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Shafer and Stardock

January 5th, 2011 by Troy Goodfellow · 16 Comments · Firaxis, Industry, Stardock

When I broke the news that Jon Shafer had left Firaxis, I can honestly say that I had no idea where he would end up. I knew that a deal was in place for him to go somewhere, I knew that he was happy with the move and I knew nothing else. None of my usual sources at Firaxis or Stardock or 2k would spill the beans, even off the record. Shafer himself was was tight lipped until the news broke.

I can also honestly say that I was surprised. I was sure that Shafer would “move up” to a larger developer and publisher – surely EA could find a use for him. Because no matter what you think about Civ 5 or the espionage in Civ 4, there is no doubt that Shafer is a unique and exciting young talent in strategy gaming.

When I expressed my surprise to Shafer, he was surprised I was surprised? “Where else would I go?”

And then it all made sense. Stardock’s games are primarily PC strategy – this is what they do. If you love strategy games (and Shafer genuinely does) you would prefer to go to a studio that values them. That leaves Stardock and Relic. And now there is less chance of your baby’s publicity being drowned out by your publisher’s loud, lame gangster game that no one remembers five months later.

Second, the Elemental experience clearly demonstrated that Stardock needed more game design talent with leadership skills than CEO Brad Wardell. Shafer has led a team under strict deadlines from a big publicly traded publisher – he is proven even if his first major product is still not all it could be.

Third, though Wardell is man of great confidence and strong personality, he also doesn’t stick his name on the games he publishes. Sid Meier is one of the most generous and kind-hearted people in the business, but his name at the front can make it hard for gamers to see that the franchise has moved on with other people at the helm and hard for developers to assume a real ownership of the Civ series. You see this on even hardcore Civ forums where people go after Shafer for breaking “Sid’s game”. (Sid’s game is Civ Revolutions, btw). Though I am confident that Meier wasn’t keeping anyone down, for a young developer like Shafer, the chance to move to someplace where your name and talents have a chance to be up front can’t be taken lightly. No one is in this for the glory, I think, but playing second fiddle to a giant and a genius can be exhausting.

Fourth, and related, is the prospect of making variants of Civilization forever. Stardock’s last three games are a fantasy game, a political game and a sci-fi game. All three are quite different in major design areas and count as unique experiences. Firaxis has a wealth of talent and a rich history beyond Civ to pillage but it doesn’t. As we noted on the podcast a few weeks ago, it could be that they are stuck in an Ensemble situation where other projects are starved to keep the cash cow going.

Fifth, it might be better to be known as the guy that saved Stardock instead of the guy that ruined Civ. (Not that I believe that, but I have read it so many places that I hate the internet more than ever.)


16 Comments so far ↓

  • Wolfox

    It was a pretty good move by Stardock, and I think it might be a great move for Shafer as well, for the reasons you mentioned. I’m not sure if Elemental can be “saved”, but Stardock sure is trying, and it’s nice to know that Jon will probably have influence in the next game(s) coming from Stardock in the near future.

    And for the record, I hate most of the Internet too, so you’re not alone feeling like that. :-D

  • Tom Grant

    “Leadership skills” could mean a lot of things. Based on what we’ve heard about the sad saga of Elemental, it seems as though Stardock really needs a top-notch development manager who knows what good QA and user feedback looks like, who can scope projects, stay on top of the real state of the product, and when necessary, say no to his boss. Stardock doesn’t need another “visionary” as much as someone with these sort of mundane but critical skills in running a dev team.

  • Troy

    Tom, you are absolutely right, and Shafer is a plugger. He knows how to manage a team, deal with less staff than expected and balance tasks.

  • Quinten

    I personally hope that Schafer’s personal project at Stardock is some sort of tactical strategy game. We know he loves PG (I do as well) and it would be interesting to see his take on it. Considering Political Machine being a small game, I could see Stardock letting Schafer make a game that is not Grand Strategy.
    This brings me to why Sid Meir’s game is my favorite of the Civ games. Revolutions is amazing, and gives me exactly what I want: Civ in two to four hours instead of twelve. I loved Civ 4 and 2 when I wasn’t as busy, but I love having a quick game that is simple. That is why I still want to pick up Civ 5 when I have the time, but Revolutions is filling that space for me. It is the only reason my DS ever turns on.

  • Caleb

    I’m very glad to hear this. Some of the problems with Civ 5 may have been Shafer’s fault, but I’d say most of its due to Firaxis and 2k. Glad to see he’s gone on to something different (and in my opinion much better than Firaxis, which I think has seen its glory day, and now will slowly fade away.)

  • Dirk

    It’s good to see the positive reactions to this story here on FoS. The news around Jon Shafer’s move sucked me into the “fan forums” for Civ and Stardock, and what I saw there is appalling. The amount of venom and simple wrong-mindedness going on, WOW. Just because Civ 5 is a mess – and it is, truly, an awful mess at this point – doesn’t mean that Jon Shafer is not a capable designer.

    Hundreds of people come together to create a game like Civ 5, and problems of this magnitude are a failure of the system. I’ve been part of apps developed at Apple, Microsoft and lots of other big tech companies and it is typical for the bureaucracy to smash, dilute and destroy even the best of visions. Software, of any stripe, ain’t easy. Much less something on the scale of Civ.

    For my money, the real story out of the failure of Civ 5 – not to mention Elemental and many other recent games – is we should stop having faith that developers are going to ship balanced, tested, vetted products and instead wait for confirmation from the community that games are both baked and good. It is an unfortunate byproduct of the digital download era, where the ease of patching and adjusting makes development and testing sloppy. We need to force publishers to do their jobs and design us finished, fun games. Which, again, is waaaaay beyond what a lead designer at Firaxis can influence!

    Jon Shafer is a young guy with an obvious passion for and experience with strategy games. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and see what he comes up with next. I may not pre-order it, but I will be eagerly checking out the early insider reviews.

    Best of luck to Stardock and Jon!

  • Josh

    Brad as the AI guru.

    Derek Paxton as the producer.

    Jon Shafer as the mod guy for Elemental.

    Sounds like a match made in a three way heaven for Elemental, and a solid future for Stardock.

  • Stormwaltz

    Looking at it from the outside, what I see is Stardock hiring two guys with proven ability to tinker with existing systems, not carry new projects through to a successful conclusion.

    Derek’s stand-alone FFH title never got off the ground. While Jon did neat things with Final Frontier, the Civ he skippered is on course to become the next Civ3 – forgotten in favor of a superior predecessor and (I hope) successor. (Aside: Civ games and Star Trek movies seem to follow the same “even number” rule.)

    You know Derek and Jon’s professional capabilities better than I do, and I’ll defer to your superior knowledge. I love the mod work of both guys – they’re quite honestly inspirations to my own dabbling – but I can’t help but see them as yet-unproven.

  • Chris King

    You know I had to go and look at the Civfanatics forum to see how they were taking this new and my God there are some bitter people there. My favourite was as long as Jon stays away from Paradox I’ll be happy. With that in mind I would like to make the following public offer.

    Jon, if you are reading this and if you do have some free time, would like to be our special guest programmer on the Hearts of Iron 3 patch?

  • frags

    Blaming Civ 5 flaws on Jon is the same as blaming Epic Mickeys flaws to Warren Spector. It just doesn’t work that way.

  • Thomas Kiley

    It doesn’t work that way… up to a point. Undoubtedly you cannot blame him for the AI, or various other things. But the core design of them game is his responsibility. Personally, I enjoyed Civ 5 and felt the only major flaw was the AI. Because it couldn’t use the combat system, didn’t understand diplomacy and seemed to have no desire to win it damaged the whole game. However, if one was to think that global happiness, new pacing, changed combat etc. damaged the game, then that is Shafers fault.

    Re move to Stardock: I eagerly look forward to find out what the new IP is!

  • MalcolmM

    “Brad as the AI guru.”

    Based on everything I read about Elemental, the AI was very poor.

  • CFKane

    The poor AI in Elemental is atypical for games from Stardock. The AI in the Gal Civ games was fantastic (and programmed by Brad Wardell). His commentary on development of Elemental indicated that he was spending little time on the AI, and rather focusing on production and design tasks, for which he is not ideally suited.

    So the AI should get better, if Brad can hand off the production and design work to Jon and Derek.

    I look forward to what this team produces. I’ve always thought the Stardock games to be good designs that were somewhat sterile. Maybe Jon and Derek (especially Derek) can change that.

  • MRAAKTAGON » Civ lead designer leaves Firaxis, heads to Stardock

    […] Is this to save Elemental War of Magic (a game IMO that cannot be made right) or for something else?  Again I must reiterate that Stardock must not be allowed to get the Master of Orion license, but this may change my opinion on that a bit.   More Info. […]

  • Chris

    This has been an interesting story. I hope he does well and I’ll be watching with interest to see if he does get his own project in the future.

    Count me as another that is quite frankly appalled by the attitude displayed be people on the various forums in reaction to this news. It makes me look forward to the day I’m no longer interested in gaming.

  • Evrett

    I posted this over at the elemental forums..got trolled at..

    “I’d like to hear Jon Shafers Mea culpa before I trust any product that he is going to be involved with. He’s done nothing but hide behind his business and legal obligations thus far. Which I’m sure is in his best interest for his career and whatnot. But how is that in any way good for the consumer ? Those of us who can get over the vitriol will admit Civ 5 had some definite bright spots and the guy has talent. But you hired a guy who’s recent behavior doesnt walk “consumer first” talk that stardock stands for. Its like hiring Michael Vick for your football team. Sure he’ll get you a few touchdowns but when you sit down with your team for the locker room prayer can you really take yourself seriously?

    My parents taught me that you clean up any mess you made first before moving on to the next thing. That lesson stands here -lets see some transparency and accountability from Mr. Shafer before giving him any sort of public pass.”