Why Ironclad is so successful so quickly

Published on Tuesday, February 9, 2010 By Brad Wardell In Sins Developer Journals

I work at Stardock and those of you who follow my journals know I’m pretty opinionated (see “Kudos to Good old Games”, “Happy about Steam”, “Don’t blame the pirates”).  So let me give my 2 cents on why the young studio, Ironclad Games is already so successful.  I’m not speaking for them. This is just my opinion on what makes a new studio successful.

Who is Ironclad?

The founders of Ironclad Games are industry veterans. They worked on Homeworld: Cataclysm and other pretty well known projects over the years.  When they got together, they decided to focus on something they were very passionate about and very familiar with first: Space strategy. 

This is the key distinction that I know others in our industry are familiar with: FOCUS.  Sins of a Solar Empire is a PC game. Period. It made no compromises. They didn’t spend money on things that would have diminishing returns like cut scenes (the cut scenes in Sins were made by Stardock largely for marketing reasons).   As a result, the game was a lot less expensive to make than other games while delivering an incredible gaming experience.

Choosing to make a GAME

I’m the designer of Galactic Civilizations and I will say this: Sins of a Solar Empire: Trinity is a better game than Galactic Civilizations. It has better game mechanics. It is more fun single player. It has multiplayer. It has a vastly better user interface. It has a more cohesive experience.

Obviously, the games do have a different set of appeal (and when I get back to some future GalCiv sequel I’ll happily steal a lot of ideas from Sins but that’ll be some years from now). But what Ironclad did with Sins of a Solar Empire was, imo, revolutionary. 

Let me walk you through a few of the innovations in Sins of a Solar Empire:


1. The Empire Tree.  A user can control their entire empire from this simple tree. In a world where “skill” is often measured by how fast one can click, the Empire Tree brings STRATEGY back to the real-time genre imo.

The Empire Tree in Sins. Expand the tree to the detail you want.

2. Adaptive UI. The adaptive UI got its start in games like Galactic Civilizations and Supreme Commander. But nothing yet has come close to matching what Sins of a Solar Empire does.

For those of you not familiar with Sins of a Solar Empire who have wondered how a game made by less than a half-dozen guys could sell a million or so copies the adaptive UI really provides a clue imo:

I can be looking at this and with the mouse wheel roll out to this next picture:


Notice how some ships are icons and others are not. It’s not “all or nothing” ala GalCiv or Supreme Commander. The interface intelligently figures out when something is “too small” and turns it into an icon.

If that was all Sins did, it would still be very impressive but it goes further:


If you keep zooming out, the user interface changes again to provide an instantly readable display (hint: the side with more dots on it is probably in the best shape in that system).

Remember, this is happening in a fluid motion. We’re not changing screens here. This all happens in one continuous motion.

Imagine how different things might have been done, however, if Ironclad had been worried about console controls during its development? It committed to a platform – in this case the PC – and used its inherent strengths to make a better game.

3. Knowing when to say “when”.

As any game developer can tell you, it’s not hard, if you have art assets (which obviously Ironclad does) to have incredible graphics.  This is the battle that occurs in nearly every game studio in the PC world: Pixel Shader 2? Pixel Shader 3? Pixel Shader 4?  The most gratifying choice is always the most powerful option but it means a lot fewer people will be able to play your game. 

In addition, in a world of 32-bit gaming (every major PC game out there is a 32-bit game – even if it runs on your 64-bit machine) you get 2 gigs to play with. Total.  That’s it. Even your 12GB Windows 7 box won’t benefit a given game because that game can only address 2 gigs. Hence, that super fancy first person shooter with gorgeous graphics may only have 8 guys in a room because otherwise it’ll go over the limit.

Knowing when to say when can make all the difference in the world in terms of gameplay. Choosing gameplay over “art” is a very unappreciated choice often times.  Ironclad made the tough choices with Sins. They kept the texture sizes reasonable so that more ships could be in the game.

This tiny constructor ship looks great despite having to have a relatively small texture size in order to allow the game to have thousands of units in play at once. In an age where screenshots rule the day, how many large studios would have been able to make the tough call of choosing unshowable gameplay over screenshot love?



The continued success of Sins of a Solar Empire helps demonstrate the point here: If you want to found a successful game studio, do it because you want to make great GAMES. Don’t try to rationalize what you’re doing as some type of “high art” or for ways to commoditize the “product” you’re making. Make a game. Make a great game. If you do so, you will succeed, just ask Ironclad Games.