Brad Wardell Interview – Parallel Computing, Social Media, and the Comeback of RTS Games

I had the wonderful opportunity to pick the brain of Stardock’s president and CEO, Brad Wardell, at this year’s Game Developers Conference. Instead of focusing on just one topic, we jumped around through various things, which I hope provides for a fun and insightful read for you, dear reader.

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Myself and Brad, at GDC 2015

Niche Gamer: For those who don’t know what you do Brad, could you say how you’re involved with Stardock, and the games that you guys are putting out now?

Brad Wardell: Sure, we’ll I’ve got a lot hats these days, so I’m the president, founder and CEO of Stardock. I’m also the CEO of Oxide, which is Oxide Games, which is the studio making the Nitrous Engine and Ashes of the Singularity. I’m also the president of Mohawk Games, which is making Offworld Trading Company with Soren, so Soren and I are partners. We’re also publishing BonusXP, which are the Ensemble Studio guys who went and formed their own company and they’re making a new RTS called Servo.

How would you say the relationship between Stardock the parent company and all these separate entities function? Is it a symbiotic type relationship?

Yeah, one of our big messages has been that we’re all independent companies. My job in these companies is essentially a bean counter. It’s sad, I had big dreams of being a great coder, but I’m really good at doing financial stuff. So, my role there is to make sure everyone has what they need to have. So while they’re independent in that sense, from a talent point of view, there’s a lot of collaboration. I have an AI question, this came up recently, the new Galactic Civilizations game has gigantic galaxies. It’s a 64-bit game, no one had maps this big. That creates some interesting pathfinding issues that have never come up before.

How do you guys resolve these issues through collaboration?

So we all communicate through Skype as we’re all over the country in different time zones. We can go on there and talk about this, ‘how do we solve these problems?’ and ‘how should the AI build a fleet that can attack in a coordinated fashion, when they might be 300 or 400 tiles away?’ I have on hand the Civilization 1, 3, 4, 5; Galactic Civilizations, and the Age of Empires AI developers, we can all sit down and figure it out. It’s amazing.

Does each respective developer have full ownership of their IPs?

They do. Soren is the CEO of Mohawk, and Mohawk completely owns Offworld Trading Company. Stardock isn’t looking to bring on these other companies to take their IP. In the case of Mohawk, Offworld is owned by Mohawk. With Servo, BonusXP has ownership. Now in the case of Ashes [of the Singularity], Ashes is actually an outgrowth of a game called Society, which we’re still looking to make, so it’s a work for hire, so technically that is a Stardock IP.

This is going to be a tough question but which of your current offerings is your most favorite?

Oh gosh, that’s almost impossible to answer. I’ll tell you how they appeal to different sides of me. I was hoping to get into masters in this season of Starcraft, I’m a really heavy Starcraft player, although I didn’t get into masters. Servo appeals to that Starcraft side of me. One of the reasons why we were trying to keep Servo under the covers for so long is because once you see Servo, everyone who makes RTS’s is going to go ‘of course, this is how it should be done.’ because in Servo, you design your units outside the game and then you bring them in.

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How does this affect the multiplayer in Servo?

In Servo, I get to design my guys and then come in and battle it out for the map. There isn’t going to be a best design, because it will change as the meta changes. It keeps the game going, and in this game it’s almost like Hearthstone in another sense, because as you play the game, you get credits which you can then use buy for cargo and things which let you get new parts for your Servos, your giant robots. The game is constantly changing and improving over time.

The fact that Servo has a single player campaign made me really happy to see that. It’s something you don’t see that often anymore in strategy games. Do you miss that component with modern strategy games? Is it a cost vs. reward type of situation?

I think a lot of times people overestimate the size of the multiplayer market. I like multiplayer, I don’t even want to tell you how many hours a week I play Starcraft multiplayer. Most people play games single player, especially when these games lend themselves to single player. If I’m doing a MOBA, maybe that doesn’t lend itself to a single player as much. I’ll be playing against this guy, it’ll be the same game, on the same map, it’s the question of ‘gee, where is he?’ In Servo, I don’t know who I’ll be playing against, because every unit is a custom designed unit so it’s different every time. From a single player standpoint, you can’t just walk away from that opportunity, that’s huge.

How about Ashes of the Singularity? That game surely must have a robust single player component?

Now with Ashes of the Singularity on the other hand, the branding guys aren’t here to stop me from saying this: think Sins of a Solar Empire on the ground, but with Company of Heroes-like game mechanics.

I’m a huge fan of Sins of a Solar Empire. I experienced issues with latency in slow-burner matches where people get de-synced. Is there a way to remedy this in a massive game like Ashes of the Singularity?

What we’re changing there – we hired one of the architects of from Blizzard (Adrian Luff), we set up an office in Austin, Texas. His whole job is to build the infrastructure so that when you start up a game of Ashes or Offworld Trading Company or Servo, it’s actually making a virtual machine hosting a game, instead of the players connecting. So when you have a system like that, the constant desynchronizing largely goes away. The players don’t have to synchronize with each other now, you’re talking to a server. That’s only become possible in the last few years, we’re using Microsoft Azure to do that.

With Stardock’s current offerings, there seems to be a common theme with all of the games being strategy games. Do you think Stardock is mostly a strategy game developer and publisher, and are you guys looking to branch out into other genres?

In the long run we are looking to branch out into other genres, certainly role playing is high up there on the list. We make games that we tend to like to play, we’re full of people who enjoy making and playing strategy games, so that tends to be where we focus. It also helps that for whatever reason, even though the market clearly wants more strategy games, there aren’t a lot of people making them. I mean how many real time strategy games were released last year? In 2014 were there any RTS’s released? Maybe one? That’s terrible. But we know why, people want something new, people don’t want old game design with nicer textures. That’s one of the things that’s nice with Ashes, it’s pretty clear that you’re not fighting a battle, this is a war. We can actually display an entire planet, we don’t curve the planet like our friends at Uber do, but it’s a top down, straight planet.

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I saw you guys put out the beta for Start10. How is the reception for that?

It’s a lot more than I had expected. The reason is that when you look at a screenshot – on paper, Windows 10 has a start menu. Someone will go ‘oh why do I need this? I have a start menu.’ We’ll say ‘have you used Windows 10?’ There’s no question, although Microsoft may address Windows 10 between now and release to make it look more like Start10 does, but if they don’t, there’s going to be a huge demand for it. It’s not about wanting to go back to how my OS used to work. I always find that to be kind of a backhanded thing. They don’t even have jump lists for crying out loud. I mean, come on, I can’t even drag and drop things back, it’s not a matter of if the new one is more powerful and sophisticated, the new one is crippled.

How do you feel about the excessive use of Halo-integration in Windows 10?

Oh that doesn’t bother me. I mean, it’s a little strange, but I don’t care. I don’t understand why none of these things will let me just say “computer.” I grew up wanting to say “computer, what time is it?” I don’t want to say “Hey Cortana, what time is it?”

So far, what has gotten your attention the most from the show?

For me, it’s the tech, what is going to be the tech story that comes out of here? What I hope most users get, I’ve had a lot of meetings with Microsoft, AMD, and a little bit of Nvidia and Intel – they really need to hit home the fact that DirectX 12, Vulkan, and Mantle, allow all of the cores of your CPU to talk to the video card simultaneously. But everyone’s really iffy about that, because that means acknowledging that for the past several years, only one of your cores was talking to the GPU, and no one wants to go ‘You know by the way, you know that multi-core GPU? It was useless for your games.’ Alright? No one wants to be that guy. People wonder, saying ‘Gosh, doesn’t it seem like PC games have stalled? I wonder why that is?’ Well, the speed of a single core on a computer has not changed in years. It’s been at 3GHz, or 2-something GHz for years, I mean that’s not the only thing that affects the speed, but you get the idea. Now, with DirectX 12, Vulkan, and Mantle, it’s how many cores you’ve got. We’ve got lots of those. Suddenly, you go by 4x, 5x, the performance.

Why aren’t we hearing more about this? Are hardware manufacturers afraid to show real stats?

That’s another thing, quit with this 20% boost crap. They all know it, and off the record I’ve had people tell me if they say the real numbers, there will be people who just believe it’s marketing fluff. Well, bring them over to your booth, show them, and go ‘Look, here’s DirectX 11, here’s DirectX 12. This is running at 8 frames a second, this is running at 60 frames a second.’ It’s straightforward, but no one wants to admit it. Anandtech did, they showed it, they did their benchmarks.

How about your Twitter feed, and social media. Do you think Twitter as a communication tool is useless? Does it bring out the ‘crazy’ in people, whether they’re anonymous or not?

No, you have to get the signal from the noise. There’s been this weird, in the last couple years, change in the way people use Twitter. It’s more of a chit-chatting tool than it used to be. I’ve had people accuse me of “name searching.” I’m like ‘This is Twitter.’ It’s my job, I use Tweetdeck, I have every one of our products as a keyword, and it fills up my feed if people use any of these keywords. Yeah, I’m searching under Sins of a Solar Empire or Galactic Civilizations, or Stardock, or whatever – it shows up in my feed. I think they picture someone, sitting there, typing in all these words into a search field. For people who are using Twitter as a tool, for your job, it’s business. For example, let’s say I’m trying to cover a news story on say, Iran nuclear missiles. You’d create a bunch of custom feeds on Iran, Nuclear, and see what comes up. That’s not “name searching,” you’re using it as a tool.

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How do you feel about the current state of games journalism at large, both the big sites, the hobbyists, the specific sites? Do you think there could be work done, it could be improved upon?

Absolutely. The first thing people need to realize is that when people talk about games journalism, there’s really multiple types of games journalists. The journalists at say, IGN, have as much in common with these little sites as the CEO of Blizzard has with some random indie. That’s not meant as a put down or anything, I’m just saying they’re running in completely different worlds. But there’s a tendency to use the same words, I’ve heard people say “Is Stardock an indie?” Well, we’re a privately held, independently owned company, but on the other hand, I don’t even know what a “jam” is. I’ve never been to an indie jam, it’s some sort of get together, right? I don’t know. No idea. Don’t care.

For me, it’s not a culture, it’s not a scene, it’s me and other developers in the industry. To be frank, with a lot of journalists, yes we’re friends, but we’re professionals, and we can keep it that way. But then you have this indie part of it, right? This is the part that the GamerGate people tend to focus on, because holy cow, it is corrupt, and everyone knows it. Our group in the industry, we’ll say “well yeah they’re corrupt.” It’s not the kind of corruption like “Muahahaha,” it’s more like, who you know. It’s a clique. It’s the high school crap brought forward, we don’t tend to even deal with it at all.

The only thing that pissed us off is when some of the bigger journalists started to smear our customers, who are grown-ups. These aren’t basement dwellers, we know who our demographics are, and if they were doing their jobs they would know who their demographics are. I’ve seen a couple of journalists on this who are ranting about this, I go ‘Really? I have your advertising sheet here, your average reader is 31 years old. Their income is over $75,000, are you suggesting they live in their mom’s basement?’ No. So then knock it off.

That’s where you get into trouble, everyone uses these broad brushes.

Absolutely, there’s a problem with that, do you see a commonality with that – people living in extremes, both in the gaming industry and outside of that? A lot of people like to label person X as a liberal or a conservative, is that unfair to an individual who isn’t in one camp?

I think it’s human nature to think of “the other.” You and I? We’re fine, that guy there getting some napkins? (Brad points to Tim Kipp from Oxide Games), I bet he’s a bad man, I mean look at him, he’s planning on killing us now. I bet you he’s planning on wearing me as a skin suit. (we all laugh)

There always is a tendency to think of the other, and the internet has accelerated that, because now we can get together in social groups in which we only talk to people in that particular group. I’ve had people assume all kinds of crazy things about me, because once you go ‘this person has this opinion that I don’t like, and I’m going to assign to them’ – it’s pretty object oriented right, it’s almost like programming – ‘this person has this negative attribute, I’m going to assign all these other negative attributes to them.’ When Brianna Wu met with me yesterday, I was like, no you’d be surprised, I’m pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, I’m a libertarian kind of guy. I want people to be able to do what they want to do.

I think this is pretty common thing, like with your meeting with Brianna – where someone’s internet persona is entirely different from how they are in person. How often have you experienced that?

All the time. It’s not that the person is that different online, it’s what we ascribe to them. We don’t get hear their voice, we don’t get to see their body language. They’re an empty vessel, you’ve probably heard that phrase, someone is an empty vessel and we pour our hopes and our dreams into that empty vessel. Or, we put our worst prejudices and our darkest fears into that empty vessel, and that person is neither which way.

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Do you think there’s a negative stigma with Early Access? I see it not as common on our site, but is that something that you’ve seen?

Oh absolutely, Early Access deserves it’s terrible [pauses]. As someone that’s been using Early Access under different names, “early experience program” as we’ve been calling it for the past twenty years, but I’ve been horrified to see developers using it as a funding mechanism. It’s like, hey you know what? If you need to fund your game, go get investors, don’t ask your customers to fund your game for you. I don’t like that.

I’m hopeful that most people understand a couple things at this point – one Stardock’s games are fully funded. After we sold Impulse, we have all the money now, we could make nothing on-we want to make lots of money on these, I mean my flying golden jet car won’t be cheap. But the point is that we like Early Access because we want players to give us feedback on gameplay, not that the game blows up their computer, I mean good grief that’s what Q&A is for, hire someone.

Getting back to Stardock, what’s on the horizon for Stardock as a company? How many unannounced projects do you guys have in the works?

There’s quite a few, Ashes and Servo are obviously the two biggies for this part of the year. We’re not going to put anything else into [Steam] Early Access until after Galactic Civilizations III and Sorcerer King ship.

I don’t want to be the guy with a jillion games in Early Access, it’s like – these games have to finish, and then we’ll talk about Early Access for this. We expect to announce a couple new games over the next year.

I’d like to thank Brad and the wonderful PR folks at Stardock for making this all possible, I had a fantastic time chatting with you all and it was definitely an enlightening and engaging conversation. Niche Gamer regularly interviews developers on a variety of subjects—if you’re a developer and want to chat with us, please contact us!

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Owner and Publisher at Niche Gamer and Nicchiban. Outlaw fighting for a better game industry.

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