Stardock Impulse Details

Interview with Brad Wardell on GameSetWatch

http://www.gamesetwatch.com/2008/04/...

Some Highlights

Historically, we've just put our stuff, or if indie developers wanted us to distribute their stuff, we'd let them, but we didn't really push it. Now, with Impulse, we're going out and getting major third-party games and applications put on here as well. By the end of the year, you should be able to get most games on Impulse.
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The main reason we wanted to talk to you guys about this is because I know you guys have been covering how the PC game industry is going from here. Impulse has integrated into it support for what is called mini-subscriptions and micro-expansion packs.

Currently, a lot of people think that a subscription model is the only way to go, with some sort of MMO, but what we think is that a lot of games will come out with support for people purchasing additional content. That itself isn't that new, but that includes also having optional subscriptions.

You could, for a few dollars a month, subscribe to something where you keep getting new maps, new characters, and new items, but it wasn't required and you weren't forced to subscribe -- and that's the critical part. A lot of people will go, "Why do I have to be nickel-and-dimed in every single game I play?"

But if you get into a game and really like it, then here's an option to get new stuff out of it, rather than the current model, which is "Publisher gives developer big advance. Game gets made. One patch is made, then expansion packs." That's it. Then all the people who are into the game are basically abandoned after that.

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For example, we're well-known for releasing free updates with new features. We don't want that to go away. We're going to continue to release... like with Demigod, we're going to be doing free updates for that for a year. We don't want someone paying five dollars for horse armor or something like that. We want people to get that sort of thing for free. But if they want to get significant new content for a game that they love, here's an option to do that.

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GSW: So support for game developers... pro or indie?

BW: Both. Sins of a Solar Empire and Demigod will both be able to make use of the matchmaking services, and you'll have a persistent character in Impulse that you use between games as you build up your stats, and you'll have friends, and that kind of thing.

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With Impulse, though, they can actually generate money by using Impulse to sell their game. Because we have an affiliate system, which is something that no one else has. Let's say if Gamasutra had Impulse. When you install Impulse from Gamasutra, it would print to the registry the Gamasutra affiliate ID, and every time someone ever bought a game or anything from Impulse, Gamasutra would receive 15 percent of the gross on it.

What's nice is that developers, even the ones that have publishers, can essentially push their own game and still make 15 percent of the sale, which is nice, because historically, they're locked out. You can tell people to go to Best Buy, but there's no affiliate system for that or Steam, or what have you. There's no affiliate.

Micro transactions, subscriptions, affiliate programs and big name games on Stardock all with no/lightweight copy protection? My interest is Peaked with a capital P.

Impulse could be a great entrant to the market - I love Steam, but it's really the only player in the town and could use some competition. EA's store and Direct2Drive don't really count, in my mind, as they're singularly focused on content delivery and leave out the critical pieces of matchmaking, etc.

doogiemac wrote:

Impulse could be a great entrant to the market - I love Steam, but it's really the only player in the town and could use some competition. EA's store and Direct2Drive don't really count, in my mind, as they're singularly focused on content delivery and leave out the critical pieces of matchmaking, etc.

Well, Direct2Drive is owned by GameSpy, one of the original makers of matchmaking software on the PC. Not that Steam isn't 100 times better.

PyromanFO wrote:

My interest is Peaked with a capital P.

Piqued.

The thing that interests me most about Impulse is the way that it completely obviates copy protection. The model Wardell is hoping for is more pay-as-you-go than monolithic release. Small enough updates with low enough prices will provide more than enough motivation for people actually interested in a game to have a legit copy. It'll be the only way to keep getting latest and greatest via Impulse.

I was going to use Impulse (beta client) to buy Sins this weekend, until I saw that their pricing was FUBAR.

*Legion* wrote:

I was going to use Impulse (beta client) to buy Sins this weekend, until I saw that their pricing was FUBAR.

Elaborate please - I'm interested in Impulse from the whole "competition" perspective but am wondering what you mean by FUBAR pricing. Intentionally more expensive than the 45$ from the sins site?

Dysplastic wrote:

Elaborate please - I'm interested in Impulse from the whole "competition" perspective but am wondering what you mean by FUBAR pricing. Intentionally more expensive than the 45$ from the sins site?

No, it's the same as the Sins site: $45 download, $50 boxed.

Which, when every US retailer is selling it at $30-40, is just plain dumb.

I'm very pleased with how Steam has managed to keep up (and even beat) retail price drops. Stardock needs to take notes. The fact that I would have to pay $15-20 more to get the game from Stardock than from Amazon is just mind-boggling in its badness.

Target is dropping it to $30 in next week's circular ad, according to CheapAssGamer. I'll be buying it from my local Target then. Which is just so disappointing. Basically I'll be buying it just to tear open the box and throw the registration code into Impulse. I don't want the disc and box, but I sure don't want to spend $15 more just to avoid the "hassle" of throwing the stuff into the recycling.

I understand the desire to save 10 bucks, but when you buy from big-box instead of from a website for a small developer like Ironclad, you have a huge impact on their bottom line. We're talking the difference between 5 dollars and 50) maybe not quite that much, but not way off. If you're not in a position to view your game dollar as a charitable contribution, I ain't gonna hold it against you. But there's really no way they can get big box distribution at ALL if they sell it for less, themselves, on line.

Yeah Legion, you prick.

I actually e-mailed Stardock to try to get them to drop the price of GalCiv II Gold (which was around 10 bucks more than Amazon). The response:

Unfortunately, we cannot match retail prices. Oftentimes sites like Amazon will take a hit on their price in the hopes that you will purchase more than that game.

I wish I had a better answer for you.

I don't get this at all. Do they sign agreements to hold the price at a certain point or something? This was well after the point I could even buy the game from a retail store.

The download version of Sins that you get from Stardock/TotalGaming/Impulse for $45 is a "digital Collector's Edition." The retail box copy includes just the game. The downloadable CE version includes the game, a tech tree poster, hotkey card, artwork and soundtrack.

BadKen wrote:

The download version of Sins that you get from Stardock/TotalGaming/Impulse for $45 is a "digital Collector's Edition." The retail box copy includes just the game. The downloadable CE version includes the game, a tech tree poster, hotkey card, artwork and soundtrack.

That's great for fans who want that stuff. I just want the damn game.

Staats wrote:

I actually e-mailed Stardock to try to get them to drop the price of GalCiv II Gold (which was around 10 bucks more than Amazon).

I can understand not being able to match Amazon (who has Sins at $30, by far the cheapest of anyone). But when every dinky little place selling games online or offline is cheaper than them, I don't buy it. That's not just one gigantic retailer undercutting the price to try and stimulate sales.

rabbit wrote:

But there's really no way they can get big box distribution at ALL if they sell it for less, themselves, on line.

I'm not asking them to sell it for less than the big box stores. I'm asking them to not be THE single most expensive source for the game. There's a difference between the two.

I fully appreciate the fact that they can't undercut retail and still get the box on shelves. But retail has left them in the dust. The game is now a $30-40 game, everywhere except from Stardock themselves. Is it so much to ask for them to be in the same ballpark? I'd be more than happy to break a tie, or even a "close enough" tie in their favor. But not budging from the original price?

You can't expect a publisher to monitor the "street" price of their product and then adjust the price for the download edition based on what they see in the market. They sell it for MSRP. It's just kind of how digital distribution works - there are no stock clearance sales. Nobody's trying to blow something off the shelves to make room for the next game up on the price is right.

*Legion* wrote:

That's great for fans who want that stuff. I just want the damn game.

Okay, but for whatever reason, Wardell decided that the only package he was going to offer via Stardock/TotalGaming is the collector's edition. He said as much in this message.

It's not a case of Stardock trying to gouge people, or them not keeping up with the current price at retail, they've decided they'll only sell the collector's edition. For which I think they are rightly charging a premium.

I think this is a unique case, different from the general pricing you see on Stardock/TotalGaming/Impulse. Obviously a publisher can't match every retail price in existence, because the loss leaders would eat their lunch. Stardock does set very reasonable prices for things, though: Imperium Romanum for $40, Sword of the Stars for $20, Earth 2150 Trilogy for $10...

BTW, the current Amazon price for the retail Sins is $40, for the CE is $48. Amazon prices change all the time... it wouldn't surprise me if they have different prices based on the time of day, like the way airlines price tickets!

BadKen wrote:

Obviously a publisher can't match every retail price in existence, because the loss leaders would eat their lunch.

I don't understand how this is true. A digital download is essentially no cost to them - I give them money and they transfer some bits to me. I suppose if a store sold a game at less than what Stardock charges the retail distribution chain - unlikely - Stardock might make less money, but they can't really lose money.

rabbit wrote:

You can't expect a publisher to monitor the "street" price of their product and then adjust the price for the download edition based on what they see in the market. They sell it for MSRP. It's just kind of how digital distribution works - there are no stock clearance sales. Nobody's trying to blow something off the shelves to make room for the next game up on the price is right.

Why not? The time to check out a few major retailers is minimal. I realize they have no need to clear shelf space, but selling a digital download is pretty much pure profit. Better something than nothing, right?

Staats wrote:

I don't understand how this is true. A digital download is essentially no cost to them - I give them money and they transfer some bits to me. I suppose if a store sold a game at less than what Stardock charges the retail distribution chain - unlikely - Stardock might make less money, but they can't really lose money.

Digital distribution has a non-zero cost. To be sure, the costs are different from physical distribution, printing, duplication, packaging, shipping, distributor costs, retailer slotting fees, but they exist, nonetheless. It ain't cheap to run a redundantly-peered high volume data center capable of handling huge peak downloads the size of a modern game installer. There are also support costs associated with digital distribution that don't even enter into the physical retail chain.

I'm not saying the costs are the same, but digital delivery definitely isn't free.

Digital distributors can also afford to give bigger cuts to publishers, essentially passing on their cost savings as bottom-line profit. Because they cut different deals with publishers, their margins probably aren't as fat as you might assume.

BadKen wrote:

BTW, the current Amazon price for the retail Sins is $40, for the CE is $48.

Nuts. I have a screenshot from two days ago when it was $30:

IMAGE(http://www.blastprocessing.net/wp-content/uploads/2008/04/amazon.jpg)

Obviously a publisher can't match every retail price in existence, because the loss leaders would eat their lunch.

I completely agree with this. Like I said, it's not being annoyed that they're not matching the best retail price, it's annoyance that they're matching none of them.

It's not a case of Stardock trying to gouge people, or them not keeping up with the current price at retail, they've decided they'll only sell the collector's edition. For which I think they are rightly charging a premium.

I think it's naive to suggest that not selling the "regular" game online is anything other than an excuse to not keep up with retail prices. There's no reason not to offer the game itself otherwise - which is precisely why you find yourself saying "for whatever reason" in reference to it, because there really isn't a good one.

Whether you call it not keeping up with retail, or not giving me the option to buy the game without paying for extra junk I don't want... either way, it's not consumer friendly. It's not something I ever have to worry about when buying games from competing services like Steam. I'm the customer these places should want - you don't need to go through a retail channel to get to me, I don't need/want any physical packaging at all, I just want the game data sent to my PC. It's nice and cheap to sell a game to me. Don't do things like taking the regular-priced game off the table.

rabbit wrote:

It's just kind of how digital distribution works

Funny you should say that. When I noticed this, I tried to find a game on Steam that sold cheaper on Amazon or any major retailer. I failed. Granted, I didn't check EVERY retailer and EVERY game, but I threw in the towel when I instead started finding games where Steam was cheaper than Amazon.

Of course, Stardock isn't Steam, and it's not fair to expect it to be, but I don't think the "this is how digital distribution works" argument flies. Somehow I don't think Stardock is clueless as to what their products are selling for at retailers.

*Legion* wrote:

I think it's naive to suggest that not selling the "regular" game online is anything other than an excuse to not keep up with retail prices. There's no reason not to offer the game itself otherwise - which is precisely why you find yourself saying "for whatever reason" in reference to it, because there really isn't a good one.

If I had to guess, I'd say that Stardock had to cut some pretty painful deals with big box retailers to get their game on the shelves. In Europe, no distributor would agree to carry their game! Nobody believed that a space strategy game would make any money. It wouldn't surprise me at all if a "no digital retail package" or "guaranteed minimum digital price" were requirements Stardock had to meet.

This was a very risky game coming out the gate. A developer's first title, trying to define a new genre, released both on and offline with no copy protection? I can still hear the echos of the laughter of the suits...

One thing I definitely agree with you on: this kind of fixed pricing is anti-consumer. In order for Impulse to succeed, especially with its stated goal of extending the lifetime of games, it's going to have to follow the market pretty closely.

BadKen wrote:

If I had to guess, I'd say that Stardock had to cut some pretty painful deals with big box retailers to get their game on the shelves. In Europe, no distributor would agree to carry their game! Nobody believed that a space strategy game would make any money. It wouldn't surprise me at all if a "no digital retail package" or "guaranteed minimum digital price" were requirements Stardock had to meet.

I can imagine that, but as someone who foregoes the retail channel as much as possible, I'm just not very sympathetic to being price fixed in order for them to put copies into Wal-Marts. Not when they're now hitting the press with the Demigod announcement and saying that "[the goal is] to have equivalent game content as Direct2Drive and Steam by end of year", and interviewing on Gamasutra about how great Impulse will be.

EDIT:

One thing I definitely agree with you on: this kind of fixed pricing is anti-consumer. In order for Impulse to succeed, especially with its stated goal of extending the lifetime of games, it's going to have to follow the market pretty closely.

You edited this part in after made this post - I think we're more or less on the same page.

I have to say that i'm with Legion on this. I don't hate digital distribution but the pricing really needs to be worked out.

Not to mention that having variable pricing from country to country makes even less sense when it's a single player game or player-hosted multiplayer. (i'm talking about price before tax just in case anyone gets the wrong end of the stick)

So how do you become a Stardock Impulse tester? I've already bought Sins from Stardock and I'd just like to see what this Impulse thing is all about.

Duoae wrote:

I have to say that i'm with Legion on this. I don't hate digital distribution but the pricing really needs to be worked out.

Not to mention that having variable pricing from country to country makes even less sense when it's a single player game or player-hosted multiplayer. (i'm talking about price before tax just in case anyone gets the wrong end of the stick)

Steam do this a lot - as well as occasionally not making things available to their loyal European users.

PyromanFO wrote:

So how do you become a Stardock Impulse tester? I've already bought Sins from Stardock and I'd just like to see what this Impulse thing is all about.

I Downloaded it from here

Stardock Impulse

I don't get this at all. Do they sign agreements to hold the price at a certain point or something?

It's not uncommon for distribution agreements to include protection clauses for the retailers. At one time, it was sort of an 'honor system' that you didn't undercut your retailers, but I believe that's actually become part of the distribution contracts, much of the time.

Valve is in an unusually powerful position in the industry, and Gabe Newell plays serious hardball, so Steam may not be limited in the same way.

In thinking about it, I believe Valve is the only digital distributor that isn't full retail price, all the time... well, other than Gametap's buffet model.

Badken about digital distribution having a non-zero cost.

The initial setup is a cost but a once only cost that is recouped by the fact you aren't losing a percentage in every sale through third parties.

The download cost is a very small part of each sale. Even with the simultaneous download argument. This is more of an operational and planning problem. If you were releasing your first game and wanted to set up this kind of infrastructure then sure it might not be cost effective but not for Stardock. They have the infrastructure in place. THAT is what this Impulse thing is about.

The reason they can get away with having the digital download version more expensive is because digital downloaders are willing to spend extra money so they don't lose forum posting time with all that going to the shops business.

About the "Demigod will be patched for a year" thing. Stardock really love bragging about this angle. Given two games of equal quality the one that gets patched more and longer will benefit for it. But these independent games are now getting released with the intention of releasing patches for a longer period so the danger is they will come out as what in the past would have been referred to as a beta.

much2much wrote:

The initial setup is a cost but a once only cost that is recouped by the fact you aren't losing a percentage in every sale through third parties.

Running a high-volume data center is not a fixed one-time cost. I get tired of hearing the argument that downloads are free. Speedy, reliable downloads are not free.

BadKen wrote:
much2much wrote:

The initial setup is a cost but a once only cost that is recouped by the fact you aren't losing a percentage in every sale through third parties.

Running a high-volume data center is not a fixed one-time cost. I get tired of hearing the argument that downloads are free. Speedy, reliable downloads are not free.

I think the argument about digital distribution being "free" is more that a high-volume data center should be less expensive to run than a high-production disc/box/manual production center. The "fact" may not be true, but it sure seems that way to most people (myself included), and we are frustrated when the lower cost of doing business is not directly reflected in lowering the prices we are expected to (and often do) pay for a comparable product.

Atras wrote:
BadKen wrote:

Running a high-volume data center is not a fixed one-time cost. I get tired of hearing the argument that downloads are free. Speedy, reliable downloads are not free.

I think the argument about digital distribution being "free" is more that a high-volume data center should be less expensive to run than a high-production disc/box/manual production center.

Exactly. How much does supporting a purchaser of downloadable content cost?

Take my original example. I don't own GalCiv 2, so I decide to change that by purchasing it from Stardock. I input my credit card. I get an e-mail with a link to let me download the game. I download the game ( which is around 1-2 gigs, I think). The cost to them was an automatic e-mail and some bandwidth.

Compare that to printing a disc, a box, a manual, shipping to store (or maybe a distributor first) which then takes a sizeable piece of the pie before putting it onto a store shelf. Even assuming a developer can magic new copies directly onto the shelves at Target, the $10-15 markup Target wants has to be enormous relative to the cost of me downloading it.

If the retail markup is on par with the cost of supporting digital downloads, that would imply that a game selling a million copies requires $10-15 million to support digital distribution, something I find hard to believe.

There's no denying that bandwidth and servers cost money, but we know it's not on the same order as producing physical product, shipping that product, and of course, having the people that make and ship the physical product taking their cut, as well as the people stocking the physical product taking theirs.

Like Rabbit said, the difference in return to the developers between buying the game off the shelf and buying it direct from them might not be fully tenfold, but it's up there. Recognizing this, I hope Stardock doesn't lock themselves into deals that favor retailers over those of us that want the game direct in the future (if that is in fact the case here).