Acting on Impulse

Stardock CEO Brad Wardell talks publishing deals and the company's new Impulse Reactor platform

One of the more significant digital distribution platforms in the business is Stardock's Impulse - something which has grown a good deal in the past few years as it has signed up more and more key publishers. But the Galactic Civilisations developer recently unveiled its online platform toolkit - Impulse Reactor - which allows studios to add things like achievements and online multiplayer into their games.

Here, company CEO Brad Wardell explains more about the platform, and more about the link-up with Random House for a book deal for his next game.

Q: You recently announced a book publishing link-up with Random House tied into the forthcoming release of Elemental: War of Magic - how did that come about?

Brad Wardell: About a year ago, we began collaborating with Random House on a project where what they want to do is create universes that can manifest themselves in different media. What that means that is rather than a book being made on a game, or vice versa, instead you have a game that comes from that universe, or a book that comes from that universe.

I suspect that a lot of people don't necessarily enjoy reading a book that's based on a game, or the other way around - and that's why they call it 'transmedia' - we want to use Elemental as a template on how this can be done.

I already had a universe for Elemental sketched out, and then Random House assigned writers to work with me to take this universe and greatly expand it to be a much richer one. And from that we decided that we'd release a book that comes from this world, as well as the game which is underway - and we'll collaborate on both the book and the game as one team, so that you end up with a much better end result.

Q: I remember getting thoroughly immersed in Jedi Knight many years ago - a game set in the Star Wars universe, but nothing to do with the films.

Brad Wardell: In fact, the group at Random House are the ones that do the Star Wars books - and my editor is the one that works on the Legacy of the Force series, and that really was the inspiration to do this in the first place.

One of the things that we're excited about is that not only do you end up with a better book, and a better game, but they can also help each other from a business perspective as well - there'll be a book that comes out 30 days before the game is scheduled for release, and they can help each other sell.

It's a win-win - we do better, Random House does better and the people who are interested in this fantasy universe end up with a richer variety of content.

Q: So you were recently demonstrating some new tech at GDC this year - do you want to explain a little about that?

Brad Wardell: Yes - that's Impulse Reactor. Last year at GDC we unveiled what we called "GOO" - Game Object Obfuscation. Basically you 'goo' your programme, and it allows you to have some reasonable copy protection for your game - but it isn't obnoxious to the customer. Essentially it provides internet activation, but it's smart about it. Users don't only get five activations, or something, and does something intelligent instead. It doesn't care how many times you install it, per se, but if it gets installed five times a day, or in different countries, then it waves a red flag.

That was the first component - this year we're announcing the entire Impulse Reactor platform. The significance of this is that at present, if you're a game developer on the PC and you want to have multiplayer features, or accounts and achievements, there are very few options. Today, there's Gamespy, and the real up-and-comer has been SteamWorks.

Each method has its own strengths and weaknesses - the pros of Gamespy is that you get their source code and you can put it into your game, so there's a lot of potential customisation. The downside is that implementation time tends to be a little bit longer. With SteamWorks the pros are that it's relatively easy to implement, but you have to bundle Steam with your game - which while Steam's user base continues to grow, its actual market share is declining because of other players coming into the market.

That's becoming an increasing issue with publishers, who have been going to their developers and telling them they can't use SteamWorks, because if they do certain retailers or digital distributors won't carry the game. Call of Duty is the obvious exception, but other titles that have used SteamWorks have had some significant issues because they've been blocked from certain channels as a result.

What Impulse Reactor aims to do is give you the benefit of both - that's easy to implement (you can literally implement the core features in a day), but at the same time it puts itself as part of your process, so you don't have to include Impulse or anything like that.

We have it running for Elemental, and there's a total of 11 lines of code for everything we've been showing off in that game. You hit shift-tab to bring up the Impulse Reactor console, there's your avatar in the bottom left-hand corner, I can chat with other players of that game, and if there's an update it will tell me.

There's the friends list, achievements and if I want to play multiplayer the developer only has to pop-up a screen and it will bring up a client-server-based multiplayer system. You can still do peer-to-peer internally as your game, but we take care of all of the connectivity for you - plus the rankings, the smart match-making, and all that kind of thing.

They can also skin all that, because we're part of the process - unlike an external programme, like Steam, the developer can change the way that it looks very easily. The pushback from developers has been to ask, if they're not allowed to use Steamworks, what can they use? Because they want achievements, they want a way to be able to connect easily to other players. This is the alternative.

One of the more significant new things about Impulse Reactor that hasn't been done before is that when I use it, I don't have to create an Impulse account. That's been an issue with all the other services - you can use a Facebook or Twitter account with this, if you want to.

Q: Achievements are an interesting talking point - they've worked very well for Xbox Live and World of Warcraft, to name just two systems - but growing a whole new achievements community will be a challenge now.

Brad Wardell: Well, achievements are just one avenue in rewarding the player. There are so many opportunities, but they can only exist once all this stuff is implemented in a game. One of the problems with the existing platforms is that they either try to inject themselves into your experience - Games for Windows Live, for example. I'm in my war game, and all of a sudden you see this thing pop-up, which takes out of your experience.

In order for the user to enjoy the extra-game capabilities to really take off it needs to become more integrated with the game. Achievements just happen to be the easiest thing - but we can go so much further than that. You might play a shooter - play long enough and you could get extra weapons, and different games should have the flexibility to reward or encourage their players in different ways.

But that can be expensive to do, so what we're hoping to do with Impulse Reactor is that because the client is integrated into the game, it's not some external client we're calling, or importing source code, we can incorporate DLC and all kinds of interesting virtual storage features that the developer can make use of.

As a result it allows the developers, and their creativity and knowledge of their own game, to come up with less generic methods of rewarding. The reason why achievements are popular is because they're generic, and so easy to implement. The solution to that is to provide developers with the tools to make less generic reward systems.

Q: But then, another reason why achievements are popular is because it gives people a very straightforward way to compare their gaming progress - and prowess - with others.

Brad Wardell: I think that if each game is a little different... In Starcraft II, rankings obviously matter, but if I'm playing a roleplaying game, just because somebody has gone around and completed all the 'rats-in-the-basement' quests, that doesn't mean he deserves a better ranking than me. Every developer probably has their own idea on how to reward their players - and as developers who are trying provide platforms to the market, I think it's our job to make sure they can think of unique ways to reward their customers and make them glad they purchased that game.

There's a lot of talk about piracy in the last few years - well, piracy happens because the incentive to purchase a game is insufficient for some of those people who do pirate but could have bought it. Elemental's copy-protection scheme, through Impulse Reactor, means that people who bought the game will keep getting this free content, right into the game itself - not even having to leave the game and go download it from somewhere else.

That's not something we could have done before - we'd needed to have released a patch.

Q: How do you communicate those benefits prior to purchase? Because obviously you'll have needed to have bought the game to get them.

Brad Wardell: Well, it's up to the marketing to make it clear as to what the game does, but in terms of what's in the game, one of your tabs can literally be called "Free Stuff" which lights up - but if you didn't buy the game, you won't get access to it.

Brad Wardell is CEO of Stardock. Interview by Phil Elliott begin_of_the_skype_highlighting     end_of_the_skype_highlighting begin_of_the_skype_highlighting     end_of_the_skype_highlighting.

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