Stardock's Brad Wardell talks free-to-play and battling Steam

Matt Purslow at

85 Sins of a Solar Empire

Stardock's founder and CEO Brad Wardell - believes that the full-price retail game system is on its way out, and that free-to-play games will soon be the leaders of PC gaming revolution. Stardock have previously published grand space-faring strategy Sins of a Solar Empire and its upcoming expansion Rebellion.

Talking to Gamasutra, Wardell said: “The idea is that the PC game market is slowly moving over to a model that is more akin to what you're seeing on mobile device, which are much less expensive. In an age where you're used to spending only five, six bucks for a game, it's really hard to go back to the PC and pay 60 bucks for a game, especially if it's becoming increasingly loaded with features and content you'll never make use of.” Read on for more details on Stardock's plans for the future.

Microtransaction systems seem to be exceptionally vogue in the developer world today (see Steam and their TF2 experiment), and Stardock believe it's an exceptionally important element too. Impulse: Reactor has been adapted to support microtransactions in order to bolster support for free and low-cost titles on the platform. The SDK beta is due to be released this month, and the microtransaction system is supposedly as easy to implement as adding achievements to games. In fact, Wardell suggests that the two could be linked:

“Because the developer controls the pricing from the web... what this means is that the developer inside the game can do all sorts of things to [motivate] the player,” he explained. “They can have their own little point system to give discounts on things or achieve something, they could unlock or make a certain thing free. … We want to make it so that the game developer themselves can convey this however they want to instead of having this pushed on them by an e-commerce solution.”

Wardell went on to describe ideas he had for Stardock's own implementation of microtransactions and premium content, and it's an idea away form the traditional view of simply buying new guns and silly hats: “I'd rather lower the price of our titles and then have these features that most people don't care about be something they can buy extra. … I'd rather make a game for $20, $30, $40 bucks, and then make multiplayer something that people can pay for if they want that feature. That way people don't have to subsidize something they don't want and will never use.”

Such an idea brings microtransactions out of the realm that is so commonly trash-talked by the gaming community and makes it something that is genuinely worth thinking about. For those players who are passionate about single-player campaigns and never bother using the multiplayer components of games they purchase, this would certainly be a welcome move.

Interestingly, Impulse: Reactor does not feature it's own independent store or client. Wardell admits that such a feature would have worked against Stardock, since Steam would refuse to be associated with any title that forced the installation of it's own service. Developers would have ignored Impulse: Reactor as a viable tool so as to not miss out on the mass-market potential Steam offers. But such dominance in the digital field won't last forever assures Wardell.

“I remember everyone was using MySpace... and people forget Friendster before MySpace,” Wardell said. “I don't personally see anything in the near term that's gonna change the status quo [regarding Steam], I've just been around long enough to see the mighty fall over and over again. I remember when Microsoft were considered gods and they could do no wrong. Now people are syaing Microsoft might have a store and nobody cares, whereas five years ago everybody would care.”

He explains that as the market changes, if systems like Steam don't change to accommodate, then they become obsolete. Corporations become so set in their ways that when they realise change is required, they've been outplayed by someone else.

“Let's say free-to-play takes off,” Wardell theorises. “What happens to Direct2Drive in that scenario, or any of the traditional web stores that exist? There's no point, there's nothing to buy. Who knows what the model is? … Once everything's online and nothing's at a store, all bets are off. Who knows how the market is gonna get compensated five years from now.”

[via Gamasutra]