Gaming Today Q&A: Brad Wardell Talks Impulse
Stardock released its new distribution platform, Impulse, just a few weeks ago and I’ve already found myself using it all the time. Whether it’s the dock or the store of any of the other features it sports at this early stage, there’s a lot to Impulse, and I was interested in finding out more about the platform’s future.
In the games space, it feels like nothing more than a competitor to Steam, but Stardock CEO Brad Wardell explained that there’s much, much more that they have planned. Whether that’s the ability to easily jump into a game with friends or download all of your software and games at the click of a button, Stardock certainly has lofty hopes for Impulse. Brad shared with me his ideal scenario for what Impulse will ultimately be capable of, and it sounds phenomenal — I’m very excited to see where things go from here.
You can read the full interview after the break.
Gaming Today: First off, I’d like to thank you in advance for the future headaches I will suffer in trying to decide whether to buy a game from Impulse or Steam.
Brad Wardell: One nice thing about having multiple platforms available is that these platforms will be forced to be more consumer friendly simply because consumers have choices.
GT: That seems like a good place to start — you’ve said in the past that Impulse isn’t trying to replace Steam, but there does seem to be a significant overlap. Right now, how does Impulse differ from Steam in the games space?
BW: At the start, there is considerable overlap. To use an analogy, in the early days of the PC, people bought Word Perfect and it was good. When Office started to gain popularity, there were a lot of comparisons between Word Perfect and Word. Over time, however, people began looking at Office as a whole rather than as a Word Perfect vs. Word comparison.
Steam and Impulse, right now, on the games side both let people purchase games and download and update them. But as time goes on, the two will diverge more and more based on the different concepts they have. Impulse is designed less to be a store/download service and more like a universal platform for the PC. As gamers, we all have a long list of things that PCs in general and Windows in particular need to address such as multiplayer matchmaking, NAT negotiation, universal rankings, standardized support, support for modders, etc.
One of the reasons why we lose a lot of gamers to consoles is that consoles are so much easier to deal with. The goal with Impulse is to do that with the PC.
GT: Half-Life 2 is what initially got Steam installed on many computers. While you’re pushing Impulse with things like The Political Machine 2008 and Sins of a Solar Empire, those are fairly niche games. Are you expecting exclusive-to-Impulse games (like Demigod) and software to be the driving force behind getting Impulse on people’s machines, or are you only looking at the install base in the long term?
BW: I don’t know if you could call Sins of a Solar Empire a niche game given it’s been in the top 10 best selling PC games all year – despite massive digital sales which aren’t counted in those charts. But that aside, Impulse has a very different distribution model than Steam. With Impulse, starting with Phase 2 (in August) people will be able to sign up to be affiliates. Any user who installs and creates an Impulse account from an affiliate gets 15 percent of the gross revenue on any sales. For example, you could have a FileFront Impulse. If someone downloads and installs FileFront Impulse and then buys say Corel Draw X4 for $500, FileFront would get $75 off that sale – even if the sale took place a year from now. We’ve already gotten a significant queue of sites that want to sign on to this program.
Moreover, Impulse can also be used as a company’s native store. We have a number of software developers evaluating Impulse to be their default store since it’s less expensive to use Impulse than a typical eCommerce solution.
Additionally, Stardock’s non-game programs have millions of users already. Once these users migrate to Impulse in the coming months, we’ll have a few million Impulse users just from that.
GT: What have you learned from Steam in its years on the market that played into the design of Impulse?
BW: Steam has delivered a lot of innovative concepts into the industry. But in terms of designing Impulse, most of our work came from what we had done on Stardock Central which precedes Steam. What Steam really brought to the table is the importance of third-party content. When we made Stardock Central, we didn’t really encourage third-parties to put their titles on it because, as the name implied, it was meant for our programs.
GT: Are there any plans to flesh out the back catalogs of companies that distribute their games through Impulse, or will we only be seeing new games going forward?
BW: To us, building up back catalogs is extremely important. We are actually favoring back catalog titles initially while we build up our installed base. There’s a lot of challenge in getting older titles because the various publishing agreements from the time didn’t contemplate digital distribution and digital distribution doesn’t yet generate enough sales to justify someone doing a legal review of some of those older agreements. But as digital distribution grows, I think you’ll see all of the digital distributors get stronger back catalogs. Me, I’d like to see Total Annihilation on Impulse or Steam or anywhere for that matter.
GT: Impulse sports a store where you can buy games and software, community features where you can blog — is there anything we won’t see Stardock try to include? Saying you’d like to distribute Firefox makes me think we won’t be seeing an integrated web browser, but where exactly do you draw the line between providing useful features and doing too much?
BW: There’s a lot of features we won’t touch because we don’t want Impulse to feel bloated. Right now, a lot of the early feedback has been so positive because Impulse is so fast and sleek. It’s pretty well known that I’m not in favor of programs that sit in the system tray. If a program isn’t doing something useful, it shouldn’t be using up my memory. But for users who want auto-updates and notifications, we could, for example, build a notification app but it would be a separate applications. So with Impulse, what you’re more likely to see are additional optional component programs that people can use. But Impulse itself we want to keep as streamlined as we can.
GT: You’ve been an outspoken individual on the subject of piracy. Did piracy play any role in the way Impulse was designed?
BW: Very much so. One of the big goals we have for Impulse is to try to win the industry over to our SSD technology (Secure Software Delivery). Essentially the idea is that a user downloads a .Impulse file which can only be installed by Impulse. But once installed, it’s yours. It provides good and proven intellectual property protection but allows our customers to play their game or use their software wherever without worrying about being online or what have you.
Users of Stardock programs hence don’t have to mess with annoying copy protection. We know that users could pirate our stuff if they wanted, so the goal is to reward them for buying our software legitimately. That said, Impulse itself will support whatever copy protection the publisher insists on. But we are hoping that we can continue to demonstrate the benefits of SSD.
GT: Are you playing any games right now? What are you most looking forward to playing?
BW: Spore is certainly the game I’m most excited about. I’ve been a Will Wright fan since I was in college when I did a..ahem, “report” for IE102 on “urban planning” using Simcity’s city print outs as my “data”. I even loved Simearth. And with Soren Johnson involved, you know the game’s going to be insanely good.
GT: With the launch out of the way, what’s the next major milestone for Impulse in your eyes?
BW: The big milestone coming up is Phase 2. There’s going to be some announcements at the end of August that I think will be of great interest to the game industry. With Phase 2, we will have the universal player rankings in, unified match making system in, ImpulseReactor should be released and MyImpulse should be ready for beta which will let developers and modders begin to submit their games, mods, applications, etc. to Impulse directly.
GT: What’s your perfect-world scenario for what Impulse will ultimately be capable of?
BW: My dream for Impulse works something like this:
I get a new computer, I type in my Impulse account and it retrieves all the programs I have associated with my account – freeware, registered shareware, games, applications, anti-virus, etc. and begins installing them while I go out to lunch.
Then, I come back and look for a game to play, Impulse looks through my entire library of games and displays what games have available openings in them with ones with friends or kindreds (friends of friends) in them. I also take a peek at my overall ranking as well as my ranking in say Total Annihilation 2 or whatever I’m playing at the time.
When done playing games, I’ll load up Corel Photopaint and load up a skin I was working on that’s stored on my free virtual drive from within Corel. I won’t care where my files are physically located, just that I always have access to them and that they’re safe and secure.
Then, I will be able to go and check out what games my friends are using, see what postings are going on and know if my hardware is adequate for any particular game I want to buy. And if I do have some problem with something I buy, I can quickly and easily get a refund with no hassles.
I just want to think Brad for taking the time to talk to us. We’ll have more coverage on Impulse in the coming weeks and months, particularly as Phase 2 nears its release.