Interview: Derek Paxton, Stardock's new head of games development
Are there any other studios or studio runners out there that you admire or might want to emulate in your new position?
"I want us to be the Telltale of strategy games."
DP: I love Telltale. Telltale is an amazing company. I don’t know anybody there and I haven’t seen the way that they work inside, so I can’t speak to any of that, but the thing I really love about Telltale is that they've committed to one particular genre of game. They've been very successful at it. But it hasn't caused them to go crazy with, “We had a game that we made for $3 million and it did well, so now we’re going to make a game for $30 million. Hey, that did well. Now we’re going to make a game for $90 million,” until one of the games doesn't sell well and they go bust and shut down the studio. That’s a trend that I see happening way too much in the game industry.
[Telltale] knows exactly what they do. They’re constantly working to deliver better and better versions of it through their various games. They always remain true to what they are. They have a sustainable business model. They keep coming back and creating memorable games. They’re the company that I look to most frequently as a kind of model for Stardock. I want us to be the Telltale of strategy games.
What do you see as being the biggest pitfalls that a studio like Stardock has to watch out for these days?
DP: We ride between the indie games and the triple-A games. I think the biggest temptation I see for studios like us is that you see success from your game, and you have the budget to go ahead and make a $20 million or $30 million game, and you think, “Wow, imagine what we could do with a game like that,” and you go for it. That’s not what Stardock is interested in doing. We don’t want to put all of our eggs in one basket. We have a lot of games that are in the pipeline right now, and we’d much rather do many games that we’re passionate about. We don’t believe that you need $30 million to make a game great.
We want to focus on the gameplay side. So resisting that temptation is a big thing for companies like Stardock. I think that’s something we have under control. Things that we do have to keep an eye out for on a day to day basis… Indies have certain advantages. They’re very mobile. They can try all kinds of crazy stuff.
I was at PAX last week, and I spent almost all my time in the indie sections—both the iOS side, looking at all those little games, and the PC side. Just seeing the creative things that they can do once they’re unshackled from, “Well, we gotta sell 5 million copies, so let’s make sure we have a design and a model that we know will work and we know players will buy en masse.” They don’t care about that. They’re going to make games that they love. We try to draw on that for our games.
But we always have to keep an eye on it. Indies can do that better than us. They’re more flexible than we are. What we have that indies don’t is some real marketing muscle. We have a player base that knows us. We have some name recognition. We try to leverage all the things that the triple-As have, where they have community and PR and information about them in the media. When they put a game out, you’re going to take notice because of who they are. We try to draw on that from the triple-A side, to get those benefits.
In competing with the triple-A games, it’s the amazing polish—the millions of dollars worth of graphics and trailers that often cost a lot more than our entire games do. We aren't going to be able to compete at that level. When you’re making a game for a more reasonable budget, you can’t spend millions of dollars on CGI stuff. We believe that doesn't make the game any better. All those millions of dollars don’t necessarily add up to more fun. We’re hoping that our players believe that as well.
If all of your dreams come true, and you meet all of your goals and then some, what does Stardock look like five years from now?
DP: Stardock isn't a huge company. We do a lot of things here to make sure we stay under 50 people. I don’t have any desire for the company to be a 400-person operation. I would much rather stay small and keep creating great games. I’d like our back catalog to support our burn rate. We’re able to hire the people we want to hire and have our back catalog sales cover all of our costs, so that we can then just take all the time we need with our games. If it takes another six months, that’s an easy decision, because we’re making a profit every month as it is. We can do that.
Thanks to Derek for taking the time to talk to us. For more, check out Stardock's official site.