Stardock turns 20: The five Stardocks I’ve worked at

Thursday, October 10, 2013 by Frogboy | Discussion: Stardockians

 

It can be quite a challenge to work at the same place for 20 years. I think that’s doubly true if you’ve never worked anywhere else.

That said, looking back, I haven’t really worked at the same place for 20 years. I’ve actually worked at 5 places, all called Stardock and all very different.

 

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Stardock Primoridal

“This really seems exciting!” –College Student Brad Wardell, 1993

This was back when it was just me. The year was 1993. The closest thing I had to “employees” were friends and family who worked on contract on a specific thing. This Stardock was run out of my dorm room at Western Michigan University (Smith Burnham!).

 

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Stardock OS/2

“Holy cow this is fun! I can format a floppy while downloading on Z-modem and I get paid for it!” –Entrepreneur, Brad Wardell, 1996

This began the day I rented an office in 1995. It was the front office of a tank plant in Canton Michigan. So in the back, they were making tanks and we rented the front office.  It was here that we really got our start. The first two people “hired” were Angie Marshall and Pat Ford. They’re both still here! 

Galactic Civilizations 2 for OS/2, Object Desktop for OS/2 came out during this time along with a  bunch of really high quality OS/2 products. Our days were making cool software and our nights were spent playing Magic the Gathering or Duke Nukem 3D on our company LAN. It was a very fun time while it lasted.

 

 

Stardock_Fancy_thumb1

Stardock 2000

“I can make Windows look like a Mac! And our office has air conditioning and the toilets work!” –Brad Wardell, CEO, 2001.

The OS/2 market collapsed abruptly in 1997. I had to lay off nearly everyone I had hired since 1996. It was horrible. I lost some good friends as a result (lesson #1: Don’t hire your friends. Lesson #2: If you disobeyed lesson 1, don’t lay them off!).  I put everything I owned up as collateral to secure loans to pay the people we had left so that we could make the transition from OS/2 to Windows.

By 2000, we had made the transition. Barely.

This Stardock wasn’t quite as fun as the old Stardock. But I began making a lot of friends over the INTERNET. This was the age where WindowBlinds, Object Desktop, IconPackager, DesktopX, Control Center, DeskScapes, WindowFX, ObjectDock, ObjectBar, Keyboard LaunchPad, RightClick, Multiplcity, CursorFX, etc. reigned supreme. We kept a finger in the game market by taking a contract to make a Starcraft expansion for Blizzard called “Starcraft: Retribution”.

As time went on, things got better. We were on a roll. We reached a real high point with Galactic Civilizations II for Windows and new software was being released on a regular schedule to glowing reviews and strong sales. were ready to expand in a big BIG way…

 

 

 

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Stardock Sucks

“This company is bullshit. I hate it here. I’m printing my resume on that fancy paper as I type this!” – Disgruntled employee, Brad Wardell, 2010

The expansion we made nearly ruined my life and the company. I had no idea how to manage a company with this many people in it and it showed.  About the only good thing that came out of this time period was Sins of a Solar Empire and the fun I had working with Brian Clair and the Irconclad team. 

I honestly believe that if it weren’t for the friendships I made with people like Blair and Craig Fraser at Ironclad and Chris Taylor and others that I would have rage quitted before making it through all this. It was such a horrible period that even today I cringe when looking back.

So where did it all go bad? One word: IMPULSE.

Impulse was incredibly successful – financially. But it nearly ruined our company culture. So much money going through so few peoples hands had a highly toxic effect. Combine that with an engineer turned CEO whose understanding of non-engineer motivations bordered on non-existent and you have a catastrophe.

Product plans were made based on what would maximize the short-term bonus/compensation/commission of those drawing up said plans. I was too incompetent at business administration to recognize what was being done until it was far too late. While the people actually doing the long hours got only token bonuses, others gamed the system to enrich themselves.  It was a bad time and I was oblivious to how political and toxic things were getting.

What I did know was that I hated going to work. I was miserable. Every time I (or others like me here) wanted to set up a project based on making something good we got the uneasy sense from our opponents (though I had no idea they were our opponents at the time) that we were somehow robbing them of bonuses/commissions.  Little care was put into what was good for the company long-term.

This is the period that delivered such wonders as MyColors (which nearly ruined Stardock’s desktop enhancement business), Elemental, Demigod, and wastes of time like NBA desktop themes.

But nothing could compare to Impulse. In order to make it successful, you had to bring in sales people, relationship managers, enterprise managers, etc.  And if quality suffered and I (or others like me) spoke of the need of quality I got (to quote) “Incentives drive behavior. You need to make my compensation package such that I am incented to care about quality.” As an engineer, such attitudes were horrifying.  Technologically, Impulse was amazing. It was far ahead of its curve. The talent pool Stardock had at the time was still amazing.  Our problem was cultural.

The launch of War of Magic was the low-point and the moment of truth.  That game was a canary in the coal mine. It was a symptom of everything that was rotten at the company at the time. After taking a few days off, I realized that the source of the rot was Impulse or more specifically, the toxic culture that had evolved around it. [I want to emphasize that the Impulse engineering team was excellent and not part of the problem].  Impulse had to go.

By the end of 2011, virtually every person we had hired during the start of this era was gone. It was a new day. A new company. Or more specifically, it was the previous company having undergone a massive Ctrl-Z.

 

StardockLogo-256

Stardock Renaissance

“I am truly excited about working with such world class-talent,” said Brad Wardell, CEO of Stardock Corp. “I am very proud of what we are accomplishing.”  (2013)

I basically took a year off to recuperate. But before I could do that, I needed to build a world class management team who could run the company in my absence. I was now very aware of my managerial strengths and short-comings.  From this, we got an amazing new leadership team here who in turn brought on board other talented people that has resulted in a renaissance.

Within a year of the new team being brought on, the games unit quadrupled its revenue and the software team more than tripled their’s. At the same time, a host of new programs were conceived and executed on – all in 1 year!

To put things in perspective, in the Stardock Sucks era (mid 2006 to early 2011), the company only released 1 truly new desktop enhancement (Fences) on the software side and the studio produced ONE game: Elemental: War of Magic, which sucked.    Think about that. FIVE YEARS and the game studio only eeked out one new game and it was a mess while the software side only got one truly new desktop enhancement out.

By contrast, in the past year or so the software unit has conceived and/or developed: Start8, ModernMix, Decor8, Tiles, a new Multiplicity, Fences 2, ObjectDock 2 and has 2 more all-new programs scheduled for release this year.  Simultaneously, the game studio made Fallen Enchantress, Fallen Enchantress –Legendary Heroes, Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion (coded in partnership with Ironclad) and Dead Man’s Draw. And every single one of these titles is excellent.

And not only is the management team focused on quality and long-term viability, they’ve created compensation packages that award everyone fairly and put into place morale lifting programs like on-sight personal trainers, on-sight chefs/nutritionists, health screening days, an extra week per year of vacation (so yea, the team gets more done while working fewer hours and gets paid better). 

I’d be hard pressed to even name anyone who has voluntarily left the company during this period (other than maternity leave). If you work in the technology industry you can probably attest that this is a significant achievement on its own. 

It’s good to be having a good time again at this new company!

So there you have it. The 5 Stardocks I’ve worked at!

First Previous Page 2 of 3 Next Last
Alstein
Reply #21 Friday, October 11, 2013 5:14 PM

Kazriko


Quoting Wizard1956, reply 6
P.S. Please rethink your latest logo. IMHO, even the one from 1993 looked better.

The only thing I noticed about it is that it looks too Windows 8-ish.

 

As for people leaving the company voluntarily... Jon Shafer? Or was he on the tail end of the prior era?

 

I think Jon is still consulting so unsure if that counts as leaving.   I'm really curious how At the Gates will turn out (I'll find out in a few months)

 

I'm still unhappy about Impulse being sold off to Gamestop.  I understand entirely why it was done, I'm just unhappy that Gamestop had no idea what to do with Impulse after acquiring it, though I suspect many of Impulse's customers were not inclined at all to give Gamestop any chance.

 

I often wonder what would have happened if Gamersgate had bought Impulse- that would have been a good combination, or if Impulse could have been spun off into its own entity the way Paradox did Gamersgate.

 

 

Frogboy
Reply #22 Friday, October 11, 2013 5:16 PM

cardinaldirection

If you don't mind my asking, what was the size of the company before Impulse, during Impulse, and now?

I don't know the exact count but I'd guess around ~60 in Plymouth and it's probably about the same now (once Impulse was gone, the Software and Games units grew).

The main problem with Impulse, for us, was that it was, at the end of the day, a just a digital store. And that requires a very different type of expertise than being software developers. 

I am sure there are other companies and executives who could have pulled it off (Valve seems to be doing with Steam though).  But I couldn't. Having people coming in whose motivations were strictly about getting money for themselves as fast as they could without any serious concern about the long-term consequences was a new phenomenon and not one I enjoyed having to deal with.

Cykur
Reply #23 Friday, October 11, 2013 5:27 PM

Alstein
I often wonder what would have happened if Gamersgate had bought Impulse- that would have been a good combination, or if Impulse could have been spun off into its own entity the way Paradox did Gamersgate.

 

Yeah, I also preferred Impulse.  I didn't start using Steam until you couldn't get the games anymore without it, even if you didn't purchase from Steam.  I liked the Impulse model better, but it doesn't really exist anymore.

BigDogBigFeet
Reply #24 Friday, October 11, 2013 6:16 PM

Thanks Frogboy.  Bring back DesktopX!!!  I run DesktopX themes daily.  I love this place.

I'm sure the total experience of those 20 years will help you grow the Company you Love in the future. Keep up the good work.

cardinaldirection
Reply #25 Friday, October 11, 2013 6:22 PM

Frogboy
But I couldn't. Having people coming in whose motivations were strictly about getting money for themselves as fast as they could without any serious concern about the long-term consequences was a new phenomenon and not one I enjoyed having to deal with.

 

^Music to the choir.  Thx.  You just gave me all the reason I need to support your work for life.

Noumenon72
Reply #26 Saturday, October 12, 2013 5:12 AM

Did you ever consider stepping down and hiring a quick-money CEO to wring the gains out of Impulse, letting you focus on technical work?

DivineWrath
Reply #27 Saturday, October 12, 2013 11:33 AM

Alstein
I'm still unhappy about Impulse being sold off to Gamestop.  I understand entirely why it was done, I'm just unhappy that Gamestop had no idea what to do with Impulse after acquiring it, though I suspect many of Impulse's customers were not inclined at all to give Gamestop any chance.


I tried to give GameStop a chance, I had much invested in Impulse, but it didn't work out. I tried to pre-ordering a few products, but they didn't seem to warn you what sorts of DRM these products would have. I have pictures (screenshots) of the details pages of these products not listing any DRM before release. It was only after release did I find out what DRM they carried. Some were Steam, some were SecuRom. Of course, I tried to ask for my money back but that didn't work.

I also found that GameStop generally didn't care to make new titles DRM free. I don't buy games with DRM these days, so I don't recall seeing many titles I considered to be acceptable. This might not have been helped when many of the good developers left because they didn't want to get mixed up with GameStop's policies, thereby removing titles that might have been DRM free from the store (and reducing the number of future DRM free titles from the store).

Now a days, it seems that GameStop has stopped trying to run an independent store and now only sells Steam keys. I did a quick check recently, and it seems that the only games it is selling right now are Steam tiltes, Origin titles, and MMOs.

Cykur
Reply #28 Saturday, October 12, 2013 12:12 PM

DivineWrath
I tried to give GameStop a chance, I had much invested in Impulse, but it didn't work out. I tried to pre-ordering a few products, but they didn't seem to warn you what sorts of DRM these products would have. I have pictures (screenshots) of the details pages of these products not listing any DRM before release. It was only after release did I find out what DRM they carried. Some were Steam, some were SecuRom. Of course, I tried to ask for my money back but that didn't work.

I also found that GameStop generally didn't care to make new titles DRM free. I don't buy games with DRM these days, so I don't recall seeing many titles I considered to be acceptable. This might not have been helped when many of the good developers left because they didn't want to get mixed up with GameStop's policies, thereby removing titles that might have been DRM free from the store (and reducing the number of future DRM free titles from the store).

Now a days, it seems that GameStop has stopped trying to run an independent store and now only sells Steam keys. I did a quick check recently, and it seems that the only games it is selling right now are Steam tiltes, Origin titles, and MMOs.

 

Yeah, I had a similar experience.  I was pretty annoyed the first time I bought a game and realized I needed Steam when it wasn't advertised as such.  I sent them a complaint saying how could they expect to succeed when the software they sold required us to use their biggest competitor.  Not much changed except they started listing Steam in game requirements, so in my mind there was no point to buy from them unless they were having a fantastic sale.  Steam won, and in all honesty, Steam is pretty good.  I was just not fond of running anything memory resident that absolutely didn't have to be there, so I preferred Impulse.

Voqar
Reply #29 Saturday, October 12, 2013 12:40 PM


Great read and congrats.

Frogboy
Reply #30 Saturday, October 12, 2013 4:34 PM

Frogboy


Quoting Noumenon72, reply 26
Did you ever consider stepping down and hiring a quick-money CEO to wring the gains out of Impulse, letting you focus on technical work?

I don't see why I would have wanted to do that when I could sell Impulse for tens of millions of dollars and get rid of the toxicity at the same time. 

I assumed that GameStop would be the ideal partner for Impulse. I mean, they were an experienced game retailer who had a vested interest in securing a future in the digital market. If anyone had a vested interest in making Impulse a success, something that would be compelling to PC users, it would be them.

Instead, I fear GameStop is will end up like this:

http://youtu.be/Fd3zF1CCLmI?t=3m33s 

Leo in WI
Reply #31 Saturday, October 12, 2013 5:21 PM

Frogboy
Instead, I fear GameStop is will end up like this:

http://youtu.be/Fd3zF1CCLmI?t=3m33s

I agree. With consoles slow move to digital distribution as well, it seems inevitable.

The Rated PG
Reply #32 Wednesday, October 16, 2013 10:46 PM

It all makes sense now.  I joined in 2000,  loved it,  and everyone including BRAD and racing *legand* JAFO.  Starting my hand at skinning. I noticed something wasn't quite right around  the bad years mentioned.  I even quit dealing with it.  I still can't get an old copy of deskscapes off my computer because it needs Impulse to remove. But I have a revived spirit in Stardock, and renewed my object desktop.  Who knows I may pick up skinning again....or at least try.

Kantok
Reply #33 Wednesday, October 16, 2013 11:15 PM

Frogboy


Quoting Frogboy, reply 30

Quoting Noumenon72, reply 26
Did you ever consider stepping down and hiring a quick-money CEO to wring the gains out of Impulse, letting you focus on technical work?


I don't see why I would have wanted to do that when I could sell Impulse for tens of millions of dollars and get rid of the toxicity at the same time. 

I assumed that GameStop would be the ideal partner for Impulse. I mean, they were an experienced game retailer who had a vested interest in securing a future in the digital market. If anyone had a vested interest in making Impulse a success, something that would be compelling to PC users, it would be them.

Instead, I fear GameStop is will end up like this:

http://youtu.be/Fd3zF1CCLmI?t=3m33s 

Gamestop is done.  It's all over but the dying. 

It's amazing that they spent what they did on Impulse and then wasted it, given that their used-game business model is going the way of the dodo.  One would have thought they were dying to secure a new solid revenue stream to replace what they're losing as consoles get less and less friendly to used games and as PC games become almost entirely DD.  

Wizard1956
Reply #34 Wednesday, October 16, 2013 11:31 PM

 

The Rated PG
I noticed something wasn't quite right around the bad years mentioned.
Ah hell, that was just me.

All kidding aside, it looks like I jumped on board during the suck. Still here, ain't going anywhere. To my advantage, I got to meet some really great people, like Seabass, Milksama,. Zubaz(who is still around, but  won't admit or confess to anything) Island dog.......well, there ya go.......

  Support IS awesome and I don't need it.

MeSleeper
Reply #35 Saturday, October 19, 2013 9:25 AM

What a great read.   Glad I found this article.

As a customer, Stardock's Impulse period was also my least favorite.  I stopped updating everything Stardock.  The replies to my criticisms to Stardock about Impulse were either defensive or ignored. Your posts on the forum, forgive me, too often went off unprofessionally on posters who criticized Stardock.  Adding it all up it felt to me like a company who grew too fast and was too "full of itself" to appreciate the customers that helped it grow.

I am now back as a customer.  I am an old man. I respect greatly watching a successful young man grow professionally.   Good luck and continued success.

athelasloraiel
Reply #36 Friday, November 01, 2013 12:37 PM

Thank you for this honesty, a rare find these days.

 

If there were a Stardockian lifetime pack, I'd buy it.

 

I love you, please stay the same and better.

 

You can't do wrong with Star Control and GalCiv 3. I just wish you had Homeworld and Demigod2, but we shall see...

merlinme
Reply #37 Friday, November 01, 2013 1:29 PM

Really interesting read. I've worked in a few different places as a programmer, and the place I've settled is not necessarily where I'd make the most money. But I like the culture where I am, and I like the fact that there is an established team who have all been here > 5 years, and I like the fact that it's a relatively small company where you're given responsibility and trusted to get on with it. We too went through a slightly disastrous expansion before pretty much firing everyone who had been hired, but the company survived. So I can relate to a lot of what you describe. Stardock sounds like a decent place to work, and I really respect your determination both to stick with it when times were hard, to work out a way through your difficulties, and to build a culture (and products) that will stand the test of time.

Sed
Reply #38 Tuesday, November 12, 2013 9:35 AM

Im THAT OLD??

Jafo
Reply #39 Tuesday, November 12, 2013 7:18 PM

Im THAT OLD??

We all are, Sed...

 

[kinda worried what a 'legand' might be though] ...

RedneckDude
Reply #40 Tuesday, November 12, 2013 8:41 PM

A legand an arm?

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