Last week I had a chat with Stardock boss Brad Wardell, and I've chopped the transcripts into two bits to be posted today and tomorrow. In this first part we talk about Impulse and Stardock's attempts to rival GFWL and Steamworks with its Impulse Reactor tools. It's an interesting response to living in the shadow of both Steam and Games For Windows Live, and it'll be even more interesting to see how many developers and publishers now adopt them. Does all this promise, as one reader mailed in, "Steam, but better?"
RPS: So there's quite a bit of new material to talk about with regards with Impulse. I see Stardock have been busy creating a stack of new features, and you've been showing off some of those at GDC...
Wardell: So "Impulse Reactor" is the name we've given to our internal development platform, which we've been working on for years and years. We've started making some of these features available to developers, first of all with GOO, [which was launched at GDC2009] and Paradox and THQ adopted it for their stuff. GOO is basically a way to implement some copy-protection onto a game without being obnoxious to the user. We've got the Gamer's Bill Of Rights, so we wanted to adhere to that while at the same time offering something that was of use to publishers.
RPS: Right. So what does GOO actually do in terms of providing control?
Wardell: It encapsulates the executable and adds activation into the game. A developer can do more than that, if they want, but essentially what happens is that when it pops up you enter an email address and a serial number and that's the last you hear of it. It's a one time thing.
RPS: Hmm. So no "always on". The advantages of that kind of approach do seem pretty obvious, especially given recent events. Anyway, you've now released some other tools, which revamp and expand your support for online multiplayer gaming specifically...
Wardell: This year publishers have been coming to us regarding Steamworks. People bellyache about it, but if you're a game developer this is a feature set you can't do without. Also it's also too much to do yourself, unless you're a really big publisher. Outside EA and a couple of other big guys, adding all this stuff in is often beyond typical capabilities: friends lists, online saves, all that stuff. With Steamworks you have to bundle Steam with it, which is a problem because Steam stuff then pops up in the game. If we were going to come up with a solution to provide a similar feature set then we couldn't do it in the way that Steam had done it, we had to come up with something else, something more suitable for these developers who were coming to us. So we designed a technology that allows our SDK to be integrated into the developer's own process. The way it works is that we have created the kind of features you see in Battle.net or Steamworks, except all the developer has to do is include a DLL, and we integrate our stuff in there. What this allows us to do is call up screens with one line of code, without including the distributable as Steamworks has to do. Developers will - it's in beta right now - be able to use these features for free, as long as they include their game non-exclusively on Impulse.
RPS: Ah, so developers get an instant multiplayer and online feature set for their games, and you benefit from having more games for Impulse users.
Wardell: The fact of the matter is that if we didn't have Impulse Reactor then Stardock would have to be looking at Steamworks as an alternative. If we had to look at that, you can imagine where everyone else is. If we had to release Elemental with Steam bundled... Imagine it! I'm not even being funny here: what would be my alternatives? Gamespy? Games For Windows Live? Oh, that just gets into a whole other thing.
RPS: PC developers are working in the shadow of either Steam or GFWL, now, it's true. And I think I know what system the gamers prefer. What you're saying is that they need alternatives to avoid being completely tied into Valve's service.
Wardell: Gamers expect a certain level of functionality now, especially having using Xbox Live and the PlayStation network. They expect these tools for online activity to be there right away. Are you on the Starcraft II beta?
Wardell: So you've seen what Battle.net is like now? You've seen what Blizzard are offering? To me, that's what players are going to come to expect from their multiplayer games. How many developers have the capability to deliver that? Have you played C&C4 and Supreme Commander 2? Do they offer the same features as Battle.net?
RPS: Yeah, we've been discussing that, actually. Battle.net's front end menus and ladders and stuff are almost more impressive than the game itself.
Wardell: It just works so well: the leagues, the stats, and they have half the stuff turned off right now! So Starcraft 2 comes out and then every strategy game is going to be compared to that. This is our reasoning for Impulse Reactor: developers now need to be able to offer that sort of experience to their users if they want to be competitive. And they need to be able to do it with minimal effort. What's more they can do that with Impulse Reactor and have it in their game because they can skin our screens to look like their game. I read in our Impulse comments that someone was arguing for uniformity for friend lists and stuff across all games, but hang on for a second: can you imagine what Starcraft 2 would have looked like if it was defaulting to, say, Steamworks, for those screens? It would be a totally different thing, people would expect their experience to fit the game.
RPS: That's pretty interest as an user-experience observation. I mean, I get annoyed every time I see the GFWL overlay. If that was buried in the game UI then I'd be far less irritated by it. What I want is for a game to store my login and never bother me again. Don't ask me what profile I want to use, it's the same damn profile as last time!
Wardell: Games For Windows Live could be described the anti-Impulse Reactor. It's completely the opposite way of doing it.
RPS: But you are going to have the same kinds of feature sets? Achievements and so on?
Wardell: Yes, but the difference is the developer can call them up. It's up to them. If you use GFWL you don't have a say. "Want to use this feature? Go to the overlay." The players have to go in there and use the GFWL UI, so to the developers. The way we're doing it is so that a developer can skin this stuff to pop up anywhere they want within their own game. It's far more natural. Not all overlays are equal! The performance difference for using Impulse Reactor is pretty massive too.
RPS: What about virtually stored savegames and stuff like that, can you actually offer that kind of service in the same way Steamworks can?
Wardell: Yes, although the way we are doing it is to just provide the developer with virtual drives, rather than specific "virtual savegames". If they want to save some data to the cloud, then they just do that, whatever it might be. Rather than us dictating the way developers implement this stuff, we just say "here's some space for data online, use it how you want."
RPS: Have you had any feedback so far on this stuff, actual responses from developers and publishers?
Wardell: Well it was actually developers and publishers who came to us and said "someone needs to provide an alternative". The big things that these companies really like - and this took us by surprise - is the idea that people can log on with, say, their Facebook account. We're adding support for Twitter and OpenID too. If the user is forced to create an Impulse store account to use this stuff then it's as bad as Steamworks. People need to be able to log in with other IDs.
RPS: So no fixed account control? Devs can use whatever suits them?
Wardell: Yes, it avoids the "yet another login" problem by allowing you to use sign up with a Facebook account. It still stores some data on our servers, but it's anonymised by that point. We don't store contact data.
RPS: That all sounds pretty interesting, and I can see exactly why this has evolved. Gamers generally seem to regard Steam as the best solution, but that doesn't mean it's the only way all this stuff can work. So anyway, how is Impulse itself doing?
Wardell: Pretty well. It took us about a year to get to one million users, and we got to three million about a year after that. We're at about 10% of where Steam is, but we haven't been out for nearly as long. Where things really started rolling was where we got the major publishers on board. In the last six months we've got EA, Activision and Ubisoft on there, and then it's just an issue of getting the games up there. Things really started happening.
RPS: Any thoughts on the PCGA's report saying that global games software sales had gone up by 3% in 2009?
Wardell: How do they get that stat? How do they know?
RPS: Hard to say with an specificity...
Wardell: I doubt Valve are telling them exactly how they're doing, right? Valve had huge growth last year and we had huge growth, and I imagine Direct2Drive had huge growth, but is that what they're basing that on?
RPS: Well, if I recall correctly, they do suggest that the figure encompasses software sold digitally and at retail globally, as researched by some data company. There must be some guesswork in there.
Wardell: Ha! Well I happen to know that the big distributors are making $65 trillion a week! See, I can make up numbers too.
RPS: Okay, but you have to hope that this is an informed report and not just hot air. And the digital games sales frontier does seem to be growing rapidly. Talking to the C&C4 guy on Monday, he was saying how he'd picked up The Witcher because he'd seen it on Steam. That's going to start happening more and more as people get used to browsing and buying digitally. It's awesome for PC gaming generally, because it's a mini-revolution in throwing off the dependence on retail. The Steam sales alone are generating crazy cash.
Wardell: Most of our revenue still comes from retail, but having digital as an option has changed the relationship enormously. They used to have us by the - uh - balls, essentially, and having your business completely dependent on a handful of buyers is not okay. What it used to be like in the United States was that one store pretty much controlled all of sales of software, and they would only buy from a handful of distributors. Maybe your software would get bought, maybe it would get shipped, maybe you would get paid. We've not been paid retail revenues for software because there were so many entities between us and the consumer. Digital streamlines that, and it's good.
RPS: And it's not just better for companies, it's better for gamers who want to spend their money on more obscure stuff, more esoteric stuff, more complex stuff...
Wardell: Sure, the strange thing is almost that it has taken so long to happen on PC. I mean look at the iPhone apps store. A few of those guys are now making millions of dollars on their $5 apps, and they're not hurting by not being at retail. All the matters is that it's a clean, easy buying experience. And that's what Impulse and Steam do. It's streamlined. It's easy.
RPS: So just to sum up: all this Impulse Reactor stuff is hitting in the summer?
Wardell: Well some of our partners have it now so that we can beta test, but in terms of making it available to indies and so on, yes, it'll be later in the summer. That's tied to how we're doing the multiplayer for Elemental, too. For example, when you play most traditional RTS games you are talking to each other online, and that's great until someone has a bad connection or something. With Starcraft II what Blizzard have done is to create a gazillion servers and then throws you onto a server with the other people. That's why there's no talk about port-forwarding or anything like that, and that's possible because of the kind of thing we're doing with Impulse Reactor. We're just going to connect users on the most local machine to them. And it's only in the last couple of years that virtual machines have become common. I can put dozens of virtual machines on one server machine, and just a few years ago you couldn't do that. It's a major change.
Elemental will be our full showcase of all this stuff.
RPS: And we'll talk about that tomorrow.