Stardock CEO Explains GameStop Impulse Buy, Steam Rivalry

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"We basically let it be known through certain channels that we were open to selling Impulse, and so we then had a number of companies approach us with different offers," says Wardell. "What we were looking for primarily...for us it matters that we'd sell it to someone who'd expand on PC gaming."

Sound logic for an outfit like Stardock--a company that designs and publishes PC games exclusively. You wouldn't navigate a real-time strategy space-battler like Sins of a Solar Empire with a gamepad any more than you'd bounce and bound through a Super Mario game with a keyboard/mouse. It behooves Stardock to find a PC-friendly buyer.

"We had company's ranging from some that saw Impulse as an enterprise solution for handling license management to another that wanted to use it to compete selling movies and music and all kinds of stuff," says Wardell, who it turns out hesitated even when GameStop expressed interest.

"They're a brick and mortar," says Wardell. "I was thinking 'will they understand the difference between digital and retail?' They're not the same thing."

He warmed to GameStop only after the company convinced him they were taking the deal as seriously as he was.

"GameStop basically built a new company, owned by GameStop, but independent, and that answers directly to the president of GameStop," says Wardell. "They've also gone out and attracted all these incredibly talented people to run it. Digital people, not retailers."

"Okay, but GameStop's experimented already with digital downloads," I say. I'm talking about the existing option to purchase digital copies of PC games online and download them directly. It's been active for several years.

"They were just using TryMedia," says Wardell, referring to a company that says it sells technology enabling companies "to manage a game throughout its lifecycle." When I ask how they play into the acquisition, Wardell says he's pretty sure the Impulse sale won't be good news for the company.

"And the Gamers Bill of Right?" I ask. That's the manifesto Stardock published a few years ago talking about your right to return malfunctioning or unsatisfactory games, to expect them to work out of the box, and among other things, to expect that games "not require a third-party download manager [like Valve's Steam] installed in order for the game to function."

"Impulse never had anything to do with the Gamers Bill of Rights," says Wardell. "Our goal was just to raise awareness, to get consumers to stand up for themselves as well as make publishers aware that there are other ways around issues like piracy. You don't have to make your game consumer-unfriendly. Basically we just wanted to get people thinking about this stuff."

In other words: The Gamers Bill of Rights only applies to gamers and their relationship with developers, not retailers. Stardock's a developer first, something its divestment of Impulse only reinforces.

"That'd be really arrogant if we were making a list that we expected Best Buy or Walmart to support," says Wardell. "I mean, talk about having delusions of grandeur."

And with that, our food arrives (the service isn't slow, Brad just talks really fast). I roll out my final few questions.

"Did you see that analyst quote yesterday?" I ask. "The one who basically suggested Impulse wasn't best of breed tech?"

"If Impulse isn't best of breed technology, then what is, Steam?" says Wardell. "Steam is the most popular, to be sure, but technologically? Let me put it this way. The technology difference between Impulse and Steam is such that any objective developer who looked at the two would overwhelmingly...let's just say the gulf is significant enough that it's not really a 'depends on your point of view' thing."

But what I really want to know is whether Wardell thinks GameStop has a chance against a company like Valve with Steam's roughly eight-year head start. That's the million dollar question. So I ask it.

"I think GameStop's going to beat Steam, and I'll tell you why," says Wardell, putting down his sandwich. "One of the things that we do in our surveys is ask, why do you buy from Steam versus Impulse versus whatever. Over 80 percent who respond say 'price'."

"Now I can't speak for GameStop, but I know what I would do. Next time you buy something from GameStop for your Xbox 360, I'd give you some token you could use on Impulse toward a deal or sale on some other title. Pretty soon everything on Impulse is cheaper."

And if GameStop actually does manage to somehow dislodge Steam as the digitally distributed PC games leader? What's to stop them from becoming even more computer-intrusive or edging up prices?

"I don't want there to be only one," says Wardell. "But frankly I'd be surprised if Steam is still... I mean, you look at the technology Impulse adds and the resources GameStop has--well beyond Valve's--and it's really GameStop's fight to lose."

I turn off the recorder and finish my burger. We talk some more about general geek stuff, like what we're watching or reading and why, then go. Before the visit's over, Brad will take me back and show me several white, boxlike beehives he keeps in a meadow behind Stardock's HQ building.

My younger brother's allergic to bee stings. I'm wondering for the umpteenth time if I am, too. I ask if we ought to suit up first. He tells me I have nothing to worry about.

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