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.)