Interview: Brad Wardell on selling Impulse to GameStop
Yesterday, the world's largest physical game retailer announced that it would buy its way into the online PC game distribution market by acquiring Stardock's Impulse service. On the other end of that deal is Stardock founder and CEO Brad Wardell, who started up Impulse in 2008. We got Brad on Skype to discuss what this deal means for him, for you, and for all of PC gaming.
Why did you decide to sell off Impulse?
Essentially we had to decide whether to become a retailer. Impulse is growing faster than any business unit at Stardock because digital distribution is taking off. I’m a technologist, I like making software. So once that became our conclusion it was a matter of, “Who would be the best partner for Impulse? Someone who knows retail and knows games really well.” And GameStop was the ideal candidate to team up with.
Will Stardock, or you in particular, still have a hand in the day-to-day operations of Impulse, or is that being transferred entirely to GameStop. Is it now their baby?
Over the next few months there will be a transitional period. But they hired Steve Nix from id to essentially take over what my role traditionally had been. It’s going to be a very PC gamer, or gamer friendly environment over there.
Now that you are disentangling Impulse from Stardock, are all bets off? Will we start to see Stardock games on other services?
In the near future our intention is not to make any changes. There’re already people worrying about things as is. So we plan on not making any changes in the foreseeable future.
How does this strengthen Impulse’s position in the online market in particular? Before, its main selling point was you can only get Stardock games here. What is it now?
There is a whole bunch of things. GameStop is the world’s largest game retailer so you are going to have millions of new people coming to it. It’s a great thing for PC gaming because Impulse has always had to fight with the other parts of Stardock for development resources. Now, they’ve put an amazing team over there on a development side and since the entire Impulse dev team is going over there, continuing on with Impulse Inc. things like Impulse reactor and other projects we’ve had under development will be greatly sped up in their development then they’ve had now, which will be great for gamers.
It’s going to have a lot more resources behind it?
What kind of things do you think we will see on Impulse in the future that we haven’t seen to date?
I can’t pre-announce anything on behalf of GameStop. But certainly in the near term, Impulse Reactor was always a big challenge for us. The game side and the Impulse side in terms of getting resources to move Impulse Reactor along on the pace we wanted. So as we do Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion, and Fallen Enchantress, and other projects we will be able to make use of those increased resources for our own titles.
Are you relieved to be out of the retail business and be able to focus on your development duties again?
Yes and no. Digital distribution, from a technological point of view, is very exciting. I really like the amazing things about it. We are about to enter an era where, for example, social networking is becoming pretty mature. So there is a lot of more connectivity between users online with a much more open standard than say what we had a few years ago. High-speed internet has become ubiquitous enough to be able do a lot more cool stuff. From a technological point of view I’ll definitely miss it, but like I said, for Impulse to make the next step it really needed a retailer to be running it.
You need a sales force. For example, I need so-and-so publisher to adopt Impulse Reactor. Well, I don’t have a technical sales force that can just get on an airplane that can fly to LA or whatever and make that deal happen, right? If Stardock has a good technical guy, he’s making tech, not getting on airplanes. So whenever we wanted to pitch some of this stuff, I would have to send some of my key developers on an airplane to meet with some developer or publisher to show off this stuff. When you do that it’s really tough. I’m looking forward to being more focused.
So what else does this mean for gamers?
For PC gamers, this is gigantic. For years, guys like you and me have been complaining about the marginalization of PC gaming because as a practical matter, the channels for people to get games has been shrinking. We’ve seen where there’s been so many rationalization on why this is, but the fact of the matter is we’ve lost a lot of our channels. Now boom, GameStop is making a massive investment to bring the PC gaming market back into the mainstream, back into the thick of things. I think it says something that, up until now, we’ve been relying on a couple of PC game developers to carry this load. If you think about who’s been leading this market, Paradox is the one who founded Gamers Gate, and Valve with Steam, and Stardock with Impulse. Well, now the PC gaming market is going to have the world’s leading game retailer really backing it. And that’s going to help our market tremendously.
We love competition. You’ve got to keep people on their toes.
Right. As a consumer, I want to have as many choices as I can because that drives down prices. Gaming prices in general, if you look over the last couple of years—I think if someone in 2000 tried to guess prices in 2011, they would be shocked at how they are getting lower, especially when you adjust for inflation. And that’s awesome, because the more competition, the more that pushes that. And if you are an indie game developer, this news is amazing because this is one of the things that Impulse has really, if I may be so bold, Impulse has been the leader of getting new indie games up the fastest. We don’t always get the big AAA titles quick, but we’ve been getting new indie games up.
This is a big commitment to PC gaming from GameStop. What is your impression of their attitude toward PC gaming in general? They have generally carried a lot less retail copies of PC games in the past decade, but is this recognition that there is a lot more money to be made?
PC gaming, like with all media—and I’d say the consoles are just lagging in terms of where things are going in the long term—PC gaming is the first to make the transition from the physical to the truly digital. There are a couple of things that will become more apparent over time. GameStop put together a pure digital team; they found the best and brightest and brought them in over the past year. So they made this team that is dedicated specifically to digital distribution. There isn’t like a bunch of retailers thinking “how do these games seem like boxes?” It’s not going to be like that at all.
Do you think they have a renewed confidence in the PC games market?
I do. I definitely do. I think it’s a real recognition of where gaming is going, and where it’s been going for the last several years. They acquired Kongregate last year, and not a lot of people noticed that but it signaled to us they are taking this pretty seriously.