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.
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.