From developer to distributor to incubator - that's the general path Stardock has taken in recent years. The studio known for the Galactic Civilizations series at one point in time thought it had what it took to challenge Valve's Steam platform in the distribution arena, but in 2011 Stardock sold off its Impulse platform to retailer GameStop. In the years since, Stardock has aimed to take its sale proceeds and profits and reinvest them into games development.
Five years had passed since Stardock released an internally developed title, but just last week the studio launched Galactic Civilizations III on Steam. Moreover, Stardock is now working with a number of independent studios led by veteran talent like Bruce Shelley (formerly of Ensemble) at BonusXP, Soren Johnson (Civilization IV designer) at Mohawk, and more.
"[Our approach] has allowed us to bring together the best and the brightest from the industry to have them working together," Stardock boss Brad Wardell told GamesIndustry.biz.
Essentially, what Stardock is aiming to do is get smaller game companies to share resources and help one another, to get away from the notion that you need to build up a huge studio, crunch on a project, ship a game and then endure staff cuts, as so often happens on larger projects in the games business. Stardock will also help out developers with important minutia necessary to running a studio that creatives might neglect or not know how to handle.
"I think the old publishing model has died, where it's just a bunch of suits and they're doing marketing. It's changed dramatically. The publisher of the future is really [a] whole partner"
"Why do most of these start ups fail? Well, because they may be great engineers or artists or designers, but they may not be the right person to run a business... We have a professional employment organization that's underneath all these different entities. So it takes care of everything like their accounting and their bookkeeping and having, effectively, a CFO to handle the business side," Wardell continued.
"Even things like 401Ks. How many times have you heard of some start up and they're, like, 'oh god, we forgot to set up the 401K' or insurance? It's all boring stuff, but you can't go and get the best talent, people who have families and stuff and go, 'oh, yeah, our insurance, we forgot to sign up, we didn't understand how it worked.' So with this, everyone has that important but take-it-for-granted stuff set up."
At the end of a project, an artist or designer on one project is free to help out with another project in the works at a different studio Stardock is assisting. It's this camaraderie and atmosphere of sharing talent and resources that Wardell believes will enable Stardock to jump forward in the PC publishing space.
"Up until now, Stardock has been niche; we've made some 4X Strategy games, but over the next two years, we're going to become one of the top PC game publishers in the industry in terms of raw dollars," he remarked.
"Collecting together these amazing developers where they can work together and make what they've been wanting to make will result in not just a large number of games, but games that are very, very high quality. That's our strategy... And in the next year we release six new IPs with our partners."
While Stardock is helping studios get their games published, the company doesn't view itself explicitly as a publisher at all. Wardell sees the Stardock model as a new paradigm. The lines between developer and publisher are blurring.
"The industry is littered with games made by people who didn't think they needed a publisher. You need the right publisher. You need someone who understands your game, having a publisher that also develops their own games," he said. "So, when they're talking to Stardock, our team, we write code, we understand what they're doing from a technical point of view so we can see things...and we can help them. We can work with them; if they're like, 'oh I wish we had more artists,' well, we have artists because we have our own development teams. So I think the old publishing model has died, where it's just a bunch of suits and they're doing marketing. It's changed dramatically. The publisher of the future is really [a] whole partner."
He continued, "And we don't want to get into the business of, we're just a publisher where you bring us your game, we publish it, that's it. What we're looking at is, we want an equal system of independent studios we work with. These are artists we work with. The old model like Electronic Arts, Activision or Take-Two, they just own the studio. I don't like that system. I've never liked it. Our model is, these guys are independent. They benefit. Their game is successful, their team becomes successful and they have a lot more control."
"Mobile development is a lottery. It's not a business model that's sustainable"
Looking ahead, Stardock will definitely remain laser focused on the PC space, with Steam being the lead target. "At this point, we consider Steam the platform and Steamworks the API. So from our perspective, we don't look at it as Windows anymore, which is one of the things that I think is going to become a big deal over the next couple of years," Wardell noted.
A result of that could be paid-for mods. Despite recent controversy over the way Valve and Bethesda handled paid mods for Skyrim, many still believe that paid mods are inevitable.
"There will be all kinds of companies that exist that make nothing but mods professionally because they will use the Steamworks API to make content for other games. And there will be multi-million dollar companies doing just that," Wardell said.
And for his money, Wardell still believes PC is the best bet for developers with the least risk involved. Some core development moved to tablets, but it's come right back, Wardell observed. "I saw it go to tablet, and now it's coming back... Mobile development is a lottery. It's not a business model that's sustainable," he said.