Stardock: Impulse

By Shamus Posted Tuesday Feb 5, 2008

Filed under: Game Reviews 23 comments

Long time readers will remember (and are probably tired of) my gripes and rants against Valve Software’s Steam platform for digitally distributing games. I just want to say that this is how digital distribution should be done.

Impulse is the digital distribution platform from Stardock. It is concerned with offering convienence to the user, not treating them like a pirate. You don’t need to have Impulse running to play your game. You can back up your game to CD / DVD. If Stardock gets hit by an asteroid tomorrow, your copy of the game will continue to work even if you re-install. You can have it auto-update your software, or you can do updates when you decide it’s time to update. If ever. The choice is yours, not theirs.

It has all the advantages of Steam, and none of the annoying artificial restrictions. It’s convenient and treats you like a customer instead of a foe.

Steam will, of course, still have the more robust selection of games, but I just wanted to point at what Stardock is doing and say, “These guys are doing it right.”

LATER: For contrast, here is an avid fan of Steam who has had a good experience with Valve, and isn’t quite as impressed with Stardock as I am. Also a story of someone who reached Gabe Newell’s voicemail.

As to Stardock software “phoning home”, I wasn’t aware it did this. Can anyone provide a link describing what Stardock software does this, and when? I’m aware that GalCiv will submit your score to the metaverse when a game ends, but are there other shenanigans going on?


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23 thoughts on “Stardock: Impulse

  1. Phlux says:

    Looks pretty sweet. Too bad they couldn’t have timed that for the release of Sins of a Solar Empire.

    I like Stardock a lot, also. They have a great development mentality, and they’re very open with the community and responsive to feedback. I wish them a lot of success, but at the same time I like that they’re a small developer, because if they got huge, it’s inevitable that their ability to respond directly to fans/critics would diminish.

    I think Steam is the way it is because that’s how it has to be to placate the majority of publishers/developers who insist that DRM is a “necessary evil”. They want to make it a place where everyone goes to distribute digitally, and not everyone is as progressive as Brad Wardell at Stardock.

  2. Rustybadger says:


    Back on topic, I immediately crack ALL my Steam/Valve products after purchasing them. I don’t have broadband, but I still like to play them now and then. Same goes for the Battlefield series from EA. Stupid stupid companies that *require* a broadband connection to even *own* the game. Idiots. Thank the good Lord for all those evil hackers who make my life a little bit better!

  3. Uninverted says:

    I tried Steam before, and having it run in the background killed it for me.

  4. I do agree with your criticisms of steam– but it’s still the second best platform going. And the best platform (again, as you say) doesn’t have as many games. I rather do like Valve’s games, and Steam tends to make the DRM non-functional on games that aren’t from Valve that you can buy on Steam. So it works out…

    Update: Dude! I can update comments. But there’s a time-limited window for this so that I don’t destroy the context for someone else’s later comment. _rock_

  5. Mark says:

    Rustybadger: I feel it necessary to point out that it is possible to play single-player games on Steam without being connected to the Internet, or even while online but without connecting to Valve’s servers. It has an offline mode. A lot of people seem to forget that. It’s only the online games that need any kind of network validation, and online games have always carried that risk, with or without DRM.

    Impulse is great and I applaud Stardock for making it and continuing to break the trend of DRM infestation, but other than deferring updates, there’s nothing it does that Steam can’t already do. It’s just that most (all?) Steam games have Steam DRM in them, sadly.

  6. Binks says:

    Hmm…looking over this it seems to offer little that SDCentral doesn’t have.

    “Users do not have to load Impulse to use the software or games.” – Same for SDCentral

    “Impulse includes built in support for backing up your purchase to CD/DVD.” – Same for SDCentral. It’s not easy to do (definatly not just a button press) but it’s entirely possible

    “Impulse allows users who buy software or games at retail to still manage their updates and re-download the entire product on Impulse (for products that support this feature).” – Same for SDCentral

    The other two features seem worthless, though there is a chance that Stardock’s excellent userbase will make the third-party games option fun. Not to rain on anyone’s parade or anything, I’m a huge fan of Stardock myself (bought Sins of a Solar Empire the day I heard about it) but this doesn’t look like much of a change at all…

    As for Steam, my only gripe with it has been that it consistently decides that I don’t own any games if I leave it running for a couple of hours in the background without playing them. It’s an annoying bug, but since I only start steam when I want to play a game and stop it afterwards it’s not that bad.

    One final note. I dl’d the full version of SoSR yesterday and noticed something interesting. Within the folder is a nondescript, no icon .exe file named Impulse.exe. Internal testing only, or just about ready for release? You decide…

  7. Gaping_MAW says:

    Shamus, you forget that Steam started out primarily as a tool to make sure people playing mulplayer online had a copy of the game, and could be identified (by an ID, as steam replaced for this purpose). Its validation method is great for banning cheaters/griefers from MP FPS games, and the system as a whole has really bedded down nicely. It works for almost all of the users out there – and when linked in with achievements provides a great incentive for people to pay for a copy (and steam games are usually cheaper than retail).

    If the COD4 devs had used steam, they probably wouldn’t be whinging anywhere near as much about piracy… they could have set up a key based validation system for levels/perks but were lazy (cheap) and didn’t. They have paid for it. It’s why the 360 version has sold better for them, because it (live) is basically a validation method for online play.

    If you don’t link people to their copy of the game, they can grief/cheat as much as they want (you can’t ban them effectively).. so from a game admin/game quality point of view, Steam works great.

    Now for games which aren’t mass-MP focused, Steam is an overkill I agree.. which is why I bought Sins of a Solar Empire from Stardock, and Sword of the Stars from Gamersgate.

  8. edcalaban says:

    “Users do not have to load Impulse to use the software or games.”

    That makes this brilliant in my book. Steam chews up my computing resources, especially with those games that decide punkbuster is cool too.

  9. Kleedrac says:

    I’ve got a rebuttal good sir (as well as a shameless plug to your blog which made it’s way into my Google reader shortly after discovery) if you’d care to read/comment I’d be grateful to get a discussion started on the topic.
    –edit–How about a link :P –/edit–

  10. Ingvar says:

    No Steam-enabled games will end up on my Windows machine. It lives in a network of its own and is only allowed to communicate with the world via application-specific proxies. I do not have (and doubt there is) a Steam proxy, though if there is a complete spec of the Steam protocol out there, it might be an interesting thing to beaver away at…

  11. Mephane says:

    Shamus, do you realize that if the Steam server (or servers, since I suppose there are multiple redundant ones) goes down, e.g. struck by something as hilarious as an asteroid, you actually can still play the games? We had a power outage recently for half an hour, while internet stayed down for several hours, and I could play Half-Life 2 during that time with no trouble. On launch, Steam simply reported it could not connect to the server, and suggested using offline mode, and it worked fine for me.

  12. Shamus says:

    Mephane: That works until you have to re-install.

  13. Mephane says:

    I did not have to do that, yet, but as far as I am informed, you can just copy Steam’s subfolder for any game into a new installation and play again. This is even proposed officially for making/restoring from backups of your games.

    But don’t get me wrong. I also hope that in the future, the system will be changed so that you can launch the games from within their game folder without even having Steam installed. I am not a fan of DRM or any of those “online activation” restrictions at all, I just want to point out that Steam is, for that matter, not as bad as some people say. There is far worse. Think of Xbox Live. ;)

  14. Phlux says:

    Mephane: What’s your beef with Xbox Live? My only complaint with it ever has been that you have to pay for it. For some people that’s enough to make them overlook the unbelievable multiplayer experience it provides.

    I can link up with my friends easily, automatically be sorted into their servers, onto their teams without 15 minutes of restarts and team-switching like you have to do on most games.

    Live is an extremely polished experience, and even if the developers whine about being “forced” to use a standard set of features, consumers are benefited by the consistent UI and feature set. Every game with multiplayer has voice. they all support invites, they all support gamer feedback…these are good things.

    What’s more, when I use Live for buying games, I just pay for it, download it, and I can play it/redownload it any time I want. Any account on my box can play it. I can even go to a friend’s xbox and load my profile, install it and play it there. THe only limitation (and I think it’s a reasonable one) is that if I install the game on my friend’s console, it only works with my account.

    The only time that last becomes an issue is when you brick your xbox and have to get it replaced. In that event some have reported success at having microsoft re-localize their purchases to the new hardware ID.

  15. Blake says:

    If XBox Live (and the games themselves) supported dedicated servers it really would be something to talk about. I find the matchmaking/friend finding services on Steam to be more useful than Live. The only thing Steam lacks (and it’s pretty big, IMO) is full-on voice chat with anyone on your friends list in every game.

  16. Mistwraithe says:

    You can say (as Kleedrac does) that the ONLY thing Stardock have going for them over Steam is that Stardock have decided to take an open minded pragmatic approach to software piracy and treat the customer as a customer instead of a potential pirate.

    But isn’t that the point? That might well be the ONLY thing but it is an enormous shining beacon of a thing which, on it’s own, is more than enough to make Stardock a company that I want to support as much as I can, and conversely make Valve/Steam a company which I frankly avoid.

    The last Valve game I purchased was the original Half Life 2 and at the time Steam screwed with me far too much (constantly downloading patches which took 30 minutes to finish when I only HAD 30 minutes to play the game, once Steam crashed and wouldn’t startup until they put a patch out, meaning I couldn’t start HL2, etc). Much as I liked HL2 I wasn’t willing to reinstall Steam when I reformated my HDD (for unrelated reasons) a couple of months later and conversely never finished HL2. I don’t see me buying any further Steam games anytime soon, even if the Portal game is meant to be fantastic.

  17. Nathaniel says:

    Phlux: Just hope you never move to another country. Apparently, you are then screwed. Oh, and if you complain about it, Microsoft will try to get you fired. link

  18. Jess says:

    Mephane: When was this? Last time I tried to play something from/on Steam with no internet connection it refused point-blank to play or go into offline mode. (About a month or two ago)

  19. Kleedrac says:

    Shamus: I am truly honored for the link sir! I do think you may have missed the point of my little story on Valve. Getting Gabe Newell’s voicemail is not an achievement really for anyone with a net connection and/or 411 service. Getting the person in charge of the problem to call you back and resolve it quickly and painlessly is quite an accomplishment and that is why I was praising Valve. In retrospect I think I may have been a little harsh on Stardock, I do very much love being treated as a customer as opposed to a thief. I just don’t understand why they are being hailed as the second coming for doing a clone of software the same hailers seem to hate with the passion of a fiery sun. As I’m bored at work today and re-reading both our posts I wish I had your eloquence with words sir. Perhaps then I could have accomplished my side of the debate with less gray area than I have left ;) Many thanks again for the link. I haven’t had a blog post with that many reads since I got dugg a while back :) Makes me think people are listening lol

  20. GreenReaper says:

    Stardock software activates once, typically transparently on install. You do not need anything other than the game/program concerned to be running while you use it, nor do you need a net connection. If you move it to another computer or reinstall it will probably need to be reactivated (which it should prompt for), but that should be it.

    As far as I am aware of, it does not need to phone home to do anything, except provide services such as weather forecasting which rely on regularly updated data.

  21. Brad Wardell says:

    Hi guys,

    A couple things about Impulse that arne’t readily known yet.

    1) Impulse does NOT require any DRM or activation. Individual programs may use it but it isn’t required. You don’t have to keep Impulse running or what have you. Even on things that do have activation, it’s only on installation (and you have to be connected obvoiusly to download it in the first place).

    2) Impulse will be adding a lot of community features. For instance, Stardock, Gas Powered Games, and Ironclad are teaming up to build a unified multiplayer network for strategy games that will be made freely available to other developers who want robust match making in their games.

    3) Impulse will have a lot of major third party content on it shortly. By end of the year, most major game publishers and many major PC software companies will have their content on Impulse.

    I love Steam. I use it more often than I should for TF2 and such. But it strikes me as something largely designed for first person shooters when it comes to getting games going (I mean you can launch Company of Heroes but it’s not like their server list includes company of heroes games in it). Impulse will let you browse through multiple strategy games for open games or press a button and find someone for you to play which I think is a pretty big deal — since I like strategy games.

  22. Brad Wardell says:

    BTW, I checked out the “anti Stardock” article you mentioned. Sorry but his article is just nonsense.

    Galactic Civilizations II, when purchased at the store has ZIP in terms of activation or copy protection.

    Same for Sins of a Solar Empire.

    If you digitally purchase or get one of the many free updates to it, the game checks your serial # when you download and that’s it. So I don’t know what he’s talking about when he says our games “call home all the time”.

    My position on copy protection is pretty well known. I don’t like being treated like a criminal after I hand a company money for their game. But I find the anti-activation on download a pretty uncompelling argument. You are already connecting to a server to download the game. Having it activate it for you upon download is pretty benign to most users. I’d understand if it were calling home every time you tried to play the game or whatever but it doens’t do anything like that.

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