Joystiq interview: Demigod, Sins, and the death of PC gaming

With publisher Stardock's rise the last couple of years and the announcement that it'll be publishing Gas Powered Games' next title, Demigod, it was time catch up with the two companies. We spoke with Stardock's CEO Brad Wardell and Gas Powered Games' founder Chris Taylor and asked some niggling questions on our minds ... and fired a few total shots in the dark which yielded results (like Demigod on consoles?). Find out more about Stardock and why Gas Powered Games decided to hook up with the little-publisher-that-could for its next title in our interview.

OK, let's get right into it, what's Demigod?

Chris Taylor - Demigod is a frantic team-based action game with RPG and RTS elements mixed in. If that doesn't sound familiar, it's because we're sort of inventing a new style of hybrid gameplay. The player selects a Demigod, and fights for a place in the pantheon of Gods in these incredible arenas. Each battle puts the player in command of either an Assassin Demigod, or General Demigod. These two types gives the player a choice of whether they command just the single Demigod, an Assassin, or whether they take command over every single unit in the game, like a traditional RTS, a General.

Can you explain the Assassin and General Demigods a little deeper? Have we seen what they look like in the released screenshots? Can you explain some of the characters we've seen in released screenshots?

Chris Taylor – It's hard to see the difference by looking at them in the screenshots, because the difference is in the functionality, not the visual design. The Assassin Demigod is all about focusing the control on the single character, and letting all the other units in the game flow around them on the battlefield. It's great for players who don't like micro-management, and often have a hard time playing traditional RTS games. On the other hand, Generals are just the opposite, and are made for players who love to manage lots of units at once, and the General Demigod gives them a great RTS experience with all the pandemonium and chaos they can handle, all at the tip of their fingers.

There's a lot going on in those screenshots, but one of the easiest to pick out is the Rook, a huge Assassin Demigod, who is pretty easy to pick out of the crowd as he towers above all the others with the massive castle like structures on his shoulders. Other units you might easily identify are the Unclean Beast, the dog like creature with the long tongue that oozes pestilence, another awesome Assassin Demigod. There are many other units in the screenshots, like the minotaurs, who take a lot of abuse on the battlefield, and often get crushed under the feet of the massive giants who are also featured in many of our early screenshots.

OK, that sounds like something we'd need to play to understand. You've described the game as having RTS and RPG elements. Where's the RTS and where's the RPG?

CT – If you sat down to play the game, you'd immediately be most comfortable if you were familiar with the latest crop of RTS games, but that's not to say it's required. The overarching control schemes that we use are very similar in style to those used in most RTS games today, but that's only the beginning. As the game progresses, the player's Demigod can be upgraded with bigger and better skills, and this is where the RPG elements come into play. The player can also visit a shop in which potions and other familiar RPG items can be purchased.

Tell us more about the public beta plans for the game this summer? How can our readers join?

Brad Wardell - This summer we're going to open up the beta to players who pre-order the game. This way, the feedback we get comes directly from players who are interested in the game already and gives us time to implement the feedback.

How simple are Demigod's controls, could it be played with a gamepad?

CT – I think it's fair to say that the game could in fact be played on a gamepad. With our latest work on Supreme Commander for the 360, we have packed a ton of functionality onto a 360 controller, so there is very little we can't do on a console. I think the real question is, will the game be a ton of fun on the console ... and the answer is, absolutely!!

So, does that mean you're confirming a port of the game for consoles?

CT – It's a discussion we have been having for quite some time, but no final decisions have been made just yet.

Is Demigod for the PC being designed to allow gamepad controls, specifically could someone take their Xbox 360 controller and plug it into their PC and have a solid experience without mouse and keyboard?

CT – Not really, we are focusing on creating an awesome experience on the PC, and if we were to take the game and do a version for the console, we would design a new interface specifically for that platform. On any platform we develop for, our goal is to play to the strengths of the control system. We have no plans to support the 360 controller on the PC, but I admit it's an interesting idea!

You talked about translating the Supreme Commander controls to Xbox 360. Can you explain some of the innovations or breakthroughs you feel the team pulled off in bringing -- or translating -- an intense RTS experience to consoles?

CT – The biggest innovation was the new interface that completely replaced the old way that it was done on the PC. You will probably have to experience it to completely understand it, but believe me, once you have tried it out, you may not want to go back to the old PC way! Simply put, the player selects a structure and brings up a big wheel, and then by rotating a joystick, selects a units, it's very fast and efficient ... and the learning curve is short. That single innovation, in combination with the strategic zoom (zooming out all the way to see the whole map, then in again to any specific location) really changed the way RTS games could be played on the console. And I have to give props to the incredible work of Hellbent, the studio that did the work, on designing and developing this incredible new interface.

Did you know when designing Supreme Commander that you'd have to give PC players what they expected from an RTS, but still leave a door open to translate the experience for consoles?

CT – Nope, we had absolutely no intention of trying to develop the game at a later date for the 360. It was a total afterthought, and if it wasn't for the incredible processing power of the 360, we wouldn't have been able to do it. It's all worked out really well though, and who knows, one day we might be able to see a version on the PS3 too!

When we see Demigod at E3, will we be able to feel confident that it'll make its Feb. 2009 release?

CT – E3 is not too far away, and you will be able to draw your own conclusions soon. But let me say, our confidence is very high.

Chris, little heart to heart time. Why Stardock as a publisher?

CT – To make a point, Stardock really "gets it." I am only sad that I didn't get to know Brad a long time ago. Him and I are two of a kind. If he starts a sentence, I can finish it, or vice versa. We're on the same page on almost every issue that faces PC gaming today. And now that we have teamed up, we're well positioned to do something about the things that trouble us, and it's going to be fun doing it ... together!

Brad, seriously, Stardock seems to have come out of nowhere. Galactic Civilization and Gal Civ II were fine games, but Sins of the Solar Empire is a better game than we expect from mega-publishers, and Demigod is generating some strong buzz. Where do you see Stardock in two years? Five years?

BW - Fundamentally, the PC game industry is broken. The business model is hostile to gamers, damaging to game developers, and robs the innovation from publishers. What we aim to do is build partnerships that allow us to create great software and content that makes gamers happier, game developers more secure, and publishers more profitable.

In two years -- or less -- most new PCs will come with Stardock-developed technology and content. In five years we expect to be one of the major PC, and possibly major console publishers, and the largest digital distributor of PC content.

Brad, with Arnor we close the door on Gal Civ II. When can we expect to hear about Gal Civ III being in development?

BW - Oh, I don't think we'll be seeing Galactic Civilizations III any time soon. I love Gal Civ II, but we have a fantasy-strategy game in development, as well as some other game projects that must go first before we can revisit Galactic Civilizations. That's one of the reasons why we went so crazy with Twilight of the Arnor. We wanted to leave the series in shape to last for years to come as something people would want to play.

Brad, Sins of a Solar Empire, by your own admission, has done very well. The support and tweaks to the game have already redefined the experience since its launch. When should we expect an expansion?

BW - We're still working out the best timing in terms of marketing and distribution as well as development. If I had my way, it would be out this fall. But with Spore and Starcraft 2 looming, we have to take that into account. Plus, we have to make sure there's enough time to do the kind of expansion pack that does Sins the justice it deserves.

Brad and Chris, Demigod won't have copy protection and the assumption is that it'll be supported the same way as Sins is currently. Can you talk a little bit about the decision not to copy-protect?

BW - Our "copy protection" is to give players more of a reason to buy the game. As was recently reported, Sins is still at the top of the PC retail sales charts (according to NPD) here months later with no sign of slowing down. That kind of kills the argument that you need to put CD copy protection on your games to sell in quantity. I don't like piracy, I work hard on this stuff and it is frustrating to see our hard work pirated. But at the same time, my emotional satisfaction at trying to thwart pirates can't come at the expense of the people who pay my salary – my customers. The best system in my opinion is one where my intellectual property is protected but is invisible to my legitimate customers.

That's why I think platforms like Impulse are the future. A user buys a game at the store, doesn't need the CD, doesn't need an Internet connection to install the game and the game is great out of the box. But when they get free, meaningful updates that add new content and features, those updates belong to the specific user who gets their own free account. Moreover, by doing that, a user, even five years later, can come on and re-download the entire game they bought from Wal-Mart, or Best Buy, or EB, or whatever, so their purchase is protected.

What's your response to the belief that PC gaming is dying?

BW - Oh absolutely. It's not just dying, it's already dead. Totally. In fact...all game developers that feel that way should quickly flee to the, um ... console market, right now. Don't worry about us, we'll guard you're back while you retreat. Nothing to see here. We'll shut the lights off when you're all gone. No, no, no need to thank us at all. We just want to make sure the developers who think PC gaming is dying are safe to flee to greener pastures. We're just that selfless.

CT – (Laughs) Okay, so I'll give a slightly more "serious" answer. I've said that PC Gaming "as we know it" is dying, but there is a new kind of PC gaming being born out the ashes. Brad is definitely leading this charge with his innovative approach, and I am 100% in support of this. It's like what Sam Walton once said when asked how to succeed, he said, "Do what everyone else isn't doing." And this is exactly the case here. Remove this awful copy protection, and give your customers the great experience they deserve. Brad has a model which bucks the old system, and it's time to buck the old system, because the old system wasn't working ... it is, in fact, dead.