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Impulse to deliver next-generation PC platform

Article posted on 6/14/2008

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The Next Generation Digital Platform

Creating a digital platform for both PC games and applications

 

 

“Impulse is the most user friendly and versatile platform we've used to date, and it’s clear that there's nothing else quite like it.” -- Bartosz Kijanka, vice president of engineering at Gas Powered Games (developers of Dungeon Siege, Supreme Commander, and Demigod).

A Quick Primer on Stardock

Stardock is the developer of Impulse, a next-generation digital platform for Windows. However, for people to take the Impulse platform seriously, it’s important to relay some of the history of Stardock.

Below are three key points about Stardock:

1) Stardock has been delivering digital distribution networks for a decade. The first PC game to be released both via digital distribution and at retail simultaneously was Galactic Civilizations in 2003.

2) Stardock is the “go-to” company for creating solutions that integrate into Windows as if they were a native part of the OS. For example, if you’ve recently bought a Dell computer, it probably came with Stardock’s software pre-loaded. Similarly, Stardock was the company tapped by Microsoft to deliver the default animated desktop wallpaper and user solutions for Windows Vista. Other customers include Gateway, Alienware, HP, and many others.

3) Stardock is one of the top PC game publishers and developers. Its latest PC game, Sins of a Solar Empire, was in the top 10 best selling games at retail for several months – despite most of its revenue coming through digital sales.

Introduction

It’s hard to believe that only a few years ago there were those who didn’t think people would embrace the idea of purchasing and downloading software digitally. Yet, embrace they have, and today few doubt that digital distribution is the future. Even more than that, few doubt that digital platforms are the future. Google, Microsoft, and others are working ceaselessly to create their own digital platforms that users and developers can make use of.

Stardock has become well known in the last couple of years thanks in-part to its popular PC games, such as Galactic Civilizations II and Sins of a Solar Empire. However, the company is also well known for its common sense approach to copy protection – its retail games have none and yet still sell hundreds of thousands of copies.

On June 17th, Stardock will introduce a next-generation digital platform called Impulse.

What is Impulse?

Impulse is the solution to a basic problem on the PC: The fragmentation of the market has made developing, buying, and supporting software increasingly difficult; Impulse addresses these issues and more.

Here is a sample of the issues Impulse is designed to solve:

1) A user gets a new PC or re-builds an existing one. Today, that user is forced to dig through CDs and serial numbers to reload their games, utilities, applications, and other programs. With Impulse, the user types in their UserID and Password, and all the titles associated with it (even if they didn’t buy the title via Impulse) are automatically downloaded and installed.

2) A user buys a new game and wants to play it online against others. Getting multiplayer working on the PC is a pain; even if a user does get it to work, it can be difficult to find a game. Even after setting up a game, there’s no universal way of tracking scores, rankings, and achievements. Impulse resolves all these issues and more.

3) The PC market has consolidated so much that it is very difficult for a new developer to get their program or game out there. Impulse will soon provide a utility called MyImpulse that will allow developers to submit their program or game to Impulse, name a price, agree to a standardized, automated agreement and then be able to try it out via Impulse (only on their account). Once approved, their title is available.

clip_image006Impulse is a platform first and has been designed to be useful to the user even if they never purchase anything from Impulse. It is designed to be useful to developers even if the user didn’t buy their game from Impulse and doesn’t have Impulse installed.

5 Reasons Why Impulse Matters

1) It has the content. Impulse will have many of the major PC game publishers signed on by its launch, as well as several major PC software publishers. Many other publishers are slated to sign on after the Impulse launch as well.

2) Impulse adheres to Stardock’s well known stance against obnoxious copy protection. Impulse is designed to work seamlessly whether connected to the Internet or not.

3) Impulse doesn’t minimize to a system tray icon, instead, users can minimize it to a dock similar to what is in Stardock’s ObjectDock. In other words, it’s useful even for those who haven’t purchased anything on Impulse.

4) Impulse delivers a virtual PC platform called Impulse Reactor. This platform provides APIs that allow developers to easily make use of Impulse’s considerable back-end capabilities such as virtual storage, multiplayer matchmaking, multi-game multiplayer game finder, friends lists, virtual saved games, virtual storage, player achievements, device driver updating and more.

5) MyImpulse - a special publishing application - will enable third-party developers to submit their games or software for sale on Impulse. Developers will be able to name a price and other details of their product, then submit it to Stardock for approval. With this nearly automated process, it will lower the barrier to entry for new third-party developers to sell their software.

Of course, those are just some major points, here’s several others:

· Impulse supports localized currencies. Are you in Australia, Germany, or Russia? Would you like to buy programs in your native currency? Impulse can do it.

· Per Territory distribution. Are you a publisher who only has the rights to distribute a game in Italy but want to be able to sell your game to only people living in Italy? No problem, Impulse can do it and go one step further by only showing those customers living in the authorized territories your products.

· Impulse supports custom Impulse stores for different Impulse distributors. Are you a retailer or PC OEM who has their own specific agreements on selling certain games and applications at different (better) pricing? Impulse has you covered here as well.

· Impulse can be distributed by anyone. Do you have a website, blog, magazine or a retail store? Impulse can be custom branded and distributed by you with the distributor getting 15% of the gross revenue of all purchases made by a user who created their Impulse account from your distributed client. Put Impulse up on your website and when someone downloads it and creates an account, that user is forever affiliated with you. Hence, three years from now, when the user buys Unreal Tournament or Supreme Commander 2 or Office package X, you get 15% paid to you on that purchase.

· Impulse supports refunds. Buy a game or application and it doesn’t work on your system? Thanks to Impulse’s SSD (Secure Software Delivery) technology, Stardock can refund users and simply remove the item from their account (after the user uninstalls it, which sends a message to the server that it is gone). Impulse takes the risk out of digital distribution.

A Guided Tour of Impulse

Impulse is still in beta and many of the features are not available in the preview. This tour is designed to give users an idea of what will be available on June 17th.

The Impulse Dock

image Everyone wants to be a platform, it’s the new buzzword. However, there needs to be something basic that makes one thing a platform and another thing not a platform. For us, it’s simple: If a user wouldn’t use it unless they purchased a program from it, then it’s not a digital platform.

“Impulse will succeed not because it forces users to use it but because users will want to use it.” –Brad Wardell, President & CEO, Stardock Corp.

Impulse has been designed such that even if a user never buys anything from the Impulse store, they would still want to use it. The first element of the “want to use it” mantra is the Impulse dock. Rather than minimizing to yet another system tray item, users can minimize it to be a dock on the desktop. From this dock, users can add as many programs and folders as they would like. When an Impulse supported program is updated, it gets flagged on the dock. Items on the dock also show up in Impulse as well – any program can be added to Impulse itself as well as the dock. Coming from Stardock, it’s not surprising that it’s all skinnable and integrates seamlessly into Windows.

Your Stuff

Load up Impulse and once logged on, you can download or update any of the programs associated with your account.

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Figure 1: Your stuff

You don’t have to necessarily have purchased the program from the Impulse store to update and download it. If it’s a Stardock program, it doesn’t matter where you bought it. You could have purchased Galactic Civilizations I back in 2003 in Germany and still use Impulse to download the full complete latest/greatest version.

Stardock is also working with publishers to support this for their titles, so that no matter where you bought your game or application, you’ll be able to download and update it on Impulse – for free.

The Store

image The Impulse Store makes purchasing and downloading games, utilities, applications, anti-virus, etc. a snap. The goal of the store is to make the purchasing experience look and feel as much like a native part of Windows as possible (this is still a work in progress).

The Impulse store is being designed such that users can quickly find out whether a given program is worth their while by visiting the title’s forums, going to the chat channel for it, reading comments on it, etc.

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Figure 2: Picking a favorite publisher is extremely easy. The store interface in Impulse is unlike anything seen before. Clean and simple.

The Community

In the “good old days” there was Usenet, which provided a standardized way for people to find out about virtually any topic. In a web-centric world, there is no longer a standardized way to find out about a given program or genre. Impulse aims to solve this issue.

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Figure 3: Impulse supports built in blogging, discussion groups on virtually any topic, chat, and more.

The Impulse Community is both incredibly powerful and easy to use. Any Impulse user can set up a blog and add their friends who have Impulse accounts. (Again, the manta “You don’t have to buy anything to find Impulse useful” – anyone can create an Impulse account.)

If users want, Impulse lets you see what discussions your friends are participating on, what games they’ve recently played, what blogs they’ve recently written, and much more. In addition, Impulse allows users to find multiplayer games to join in, chat about virtually topic live, update video drivers, and much more.

“When a new title is released, it can be difficult to find people to play in multiplayer,” said Craig Fraser, Ironclad Games. “With Impulse, reaching critical mass will be much easier as players can browse through all their games at once. As an added bonus it will display games started by people who didn't buy the game from Impulse so it's not a partial list.”

Impulse Reactor: A virtual platform for users and developers

Impulse Reactor is the underlying platform that Impulse makes use of. What makes Impulse Reactor so important (and differentiates it) is that its functionality comes from the Impulse server farm and not from the client. Impulse is a thin client designed to be fast, memory efficient, and easy to use. The real magic of Impulse takes place on the Impulse Reactor.

image Impulse Reactor could be described as a series of API (programming calls) that developers can use in their software. The calls do not know or care whether the user has Impulse installed or not, it only requires that the user have an Impulse account (which is free) so that the user can be identified.

To use them, a developer only needs to download the Impulse Reactor SDK (which is free). The SDK will be available in late August.

Impulse Reactor is the result of the combined efforts of Stardock, Gas Powered Games, and Ironclad Games.

Here are some of the features of Impulse Reactor:

· Common Virtual Platform (CVP). Developers can add a series of calls to their games that make it much easier to implement multiplayer and easier for players to find multiplayer games. For example, one line of code - CVP.FindMatch() - can query the Impulse Reactor for a game that matches the included parameters, return the game info and launch the game. A few other calls include:

o CVP.Join() (joining a multiplayer game). CMP supports NAT negotiation so that opening ports and messing around with configuring your router will soon be a thing of the past.

o CVP.AddAchievement() adds an achievement to a player’s account.

o CVP.FindFriend() finds a particular friend to play with.

· Common Virtual Drive (CVD). Developers will be able to write data out to a virtual hard drive on the net. From here, developers can do everything from saving games, providing virtual keyboard and preference saving, to saving files. The virtual drives won’t be very large (10 megabytes per application) but more than large enough for supporting crucial data for applications and even saving data files.

Example: CVP.SaveFile() or CVP.LoadFile().

· Common Community Network (CCN). Developers will be able to write applications that can query information from the Impulse community infrastructure. Hence, help files, user support, or anything else that a developer can imagine wanting from their application can be obtained and integrated into their program.

To repeat the mantra: You are not forced to install Impulse to benefit from this.

“Our architecture is very open. We’re not interested in trying to force people to use Impulse. The reality is, these are things that should be part of the OS but because of the overzealous DOJ, Microsoft has been prevented from doing this kind of thing.” –Brad Wardel, President & CEO of Stardock.

In addition, this has been designed to be extremely easy for developers to implement.

Impulse: The Technology

Impulse is a Microsoft .NET based technology from the client to the server infrastructure. This helps ensure future compatibility and increases performance as .NET gets more and more integrated into Windows.

The Future…

Impulse is being launched in three phases:

Phase 1: The initial launch on June 17th to coincide with the release of The Political Machine 2008 (www.politicalmachine.com) will have the features described in the guided tour. It will have several major and minor PC game publishers and developers on-board for the launch along with several major and minor PC software developers.

Phase 2: In late August, the second phase of Impulse will be released along with the SDK for the Impulse Reactor. Additional major publishers and developers will be announced and released, along with Achievement and Game Rankings functionality. A large number of unannounced features will be announced as well.

Phase 3: Early in February 2009, Phase 3 will launch with Demigod. Yet more titles will be available and MyImpulse will be officially launched (beta will be publicly available for months before hand). More info to come on this as we get closer.

Conclusions

Most PC users can agree that the Windows experience needs to be improved. It’s too hard to manage purchases, too difficult to set up games and applications, and too much work to get a decent gaming experience. It’s also too labor intensive to setup a new PC.

Impulse is the result of a decade of experience in building digital networks for PC users. It takes Stardock’s knowledge in both digital distribution and its enterprise development background to create a universal, virtual digital platform for the Windows PC.

“Stardock has been breaking ground in online distribution and online user community space for a very long time, and Impulse is a clear reflection of that expertise.”-- Bartosz Kijanka, vice president of engineering at Gas Powered Games.