Interview: Brad Wardell

Brad Wardell is the founder and CEO of Stardock Systems, one of the most aggressive and progressive OS/2 ISV's in the world. At the tender age of 24, he and his associates have managed to make the rest of the OS/2 world sit up and take notice. With such commercial hits as Galactic Civilizations and OS/2 Essentials under his belt and the apparent success of the newly released Object Desktop, it looks like a good year for Stardock and Brad Wardell.

Thinking that a lot of people would like to pick his brain I took the initiative and whipped up a few questions. I spoke to Brad earlier this month, just before COMDEX.

e-Zine!: OK, to jump right in, how long has Stardock been in business?

BW: Since 1992.

e-Zine!: And the OS/2 business?

BW: We started going with [Galactic Civilizations] in June of '93.

e-Zine!: So a couple of years. Why did you originally start developing for OS/2?

BW: Well let's see. OS/2 2.1 came out and we looked at the numbers and there was, at the time, four or five million OS/2 users and we [said], "Why aren't there a bunch of OS/2 products?" And there weren't any. I had a game idea I had been wanting to do for a long time in my own spare time and I said, "Well why don't we get the company to fund it - my game idea - and why don't we develop for OS/2? There are no games for it."

e-Zine!: So the reason you chose a game was partly out of personal preference and partly because there was no game software around?

BW: Right. There was no competition. The other thing was because it was our first OS/2 program there would be some tolerance. There is some tolerance in a game if there are bugs in it and we weren't sure how well we were going to be able to do it. We were totally new to it.

e-Zine!: Were you surprised by GalCiv's success?

BW: Yeah. I know IBM was.

e-Zine!: I know you mentioned to me one other time that somebody told you that you would be lucky to sell, 500 copies was it?

BW: Yeah.

e-Zine!: How many copies did you eventually sell of GalCiv?

BW: Well, I don't want to go into specifics but I will say that by the end of this year we expect to have shipped our 550,000th game. That's a combination of betas, GalCiv, Star Emperor and Avarice.

e-Zine!: You're saying by the end of the year, right?

BW: Um hum.

e-Zine!: GalCiv v2 will be out by then, correct?

BW: Right. It's counting our preorders of GalCiv v2.

e-Zine!: Is it true that you personally wrote GalCiv?

BW: Yeah. Well 99% of it.

e-Zine!: Do you still do any of the coding at Stardock?

BW: Oh yeah. GalCiv v2 - I'm the only one developing that.

e-Zine!: Oh, really! Well then I guess I don't have to ask you if you miss it. Are you always going to keep your fingers on the keyboard or. . .

BW: Oh yeah. Star Emperor I wrote, Entrepreneur I wrote most of the code for - that's been horrendously late because I have been overly busy. We've put more people on it to get it on track, but that's the one I'm really excited for, for this next year. Game-wise, that is.

e-Zine!: OK. While we're talking about GalCiv, what really happened with AIM?

BW: Well, let's see. Back in 1993 IBM got wind that we were developing a game, and after they discovered we were not going to go away and stop making a game for their mission critical client-server platform, they said, "Well, you guys haven't published a game before."

And I said, "No."

"Well, you guys really need experts to help you. Here's this company called Advanced Idea Machines. They're experts. Why don't you have them market and publish your game?"

e-Zine!: So it was IBM that approached you to tell you about AIM?

BW: Exactly.

e-Zine!: Aha. Then what happened?

BW: Well, then we met a guy named John Schaefer - or not met him, but over the phone - and he told us he was this multi, multi million dollar company, and he had helped fund a bunch of really famous movies and he was looking to publish things in the software market, he had a lot of great ideas for GalCiv, and he was going to do a $100,000 ad campaign, he would guarantee us 75,000 first year sales at retail, and lots and lots of promises, and really great production of everything, and so on and so forth.

e-Zine!: And as we all know, when the box came out things were slightly different.

BW: When the box came out, that was when we decided that we would never again let someone else publish our software. We didn't get to see the GalCiv box until the beta testers saw the GalCiv box, essentially. And the manual - the manual that I had written for GalCiv v1 is coming in GalCiv v2 - but originally I had an over 100 page manual for GalCiv on paper and at the last minute. . . You know, AIM had come to me and said, "Say, if we had it on-line instead of hard copy we think that the users would like that better."

And I said, "No way, they would hate that. People want a real manual."

And he said, "Well our studies have shown that that's not the case."

And I said, "Well, why don't we ask our beta testers on [comp.os.os2].games?"

And he said, "Oh no, that won't be necessary. We'll go with the paper." And then when it shipped we discovered he didn't use our manual. He'd gone with the disk. Well, actually not when it shipped, just before. About two weeks before we shipped we found that out.

And the way we found it out was, we were supposed to have five disks for GalCiv because we had made all these movies for the game. There are two video clips that show up in GalCiv that we had done through ray tracing. We had done quite a few more and, so, suddenly we had to go from five disks to four disks [to fit the manual on the fifth] and we had to go through and scrunch down all the graphics, so the graphics in GalCiv are much poorer in quality than they were originally supposed to be. And then we had to take out some of the movies.

e-Zine!: So overall, not a pleasant relationship.

BW: No. Well, it got worse.

[laughs and chuckles]

e-Zine!: OK, well, I won't ask you to go into too much of it. I'm sure its a touchy subject. Let's change the subject a bit then. I know Object Desktop took a while for you guys to develop. Did you know it was going to sell well?

BW: Um, not really until June. When we decided on Object Desktop, we only wanted 50 or 60 beta testers. We [thought we] would have it kind of public but basically for people who were real diehards. We actually charged $50 for the early experience program thinking, "No one is going to want to pay $50 for beta software, even if they do get the final version free."

We were going to have this program open until the middle of July, originally was the plan, because we thought it would take a long time to get the 50 or 60 people. Well, within the first few days we had a thousand beta testers. And basically that shut down Stardock during that time because - if you do the math - if you're open eight hours a day and if you get a thousand beta testers in five days, that's 200 calls a day divided by eight - that's a lot of calls an hour.

e-Zine!: So now that its been released, are sales meeting or exceeding expectations?

BW: It's kind of hard to say. Shrink wrapped sales have not done quite as strongly as we had hoped because it's been a lot harder to get OS/2 apps into the channels. When GalCiv came out, IBM was putting a big push on Warp as a retail product and because of that GalCiv was pretty easy to get into stores. OS/2 Essentials, our second product, was a little bit harder to get into the stores but still not impossible. With Object Desktop, it has been a major problem to get it into the stores.

e-Zine!: Because the retailers themselves are resisting, or because the distributors are resisting?

BW: No, we had no problem getting it into distribution because we do have a good track record. But the retailers see OS/2 apps as not selling anymore and that if IBM's not pushing it, people aren't going to buy it anymore. So we said, "Well, people can go to CompUSA and Egghead to buy Object Desktop," before we had actually got it in there because we based it on our prior experience; it only took us a little while to get our products there. And even as we speak, it's still not in CompUSA - and we have to do a lot more [to get it there]. In marketing terms you have to take all risk away from the retailer. You have to essentially give them free copies to get it on the shelves and we've never had to do that before.

e-Zine!: So they're not reassured by the previous success of GalCiv or. . .

BW: No, they look at OS/2 as a whole. GalCiv was the top OS/2 product of this year at the store and currently OS/2 Essentials is the top selling OS/2 product at the stores, but that's not what they look at. They look at OS/2 products in general.

e-Zine!: Presumably the notable exceptions to that case are the OS/2 only mail order places like Indelible Blue and House of Technology and places like that?

BW: Right. They've done really well with it and that's where, in fact, I would say almost half our sales - not half, but maybe a third of our sales - have come from Indelible Blue alone.

e-Zine!: Of shrink wrap?

BW: Of shrink wrap.

e-Zine!: Wow.

BW: Now, with preloading we've had a lot of success. By COMDEX we expect to have sold about 40, maybe 45 thousand preloads.

e-Zine!: Are you preloading in the States, in Germany, or both and other places?

BW: Europe only right now.

e-Zine!: What kind of machines are they preloading on? Eight meg machines or. . .

BW: Eight to sixteen.

e-Zine!: What kind of preparation did you make for technical support?

BW: I was just on the Internet a little while ago and was reading someone flaming us on technical support. I think we're kind of a target because everyone knows we read the Internet almost obsessively, so people say, "Hey, I can really get 'em at home," so to speak, "by posting." But for tech support we figured that Object Desktop would have a [high] tech support need because it's essentially a third party upgrade. It turned out that the beta testers did a really good job, because there weren't that many problems.

The way we got our tech support people is, Stardock's kind of known on the Internet as being a pretty pro-OS/2 company, so we've had a lot of people send us resumes [saying], "Hey, I'd love to work at Stardock. I'm not really a programmer, but I really, really know OS/2 really well." So we've gotten a lot people in tech support who know OS/2 inside and out. And we may have overstaffed because we were expecting all these calls. As you and I talk right now, none of the tech support lines are on. There are no tech support calls in the whole company right now, as we speak.

e-Zine!: Unbelievable. I was going to ask if it had really been under-utilized, but I guess it's really been under-utilized.

BW: It's really underutilized, to the point where it's almost a problem. A lot of people luckily use E-mail and other channels for it and that helps quite a bit. For the most part it's been a pretty trouble free product which has been to our surprise. I mean we tested it, but with so many configurations, we figured we should run into the same sort of problems IBM does with Warp itself.

e-Zine!: Obviously everyone expects to have some problems when you release something of that scope.

BW: Right. A Microsoft guy in Australia thought Object Desktop was OS/2 4.0 - a preview of OS/2 4.0.

[more chuckles on my part]

e-Zine!: I don't know if this is a realistic consideration, but what will you do if IBM addresses a large number of Object Desktop's features in its next version of Warp?

BW: It depends on what those features are. We're not standing still. I think it's more like IBM would approach us about trying to license some of the technology.

e-Zine!: Have you every given any thought to an arrangement with IBM to bundle or integrate Object Desktop with Warp?

BW: Probably not the whole thing. Really, to be honest with you, a lot of it would come down to price and how much they wanted. You read the [comp.os.os2].advocacy newsgroups. It really helps OS/2 when they can say, "Look at Stardock. They're succeeding. They're developing only for OS/2 and they are succeeding." Whereas, if IBM comes and buys the crown jewels, so to speak, what do we have?

But I'm not too worried about IBM coming up with stuff on their own. I mean they haven't changed Work Place Shell essentially since 2.0, and we know from trying to get tech support on Work Place Shell that they aren't overstaffed in that department.

e-Zine!: What about the future? You've got a bunch of new products coming up. What are you most excited about?

BW: Well on the game front, Entrepreneur. That, in my opinion, will be the next SimCity game where you're playing and you say, "Well of course! Why didn't someone think of this earlier?"

e-Zine!: It's that good? You think it's going to be that successful?

BW: I think it's going to be that good. But it's going to take a lot longer to develop than I thought, too.

e-Zine!: What will you do if IBM does drop all pretense of marketing to the home buyer, just completely drops advertising and tries only to sell to corporate markets?

BW: Well, we'll continue with our corporate strategy for OS/2 with Object Desktop and OS/2 Essentials and the upcoming Process Commander and that line of software. We'll have to move to Windows 95 for our games. I mean, what can we do, if IBM essentially leaves us high and dry?

e-Zine!: OK, what enhancements are coming up, or I suppose are in, GalCiv v2?

BW: Oh, we had a meeting about this. GalCiv v2 is half written for me. I addressed the things that really bugged me about GalCiv and a lot - well not a lot, but some - suggestions from users.

For me, the thing in GalCiv that I really didn't like is that the whole galaxy was like one big area that you could explore without any barriers. Like when you play a conventional land conquest game, there's land masses and crossing the water is a tedious thing that is done. So you're kind of isolated by your land masses. In space you don't have that, but you should. Not just from a fun level but because if you're in a galaxy and you're billions of light years from home there are a certain amount of problems that you're going to run into being so far away from a supply station. But in GalCiv that's not addressed. Until now.

So in GalCiv v2, each ship has a specific range how far away from your planets it can go before it says, "No, you can't any further away."

e-Zine!: And that's based on a function of fuel carriage or. . .

BW: Not so much fuel because I really hate that concept in space. Like, "Whoops! You're out of fuel, ha ha!" But just how far you can get away from your star systems before it says, "We're not going to allow you to go any further." Basically for repairs, food - well not necessarily food - but basic infrastructure needs of the ship. So we just established a range. It totally changes your strategy for the game.

e-Zine!: Anything else?

BW: Yeah, the thing that annoyed me most is micro-management of the planets. In GalCiv you can go on to each of the planets and set up how you want to spend your money. It's a bunch of little buttons that you press. And I know I'm not the only one that felt that was a terrible way of doing it on all your planets, so I established star system governors who actually go in and set up your resources for you.

e-Zine!: So as the game gets larger in scope you don't have to deal with all the mundane details.

BW: Right. You just choose a governor, like a warrior guy or a scientist to run your star systems and he will actually say, "I'm going to put all your resources toward warfare or all toward research for you."

e-Zine!: So do you see GalCiv v2 selling more copies than the original, now that you've got more awareness, more marketing, better graphics, etc.?

BW: Yeah, I think so. We're going to do something that AIM never did, and that's advertise it.

e-Zine!: I guess that would help.

BW: Yes. So in Computer Gaming World and PC Gamer you'll see full page ads for GalCiv in the coming months.

e-Zine!: So assuming that IBM doesn't do anything crazy like drop its marketing focus from the home market, Stardock plans to continue in both home and the corporate market for the long term?

BW: Yes. We have, actually, separate consumer and corporate divisions here.

e-Zine!: How large do you see Stardock growing in the future?

BW: I don't want us to grow too big. I don't want us to be a Microsoft sized company or anything like that. There are a lot of advantages to being a small company. You can do things purely because you want. If you have 400 people or more in your company, and I'm just using an arbitrarily large number for a software company, you stop being able to do things that you want instead of what is the smart business decision.

I like to personally be able to hang out on the Internet. Now if we had 400 people, the Chief Executive Officer of a company does not hang out on the Internet fighting flame wars on the .advocacy forum. You know, it's just not proper behavior.

e-Zine!: Right. I guess Bill Gates probably doesn't have a lot of time to actually write code anymore either.

BW: Right. That's another thing. I see my development time getting less and less as the company does grow. We've doubled in size just this year.

e-Zine!: Is the company public yet?

BW: No. Not yet.

e-Zine!: Do you have plans to take it public?

BW: Eventually, but not in the near future. Most companies go public because they need money and our profit margin last quarter was over 100%.

e-Zine!: Ooh! Not bad. You don't want to say that too loudly. Remember, this is on the record.

[more hah hahs]

e-Zine!: So in the short term then do you think that one company - Stardock - can make a difference in the OS/2 market by providing quality applications and showing people that this can work?

BW: Oh, absolutely. I think we already have.

e-Zine!: Do you think that it's turning the tide somewhat?

BW: Well, I don't think that one company can totally turn the tide. Only IBM can do that kind of support for OS/2. I think in a pinch, we can slow down backlash. Or slow down bad public opinion online, at least. But in terms of overall, no we can't do it alone.

e-Zine!: What about in the long term then. How do you see OS/2's software base and market share five years from now, or ten years from now, even?

BW: Well, a lot of it will depend on what Lou Gerstner says Monday at COMDEX. I mean if he goes on and basically mentions a vague IP strategy that doesn't mention OS/2 as a cornerstone of the IP strategy, I think OS/2 is going to be in serious trouble. And not just in a corporate environment. What I've tried to tell IBM for a while now is that having OS/2 not in a consumer platform or trying to focus OS/2 as just a corporate client and server is not the way to go because then [consumers can] just choose Windows NT and eventually Microsoft Exchange will just come with the operating system and blow away Notes. IBM needs to make sure that the world knows that it's betting the computer part of its future on OS/2 and Notes.

e-Zine!: And you've already mentioned before that you're not sure if Lou Gerstner is listening to your suggestions or not.

BW: Obviously, right. 'Cause I'm just a whiny ISV to one of their many operating systems.

e-Zine!: Are you going to COMDEX?

BW: Yes.

e-Zine!: How many people from Stardock are going?

BW: Myself and the vice president will be there - so just two of us. Someone has to be here to man the store.

e-Zine!: One of you will have to man the booth and the other one. . .

BW: Oh we're not going to have a booth.

e-Zine!: Ah. What are you going to do?

BW: We go to there just to meet with people. We'll have a hospitality suite that we set up so people can meet us. The days of going to COMDEX to have a booth are long gone.

e-Zine!: Just because of the sheer noise and volume?

BW: Yeah. There's just no point. It's like going to the auto-rama. It's a show for end-users now. We go to the other trade shows where we can make sales. IBM outright offered to give us a booth at COMDEX but we said, "no." It just doesn't make sense.

e-Zine!: Well, the only other thing I was going to ask was related to a comment by one of our readers. He was singing your praises and mentioned something that has made me wonder for the last little while. How do you still find time to read the OS/2 newsgroups?

BW: Eighteen hour days. Literally. No kidding. Seven days a week, eighteen hours a day.

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