GDC 2009: Stardock CEO says little games = big business

Studio founder Brad Wardell explains how a game with a budget less than $2 million can reap a $10 million profit.

SAN FRANCISCO--Each year, the Game Developers Conference begins with the Independent Games Summit, a smaller-scale confab for indie developers to share ideas. Last night, the small-scale event got a big name in the form of Brad Wardell, founder, president, and CEO of Stardock, developer of Galactic Civilizations. The company also published the Ironclad-developed hit Sins of a Solar Empire and will do the same for Gas Powered Games' soon-to-be-released Demigod.

Why is this man smiling? A $10 million profit? Oh, OK.

Wardell hosted a lecture that bore the workmanlike title "Stardock on the PC Hardcore Scene as Indie." He discussed how creating games for this notoriously fickle sector has become more independent and less mainstream. As such, Stardock doesn't think of itself as following the standard studio model.

“I don't think of Stardock as a game developer per se, [but] as rather a bunch of guys who like to make games," explained Wardell. "We're not looking at it as art or a creative vision. We're talking about creating a freaking game, and that's basically what we do. We look at games we like to play, and what we can do make to make them better through our distribution channels without losing our shirts.”

Wardell also mentioned how bigger publishers are focused on wider audiences, releasing multiplatform games to satisfy the broadest market possible. But for indie PC studios with smaller development costs, it's a lot simpler. He held up the DRM-free spaceborne real-time strategy game Sins of a Solar Empire as an example of how a small game can make big money.

Last September, Stardock announced that Sins of a Solar Empire had sold more than 500,000 copies. If all were bought at the current purchase price of $29.95, the game would have generated around $15 million. Although that's small potatoes to an Electronic Arts or Activision Blizzard, it's a fortune for a minor operation.

"We tried to get [big] publishers, but no one was interested," explained Wardell. "Because the game's not going to make $30 million, they're not going to pay attention at all. It's still that way, but I'm willing to sacrifice for my game to only make $10 million."

What made Sins of a Solar Empire and its sibling Galactic Civilizations II even more remarkable were their low development costs. Wardell said each was made for "well under" $2 million, putting their profit ratio at a whopping "10-to-1."

In closing, Wardell declared that such earnings margins prove that indie games made for hardcore markets can produce solid revenues--revenues that are further enhanced by digital distribution. As a result, Wardell believes core PC gaming will be around for a very, very long time to come.

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43 comments
Crush_Project
Crush_Project

stardock ftw!!! screw those gready big companies!!!!

bebomania
bebomania

DRM free is one of the best things about this game, I would never have baught this game if my friend hadnt first showed it to me and let me install this game on my pc and have a little play around on it first. I loved the game baught my own copy and also downloaded Entrenchment through impulse. In contrast i have always loved Dawn of War and when DoW2 came out i baught it on release, but because of having to constantly log onto steam and windows live even to play single player ive gotten quite fed up with the game and it has made my quite angry that a game company that ive supported for years financially has decided to act with such suspicion towards its customers.

hbkrug
hbkrug

Glad to hear your business is lucrative and, if that encourages Stardock to continue to put out top quality products such as Sins and Galactic Civilizations I and II that sell so well, so much the better for Stardock. If the big publishers aren't interested in stepping in and "improving " the process so much the better for the players. As for myself, I have thoroughly enjoyed both Sins of a Solar Empire and Galactic Civilizations in all it's manifestations. I even enjoy reading the manuals as they do a fine job of explaining the "how-to" while keeping the tone light and humorous. Bottom line: You keep making 'em and I'll keep buying 'em.

umbrae
umbrae

Sins is fantastic. I really wish the big guys would get this.

chikahiro94
chikahiro94

@ Franko_3 Got the $1-2 mil it took to get things started? And, of course, are you ready to be in the poorhouse if the game flops? Plus, remember to say "goodbye" to your family during crunch time!

Franko_3
Franko_3

10 million profit?!? I want to be a game dev ^^

PredatorPR
PredatorPR

Love Entrechment but those mines!! those mines!! hate them.

thepyrethatburn
thepyrethatburn

It is always good to hear that Stardock is doing well. I am a fan of Galactic Civilizations so, when Galactic Civilizations 2 came out, I was going to buy it anyway. However, their little dustup with Starforce which resulted in Stardock continuing to stand for "No DRM" on their games actually got me to buy Galactic Civilizations 2 and it's expansions the week they came out. This way, I could do my part to help support a company that is willing to treat me as a customer rather than a potential thief.

Hellequin85
Hellequin85

Stardock have got the right idea, not a case of "bleed the gamer for as much as possible" but being happy with any profit and seeing it as that... profit. I get so annoye dwith companies saying "we only made £30mill profit this year"... it's still profit! that's after all the expenses have been taken out, even share holders with a 1% stake are takign home enough to buy a house! So long as it's profit who cares, the focus should always be on making what people want, not bleeding them dry (finger pointing at EA here lol) Sins is an awesome lil game and GalCiv is a lot of fun, long reign the indies!!

MasterofZar
MasterofZar

im a big fan of stardock and no DRM. theres no DRM on GalCiv2 or on sins and they are barley pirated, over the top DRM on games like spore and its one of the most pirated games ever. the games industry should learn from the same mistakes that the music industry made

01_855403
01_855403

Great they should keep it up and not be affected by the economic crisis then they'll be as great as EA or Activision Blizzard

MrFinalFantasy
MrFinalFantasy

@chikahiro94 err. sorry what i meant by that is something like a Start-up company. heh.

Tebbit
Tebbit

Stardock is great!

chikahiro94
chikahiro94

@MrFinalFantasy Stardock isn't a fledgling company, actually. And they do more than just games :)

onequarter
onequarter

This doesn't work for all games it seems though. World of goo tried similar, and got pirated to hell.

TurambarGS
TurambarGS

Big fan of the "no-DRM, let's just make a good game" model of business. Big fan of Sins too - great game! Only wish my processor was slightly faster so it could handle everything on screen without hitching!

Pete5506
Pete5506

I can so see this happing

dark_being
dark_being

Some good indie games out there.

suprosa
suprosa

I bought SoaSE for $50, I hope these guys got every penny. I then downloaded Entrenchment through Impulse, I know they got that ($10, or was it $20?). One of my favorite game makers, and I like that they respect the community.

rynmls
rynmls

core PC gaming will be around for a very, very long time to come - I agree

MrFinalFantasy
MrFinalFantasy

well. though. there is a backlash. for a fledgling company. that is like a Huge Downfall or Upwind. if Indie games do not sell well on a hardcore market. that will spell disaster for the company. but listening to StarDocks success actually pretty much influenced me on developing games. oh well! since i already have a Diploma on Info-Comm. lets try bachelor of Game-Programming. XD.

the_hunger
the_hunger

I haven't been impressed with any of Stardock's games--I hope that Demigod changes this--but I do like their business model. I think heavy-handed DRM is damaging PC gaming, and it is good to see a company take a chance and actually respect the customer.

JackHoleFace00
JackHoleFace00

This must be the business model Wii follows--only devs seem to spend about $100k on titles. Then they figure with all the people buying the Wii, there will certainly be enough idiots to buy the crap game. So even if a small number of people buy it and they gross $1 million, they still made a 10-1 profit. That's probably why so many garbage games come out for Wii

programexpert
programexpert

Purchased both Gal Civ II and Sins; one of the best buys of 2007 and 2008, respectively, for me. The no DRM and flexible install restrictions means I can play with friends and even convince some of buying the game! I also have Entrenchment, which I love :)

alexkn64
alexkn64

@KayHangman I couldn't agree more. I love the fact they trust their customers to buy their games, and don't include any of the BS DRM. I know I bought GalCiv II and, even it's expansions for largely that reason. I could've just as easily pirated it...but why bother? It's a small company, and they actually treat their customers with respect. I'll gladly repay that respect with sales.

KayHangman
KayHangman

Stardock is one of the few developer/publishers out there that I actually respect in terms of how they treat their customers. Good on them that they can do well as an indie studio.

raahsnavj
raahsnavj

It works because Stardock doesn't BS with PC gaming. No DRM, great aftermarket support via patches and new content.... I wish they also made console games because I would buy their stuff in an instant... but as it is I rarely game on the PC anymore... yet when I buy something for some odd reason it is always stardock stuff. Great model, great company. I hope things work out great for them for a long time.

BlueBirdTS
BlueBirdTS

"but I'm willing to sacrifice for my game to only make $10 million..." lol Ironclad is easily one of my favorite developers. How many other developers are encouraging a DRM-free experience? The original Sins was great and the Entrenchment micro-expansion only makes a great game better.

baal46
baal46

I have a feeling Stardock's stock will rise sharply after the release of Demigod. The popularity of the W3 mod "Defense of the Ancients" is proof that there is a niche in the game industry that has not been exploited, and Demigod is poised to dominate it.

denter21
denter21

Stardock are setting a great example for the rest of the industry, here's hoping Demigod does well too!

aura_enchanted
aura_enchanted

this is a prime example of how companies get started and kill before fear monolith had no jokes 1game to its name worth mentioning from back in the 90's we all feared them dead n gone but they pulled togeather and made f.e.a.r. now monolith has a brand name that cant go unheard of.

hampton2003
hampton2003

Thank god they are doing well. Sins is still one of my fav games including entrechment. We need honest developers out there who make games because they enjoy making them, not because its a bussiness and they expect to make alot of money. For some developers its a bussiness, with deadlines and timetables, which results in lower quality games. Stardock makes games they would like to play, and they are not worried about churning out games every few months....which results in good quality games = continued fan support.

strayfies
strayfies

Sins, GalCiv 2, and their expansions were some of the best surprises for PC Gaming in years. Whatever can be said for their business model, they sure do make games the right way.

Bgrngod
Bgrngod

WTB Demigod... now please.

Inconnux
Inconnux

A man with common sense... DRM free games DO make a profit and a tidy profit at that... :)

Megawizard
Megawizard

I'm looking forward to Demigod. Definitely hoping for a demo.

naval
naval

wow .. .that is great to hear. Gal Civ 2 : TotA and SoaSE were in my top 3 games in 2008. good to see that they are having such huge profit margins