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A Window In
Stardock yearly releases a document called its Customer Report. Stardock is not a publicly held company and is not required to release information to stockholders, so Stardock instead creates a short, basic document meant to provide those interested with a progress report which contains information about Stardock itself and about Stardock's relations with its customers.
Given that Stardock is largely regarded as one of the best independent publishers around, the information is very enlightening. It gives a look into the world of a game company which is not on the same level as the biggest corporations but is still finding ways to be successful.
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Stardock's Impulse program effectively functions as Stardock's online store. I've always had a soft spot for it because it doesn't require you to use it to gain access to your games. You certainly can do so, but if you choose you can forget Impulse exists at all after you have downloaded the game. There is no requirement that you have the Impulse program connected to the internet in order to run games, either.
With that said, Impulse is clearly in a perilous position if for no other reason than it isn't Steam. This year, there were some unexpected tidbits in the Customer Report.
One of the more unexpected pieces of information was that Stardock has dropped its attempts to keep pricing flat between different regions. This has been a point of contention among some gamers, particularly in Europe, who find themselves paying much more for the same game than their friends in the States. According to Stardock, they have dropped their "one world, one price" policy because many game companies simply refused to sell their titles on Impulse if they couldn't set the pricing however they liked for each region. And since Stardock wasn't offering those titles, gamers went elsewhere to purchase them. This is important news for gamers because it shows that an end to region-specific pricing isn't going to happen because of retailer activism.
Another interesting tidbit is that Impulse has been forced not to carry some titles because those titles used Steamworks DRM. Once this happens, the game is only going to work with Steam no matter where you purchase it. This would require Impulse to install a competitors online storefront to sell certain games. This includes games like Dawn of War II. To be frank, this practice seems somewhat monopolistic on Valve's part. I'm calling it now - in ten years Valve is going to be sued by the FTC for monopolistic practices.
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The Demigod Aftermath
As I said in my review, Demigod is the classic example of a game with good fundamental gameplay which was seriously handicapped by bugs which made that gameplay unobtainable. The release of Demigod was the first big gaming disaster which Stardock has ever had, and there is an entire section of the Customer Report dedicated to it.
Because of the problems with Demigod, Stardock offered to refund any customer who could not play the game. According to the Customer Report this resulted in approximately 2,000 refunds. The majority of those were from customers who had purchased at retail. According to Stardock, 90% of the players who had the game refunded eventually repurchased after the network issues were resolved. Given this statistic, it seems odd that most gaming companies don't enact a similar policy. Demigod was, to be clear, a very poor experience at its launch, worse than any other game I've played in the last few years. If that still only resulted in 2,000 refunds, and most of those who obtained a refund eventually re-purchased, it seems that incurring the cost of the refunds is a small price to pay for the immense good will such a policy generates among gamers.
A more disappointing statistic concerning Demigod is that, despite Stardock's intention for the game to be a multi-player oriented title, only 23% of gamers ever even tried to log into a multi-player game of Demigod. That is a very unfortunate statistic for Stardock. The Customer Report says this indicates that strategy gamers are more into single player than first thought, and even goes so far as to say that Stardock won't be backing such multi-player focused games in the future. My personal theory, which is not given thought in the Customer Report, is that Stardock failed to market Demigod correctly. In either case, it seems like Demigod has scared Stardock back into its traditional waters.
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Stardock's biggest release of 2010 will be Elemental, a turn based strategy game. Elemental is already gathering some height and could be Stardock's most successful game yet. It will also be exciting to see if Impulse can catch up to (or pass) Steam in terms of community features. But I supposed those are topics for next year.