Staff Editorials

Impulse Interview
Posted: 01.07.2008 11:54 by Marco Fiori Comments: 2
Digital Distribution is well and truly flying. We can name at least ten companies perfecting the platform. Stardock are one of the leading names in development and publishing. They’ve made their mark in games and now they’re attempting to do the same in online delivery with Impulse. We got a chance to sit down with Brad Wardell, the CEO of Stardock to ask him some questions about another online platform.

Marco Fiori: First off, the name. Why impulse?

Brad Wardell: We’ve always been sci-fi fans and we wanted to name it something that could have many different meanings depending on the context.

Marco Fiori: Why do you think Digital Distribution is the future? Do you think it'll stay a niche alternative or will it actually replace the boxed retail concept?

Brad Wardell: I don’t think retail is going away any time soon. It’s not an all or nothing thing. Right now, digital distribution of PC games is maybe 10% for most publishers. For us, digital distribution is already 40% of our game revenue despite having a game that’s in the top 10 best sellers at retail. Digital distribution increases the overall pie rather than taking away from someone else’s slice.

Marco Fiori: Obviously parallels are going to be drawn with other systems. What separates you from the competition?

Brad Wardell: There is always a tendency to want to compare things to other things. What makes Impulse fundamentally different is its scope. It’s not designed just to be a store and download service. Its focus is to provide a complete platform for the PC that will provide to developers and users things like integrated match making, rankings, achievements, virtual storage, content sharing, and a host of other features that are all server based. That is, developers will be able to make use of these kinds of features regardless of whether the user has Impulse or not.

 
Moreover, Impulse isn’t just about games. The PC software market is gigantic and while games tend to get a lot of attention, it’s important not to forget the other 95% of the market. A user can get things like Corel Draw or Word Perfect or AVG Anti-Virus. We’ve got a significant number of software titles ready to go. From a content point of view, the biggest thing slowing us up is our ability to get the titles up and available, we’re still ramping up our internal resources to get things up faster.

Marco Fiori: Have you used, for example, Valve's service to improve the creation of yours or have you attempted to stay clear from them?

Brad Wardell: Oh I’m more than a Steam user. I’m a Steam fan. But at the same time, it’s important to remember that we’ve been doing this kind of thing a lot longer. Stardock Central, which was the very first digital distribution network for PC games, was something we’ve had for years in which people were buying not just our games but indie games and select titles from other publishers as well.

Impulse is the natural evolution of what has been done before, taking a digital distribution service and creating a true PC platform. Making it so that all your “stuff” can be easily managed, easily updated, easily supported, and have features integrated into your programs that help make a better experience for users.

Let me give you one example that helped motivate us to make Impulse:

My uncle buys one of our games at the store. Gets it home and discovers that his 2004 PC can’t run it because his video driver doesn’t support Pixel Shader 2.0. He needs to update his driver. So how does he do it? He has no idea. He doesn’t even know what type of video card he has. Ideally, the game itself would inform him of this and take him to the page it needs to go. But most developers don’t have the resources to go and put that kind of thing in (or just don’t want to bother to put in the effort). Why isn’t there a simple API to do this? So one of the things we want to have in ImpulseReactor (the platform) is a simple call: CVP.CheckVideoRequirements(). If that fails the developer just calls CVP.UpdateVideoDriver() which would open up a browser window and take them to the proper site. Now, under the covers, both those calls go to our server, look up the game in the database, look at the driver requirement and return. Then, if the game fails, it looks at the video card and goes to the URL in our database. Pretty simple stuff except that it’s quite a bit of work to do it for one game. But how about for all games?

It’s 2008 for crying out loud though, gamers shouldn’t have to deal with that kind of crap to play a game. No wonder people go to consoles. Ironically, if Microsoft tried to put this into the OS, they’d likely get sued by some government. They can’t even add a media player to the OS without getting sued anymore.

 
Marco Fiori: Are you going for big publishers or smaller, every game possible choice (ala GamersGate)?

Brad Wardell: Our intention is to have the widest selection anywhere.

Marco Fiori: What's behind the choice of design, as it seems as though the program is windows centric.

Brad Wardell: The program is most definitely Windows-centric. We want the program to behave as if it is a natural extension of Microsoft Windows.

Marco Fiori: Why do you think gamers will choose your platform rather than others?

Brad Wardell: I think gamers will choose whatever platform has the stuff they want and gives them the best services and prices. Developers, on the other hand, are going to choose the platform that doesn’t tie them to any particular service and that’s a pretty big advantage Impulse has. A game developer could use the APIs in ImpulseReactor and still sell their game at retail or on another service.

Marco Fiori: Do you hope to keep Impulse game-centered or is it going to be a platform for software as much as games?

Brad Wardell: It’s not game-centered now. It’s software neutral. But in terms of our development, the games get more attention because it’s on the games side of things that Windows, as a “platform” has been most lacking in the past several years. There’s a lot of catch-up we, as Windows ISVs, need to do in order to bring the Windows platform up to speed relative to the consoles.

Consider this – imagine if the iPhone app store became something that all Macintoshes had. Stardock’s worry isn’t whether Valve or GamersGate or even Microsoft is going to do something, as a Windows ISV, our concern is making Windows as competitive as possible. As a former OS/2 ISV, we are keenly aware of how quickly the markets can change.

Marco Fiori: What about media? Movies and Music?

Brad Wardell: Extremely unlikely. I use iTunes for that and there’s so many alternatives for movies and music (Amazon, BuyMusic, Walmart, etc.) that there’s no point. Our focus is digital software.

 
Marco Fiori: What's next for the system?

Brad Wardell: Phase 2 launches at the end of August. There’s going to be some pretty significant announcements in August that I think will be of great interest to the market and will help outline what our objectives are. Thus far, we’ve had to remain mum on most of what we’re doing. What Impulse does right now is the tip of the iceberg.

But a few things that should be out before Phase 2 would include multiplayer matchmaking and a universal game rankings system. We might get universal achievements in as well.

Probably the biggest thing we need to address internally is our ability to simply get things up on Impulse more quickly. By this time next year, we need to have at least 1,000 items on the store. Right now, we have around 200. But we’re only able to get 1 or 2 programs up per day (including updates). The goal is that by Phase 2, we’ll be able to put up 10 things per day.

The other challenge is getting all of our publishing partners on board and up and available. Impulse may have the best technology but without the “stuff” it’s irrelevant. By Phase 2, we should be at a point where we can demonstrate the breadth of content and distribution.
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Comments

By herodotus (SI Herodotus) on Jul 01, 2008
herodotus
Great interview. Though I would compare Stardock Central more to Gamersgate than Steam or Valve, perhaps this new Impulse might be nore user-friendly. At present Stardock Central provides incremental updates that aren&#039;t released on many sites.
By nobuargaoda (SI Core Veteran) on Dec 10, 2008
nobuargaoda
Nice interview! Impulse will take their chance, and i believe that Impulse will enjoy a success later!