In the ongoing PC gaming interview series, we get a glimpse into the mind of Brad Wardell, CEO of Stardock. Brad talks about how Impulse was created, Steam, GOG, ImpulseTV and much more.
Walk us through the development of your digital distribution system starting with Component Manager through Stardock Central and now with Impulse. What were some of the struggles and successes during this time?
Back in the 90s, the only realistic way we could sell software was either at retail or to ship someone a box. Shipping boxes was very labor intensive for us and retailers were…challenging to deal with, especially if you were a small company.
So we decided to make a virtual store, which, back in 1997, was a pretty new thing. The idea would be that a person could download our “store” and then purchase our programs right from it. The user would then download and install the program right from the store. It had to be done “just right” because back then, people were using 28.8k modems so a lot of our work was put in to break our products into “components” hence the name “Component Manager”.
A few years later, we re-did our store to support our PC games and called it “Stardock Central”. Stardock Central included built in chat, a mod browser for downloading additional content for our products and was a lot friendlier to use.
A while after Stardock Central was out, Valve released Steam which, unlike Stardock Central, sold not just Valve’s games but third-party games as well. When users started coming to us requesting that we put our games on Steam so that they could purchase all their games at the same place. This concerned us because we had done all this work in order not to be beholden to any particular retailer and we saw that this new “Steam” thing could end up being the CompUSA (which was a bit of a boogieman back in the 90s at retail) of the digital world.
So we rebuild our digital distribution system from scratch so that we could seamlessly support not just our own software but third party software as well. The result was Impulse.
When you launched Component Manager in 1998, did you have an idea of how big digital distribution would eventually become?
We believed that digital distribution would eventually take over. But we thought that every developer and publisher would have their own thing. We didn’t imagine that it would consolidate into a few digital retailers.
What are your thoughts on other digital distribution companies like Steam and GOG?
We’re big fans of both of them. For one thing, Stardock is a technology company so we tend to have a great deal of respect for those who produce high quality stuff. The thing that I think many people don’t realize about Steam is that Valve was the first to recognize that not every developer or publisher would want to create their own digital store. It only seems obvious in hindsight but what Valve did was really ground breaking.
Moreover, and this is something that should be emphasized because I’ve seen Steam detractors wrongly assert this – Steam isn’t #1 just because it was first. They have consistently been out in front in the changing market. The biggest challenge for Stardock with regards to Steam vs. Impulse (besides the obvious disparity of capital resources) has been trying to find ways to leapfrog them onto the next phase of digital distribution. So far, Steam has beaten us to the punch every time – first with Steam itself and then with Steamworks.
With regards to GOG, what makes GOG special in our minds is that they decided not to even try to compete with Steam or Impulse but rather focus on classic games. This is a very solid business move because in terms of margins, classic games blow away new games.
What things can you do to make Impulse more of an attractive option for PC gamers?
There are a few things that Stardock has to do with Impulse to increase its market share. The biggest problem we have had has been capital. Impulse gets investment from Stardock’s other two business units (PC software and PC games). But we don’t have a Half-Life 2 equivalent in our game catalog to hire the kind of developer and release engineering staffing that Valve has. So we have to be a lot more tactical about it.
Going forward, the community features of Impulse are going to become an increasing focus for us in order to give PC users a more cohesive experience. We also have a number of projects in development to make it easier for both game developers and software developers to put their titles up on Impulse.