This interview with Brad Wardell of Stardock, designer of Galactic Civilizations and publisher of Sins of a Solar Empire and Sorceror King, took place as part of the DevGame course on March 4, 2016:
VD: Today we're talking with Brad Wardell. He is the founder and CEO of Stardock. He is one of the industry's leading designers of what we call 4X strategy games, which I will let him explain what they are. He is the designer of the Galactic Civilizations series and the publisher of Sins of a Solar Empire. He has also worked with our old friend Chris Taylor on Demigod and his latest game is Sorcerer King.
Brad: Hi, glad to be here.
VD: First of all, I want to point out that Brad is an excellent designer. I've got several of his games. I've played both Galactic Civilizations II and Sins of a Solar Empire, which PC Gamer just last week recently named two of the 25 all-time top strategy games. Brad, congratulations for that.
Brad: Ah, thanks.
VD: Now what exactly is a 4X strategy game? Why has that become a category in its own right?
Brad: A 4X game follows a very specific pattern. If you think of chess, or any number of common strategy genres, they all have their own style. 4X has a very specific style which stands for eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate. So the beginning of the 4X is always about starting with very little, you grow into something, you find your opponents and then you use what you have to try to beat them. There are a lot of other terms for them, such as “empire builders”, for example, but overall 4X has come to mean a specific strategy genre that includes not just Galactic Civilizations, but Master of Orion, Civilization, and various other titles.
VD: Now, we have studied the history of games throughout the course, so I'm interested in knowing which strategy games were most influential on you in developing Galactic Civilizations.
Brad: Well, clearly Civilization. When I did Galactic Civilizations, I was still in college and very naïve on IP laws, clearly. It was a different time in 1992, and I wanted something like Civilization, but in space. So, I came up with the radical name of Galactic Civilizations. That, obviously, had a pretty tremendous impact on the initial start up of the game. And over the past 20 years, numerous other titles have had influences here and there on the development of the series.
VD: You and I are pretty close in age, so what were some of the strategy games that you were playing back in 1992?
Brad: There was Spaceward Ho, certainly Empire.
VD: Were you ever into the board-and-counter wargames or were you more of a computer strategy guy?
Brad: There was always Risk, but back in those days when I would be playing a non-computer game it was usually Dungeons & Dragons.
VD: So you're more of a role-playing game guy rather than a war gamer?
Brad: Yeah. I'm less into the Panzer General sort of thing, I like history and all, but I'm not into it just for fighting wars.
VD: So, getting outside the strategy genre, what were some of your favorite games when you were younger?
Brad: I would say Archon. This was the Commodore 64 era. There was Zork and the Ultima series. When I got to PC, it was Star Control and the Wing Commander series.
VD: What system did you usually play on?
Brad: Well I started on the Commodore 64. That was my first computer.When I got a PC in 1989, I got a 286 which was just a PC clone.. I'm trying to think of the very first games for the PC I might've played. It would've been an Ultima.
VD: How did you go from doing 4X strategy to designing business games like Business Tycoon and Entrepreneur? It's a little unusual to just hop into the business-type of games. What inspired you to do that? Was it your own experience as entrepreneur?
Brad: Running a business is often like a strategy game because you have very finite resources; you have competitors and you have to win "territories" in the form of physical geography or market share. So, it ironically just worked out that those kinds of games or those businesses lend themselves to turning into strategy games.
VD: You've moved from doing science fiction with Galactic Civilizations into doing 4X fantasy with Fallen Enchantress and Sorcerer King. What were some of the challenges that were involved in moving from science fiction to fantasy?
Brad: The biggest one for us was going from a space-based game like Galactic Civilizations II to a land-based game like Fallen Enchantress. Specifically, the terrain. You are dealing with the ground. And that turned out to be a huge challenge for us because we had never had to deal with it before. We had never really run up against things like video memory or the limitations of DirectX in terms of how to make a mountain. You think about it, of course, but how you make something like a mountain can be limiting based on DirectX, because there's only so many points you can put on there. So that turned out to be a huge hurdle for us, and that really bit us in the butt, because, at the time, we didn't do our homework on what we could and couldn't do with the current technology.
VD: Interesting. That's very timely because we're going to be getting into things like polygon count and so forth when we talk about art later today. Now, in the publishing world, the market for fantasy is considerably larger than the one for science fiction. Is that true in games as well, or do you find that science fiction usually outsells fantasy?
Brad: I read mostly science fiction myself. In the game arena, I would say science fiction tends to be a bit ahead of fantasy, only because the problem people run into with fantasy is that they think fantasy means medieval Europe with magic. And that's not a just a problem in terms of the designer's limits, it's more the expectations of the public. If you move too far outside the box, you are punished for it in the marketplace. Whereas in science fiction, you have a little bit more room to breathe.
VD: Speaking of moving outside the box, I was really fascinated to see how you took a crowdsourcing approach to the Sorcerer King quests. How did that work out, and what were some of the challenges that came about from doing it that way?
Brad: Yeah, that was a very fun and interesting experience. It is one that I would like to do again in the future because it worked out so well. Essentially, the problem we ran into came down to the budget. We are an independent developer, the team size for Sorcerer King was like six people, so it was pretty small. It had a relatively small budget, but we needed to have lots and lots of quests. So one of the ways to do that was to say, look, here's a tool, let's make quests, and we will hang out on Skype together and you send in your quests and I'll sort through them, and we will put them in the game then come up with some way to give goodies or some sort of reward in exchange. There was no competition because there was no budget for any of this.
VD: Right, but you are able to compensate them by in-game rewards and that sort of thing.
Brad: And there were credits, of course, as a lot of people are trying to build up their portfolios. But most the time, for most of them, it was obviously just for fun. What I'd like to do in the future - and I actually just came back from Valve where we discussed this - is that I'd like to see a system, an apprentice/journeyman/master system on Steam where novice developers can start selling their stuff and work their way up. It would be a marketplace that didn't only consist of premium stuff but rather, people worked their way towards that if they want to do something more than just casual modding. With that sort of marketplace for user-created content, I think players would end up with so much more content for their favorite games.
VD: That sounds similar to what we're doing where with DEVGAME. We've got six different dev intern teams in the group here as part of this course.
VD: So you've already answered my next question, which is how large your development teams are compared to the past. It sounds as if they are actually much the same size they used to be back in the day. What sort of range are your budgets these days?
Brad: It depends on the game. Sorcerer King was an unusually small project, but I would say on the minimum side, four developers are required. Every game you need an engineer, preferably two. You need at least a couple of artists to make the kind of games that we like to make. And on the high-end, you can get into over a dozen people but we don't have any games that involve dozens and dozens of people or anything like that.
VD: And how long are your development periods normally?
Brad: We try to aim for somewhere between 24 and 36 months.
VD: That long? I didn't realize that.
Brad: Yeah, we have games and development that won't ship until 2018.
VD: Wow, fantastic. Now, this is something that I'd like to ask every designer or producer, what do you consider to have been your best design or development decision, and what was your worst one?
Brad: The worst ones are always easier for me. I would say the best one was actually The Political Machine. The original Political Machine was supposed to be a game like You Don't Know Jack, which was a trivia game of some years ago.
VD: I remember that one.
Brad: The game was mostly political trivia.We were committed to ship this game at retail in June with Ubisoft, and a couple of months before, we were playing our internal beta and it was just not any fun. It was terrible. So at the last second, we redesigned the game into more of a strategy game, with each state being a territory that you had to capture for its electoral votes. We did all that right at the end and rewrote it in about a month. I don't recommend that as a good thing in general, but that was what saved that game.
On the bad side, Elemental from start to finish was just a disaster. That was the game that preceded Fallen Enchantress and people don't usually hear about it except for when people are trying to criticize me on the Internet. That was a project where we were so in love with all of the things that we wanted to do with the game. We wanted to do all this stuff, and we tried, but it turned out the engine just couldn't handle it. It wasn't even a matter of the hardware, it just turned out that DirectX could only have so many vertices and you could only do so much with it. We ran into all of these artificial problems because we had never dug deeply enough into DirectX at the time. At the end, we were chopping this project that was originally going to be a Master of Magic-style game into something that was nothing like what we intended to make, but was what we could get in there and still have the engine work with it.
VD: Yeah, I can imagine where that would be a problem. Sorcerer King is your most recent game and you have two more games coming out soon, can you tell us about those?
Brad: Sure. We shipped Galactic Civilizations III last May. Sorcerer King came out in July. Just this past week, we shipped Galactic Civilizations: Mercenaries and we released Political Machine 2016 last week too. So it's been a pretty busy few months. The next game on the line is Ashes of the Singularity. I'm out here in Maryland working on it until it ships. It's a massive real-time strategy game where you are dealing with thousands of units and you're trying to conquer a world. That is supposed to come out this spring. Also this spring is Offworld Trading Company where you start a company on Mars and are competing with other corporations for dominance of the Martian colony.
VD: Okay, cool. We will keep an eye out for those. Brad, thanks so much for stopping by DEVGAME. I really appreciate it, and we will look forward to speaking again with you soon.
Brad: I appreciate it. Thanks a lot!