October 2003 marks the 10 year anniversary
from when Stardock was first incorporated. It's really hard to believe that it's
been that long. Age creeps silently upon us and as I've looked at recent photos,
I can tell that I'm no longer the "kid" I was when this all began. I
founded Stardock while I was attending Western Michigan University. It was
supposed to be a temporary thing. I'd run out of money to pay for school and was
already working 3 other jobs and started a 4th (Stardock) to make ends meet.
It's been a long journey since then. So if you're not bored already, sit back
and I'll reminisce with you on the history of our odd little company...
Incorporating was my mom's idea. She's the
one that took care of it all paper-work wise. She was concerned about potential
lawsuits and being incorporated would (in theory but not so much in practice)
provide some legal protection. The other benefit is that it gave a better
impression to IBM.
IBM? Well yea, you see, in 1993 I was
working on an OS/2 game. The first "major" commercial OS/2 game called Galactic
Civilizations. I was doing it from my dorm (and later apartment) at WMU. I
started doing it with GNU CPP since it was free -- I couldn't afford any real
tools. But a group at IBM was pissed off at Microsoft over the "betrayal" of
Windows 3.0 and they were determined to make OS/2 compete head to head with
Windows. That meant OS/2 needed games and since mine was the only significant
one in development, they helped me out. Not with money mind you but they sent
software, compilers, documentation, etc.
But when IBM management started getting more
serious, they looked for my "D&B" listing (Dun & Bradstreet"). There was none.
And having the company be a DBA "Doing Business As" which is what I'd been
working as wasn't going to cut it. So Stardock Systems became Stardock Systems,
My friends Andy Arvanitis and Chris Dailey
helped me out on programming issues on Galactic Civilizations. My knowledge of
OS/2 programming let alone C programming was pitiful. I had 2 books: "Teach
Yourself C in 21 days" and "OS/2 2.0 Presentation Manager Programming". If it
weren't in those two books it wasn't in the game. So what does that mean?
Well in GalCiv, every ship, star, planet, etc. was actually a window of style
SS_ICON. My books didn't cover how to do graphics programming but they did
show how to create a window and put a picture on it. So GalCiv probably
has the record for the program with the most windows in it -- several THOUSAND
(let me put it this way, a typical program may have 4 windows in it total). For
artwork in the game itself, such as the aliens, my friend Bill Zalenski provided
In 1994 I got my first hard business lesson
-- contracts are only as powerful as the legal force behind you. Galactic
Civilizations was released for OS/2. It got great reviews. It allegedly
sold very well. I say allegedly because Stardock never got paid for a single
retail copy of it. The "publisher", it turned out, was essentially a 1 guy
operation who didn't know what he was doing and simply didn't pay any royalties
even though we (And I'm using the "royal" we at this point) were entitled to 50%
of the gross revenue.
So Stardock almost died before it really got
started. "Why didn't you just sue the publisher?" No money. You can always
tell someone who has never dealt with the legal system -- they're the ones who
threaten to sue people or who think the courts are a magical place of speedy
justice. The publisher was in Utah. I was in Michigan. It would have cost a
fortune and 1) I had no money since I hadn't been paid any royalties and 2) Odds
are he had spent the money already.
But I wasn't out yet. I made an expansion
pack called "Shipyards". It sold for $15 and we sold roughly a thousand of them.
With that $15,000 I paid my friends who had helped me out. When I was done, I
still had around $3000 left.
Hindsight often makes it clear which path
was the way to go. But in 1994 having gone through quite a bit of pain it
was very tempting to just pocket the $3000, have a good story to tell friends
and just go out and get a job. My saner friends decided to do just that and so
from 1994 on I was on my own other than my brand new wife who has always been
I took what little money we had and worked
with some shareware authors and created OS/2 Essentials...
OS/2 Essentials was basically a suite of
OS/2 shareware utilities that were the full versions of the shareware. It sold
for something like $39.95 and because of the fame from Galactic Civilizations, I
was able to get it into retail.
It didn't sell great by today's terms but
that $3000 investment multiplied by several times. Moreover, it showed that we
weren't a one trick pony. It attracted the attention of the person I consider
even today to be the best OS/2 software developer of all time - Kurt Westerfeld.
He was working on something called "The Workplace Toolset/2". He saw how
popular GalCiv was and that OS/2 Essentials was at retail. We combined our
talents together, rechristened his program as "Object Desktop" and rounded
out features together to make it a more mainstream program.
Meanwhile, IBM was putting together
something called the IBM Family FunPak. This was basically a bundle of OS/2
games. A friend of mine at IBM, Mike McNutt, let me in on how much they were
paying to license OS/2 games. IBM was interested in Galactic Civilizations. But
because of the royalty issue, I told them that game wasn't really available. But
I told them of a "new" game we were working on called "Star Emperor". Star
Emperor was basically GalCiv with a simplified rule set. I just had to rewrite
the AI over a few days and make a few other changes. The whole thing was done in
a week or so and IBM paid handsomely to license it. So now we had a bunch of
money we could use to market our stuff.
Later in '95, because of non-payment on
royalties, we got the rights to GalCiv back and late in 1995 released Galactic
In 1995 Stardock had its first 5 full time
employees. These employees were manning the phones, running tech support,
and working on the next game which would be called "Entrepreneur".
It was the high point of Stardock's OS/2
Flush with cash but with no business
experience we were well prepared to run the company into the ground.
Obviously we didn't know we were doing that at the time. But we were
blinded by our OS/2 zealotry. We believed IBM's assurances that they were
committed to OS/2. What we didn't know is that Lou Gerstner, CEO of IBM
had quietly killed it at the end of 1995 when OS/2 for the PowerPC failed to be
released by Fall Comdex '95.
But we were on a roll. In the meantime. I
became friends with Dave Pottinger who, like me, believed in OS/2 and had
written a fantastic OS/2 game called "Avarice".
Take a look at the screenshots on that page and remember -- 1995/1996 time
frame. 1024x768 with 32bit graphics, memory compression, object oriented
world. Now, if Dave Pottinger's name sounds familiar, it's because he's
now one of the lead developers over at Ensemble on Age of Empires / Age of
Mythology. Also like me, he's an OS/2 refugee.
We also released other products such as
Trials of Battle, Process
Commander, as well as Object Desktop Pro which included a powerful but expensive
set of file viewers.
But OS/2 was already dead. We just didn't
know it. You see, Microsoft had released Windows NT 4.0 and within months, the
core user base of OS/2 was gone.
We were starting to get the idea that
something had gone wrong by 1997. Sales on all our software had dropped
massively. We eventually figured out that it was Windows NT 4.0. We
released more OS/2 programs including the OS/2 version of Links Golf and PMINews.
Watching our revenue drop, I felt like a
total fraud when I was featured in Entrepreneur Magazine as one of the "hot
young tech executives" that June. When they asked about our next game, I told
them "Funny you should ask, our next game is actually called 'Entrepreneur'."
The reporter thought that was cool. But it wouldn't be the last we hard from
them about the name "Entrepreneur".
1998 (year of pain)
This is when things came to their low point.
Ever done a net worth graph in Quicken or Quickbooks? This is when it went to
less than zero. I am pleased to say that we never missed a payroll nor did we
ever not pay a developer a royalty. And we did it all on time. But we were
laying off employees. Which was really painful because like many naive, dumb
start-ups, I had hired a lot of personal friends of mine to join the company.
You can imagine how well this went over in having to lay your friends off.
But the man of the hour was a young
developer/artists named Mike Duffy. Today, Mike works on Jimmy Neutron. But in
1998, he happened to be at Stardock. Why was he the man of the hour? Because for
some crazy reason, as lead developer of Entrepreneur he decided to make a gaming
library called Pear that happened to work on OS/2 and Windows. This meant
that when Entrepreneur was done, it would run on Windows as well.
This also meant that Stardock could have a
game at retail that ran on Windows and OS/2 at the same time. Entrepreneur was
loosely based on the business tactics of a certain very aggressive and large
software company. The object of the game was to become a monopoly in the market
you were in by crushing your competitors through a combination of distribution,
technological superiority, and a lot of marketing. Even "FUD" units were
in the game (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt).
The game did pretty well selling something
like 75,000 copies worldwide (though in fairness, 40,000 of them were sold at
less than $10 apiece). But it was enough to bide us time with what developers we
had left to focus on bringing Object Desktop to Windows.
In 1998, we had begun working with some new
friends we had met via the Internet. Three in particular stood out: Andy
Satori, Neil Banfield, and Brian Harper. Together, along with internal
developers, Object Desktop was being reborn on Windows. 3 key parts of Object
Desktop were in their hands: ControlCenter, WindowBlinds, and IconPackager.
But what saved us was customer loyalty.
We decided that since we were going to be developing desktop enhancements on
Windows that we would have to be constantly releasing new updates to keep up
with changes to the OS. So Alexander Antoniades, who had founded Game
Developer Magazine and was our VP of Marketing, came up with the idea of selling
software as a service via a subscription. This would become our .NET
initiative. And our customers purchased Object Desktop subscriptions sight
unseen. They trusted us from our OS/2 days to "make good" and it was with their
support that we were able to finish it.
But there was a wrinkle. Remember
Entrepreneur Magazine? They filed a lawsuit against us over our use of the name
"Entrepreneur". I was appalled by the whole thing but they had a lot of
cash ready to spend on making a lawsuit against us as painful as possible. We
eventually settled and our sequels have used other names. But the entire
experience taught me a great deal about intellectual property law and just how
tenuous intellectual property rights really are. It also put a big damper on our
game side that would last for years.
1999 was the turning point for Stardock but
it almost didn't happen. The Dot-Com explosion had come up and we were quickly
eclipsed in terms of "Buzz" by a slew of start-ups who had millions of dollars
in venture capital. In May 1999 an Internet start-up called Neoplanet
invited me down to Arizona. They were interested in hiring me and the
WindowBlinds team to become part of Neoplanet. They offered lots of stock
options which they assured me would be worth millions one day.
But as I stood there in their beautiful
building, I just couldn't get over the fact that there didn't seem to be a
business model that could generate any significant amount of money. While I was
there, I got a T-shirt which celebrated their 1 millionth download. Not
paying customers. Just downloads. It was a close call. Stardock
wasn't recovered from the OS/2 market by a long stretch. It was tempting to be
part of a wealthy organization with lots of fun smart people. But in the end
In December, The Object Desktop Network (ObjectDesktop.net)
was officially launched.
Things were really looking up by 2000.
Object Desktop was a hit. We had just finished the Starcraft add-on "Starcraft
Retribution" and one of the Object Desktop components,
WindowBlinds, had really taken off.
Which was amazing because WindowBlinds on Windows 95, 98 and ME barely worked
Despite the problems, WindowBlinds was
incredibly popular. It helped launch a program called WindowFX as well. WindowFX
was the first program that added truly alpha blended shadows under windows this
was long before MacOS X hit the streets.
We also came out with
DesktopX. DesktopX allowed users to put
real objects on the Windows desktop. Yea, we've never managed to get the
marketing message cleaned up so that people recognize just how cool DesktopX is.
Basically when it boils down to is that you can build your own desktop out of
So if you had your own ideas on how the
computer should look and feel, you could create them with DesktopX. It
introduced the concept of "zoomers" (think of icons that grew when you put your
mouse over them -- again, before MacOS X came out).
In 2001 the Dot-Com era came down with a
crash. People today try to blame Clinton or Bush for the recession. Think again.
A couple trillion (that's with a T) dollars in investments disappeared with
those dot-coms. And with that investment and capital went millions of jobs
and the economy with it.
None of this had much affected Stardock
though. That's because we had been left out. We've never received any venture
capital. And our customers were end users mainly or established corporations.
But there was a side effect: The skin sites were going down.
Skin sites? Our Object Desktop programs
allow you to download user-created "themes" for them. Skins, icons, wallpapers,
etc. created by users were uploaded to websites that hosted them. Hence the name
"Skin sites". The problem with these sites is that they relied on ad revenue
from banner ads to fund them. A skin site is very expensive to run since they
are, effectively, little more than huge download repositories. As the skin
sites went down, so did our business because our users couldn't download skins
for our software, they didn't have as much an incentive to buy our software.
So we launched WinCustomize.com, a new skin
site. We included not just skins for our stuff but skin sections for other
programs including our competitors. Our view was a rising tide lifts all boats.
The big unknown was the release of Windows
XP. Windows XP included its own "skinning" system that while very limited was
"free" (in the sense that its cost was factored into your purchase of Windows
XP). We weren't sure how this would affect us. Microsoft implemented a security
system to ensure that third parties didn't make their own themes -- only
Microsoft digitally signed themes could be used. But like many security
systems, it was cracked and techies were making their own "visual styles" for
We weren't sure how Windows XP was going to
By 2002, it had become clear that Windows XP
was helping WindowBlinds. Sales skyrocketed as users exposed to the basic
skinning in Windows XP wanted something more. Because XP was designed for
desktop customization, our software worked better than ever sales grew across
We concluded that we were now fully armed
and operational. It was time to go back and try to do a
Galactic Civilizations for Windows. We
wanted to do it right so we put together a budget of around $600,000 (which was
a lot for us) to create it.
We were also finally getting mainstream
attention with companies like Microsoft, Nintendo, nVidia, and dozens of others
were licensing our software for their own use. Movie and TV studios were
beginning to use our software to put together those "Fake" computer interfaces
we always groan about when you see them on TV.
In business terms, the company had reached
that positive feedback loop.
The positive feedback looped allowed us to
grow in terms of new hires. At the low-point in 1998, our company was down
to 3 full time employees. By 2003, we had grown to nearly 30 people
working on various projects around the world.
Galactic Civilizations came out and received
editor's choice awards from 2 of the 3 magazines and the average review rating
of the 50 or so magazine reviews was between 4 and 5 stars.
Microsoft licensed our software to create an
Xbox visual style, an Age of Mythology visual style and visual styles for some
of their other games. Warner Bros. did the same thing to create a visual style
for Terminator 3.
Skinning, as a market, had grown big enough
that there are now companies making a good business creating skins for third
parties such as Pixtudio and The Skins Factory (amongst others).
In late 2002 we had begun to rework the
entire Object Desktop line to put together Object Desktop 2004 for a late 2003
release. The goal to bring a new level of polish and quality to the Object
Desktop components. The first release for this was WindowBlinds 4 and has been
followed up with Stardock Central, a program that lets users get updates, visit
forums, check docks, chat, and more from a single UI. We've been also struggling
to re-do ObjectBar, a program that was
meant to be a kind of GUI erector set but has always had trouble finding the
right balance between power and ease of use. We're hoping to get ObjectBar 2.0
out this year. Another big release was
WinStyles Theme Manager which finally has a UI that should be pretty
straight forward to users. It's already been licensed by other companies for
applying themes. And the second generation of DesktopX is ready to go too.
What we've wanted to do as we came to
our 10 year anniversary was to focus on the basics and then prepare for
expansion in 2004...
There's all sorts of cool stuff in the lab.
We have two new games in development right now. One is called
The Political Machine,
a strategy game where you run for President as well as a future sequel for
Galactic Civilizations which won't be out any time soon.
We also are working on something we call an
Information Environment. Where Object Desktop is about customizing the
Windows environment to suit your needs, our Information Environment, called
ThinkDesk, is designed to let users make use of their "stuff" in a more
productive manner. It won't be out for a bit either and we rely on a lot of
technology in Longhorn so ThinkDesk will almost certainly require at least
Windows XP to function.
We, like other companies, are recognizing
the importance of blogging. What's a blog? Well there are lots of definitions
but here's mine: Blogging is about regular people being able to share their
views about things with the world. I personally like the term "Indie Editiorials"
since in many ways, that's what they are. So we're putting a lot of effort into
JoeUser.com. A lot of pretty fantastic IT
technology is being created along the way that we hope to roll into our other
websites to provide more goodies for our WinCustomize, Object Desktop, and
The ride so far
It's been a crazy journey. This whole thing
was just an accident in many respects. When I was nominated for Ernst & Young
Michigan Entrepreneur of the Year, I met a lot of other "entrepreneurs". Each
has its unique story. Ours, though, I truly believe is one of the more
unique stories. I mean, really, what is Stardock ultimately? It's a bunch of
guys who hang out creating really cool stuff. Heck, we make PC video games and
then turn around and make desktop customization software. Talk about totally
unrelated. It's no wonder we've never gotten venture capital. A friend of
mine commented that Stardock is really a really profitable hobby.
Who knows what the next 10 years will bring.
The first 10 years brought triumph and near bankruptcy and then back to big
growth again. If we're around 10 years from now, and I suspect we will be, who
knows what adventures we'll have gone on between now and then. Whether for
good or ill, it's always exciting and all in fun, it's been a fun ride.
Brad Wardell is the founder of Stardock
Corporation. You can email him at bwardell at stardock.com.