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Postmortem: Stardock's Galactic Civilizations 2: Dread Lords
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Postmortem: Stardock's Galactic Civilizations 2: Dread Lords

April 5, 2006 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

In March 2003, Stardock released its space strategy game Galactic Civilizations. Galactic Civilizations is a turn-based strategy game set in the 23rd century in which the player takes on the role of leader of their civilization. Players colonize planets, research technologies, negotiate with alien civilizations, fight wars, and spread their culture across the galaxy.

The game was developed on a shoestring budget. The development budget was around $300,000 and the after-release budget reserve of another $300,000 to support updates, help with marketing, and provide product support depending on sales. While a total of 5 developers were involved on the project at different times, at the end of the day, only 3 developers, at most, were working on the game at any given time. Similarly, no more than 2 artists were working full time on the game at any given time. In total, 10 people were involved.

At the time of release, the expectation was that it would sell approximately 30,000 units in North America and around 10,000 units internationally. Our publisher was Strategy First and they told us we could expect about $10 per unit in royalties from North America and about half that internationally. We also had confidence that we could get around $350,000 in retail revenue. We also anticipated around 5,000 units in direct sales which would be worth $40 apiece for a total of $550,000 in revenue. So if we could do the game for $300,000 then we could make our investment back. The second $300,000 could be used in the event that the game did very well and needed more support.

Release Aftermath and Sequel Talk

Galactic Civilizations was released at roughly the same time as Master of Orion III. For a variety of reasons, Master of Orion III ended up helping the sales of Galactic Civilizations tremendously. Between that March and the end of that year, the game sold approximately 50,000 retail units in North America and about 15,000 electronically. It would eventually go on to sell approximately 150,000 copies worldwide.

The unexpected success did not translate to a windfall or income, however. Publisher Strategy First filed for bankruptcy without paying a significant portion of the royalties we were owed. So for a good chunk of retail sales, we never saw a penny. In addition, because our publisher's financial issues became critical in the middle of release, Stardock ended up taking on an increasing amount of the marketing and support burden. On units we were paid for, our royalty did not end up $10 per unit but closer to $7 per unit. Aspiring developers make note -- on a $39.95 game, if you're the developer, you can probably expect to make around $7 per unit at the high end if you're not the publisher.

The game's success guaranteed a sequel would be made. The question was purely how we would go about it. Stardock's business software division was doing incredibly well financially and put us in the position where we could afford to both develop and publish the sequel.

For the sequel, we put together a $900,000 development budget and a $400,000 marketing budget. Like the first time around, we also reserved $300,000 for after-release updates, support, etc. to cover the entire sequel's post-release life. Compared to other major retail games, our budget is tiny. But it was still over 3 times the original's budget.

It was decided that we would publish it ourselves. So instead of only making $7 per unit, we could expect to make between $15 to $21 per unit depending on various factors. With full control of marketing and with a bigger budget, we projected that we could expect sales of approximately 75,000 full-priced units in North America plus 25,000 discounted units along with a similar number internationally for a total of 200,000 units.

The much bigger budget and taking on the role of publisher meant an increased risk for us. But because Stardock's utility software such as Object Desktop was selling so strongly, it allowed us to develop the game while remaining in a strong financial position throughout.

What should the sequel do?

We had a laundry list of things from the first game that we wanted to address:

  • Ship Design
  • Resolution Independence
  • More sophisticated combat
  • Better UI
  • Unique worlds

At first, our design was pretty modest:

Early concepts of Galactic Civilizations II assumed we would build onto the GalCiv I code-base with prettier sprites and new features.

Ship Design would be much like other games in the past - players would pick a ship model they wanted to use and then select what would be on the ship.

The new Colony Manager would be almost like a simulator rather than a game. The numbers would be further obfuscated to feel more organic.

But as we started looking at implementation, we realized that much of our design was half-assed. A cop out. What we knew we needed to do was simply something we hadn't done before -- we needed to go with a 3D engine. A 3D engine would provide us with a lot more flexibility.

The Political Machine

In 2004, Stardock released a political strategy game called The Political Machine. It was the half-way house between Galactic Civilizations and Galactic Civilizations II. It had a 3D engine but didn't have any 3D content! It was basically sprites on a 3D engine. It was also our first game to make use of DesktopX technology for creating user interfaces. It ended up doing well though we were pretty unhappy with reviews (I don't think we'll be making any more $20 games, reviewers don't take into consideration price when they nitpick what features should be in a game).

2004's The Political Machine had a 3D engine but used sprites.

But it put us in the position of having an engine to build Galactic Civilizations II on. All we had to do know...make 3D stuff...

The freedom to make the game you want

By going to a 3D engine, especially one that we had made ourselves, we could start making the game we always wanted. For example, it made it possible to place planets on the main map rather than tucked inside of a "star" icon. Why? Because the 3D engine made it easy for us to let people zoom in and out of the map smoothly. In GalCiv I, we had a fixed camera at a fixed distance. So we had to be careful about what we displayed on the map. But with a 3D engine, we could put as much as we wanted on the map (within reason) and let the user adjust what they wanted to view.

Once we settled on a 3D engine things started to progress quickly.

Once we settled on a 3D engine things started to progress quickly.

The 3D engine combined with the DesktopX UI technology allowed us to create a game that visually looked much better than the original. The last piece to the puzzle was ship design. Once we'd gone to 3D, why not go all the way? Why not let people simply design up their own ships however they want? Not just what weapons and engines and life support but let them completely control how their ship looked. Let people go nuts.

Going to 3D allowed us to have ship design that was far more sophisticated than anything done before.

Players could control the colors, the shapes, the sizes, everything about their ships. And because we were so slow to the 3D party, we could have a game that would run faster for most people than the first one did.

With that final decision, we had 18 months to make the game.

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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