game at retail, but a lot of games just don't make sense [for retail]. They're just too niche-y or people don't recognize that their games just aren't ready."While some of the submissions have potential, others are hampered by a lack of financial investment. "Currently, we're just going through all the submissions, and we have a couple that look pretty promising, but then it's just a matter of picking out how much financing certain ones need. Some guys just need some money to help finish the game.

"Then, you have the guys who just have ideas for games. ... [They say,] 'Yeah you know, someone should make a real-time strategy game where you have science-fiction versus fantasy--dragons versus jets. And if you'll give me $3 million I could make the greatest game ever.' It's amazing how many of those you get in a hurry."For the time being, Stardock's publishing arm is going to stick with what it knows best: strategy. Wardell said that he may eventually look into branching into the non-massively multiplayer Baldur's Gate-style RPG genre, as he feels both strategy and non-massive RPGs are underserved in the PC market compared to more popular genres such as FPS.

Ready for retailWardell and his company already have a few games in mind as first releases for its publishing operation. While he finds certain submissions intriguing, sometimes the games aren't graphically up to snuff. To a certain extent, this is where Stardock can step in, as the publisher-developer is building up its art resources."We're looking at a couple real-time strategy games that have been sent over, a turn-based one and a couple role-playing ones. The role-playing ones are a lot trickier, because you can look at some of these games and go, 'Wow, this is really good, but man, they didn't have any art budget.' You can take Baldur's Gate or your favorite role-playing game, but you take out the cool graphics, you lose so much. You have to try and look at it and go, 'If they had another $100,000 of artwork in this, [it could be better]."Take Oblivion, but instead of being first-person with really good graphics, make it overhead and [have it use] text. 'Hmmm, according to the text message I'm now a part of the thieve's guild.' [laughs]"Publishing a game for retail means that the game needs to be fit for retail, according to Wardell.  "If you're going into the store and buying a $40-$50 role-playing game, Oblivion's your benchmark, really. You can't go, 'Yeah, but this game is only made by three guys.' No one cares. ... The smaller games and the games that aren't ready for retail--not because they're not quality, but because they don't have the scope or mass market appeal--would be available through TotalGaming.net, which is probably where three-quarters of the submissions wind up."A or triple-A games are what we're doing at retail. We're not looking to go and put a Tetris type game at retail."

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