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Stardock

Reaching the next game level.

Jobs during college tend to be the type that you laugh about later, the kind that involve pizza delivery uniforms or temp worker timecards. But for Brad Wardell, founder of Detroit-based Stardock, things went a little differently, as he parlayed his need to pay tuition into a software development firm that’s still thriving today. Wardell chats about game creation, loyal customers, and taming the galaxy.

How did Stardock get started?

I started the company in college as a way to pay for school so that I could eventually get a “real job.” But Stardock ended up doing so well that I made that my career. I built custom personal computers for faculty and during my senior year, I started writing a game for IBM’s OS/2 called Galactic Civilizations. It was the first commercial game for OS/2 and it was a tremendous success.

What prompted you to design the game?

I thought it was a great opportunity. There weren’t any real games for OS/2 back in 1993 and at the time it had an installed base of a few million consumers. The game became so well known that IBM asked me to write a space game like GalCiv and so I wrote Star Emperor.

What are the challenges that you see in developing games?

The PC game development model as it is today isn’t very stable. Most game companies end up going broke, because the ante is so high budget-wise that if the game doesn’t do well they go out of business. So, for us, it’s a challenge of making a game that is competitive without risking the entire company on its success.

How difficult did you find the migration from OS/2 to Windows?

It was pretty challenging. For one thing, we had to start all over from both a product point of view and marketing point of view. In the OS/2 world, we had a large enough market share that anything we did was newsworthy in OS/2-related publications. But on Windows, no one knows us. And it’s proven a lot harder to get coverage for our software as a result. Plus we had to rebuild our development teams to write software for a new platform. It was a close call, by 1998, our revenue was only one-fourth what it was in 1996. It took us until 2000 to get back to where we were in 1996.

How did you manage the comeback?

What really saved us was the loyalty of our customers. A lot of people think being in business requires being ruthless. I tend to believe that nice guys finish first and it really paid off. Our customers pre-purchased our Object Desktop for Windows a year before it came out, which gave us the capital to do the game Entrepreneur.

What kinds of things does Stardock have in the works?

We have a new game in development called “The Political Machine” which allows players to try to run for President using exit polling data to try to accurately predict presidential elections but as a game. That won’t be out until the end of the year. We also have a host of new programs coming out for our Object Desktop suite.

What do you like best about what you do?

I really enjoy being able to work on “cool” stuff. Most people go to work and work on things that no one really cares about. But here we get to make things that people feel very passionate about. It’s fun to have people use your stuff and really be glad that you made it.

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