What's the deal with...the developer of Sword of the Stars?
TomChick - News - 10/02/06 - Link

Martin Cirulis has the power to read bylines. He has used this power for good. Back in 1996, he read the byline on the strategy guide for Ascendency. Then he read the byline on PC Gamer's review of Ascendency. He noticed the names were identical! He therefore deduced that they were written by the same person, who might have a vested interested in Ascendency being successful so that the strategy guide would sell more copies. Cirulis wrote a column about in Computer Gaming World calling out the PC Gamer and the author for a conflict of interest.

Cirulis is at it again. He read the credits for one of the co-writers of the manual for Galactic Civilizations 2. Then he read the byline on the 1up.com review of Sword of the Stars. He noticed the names were identical! He deduced that they were written by the same person, who might have a vested interest in...well, a vested interest in what?

In this case, Cirulis believes the writer of a game manual has a conflict of interest reviewing another game if they’re in a similar genre. Fair enough. Let's examine the facts.

First, are the games competitors? Probably not. Galactic Civilization 2 is old in computer game terms: it came out in February of 2006. Sword of the Stars was released a month ago. They're both strategy games, but GalCiv 2 is a traditional turn-based sci-fi Civ-like. Sword of the Stars, on the other hand, is a streamlined strategy game that's built around real time combat (incidentally, Cirulis is the lead designer of Sword of the Stars).

Both games would appeal to many of the same people, but for entirely different reasons and at very different times. It’s comparable to saying Civilization IV and Age of Empires III are competitors. Or Combat Mission and Company of Heroes. Or The Lake House and Failure to Launch. I didn’t see either of those. At least, not voluntarily.

But I'd hardly call any of those pairs competitors. In fact, the success of one is very likely to feed into the success of the other, particularly in the case of the games. If two games are released far enough apart from each other, and if they have any similarity, they’re likely to help one another.

The developers of Gothic 3, for example, are absolutely tickled that Oblivion did so well. Every Oblivion player is a potential Gothic 3 player. So it is with Galactic Civilizations 2 and Sword of the Stars. Every GalCiv2 player is a potential Sword of the Stars player. Cirulis is being disingenuous when he pretends his game is threatened if it's part of a successful genre. He might as well argue that because Spider-Man did so well, superhero movies should be worried that no one will see them.

Second, does the writer of the manual have a vested interest in the success of the game for which he's writing the manual? I’m particularly qualified to speak to this matter, since I’m the writer of the game manual in question. I was hired by Stardock for a one-time fee after conversations with the company’s CEO, Brad Wardell, about the quality of his manuals; it’s an issue I had raised in the past when reviewing his games. So he essentially said, “Okay, Mr. Smarty Pants, if you’re so down on our manuals, how about we hire you to do the next one?” Then he did the chicken dance.

So I took him up on his offer. Of course, I recused myself from any coverage of Stardock’s games. I was up front with my editors about what I was doing and I even mentioned it to colleagues and on message boards. It was public knowledge before the game even came out, and given the credits in the back of the manual, it’s public knowledge now, particularly to people like Cirulis who read bylines and credits.

What isn’t public knowledge are the terms of the deal, so this might explain Cirulis’ concern. Do I get royalties? Do a percentage of GalCiv2’s sales go into my pockets? Do I win a bonus if it sells a certain number of copies? Is part of my contract to virally market Stardock’s games in perpetuity?

The answer is ‘no’ on all counts. I was paid the agreed upon sum and cut loose. I was a contractor, which is exactly how I work as a freelancer for magazines and websites. I have no vested interest in the success of GalCiv2, whether it sells ten copies or ten million copies. I wish it all the best – just as I wish Mr. Cirulis’ game the best – because this industry is my hobby. I’m happy when games succeed, because I want them to keep being made, and I want developers to flourish and try new things. But beyond the satisfaction that my hobby is flourishing, I’ve never received any remuneration when a game has been successful.

Third, was the writer of the 1up.com review of Sword of the Stars affected by writing the manual for GalCiv 2? Again, I’m particularly qualified to speak to this matter, since I’m the writer of the 1up.com review.

I can assure Mr. Cirulis that I, in fact, do not like his game. I did not invent any of my criticisms, or exaggerate them, or intentionally omit things I liked about the game in order to paint a negative picture. I honestly believe it’s a bad game and I’m happy to discuss that opinion without bringing other games into the equation, particularly games like GalCiv 2, which have very little bearing on Sword of the Stars. Frankly, I see no reason to compare them. Each game stands – or not, as the case may be – on its own.

Finally, not only do I question Cirulis’ premise, but his approach bothers me. I’ll bet you dollars to donuts he wouldn’t have raised this objection had mine been one of the many positive reviews for his game. This smacks of someone trying to discredit a negative opinion regardless of the merits of the opinion itself.

Cirulis’ insinuations via email, first through his hired PR agency to my editors and then directly from him to me, have been insulting. He’s questioned my integrity and made cryptic remarks about resorting to “other venues” to resolve the issue. It reminds me of his other attempts to mute negative opinions. Cirulis bullied Worthplaying into revising a skeptical preview and then running a new preview written by one of his personal friends. After the demo for Sword of the Stars was released, critical posts and threads were routinely removed from Kerberos’ message board and people who didn’t like the game were banned. Posting as “mecron”, Cirulis dismisses complaints with accusations of “GalCiv2 fanboy”. Or “manual writer”.

All of this is particularly surprising considering what I know of the other employees at Kerberos. Chris “castewar” Stewart has always been helpful and accommodating when discussing his work online, and his tone and enthusiasm helped make his game, Treasure Planet: Battle for Procyon, a sleeper among gaming forum geeks like me. Arinn Dembo is a gifted writer whose contribution to Sword of the Stars is one of its strong points; she deserves a game that better serves her imagination. A fellow who has close dealings with the company and posts as “Rorschach” has been the very picture of patience and politeness in discussing his affection for Sword of the Stars on various forums, including this one. He’s been an absolute prince when it comes to engaging people whose opinions differ from his. I’m disappointed to see the goodwill they’ve earned associated with petty tactics and snide insinuations.

I’m all for integrity in game writing. And more than integrity, I wish there was more accountability. When the issue first came up, I left it to my editors to resolve because it seemed like a minor misunderstanding. But after Cirulis contacted me directly, after he’s mentioned it repeatedly on his company’s forums, and after the issue was raised on Computer Gaming World’s forum, here is my accountability:

Yes, I wrote the manual for Galactic Civilizations 2. No, it didn’t affect my opinion on Sword of the Stars, a game I honestly dislike. I freely grant that I have a conflict of interest doing any writing on the subject of Stardock’s games, but I and my editors don’t think it should prevent me from writing about strategy games, sci-fi or otherwise.

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