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Three Moves Ahead Episode 81: Elemental Post Mortem with Brad Wardell

September 8th, 2010 by Troy Goodfellow · 34 Comments · Podcast, Stardock, Three Moves Ahead

ThreeMovesAhead
 

A terrible launch of a game I wanted to love turns what should have been a “WOW” show into another opportunity for Brad Wardell to explain how Stardock screwed up. Listen how imperfect QA practices, overconfidence, groupthink and not taking every beta crash report seriously turned one of the year’s most anticipated new IPs into a lesson for developers.

And also, how Stardock commits to make things right – including free content, steady support, laser focus and refunds. (Ask them. I have no idea what the mechanics are.)

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Rob’s review
Troy’s review
Tom’s review

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34 Comments so far ↓

  • Wolfox

    Hey everyone,

    I’m a bit sad after hearing the podcast. On one hand, I’m sad to see Brad like that. He’s quite clearly saddened about the whole thing, a bit shocked that Elemental hasn’t been received as the great hit he thought it was, and quite clearly concerned about the future of Stardock as a game developer and a growing force in the entertainment software industry.

    On the other hand, what Brad said made me sad too. A few of the things he said sounded more like excuses than real explanations, and throughout the whole podcast, he was not completely coherent (in the sense that he either contradicted himself, or claimed things that are clearly contradicted by observed facts).

    More interestingly, it seems to me that everyone participating in the podcast also noticed that, particularly in a few moments in the conversation, which made for some awkward listening. Let me list a few:

    - when Brad says that they’ve been playing Elemental for years internally (which Rob brings up again later in the podcast for clarification);
    - when Brad says that the GUI was so elegant for him;
    - when he says that they “fixed” the problems posted in July, particularly the blandness of the spells, saying that there was a huge improvement in the spells (and GUI, etc) from Beta 4 to version 1.X;
    - when you compared the Blizzard betas (just balancing changes), with Stardock’s beta (technical testing along with huge gameplay changes);
    - when he says that QA said Elemental was not buggy near release, and that the game ran wonderfully in everything they tested it on internally (I think he even mentioned an old notebook).

    For me, there are a few other things that he said that are somewhat troubling, like saying that the shared mana change is equivalent to 16 engineering hours, which might be right from a pure code standpoint; however, what about the time needed to consider that change from a gameplay perspective (or to come to it at the first place), to integrate it in the rest of the gameplay, to make the needed changes in the AI, etc? Game design can be more complex than writing the code to implement it, and ultimately, gameplay is what counts. And, at least for me, that’s exactly what Elemental does not deliver.

    For all that, it seems like Elemental is the final result of a flawed process – one that didn’t prioritize gameplay as it should, one that failed to deliver that which it promised to be – a spiritual successor of
    Master of Magic – and isn’t, one that failed to see the whole picture (“head in the sand” syndrome, as Brad himself pointed out), one that failed to include player expectations and feedback into the process.

    Now, it’s a good thing that Brad is taking responsability for the whole thing. And I do believe that he thought Elemental to be a great game. I personally can’t fathom HOW he could ever think that, but I still believe him. But I don’t know if that makes things better or worse. Will Stardock really learn the lesson? Will they really be able to look at Elemental objectively, gather all the feedback they had, and make it the game it should be? Will they use a better process on their next game? Perhaps. I won’t hold my breath, though.

    Just so you know where I’m coming from, I’m a Stardock fan (or perhaps I should say that I *was* a Stardock fan). I bought Galciv 2 and all expansions (and quite enjoyed it, not as a deep or unique game, but at least as a fun game to play). I pre-ordered Sins and its expansions. I pre-ordered Demigod, on the promise that it would have good single player, which is another promise that went unfulfilled. And despite that, I pre-ordered Elemental almost a full year before release. I downloaded it during the betas (to see how it ran, basically), but didn’t really play because I didn’t want to spoil the experience. The first version I got to play, effectively, was the pre-zero-day release by Stardock. And I was really, really disappointed by the game, specially when I finally saw the “final” magic system. There are good ideas there (out of the magic system, as the tech tree and the dynamic nature of the “goodie huts” and resources as you play), but in the whole, it falls (really) short of the older standards in the genre – namely, Master of Magic, Age of Wonders and Dominions 3.

  • Disappointed

    Articulate, and sums up much of my opinions both about the podcast and the game.

    He really did seem to be stumbling at a few points in the q&a, and the repressed snorts/laughter of disbelief when he said ‘yeah, it was totally fixed on release!’ were sort of embarassing.

    Ah well. Nothing to do now but wait and see what they do with the game.

  • Jorune

    I too still ponder the things Brad says and what he really knows. He has claimed that it was NOT a financial decision to release Elemental in August, that it could have easily waited until February. But than in the same breath, he concedes that if they released the game in Feb, they would have to let go people from the 2nd games unit. That sounds like a financial decision.

    And if I were working there and had misgivings on releasing the game in August, would I say so when the boss asked me? No. Because I would not want to be responsible for people losing their jobs, there livelihoods, simply because *I* thought a GAME wasn’t ready for release. What would your coworkers think of you? No, best to tell the boss its all good and let him take the fall if it were to fail.

    No, there are alot of policies that Stardock needs to look at and review when it comes to making games.

    That said, I will KEEP my copy. Because I have complete faith that Brad and company WILL eventually deliver a great game. Just look at the Twilight of the Arnor expansion, bring a unique tech tree to each race to see what they can do to their games.

    Jorune

  • Quinten

    This may sound strange, but this podcast made me want to pick up Elemental. I will wait a few months, but if the updates are significant, then I would enjoy the game. I am really excited about the create a unit feature, and would love to see that expanded. I think this whole scenario is blown out of proportion because of Brad’s promises, and thankfully I assumed it would come up short anyways. So I will wait, and if it improves I will give him my money.

  • Sean

    The cynical part of me says this is one huge PR stunt by Wardell to gain Elemental more press and therefore more sales. The game was available for pre-order and the devs might have looked at the sales figures and said we need to do something desperate to raise gamers awareness of the title.

    The game should have shipped with a decent manual and the diabolically confusing UI should have been beta-tested properly.

    It pains me to say this but to be honest I am sick to death of having to read about Wardell’s hand-wringing over this whole mess. Just fix the goddamn game and shut-up already.

  • bill abner

    Great, great show Troy and co.

  • Troy

    Sean:

    You’re more cynical than I am, which is saying something. Recall that this show was planned over a month ago, when I had only vague reports about Elemental and still had hopes that it would turn out OK. Since I approached Stardock, it’s unlikely I am part of some great PR scheme.

    And Brad did admit to some serious, serious problems with both the game and the internal evaluation that should give people a pause before dropping dollars on the game. I certainly wouldn’t advise it till Christmas, and maybe longer. There is *a lot* of work to do here.

    I do hope Brad takes your and Stephanie Schopp’s advice and now avoids a lot of public comment so he can devote himself to fixing this game. There are a lot of good ideas in Elemental – disjointed and incomplete, but good.

  • Jorune

    And I just finished episode 78, good ideas in bad games. Well here ya go.

    I do think I forgot to say good show Troy and Rob. You were respectful, but did ask the hard questions I wanted to hear answered.

    Jorune

  • Wolfox

    Indeed, it was a great show. Congratulations to all who participated.

  • Joe

    Stardock management should read the Rogers Commission report on the Challenger disaster. Somehow management has created a culture where design flaws and technical issues that are difficult to fix become “acceptable bugs” and the word has spread that you don’t tell Brad any bad news about his pet project. Maybe he’s a walking terror like Steve Jobs.

    He should have showed up to the interview and said “I’m not a full-time tester and I honestly didn’t know there were this many bugs. I’m sure people knew but nobody told me, and I swear I will find out why.” That might be believable.

    He should also contract an independent investigation into what happened. Chances are good that Brad was part of the problem, and performing his own internal interviews with employees has seriously tainted the findings.

    Further, though this might be a bad move publicly, he should at least privately question the priorities and competence of himself and the rest of upper management. Saying “we only tested it on our Dell-compatibility hardware” is not an explanation, it’s an even bigger problem. Who is managing testing? Haven’t they ever made PC games before? Who hired this testing manager? If it has it become a family owned company where Brad’s idiot brother is VP of testing, he should be quietly shuffled to another branch.

    It would be nice to hear that they’re taking this a little more seriously and looking into whether there were internal failings. Because there definitely were. Saying “we didn’t see this coming” and tacking on more man-months to patch development is not going to fix the real problem here.

  • Sarkus

    First, I want to thank Troy and Rob for asking most of the questions that I’ve been seeing on various boards, particularly on QT3.

    Second, maybe it’s just me but including Stardock’s PR person was a red flag. What was her presence there for, anyway? About the only thing she really seemed to address was in her role as a liason between Stardock and various media persons, which is interesting but not really relevant to the issues.

    Third, I’m concerned about where Brad is going to take the game. While it’s flawed, I’m worried that he’s going to “throw the baby out with the bath water” so to speak. This move to a global mana pool, which is about the only concrete thing they’ve said they are going to change, seems driven more by a desire to make the game easier for the AI then anything else. Interface changes need to be made, but I haven’t seen anyone complain about the action tab system. And yet that’s going away too. Whether we end up with something worth playing in the end is really up in the air in my mind.

  • Hanacker

    You can’t tease Bruce and then not have him show up like that :(

  • Sean

    Hi Troy

    Sorry I didn’t mean to imply that Brad being on your show was a spur of the moment idea. I was more referring to his public comments spoken on the forums and news websites over the past week or so since the game was released.

    Lest others have the wrong impression my personal belief is that Elemental is brilliant. The graphic style and gameplay concepts will make this an amazing game. But all of the game “elements” (pun intended) MUST work together.

    My final piece of advice to Brad is using the famous words of the esteemed Scott Jennings: STOP POSTING! :)

  • spelk

    It was good to actually hear some of the stuff Brad had to say on the matter. I think expectations were high for Elemental, and there seems to have been a media frenzy over some issues that many games are released with, but because of Brad’s “openness” around the Net, issues were latched onto and made into big overly melodramatic ones.

    Ultimately, Elemental is a wet dream for RPG/Strategy fans, and there have been very little titles pursuing this combo, so I see it more of an investment in a genre and theme that I love. I was sold on Elemental before the pre-order was made available, and I’ve played some of it, and I’ve weighed it up against a lot of the media criticism. I’ve seen games in worse states at release than Elemental. It functions, it shows you what’s available, you know you have possible many years or iterative development and advancements to come. Your investment will come to fruition but perhaps it needs some tuning, and honing.

    I think all thrashing and gnashing around its release detracts away from what is being created here. As a fan of this genre, I want to nurture this beast, I want it to fulfil its potential, and the fact that some of the finesse isn’t quite there at the moment doesn’t really make the game unplayable. Reviewers who climbed the flail wagon and were shouting that people “shouldn’t buy it”, seem to be wanting to court controversy for coverage. Demigod’s multiplayer/pirate hoo-hah had the press drooling the last time round, and Elementals bashing seems to be fuelled by the same necessity to make a drama out of issues that most games (especially independent ones) go through all the time. As a strategy gamer it saddens me that the Elemental bashing will result in less funds available for continued development of the product, precisely when the product needs those funds.

    Some of the things Brad talks about, are technical or project management issues, that really need taking care of within Stardock’s infrastructure. I mean, this stuff is well known in development circles, compatibility, user group testing etc. But as I said earlier, Elemental needs some loving from the very community its serving. The game isn’t a snack pack “pull off the shelf” burst of adrenalin, it will become (hopefully) a fully fledged engine for fantasy based strategy that will knock the likes of (the very poorly interfaced) Dominions III into this century at least.

    Basically, if you like fantasy based strategy gaming, BUY Elemental, support its continued development! There I’ve said it. :)

  • Wolfox

    Actually, changing some aspects of the design to make it easier for the AI is not such a bad idea. In my opinion, that’s exactly what made Galciv 2 a fun, good game.

    Galciv 2 seems deep, at first sight. However, the longer you play, the more you realize that it doesn’t have any real depth. Which in its case works quite well, because it has two very strong points: 1) the AI (which benefits from simpler rules), and 2) the ship designer (which is mostly aesthetic in Galciv’s case, and still something entirely unique in the 4X genre).

    Galciv 2 doesn’t have the depth of, say, Space Empires 4, or Master of Orion 2. There’s no real tactical combat, and ship design (from a functional standpoint) is severely limited. It’s also quite bland in terms of setting. But its AI is good. Diplomacy is effective and satisfying most of the time. It’s fun to play. And that’s part of the reason why it’s a good game. The other part is that Galciv 2 didn’t aspire to be a Master of Orion 2 killer. It is a simpler game, but it revels on that. It works well that way. It doesn’t compete with the standards of the genre; rather, it occupies a niche amongst them. And that’s why it succeeded.

    Now, when you go back to Elemental, it’s impossible not to see that many of its design elements have been directly taken from Galciv 2. It works similarly, and, in my opinion, there is so much of Galciv 2 in Elemental that it’s distracting. And those design elements worked quite well in Galciv 2, but they don’t work nearly as well in Elemental, partly because it’s as different a setting as it can be, partly because many of them SHOULD be new and different (magic is the primal example here). And the AI also suffered because of that.

    Also, Elemental was originally envisioned as “Master of Magic spiritual sucessor”, which is everything it’s not. And it seems to me that Elemental, unlike Galciv 2, doesn’t know what it wants to be. Elemental, unlike Galciv 2, doesn’t have any identity. And the fact that huge gameplay changes were being done by the end of the beta, and are also planned for the next few weeks and months, only confirms that – Elemental is not as much a game, as an incoherent collection of new and old ideas. Some of those are great ideas. Some of those work with the rest of the game. Most don’t.

    Can Elemental be a good game? Perhaps. First, Stardock needs to understand what niche Elemental should occupy. It will never compete with Master of Magic or Dominions 3. But it might become a fun game on its own, if it revels on what made Galciv 2 a good game. Stardock needs to play by their strengths, keep their ambitions in check. Baby steps.

  • Troy

    Hanacker:

    Yeah, bummed me out, too. Wanted Bruce to be there.

  • Michael A.

    Good show. Tough, but fair questions.

    There is a lot that need fixing in Elemental, though IMO there are bigger problems than the mana pool (the resource system and tactical battles really need work IMO). It will be interesting to revisit this in 3-4 months and see how it has developed.

  • nullspace

    Journe commented, “And I just finished episode 78, good ideas in bad games. Well here ya go.”

    What are the good ideas in Elemental? Personally, I preordered because essence sounded like a great idea that could have been a completely unique feature in the 4X genre. The way it was described, essence would give the player difficult decisions about how they wanted to specialize and divide this limited power between their sovereign and empire. But it got weakened throughout the beta, and the Labor Day dev journal makes it sound like it will essentially (pun?) be removed from the game.

    So, with essence gone, what good ideas are there?

    Elemental is stable and runs great on the desktop I just built (with ATI cards). The interface has some problems but GalCiv II ended up in good shape, so I expect those will be fixed. But I don’t think it will become a good game by just making iterative changes to current features. It needs some good ideas about how each feature should perform in the final product, and how systems should interact with each other.

    Changing mana to be an empire-wide statistic is a step in the right direction. That sounds like a better fit for a 4X game. But it is only a good idea if there are also varied and interesting ways to increase your mana cap and regeneration.

  • darrenl

    Great podcast guys. Must fix your audio though ;)

    Onto Brad. What I think it comes down to for Brad and Stardock is a broken development process…including the software verification/validation cycle. I’ve been doing software testing for about 15 years now and I found myself either nodding in agreement with Brad or shaking my head saying “you never do that…ever.”

    They really need to review what they do from top to bottom and make sure that they have the proper checks and balances in so that they avoid this in the future. One thing is something Brad hinted at which was removing himself from the development process. I know he likes to code…but he’s also the CEO. He should also not be making decisions like when something releases….certainly he should be in the discussion but I have a feeling he MAKES that decision. Essentially…he’s the CEO, Project Manager, and Developer, which points to a huge conflict of interest when it comes to delivering a quality product.

    Onto Elemental. I like it. I don’t love it…but I like it. I have the utmost confidence that they will patch it up to the point where Elemental will be the best title that Stardock has.

    …anyway…just my $0.02

  • Jimmy Brown

    In this day of gotcha journalism (Who will rid me of Steve Inskeep?), it was a pleasure to hear tough questions asked honestly and for the purpose of listening the answers. Thank you very, very much.

  • Ian Bowes (spelk)

    How come Tom wasn’t there? Surely of all the podcasts, this was one where Tom should’ve been!

    Also, as an aside, Troy, get Mark Walker back on and lets get the skinny on Lock n Load since the last podcast.

    And while we’re at it, lets get Vic Davis on to talk about Six Gun Saga! :)

  • Warren

    Oh heck yea, spelk! A loud second to your Vic Davis on Six Gun saga motion!

  • Wolfox

    Yeah, having Vic Davis on the podcast again would be awesome. One more vote from me.

  • ElementalWhereArtThou

    Vic Davis back again would be awesome though I’m sure it won’t be until the game is actually close to release. It’d be interesting to hear how it evolved from a western rogue-like to this card game.

    Re: Ep 81

    I guess I was left feeling surprised at how amateurish and avoidable some of the mistakes Stardock made in the whole process of releasing the game. What really stood out for me was how Brad had people working on the game with no gaming background or interest where it’s just a regular 9-5 job for them or how the beta testers were the same guys that do regular application testing?

    I was listening to this podcast as background soundtrack while doing other work so I may be misconstruing what he meant, but these are the impressions I got.

    At any rate, Elemental’s state can only get better from here on, eh?

  • big40dad

    brad wardell is a major fuck up

  • BryanP.

    Yes bring Vic back! Good podcast w/ Brad. You guys asked the right questions. Nicely done.

  • LintMan

    Brad’s mea culpa is a good thing, but like some others, I worry that he hasn’t quite learned all the right lessons.

    Most disturbing, he seems to still think that the software mechanics of making the game are 90% of the work. The whole point that Blizzard spent months and months of beta time polishing and balancing an already feature-complete game was lost on him. His non sequitur response when this was pointed out to him in the podcast reminded me of Nigel Tufnel’s response from This Is Spinal Tap: “These go to 11″.

    Also, he seems to have a bit of a selective memory. Back at release, Gal Civ 2 was actually a fair bit of a mess, as well, with its share of angry forum goers complaining about its premature release. The UI was very unpolished, some video issues, gameplay balance problems… sound familiar? All less problematic than Elemental, but still not good. Brad eventually posted a a bit of a mea culpa, saying they had a lot of lessons learned and would do more testing, etc in the future. A lot of the same mistakes repeated. Someone on the Stardock forums dredged up that post recently, but I can’t find it now.

  • zipdrive

    First of all, I thought it was a great show.
    Second, I understood the PR presence to be first about not letting Brad dig himself any deeper with his candid confessions and second about those questions she was asked. I think having her on was a very sensible decision on Stardock’s side amd completely understandable.

    Third, I want to support Brad as it seems he’s going through a very tough time now, especially with Internet Idiots (TM) wihing him dead and bothering his family.

    Fourth, it did grate on me when Brad said they were working on the game for years and so developed a blind spot, but later admitted that he and some others only worked on it for six months.

    Fifth, listening to some of the bug (and cause) descriptions makes me understand why the consoles are so attractive to other developers.

    Sixth, for all those moaning about Brad’s admissions- you don’t have listen to the podcast. I, for one, don’t have the time to haunt forums and follow every gaming site out there, so I find it very interesting to hear thing from the man himself.

    Seventh, with regards to the CEO-developer conflict: Yeah, it’s a major issue, for Brad at least. He put up this studio to do something he loves, but now he finds himself facing issues stemming from being on two different sides. While I wouldn’t say he should quit programming, I would say that he should let someone else, who’s strong in conviction and power in the company, be the project manager/leader/producer/whatever and DEFER TO HIM (or her) with regards to his involvement in the game.

    Last, maybe Stardock *should* get a consulting firm or an outside team do a post-mortem on this catastrophic launch.

    Thanks for going on the show and answering some tough questions, Brad!
    Thanks for asking the tough questions, Troy and Rob!

  • Jordan

    I’ve bought a lot of bad games, and while Elemental was frustrating, I’m completely willing to spend $50 if it means Stardock will continue to make games like Galactic Civilizations 2. Thanks for being forthright, Brad.

  • Trevor

    I haven’t played the game nor read any of the other comments, but as a member of a QA team for a major software company, the fact that he just passes it off as the QA team’s fault makes me RAGE. If the QA passed this game as playable, clearly the fault lies with the fact that Stardock’s QA teams sucks or that they weren’t provided with the proper testing hours/equipment.

  • NooBTooB » Blog Archive » Elemental Review

    [...] with Brad Wardell about Elemental and all the issues Stardock is having, he was on the podcast Three Moves Ahead. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, [...]

  • Yuhong Bao

    “My final piece of advice to Brad is using the famous words of the esteemed Scott Jennings: STOP POSTING! :)”
    I would not go so far as completely stopping.

  • Annoyed

    Some of the issues they claim they were “unaware” of such at the white tactical battle screen, were pretty common at various points after the tactical battle implementation. I’m not a forum whore by any means, but even I saw several threads well before release about that very thing. Him claiming ignorance about things that were very much reported annoys me greatly.

    The most amusing thing is that well before release early into beta 3 people were saying the game wasn’t going to be finished, some citing very good reasons and all the fanboys shouted them down, and threads were locked or out right deleted. Brad’s a great programmer, probably a good CEO, but as a designer, and director…not so much. Never the less, Stardock’s still my favorite studio.

  • Mygaffer

    A lot of comments here by people who are pretending to know a lot more than they do.

    I for one still trust Wardell and while I haven’t bought the game and won’t until most people report its reasonably fixed, I still support him and his company.

    I am not the kind of person who throws someone under a bus for their first mistake. Stardock has given us some wonderful titles over the years and has had some of the most gamer friendly practices of ANY developer yet so many of you turn around spit in his face like he was Bobby Kotick selling you a map pack for $20. Shame on you people.

    Hang in the Brad, fix what you need to fix but don’t start doubting yourself.