Fighting for Second Place: An Interview With Brad Wardell

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Fighting for Second Place: An Interview With Brad Wardell

Stardock's Brad Wardell sounds off about his company's struggle against digital distribution giant Valve.

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Competition is good yes, but as with evolution, one species (or in this case, digital distribution platform) will come out on top, with the competitor remaining in a smaller way or being wiped out.

We have Windows and Mac OS, the dominant platform against the small but still striving competitor.

Nitendo's Wii aside, there is the 360, the slightly more dominant console against the PS3. (This one is debatable, but demonstrates that society can allow for two direct competitors to exist)

The thing I s'pose makes this situation different is the fact that a lot of developers and their publishers have their own software you have to run in order to play the game (EA, Ubisoft, GFWL, etc).

It will be interesting to see how this all pans out.

I pretty much agree. Steamworks provides features that should be part of the operating system, like decent netcode, and until Impulse Reactor is finished, there's little competition.

In a sense, I don't want there to be competition, because I like being able to talk to any friend, in any popular game, at any time, or any of the dozen other features that having a very large collection on Steam offers. To draw a parallel given often in the article, Windows having a monopoly is beneficial for many people, because it's easy for developers to know WinAPI, it's easy for them to know DirectX, and there's no competition - so you don't have to write the same code again for Linux and Mac.

Impulse is great, i use it as well as Steam. Stardock has to be one of the most user friendly anti-drm, pro gamer companies out there today and no gamer should want them to fail.

It was an interesting read none-the-less, though i think Stardock is doing alright.

Well well. Quite the interesting read. I have to say, I have mixed feelings here.

On the one hand Mr. Brad has a flawless point when he says that lack of competition is bad. And make no mistake about it, it is inevitable. Anyone that's unchallenged gains the power to do as they please. Even if you wholeheartedly trust Gabe Newell, keep in mind that people like Gabe or Robin Walker won't be around forever... And then what? It's not that I'm imagining some shadowy being with the morals and values of a Sith lord will step up to take their place, but... They're humans. They all are. And humans make mistakes. Unchallenged humans make bigger mistakes... Grow stagnant... Take a look at George Lucas if you doubt it. Lucas was heavily challenged through the making of the original Star Wars trilogy, and completely unchallenged in the second... Need I say more?

On the other hand, I can't help but feel that this, as truthful as it is, is also a way for Mr. Brad to get himself some free spotlight... Sorry Brad.

Regardless of his motivation, he has a point we can't ignore thought. That said, if you're reading this Brad, for all it's worth, I say give it time. Steam set out as a massive behemoth before it even started, because Valve was a massive behemoth as it was. I doubt Valve will lose the #1 spot anytime soon, but the competition is gaining some terrain, if not in sales at least in public knowledge. And we all know getting your name out there is half the battle. In fact, it's the reason Steam started at #1, because it came attached to Valve.

Cheers.

Steam just celebrated its seventh birthday, but they didn't start doing weekend sales until Impulse started doing them. And from what I can tell, they didn't do holiday sales until after Impulse was doing them.

Why does he keep saying this? It's just not true.

First Steam Weekend deal: 2007-11-09 UFO: Afterlight -- 50% off
Source: http://forums.steampowered.com/forums/showthread.php?t=720271

First Steam Holiday Sale was on December 24th 2007
Source: http://www.shacknews.com/onearticle.x/50525

Impulse was released on June 17th 2008
Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impulse_%28content_delivery%29

trineas:

Steam just celebrated its seventh birthday, but they didn't start doing weekend sales until Impulse started doing them. And from what I can tell, they didn't do holiday sales until after Impulse was doing them.

Why does he keep saying this? It's just not true.

First Steam Weekend deal: 2007-11-09 UFO: Afterlight -- 50% off
Source: http://forums.steampowered.com/forums/showthread.php?t=720271

First Steam Holiday Sale was on December 24th 2007
Source: http://www.shacknews.com/onearticle.x/50525

Impulse was released on June 17th 2008
Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impulse_%28content_delivery%29

Well put.

Steam has got the market, and, as far as the foreseab le future is, it will always have it.

Whenevr you talk digital distribution it will always be team on peoples minds, and for good reason.

The interface, the way it works, ect, ect.

Although Impulse is good for its own thing, it will never be as large and popular as Steam

A very good interview, he makes entirely reasonable points regardless of if his motive is only to boost Impulse. I for one hope Impulse remains a strong competitor even if I personally prefer Steam.

That said I'm still not overly worried as if Steam ever does become unchallenged and thereby anti-consumer someone will see it and step in to steal customers away. I'm sure people will say "but that's what everyone thought about Microsoft too" but the main difference as I see it is that Microsoft can and has made itself entirely integrated with PC's to the point that only the knowledgeable can access alternate Operating Systems or Internet Browsers or a myriad amount of others things. Frankly unless Valve strikes a deal with microsoft to make Steam come standard like those other things, I don't see the same level of monopoly happening.

trineas:

Steam just celebrated its seventh birthday, but they didn't start doing weekend sales until Impulse started doing them. And from what I can tell, they didn't do holiday sales until after Impulse was doing them.

Why does he keep saying this? It's just not true.

First Steam Weekend deal: 2007-11-09 UFO: Afterlight -- 50% off
Source: http://forums.steampowered.com/forums/showthread.php?t=720271

First Steam Holiday Sale was on December 24th 2007
Source: http://www.shacknews.com/onearticle.x/50525

Impulse was released on June 17th 2008
Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impulse_%28content_delivery%29

its actually more of a half truth. steam had weekend sales before impulse, but those sales were every now and again, not every week like it is now. impulse started doing sales every weekend and a few weeks later steam started doing them every week as well.

as much as i like competition, every time this guy talks he spends more time talking about steam than he does impulse or stardocks games, which to me comes across as him just bitching that valve has kept up with what many consumers want while other DD services have stayed stagnant.

Brad Wardell:
....it's just natural growth when people are fighting for a consumer's dollar.

It is amazing how often people keep forgetting this. Especially the rabid fanboys. Somehow they think that if their preferred console, program, developer, whatever stood alone, then droplets of pure awesome would rain from the skies and every day would be an adventure. They forget that the reason companies try so hard is because they have to fight other companies to get you to give them your money. I'd love to believe that if Steam "won" the digital storefront war, they would magnanimously do everything they could to keep prices low- but with everyone having no choice but to come to them, could Gabe's Twinkie cravings lead him down the path towards the Dark Side?

Competition is good. Thousands of years of commerce have proven this.

I'm very happy to see people like Mr Wardell commenting on the websites I read. Makes me feel listened to. Or at least.. observed. On the spectrum, I'm between a confidant and an animal in a zoo. Either way, it's better than further down, where I'm a sack of money held in contempt.

Where I get a bit annoyed with developers isn't for choosing a DRM solution between Steam and GFWL, but because they want this whole matchmaking thing, which makes life difficult for people who know what they're doing. Great for the new people, a pain in the ass for the ones who've been here a while. But that's not the point of today's interview, so I guess this is off topic...

Competition is amazingly good. What's annoying about using more than one digital distribution service is that I need to actually have multiple programs running on my PC. I buy game A, B and C, and to play them, I need to launch digital distribution software X, Y and Z to run it. What's upsetting isn't just the memory and runtime taken by these, but if software X has an integrated friends list, chatroom, clan/group system, and it's tightly built in, why the hell should I use software Y or Z when it means I have to effectively abandon/ignore my friends and clan? I use Steam to chat with my friends as much, if not more than MSN Messenger, which is abstractly a messaging system.

If Stardock -really- want Impulse to be competitve, then they should see about creating a system for chatting and networking that is independant of their software, beating Valve to it, and perfecting it until Valve use it too, and I can keep my group together. Until then, I can't really use Impulse at all - it's back to square one, with noone kept together.

Steam doesn't have a monopoly on my gaming, but it does have a monopoly on my communications. For me, that's way more important to me than where my games come from.

I love steam but stardock is a company really deserving of the limelight, they are very consumer friendly and have regular sales too, really they just need a good ingame chat thing like steam has and Ill have impulse on as much as I have steam on.

I like Stardock but hate digital distribution. So... even though I like Valve less, I have Steam installed because games like Portal are too good to miss.

I would apreciate variety in digital distribution, but my buying strategy at the moment is retail wherever possible.

As much as I like Stardocks message I find them to be worse than Steam in use. The last time I tried installing Gal Civ 2 was a nightmare, pretty much everything that could go wrong did go wrong. I literally gave up on Stardock right there and then, my copy of Gal Civ 2 is lost floating around in cyberspace and I couldn't care less.

I just prefer a hard copy... I see the benefits and ease of having everything installed on one computer and run through one application (and the bad and the security points) but to me it will never stand up to sliding that case off the shelf, admiring the beautiful artwork before popping out the disc and placing it in the tray... ahhh life's simple pleasures :)

While I'm open to buying my game from most reputable retailers and digital distribution services (for example, I plan to buy the first three Fallout games from GOG rather than buying the Fallout Collection from my local GAME, even if the latter is far cheaper), I do feel that the Steam client (specifically the UI beta) is leaps and bounds ahead of the Impulse client. Hell, I'll be prepared to argue that the Desura client (in closed beta, makes installing mods extremely easy, you will install it once it goes public) is superior to the Impulse client. In fact, the only benefit I can see in the Impulse client over the Steam client is that you don't have to launch it to play games.

That said, I think the Steam client is best overall for organising my games (again, specifically the UI beta and its ability to sort games into catagories). For example, if I wanted to play the Sins of a Solar Empire demo, I'm likely to fire up the Steam client and double click on the shortcut I made in the client.

That said, Impulse Reactor appears to be an entirely seperate beast to the Impulse client, and I approve of superior matchmaking services (as in, superior to GameSpy and GfWL) emerging into the market.

As a consumer, I use 3 services for digital games. Gog.com, Impulse and Steam. Steam have gotten the most, Gog.com the second, Impulse the least.
I prefer Gog.com to Impulse because (aside from there's no updates), it's not involved once the game is installed. With Impulse I have to load it up occasionally to update games, and Steam does it automatically. I have Steam open all the time because of its community and social features.
Once Stardock get their features up and running and they get some killer apps (Sorry guys, but Sins of a Solar Empire just wasn't a killer app. It's a great game, but not a killer) then I'd expect to see it do well. Gog.com does so well because it has the retro market, but to me Impulse has nothing but good weekend deals.

I'll be honest, I've never liked how Steam worked. It always seemed to get in my way. A lot of bells and whistles that I could care less about.

The first game I bought that used Steam was Empire: Total War. I felt like it was a complete pain for installing it from the box. All these extra hoops I felt I went through to play a game. I'm not a big PC gamer so the less hassle, the better.
Then there was that time where Steam updated and it wouldn't let me play "offline" so...

I ended up loading up my Impulse. It updated itself and I was playing SoaSE instead, offline, no issues, no problems, no need for an "offline" mode function.
Right there, Impulse won any future business if/when I buy a PC game.

whenever i have the option, i prefer Impulse over Steam, less problems when i try to play/buy my games that way.

I remember the Windows-OS/2 battle. Nowadays Microsoft's only real competition in the PC space is Google. So here's hoping for a Google OS to keep MS on their toes.

Competition is fine, but my problem lies within having games across 10 different accounts, I have ENOUGH passwords and usernames to remember. I like steam because it's easy, it's cheaper, has no subscription fee and does things better than other garbage digital services.

I buy everything retail. I will occasionally wander the Steam store and buy some things but I wouldnt do that with any other digital distribution. The only reason I use Steam is because I am forced to with a few games. Not that I have any real complaints nor am I real happy with it. I find it interesting neither of these people know anyone who buys things in stores. I truly enjoy wandering aisles and finding things I would not know about otherwise. The internet to me is great if you know what your looking for but there is just so much out there it is hard to find something at random simply because there is so much information on it there is no longer that box art pitch. Instead you have Wikis, reviews, forums and so forth that give you more information then I could ever need or want. Dont get me wrong I would be up shit crick without it but to just know whats out there a physical store is great.

Any digital distribution system is fine and dandy. In the end though I am hoping to not have to have 20 different stores downloaded onto my computer all working at the same time.

As an international customer, Impulse is one of the worst services going. It's as if they go out of their way to be as useless as possible unless you are in North America. For example, they insist on charging in USD, but by default will show you a price in your local currency. Doesn't sound like a problem, until you realise that the rate they show you can be significantly lower than that used by your credit card/Paypal.

They then make the process of viewing the USD price far more annoying than it should be, by having to click a link that forces reloading of the store page (and you may have to do this several times for several products as their system of storing cookies isn't all that great either).

Then with pre-orders there have been cases where they insist on charging you the full amount TWICE - once when you pre-order, and once when the game is released. They say this is to ensure the funds are available, but if that's the case, there is no need to charge more than 1 dollar for the first transaction. There have also been cases where international customers have had to wait several days following the release of a pre-ordered game until they get it unlocked (while US based customers get it unlocked first). If this is due to regional release date differences, Impulse have never listed as such.

Further, there's some insane regional pricing mark ups on games for which none of the other Digital Distributors mark up in a similar fashion. The most notable are games published by Calypso. They are significantly more expensive on Impulse for international customers than from any of the other digital distributors. Impulse claim this is due to the publisher, but then fail to explain why they are the ONLY service to mark those games up in that fashion.

This is even more suspicious when they claim to be the second largest digital distributor (in terms of market share - they claim 10%), and yet the services they claim to be smaller than them, GamersGate and Direct2Drive do not have this same problem with that publisher. Surely smaller distributors would not be capable of negotiating better publishing deals than Impulse? Right? Yeah, that's what I thought.

In terms of service, regional availability of products, pricing and so forth, Impulse is always my last choice. I'll take GamersGate first, GOG, Steam and then Direct2Drive (sadly, Direct2Drive also suffer a large number of regional restrictions that make it difficult to purchase from them).

As for sales, I see no honest way that Impulse can claim to have started such "weekend" sales. As already mentioned, Steam (and even D2D) were offering frequent sales long before Impulse and even when I first started seriously monitoring Impulse around a year ago, they had infrequent weekend deals (it's only been in the last 8 months or so that they have become a weekly affair). And even then, the titles that Impulse consistently put on sale (and which are available worldwide) have either already had far better sales elsewhere or are of low quality.

If they seriously want "second" place in terms of market share, then need to wake up and realise that there is far more to digital distribution than just North America. Really, it's nigh on impossible for the rest of the world to take Impulse seriously.

Grampy_bone:
I remember the Windows-OS/2 battle. Nowadays Microsoft's only real competition in the PC space is Google. So here's hoping for a Google OS to keep MS on their toes.

Google is more aiming for the netbook market. They're not trying to compete with MS on the OS level.

On-topic!: (colobang?) Am I the only one who thought this interview read more like "Please, PLEASE use our service?"

Also, I'm confused. Wasn't there a stretch of time when Stardock was the devil incarnate? Or is that something else that sounds somewhat similar? They did some crazy malware garbage on your machine? I could've sworn that was Stardock.

JEBWrench:

Grampy_bone:
I remember the Windows-OS/2 battle. Nowadays Microsoft's only real competition in the PC space is Google. So here's hoping for a Google OS to keep MS on their toes.

Google is more aiming for the netbook market. They're not trying to compete with MS on the OS level.

On-topic!: (colobang?) Am I the only one who thought this interview read more like "Please, PLEASE use our service?"

Also, I'm confused. Wasn't there a stretch of time when Stardock was the devil incarnate? Or is that something else that sounds somewhat similar? They did some crazy malware garbage on your machine? I could've sworn that was Stardock.

I believe you're thinking of starforce there, it was a DRM system that had all manner of problems and has been pretty widely boycotted.

JEBWrench:

Also, I'm confused. Wasn't there a stretch of time when Stardock was the devil incarnate? Or is that something else that sounds somewhat similar? They did some crazy malware garbage on your machine? I could've sworn that was Stardock.

Yes, I believe there was something along those lines due to how early versions of Window blinds operated. But that is no longer the case. These days, they're just a sub-par digital distribution service - at least for most.

Stardock /= Starforce

References: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/StarForce , http://www.star-force.com/

Also I like Stardock and Impulse. I bought GalCiv II over the service and never had any trouble with it. I've had more trouble with Valve and TF2 than I've had with Impulse over the last 2 years.

trineas:

Steam just celebrated its seventh birthday, but they didn't start doing weekend sales until Impulse started doing them. And from what I can tell, they didn't do holiday sales until after Impulse was doing them.

Why does he keep saying this? It's just not true.

First Steam Weekend deal: 2007-11-09 UFO: Afterlight -- 50% off
Source: http://forums.steampowered.com/forums/showthread.php?t=720271

First Steam Holiday Sale was on December 24th 2007
Source: http://www.shacknews.com/onearticle.x/50525

Impulse was released on June 17th 2008
Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impulse_%28content_delivery%29

Sticky Fingers:
As for sales, I see no honest way that Impulse can claim to have started such "weekend" sales. As already mentioned, Steam (and even D2D) were offering frequent sales long before Impulse and even when I first started seriously monitoring Impulse around a year ago, they had infrequent weekend deals (it's only been in the last 8 months or so that they have become a weekly affair). And even then, the titles that Impulse consistently put on sale (and which are available worldwide) have either already had far better sales elsewhere or are of low quality.

Seems likely to me Wardell's including Stardock Central/Totalgaming.net when he's saying Impulse. SD central was Impulse's precursor, with a lot of the same features, and both were developed/developing around the same time as Steam. Both Steam and SD Central also had disastrous launches around 2003-2004 that ticked off a lot of gamers with their access issues. :D

They started signing up third-party games around the same time as Steam as well (slightly earlier, maybe by 6 months or so), in which case it's entirely possible that Wardell's right.

The distinction is probably obvious to him, but anyone unfamiliar with Stardock's history is probably getting confused, since Impulse did come in quite a bit later than Steam.

I much prefer to buy a copy of a new title from a real store. I like to have the box, manual and disc. In saying this, I do have a lot of games that I have bought of Steam - mainly one that are on sale. Why pay $99 for Borderlands at EB Games when it's on sale for $39 on Steam? Of course then you now have a 7GB file that needs to be downloaded, which with Australian internet can leave you waiting quite a long time before you can start playing your new game. I am lucky that I have very fast cable and can download these files quite quickly (4.5Mb per sec) but I have mates who are lucky to pull speeds of 150Kb per sec. Until internet speeds improve I can't see digital distribution taking over.

Steam is a better service than Impulse but if everything else is equal* I prefer to buy games on Impulse now - simply because I can download on one PC with Impulse while playing on a different PC with Steam. If both were on my Steam account I couldn't do that.

*This is quite rare - usually one or the other is better value.

Kanodin0:
I believe you're thinking of starforce there, it was a DRM system that had all manner of problems and has been pretty widely boycotted.

Aha! That's the bunny. Thanks.

DeadMG:

In a sense, I don't want there to be competition, because I like being able to talk to any friend, in any popular game, at any time, or any of the dozen other features that having a very large collection on Steam offers. To draw a parallel given often in the article, Windows having a monopoly is beneficial for many people, because it's easy for developers to know WinAPI, it's easy for them to know DirectX, and there's no competition - so you don't have to write the same code again for Linux and Mac.

The problem with lack of competition is that whoever holds the monopoly can set what ever standards that they want. That includes higher prices, subscription costs, poor customer service, etc. Competition is always in the best interest of the consumer because it forces the companies to work for customers rather than just sitting back and knowing that consumers don't have anywhere else to go. To expand on your example: Microsoft's monopoly is the reason that Microsoft Office now costs hundreds of dollars rather than coming with the operating system like it used to.

There is a very good reason for America's Anti-trust and Anti-monopoly laws.

I prefer services like gamers gate and direct to drive that let you download and install games normally without some fancy schmancy front end software. The best deal in terms of getting value for money is often boxed games but increasingly they are also loaded with things like steam, games for windows and drm that requires net connections. I suppose that I could be called a luddite when it comes to things like this, I would still rather have a CD than an itunes download any day. Knowing a bit about the history of luddism that wouldn't really bother me. I was probably buying download games online before most people who wub wub steam long time but I want a fair deal where I get to keep and use what I buy without too much inconvenience and faffing about.

DOnt' worry stardock! I'll buy from you! Someday. When I have the money to buy games, period.

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