Interview with Derek “Kael” Paxton from Stardock

Interview with Derek “Kael” Paxton from Stardock

Written by Charles Husemann on 11/1/2010 for PC  
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There's no doubt that the launch of Elemental had it's issues.  While the concept of the game was interesting the product that Stardock shipped didn't meet the high bar of quality that other Stardock games have.  The results for Stardock were devastating as the lower than expected revenue at launch forced the company to lay workers off and to rethink how they did business.  One of the things that Stardock has done to right the ship was to bring in Derek Paxton.  We got a chance to get some questions to Stardock's newest employee and here are the results.

First off congrats on the new gig. Why did you choose to go to Stardock? Could you talk about what your role is going to be and what your day to day duties are going to be?
I choose Stardock because they focus on the types of games I love to design and play, PC strategy games. Since Stardock is both the developer and publisher they make the games they want, rather than being beholden to an external publisher.

I am the Senior Producer at Stardock, my responsibility is to manage game production. This includes design, working with the team to remove barriers and prioritize tasks, lots of project management and making sure that our releases live up to the standards of Stardock and our fans. Day to day I work with the programmers and artists (the folks with the real talent) to make sure everyone understands what needs to be done, how to do it and that we are marching steadily toward that goal.

Are you specifically going to be working on just Elemental or will you be working on new projects at Stardock?

At this time my focus is completely on Elemental.

Is there one thing you didn’t know about Stardock that you were surprised to learn?

Just how open and welcoming everyone is. Coming from a business software background I assumed that the environment would be similar (not that the people I worked with previously weren't great people). Instead I met a team who are lucky enough to be doing what they love for a living. The artists are excited to create new art, the programmers want to create fun mechanics. I'm excited to become a part of the team.

So let’s get to the hard question. What’s your take on the past, current, and future state of Elemental? How hard do you think it’s going to be to turn around the perception of the game?
I love the concept of Elemental, I think it has the potential to be a great game. But I don't love the implementation. That's good news because if the concept was simply flawed it couldn't be improved. I believe Stardock has done a lot of work to improve the game since its initial release and Elemental is now stable and fun to play. But I don't think the job is done. Stardock is committed to making Elemental great, and we have everything we need to make that happen.

As for turning around the perception of the game, I believe that if you create a great game everything else will fall into place.

What are your first priorities when you start? What are some of the things you want to do long term?
My first step is to understand all the design decisions that have already happened. I've started getting feedback from the player community, next will be to interview the members of the Stardock team. Though I have a lot of ideas for the game I'm not a fan of suggesting changes unless you truly understand the system, so I need to listen before I speak.

But my initial focus is on improving the games pace and making the first 30 minutes more fun, because if players don't enjoy that then there is little chance they will check out the rest of the game.

Longer term goals will have to wait for later announcements.

Describe your approach to project management? Are you more waterfall, iterative, or agile? In your opinion, what’s the biggest improvement in software development in the last five years?
I don't think any of the methods work for video game design in a pure state. I lean more toward iterative design in that I want a significant portion of the design timeline to be spent iterating on the design rather than simply creating the design. If it would take 12 months to implement the mechanics we should tack on an additional 6 months just to iterate on that design. It's that time that has the biggest influence on game quality.

My approach to project management is communication heavy. Provide a consistent vision for the team, provide a list of tasks toward reaching that goal and remain loose enough to adjust those tasks when new ideas or concerns come in. Every team member should understand exactly what they need to do, have the tools to do it, and be motivated by being able to see how it fits into the larger picture. Although I encourage a lot of feedback and ideas, I'm also very hesitant to add good ideas, they have to be great (scope creep being a huge risk in game design). Instead I want more elegant ideas, I'm more interested tightening a design than adding to it.

I think collaboration tools have had the biggest impact on software development in the past five years. Stardock uses IM, chat and screen sharing software to quickly and easily share information and ideas. Even coworkers that are an office away use these tools to collaborate rather than walk to each other's desks. Artists from Germany are as accessible as an artist that shares your office. And this includes the power of forums for getting feedback, providing screenshots and error messages.

This isn't new to the past five years. But the adoption and acceptance as a standard part of business culture has grown in the past five years and influenced every part of software development.

What are the odds that we’ll see a new Fall from Heaven game from Stardock at some point in the future?
I would love to see a Stardock produced Fall from Heaven game. But for now my focus is on making Elemental great.

I'd like to thank Derek for taking the time to answer our question as well as Stephanie for coordinating the interview.
Interview with Derek “Kael” Paxton from Stardock Interview with Derek “Kael” Paxton from Stardock Interview with Derek “Kael” Paxton from Stardock

About Author

Hi, my name is Charles Husemann and I've been gaming for longer than I care to admit. For me it's always been about competing and a burning off stress. It started off simply enough with Choplifter and Lode Runner on the Apple //e, then it was the curse of Tank and Yars Revenge on the 2600. The addiction subsided somewhat until I went to college where dramatic decreases in my GPA could be traced to the release of X:Com and Doom. I was a Microsoft Xbox MVP from 2009 to 2014
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