What's the deal with...the developer of Sword of the Stars?

I can assure Martin Cirulis that I, in fact, do not like his game.

Oh you wrote the manual for GalCiv2, well then I can see how you have a VESTED INTEREST in GalCiv2 sales?

Thats pretty lame!

Why is the space strategy genre a race to the bottom to see who can create the worst possible UI?

tom kicks dum-dum in the nads

Very interesting. Overall, I agree with Tom 100%. Some questions, though:

You make very clear that you aren’t getting royalties from GC2 – that your personal interests aren’t affected by GC2’s success or SOTS’s success. But then you say you’ve recused yourself from reviewing GC2 or “any of Stardock’s games.” Why? If your fortunes aren’t tied to GC2’s success, and that absolves you of any conflict, couldn’t you review GC2 if you wanted to? And even more so some later Stardock game?

I assume the answer is that there’s still an appearance of conflict – that, for example, people might think you’re inclined to go easy on GC2, or Stardock in general, because you hope to get hired by them again. Or maybe it’s that you’re bound to feel extra-nice towards Stardock because you had a closer relationship with them, rather than the arm’s-length relationship we want reviewers to have, and would have trouble judging them fairly (I could understand that – for example, the judge I used to work for refuses to hear any of my cases now that I’m in private practice, even though we only worked together for a year and it was many years ago). Is that right?

But if that’s so, isn’t it true that whatever conflict causes you to recuse yourself from Stardock reviews still exists? Put another way, if, today as you sit here, you think you can’t fairly review a Stardock game (either because you’re chummy with Stardock, or there’s a reality or at least perception that you want them to like you so they’ll hire you again), is there a conflict for reviewing a competitor’s game?

I see a couple answers to that in stuff you’ve posted here, and people posted in the CGW thread. One is that the games aren’t really competitors so it doesn’t matter. I think there’s a lot of fairness in that argument and that’s what really convinces me that there’s just no problem in your reviewing SOTS. But if that’s the answer, then all the stuff about whether you do or don’t have an ongoing relationship with GC2 is irrelevant, right? It wouldn’t matter if you were Brad Wardell’s personal assistant on the side, because GC2 and SOTS are simply not in competition with each other, and maybe even benefit each other (meaning you’d have the reverse conflict, a pressure to go too easy on SOTS). On the other hand, if you think it would matter if you were working for Stardock when you wrote that review, then the “We’re not even competitors” argument can’t really be right.

The other is that the “statute of limitations” has passed, in the sense that your work for Stardock was so long ago that it doesn’t really matter anymore (at least I think that’s what Ryan Scott is getting at – the other possibility is that he just means GC2 came out so long ago that SOTS’s sales are irrelevant to GC2’s sales, a variation on the “we’re not competitors” argument). I tend to agree with this as well. Assuming reviewers are going to be able to cross back and forth over the “fence,” doing some work for the industry while still being able to go back to work as reviewers, it seems like people have to set some reasonable time limit, after which we assume you can set aside any conflict and review something fairly. I don’t know that much about the industry, but six months after a one-shot freelance job seems more than enough to me. Again, though, if that’s true – if you have no special affinity or anything for Stardock – why do you still recuse yourself from reviewing Stardock games?

I really do think this move by Cirulis is underhanded and lame, by the way. And transparent. But I’m interested to hear what Tom (or others) think about the issue – part of my continuing interest in game writing becoming accepted as serious/journalism.

Wow. Color me further disappointed in Kerberos.

I have my problems with GalCiv, but they’re issues with the game itself. Brad has been awesome about dealing with criticism, even though he still won’t fix the stupid CAN’T DESTROY PERMANENT STRUCTURES FEATURE, AHEM. But that’s nothing compared to the distaste I have for Kerberos’ continued behavior as a company. The blame game here reminds me of post-release MOO3, except there they actually blamed the players for being too (rightfully) pissy.

They need to stop trying to blame other people for both their lousy PR and the fact that not everyone saw SOTS through their rose-colored viewscreen.

Isn’t Arinn Deembo married to Cirulis? Maybe I’m just imaging that. That has nothing to do with nothing, other than her name popped up in Tom’s piece. Deembo gave UO a 100% review score at Gamecenter (5/5), btw. She may be a good writer, but she blew that review.

This does raise an interesting question. What does it do to a reviewer’s credibility with readers if he or she is regularly employed by publishers on a contractual basis?

In those instances, the appearance of a conflict of interest is strong enough that I’d just as soon avoid it.

However, there’s a more compelling reason that I can’t really talk about beyond to say this: Brad has asked me to work for him again on the manual for a specific upcoming project and I’ve told him I’d be glad to. I can’t really say more on that front, and it’s very much a future thing, but it’s one of the reasons I’d be uncomfortable covering a Stardock game.

But it’s a good point about the statute of limitations. If, say, I were doing a manual for a big company that does a lot of titles like Microsoft or Activision, should I then not cover their products? I don’t really know. I’d be uneasy about it.

Personally, I don’t think I’d take a job like that. I have no desire to be involved in game development. One of the reasons I was happy to do the GalCiv2 manual was that I consider Brad a friend; I thought it would be cool to work with him. Actually, come to think of it, that’s probably the main reason I’d be uncomfortable covering a Stardock game.


P.S. Also, here’s a dirty little secret: I’m not a big fan of GalCiv2! Maybe it’s because I spent so much time mucking around with early builds and trying to figure them out. But it’s also because I disagree with some of Brad’s specific design choices. I love some of what the game does, but once I finished the manual, I didn’t have any desire to spend time with it beyond seeing how it turned out.

It’s always going to look fishy, and I think a writer needs to make a decision on which side of the fence they’re going to be on. If I started seeing Mark Asher articles about whatever the hell game company you’re at now, I’d be suspicious unless they were some kind of development diary.

A one-off thing like Tom’s GalCiv2 Manual work isn’t going to make much of a blip unless he’s suddenly also trying to review GalCiv2.

My immediate, gut-level reaction is, I don’t like it. No matter what the real relationship or the actual fact of the matter is, the picture that pops into my mind is one of a guy reviewing his “friend’s” game. That’s just my instinctive reaction. I imagine I’m not alone in that.

“If I started seeing Mark Asher articles about whatever the hell game company you’re at now, I’d be suspicious unless they were some kind of development diary.”

I’m at a telecommunications software company. No games. Just wonky stuff that no one cares about but a tiny vertical market.

I think the only game company left in St. Louis is Simutronics. Well, maybe SOE still has some development here – they did a lot of Planetside work here. PopTop closed down I believe. I don’t think there’s anything else unless you want to count Phil Steinmeyer’s one-man operations as a game company. I’m not really up on the St. Louis gaming scene, though, so I could be wrong.

A few weeks ago I heard this contention that Tom had been unduly influenced and I spoke against it. I’m surprised to see it getting more use, because it struck me as insubstantial even coming from someone not commercially affiliated with the game (that I know of). A couple of negative reviews is not the end of the world.

I did a one-off writing gig for a publisher this summer and have told editors that I couldn’t review their products. And I won’t for the immediate future, even though this writing assignment was nothing as important or central to development as a manual. (I have recused myself for proofreading the English translation of a game manual, though.)

But, being a strategy game publisher, they have a lot of competitors. If I were to draw the line that I could no longer review 4x games or business sims, then my freelancing would be at an end unless I decided to do casual games.

Of course, the reader doesn’t care about this, and they’re not supposed to. Perception of conflict is important, and I wouldn’t begrudge any reader who thought that I had sold some of my credibility for thirty pieces of silver.


If the reviewer is reviewing games by the same publishers that he contracts with, there’s an obvious conflict of interest.

Otherwise, I see no necessary problem.

Anyways, I can always crosscheck reviews with my actual impressions of games–and do, since reviewing is not an objective science. I don’t find much value in Tom’s reviews, for example, since his tastes don’t correlate well with mine. That’s not because he’s a bad reviewer or a bad writer; he’s just no good for me.

If a reviewer consistently softpedals reviews for games by a certain publisher, that’ll soon become obvious.

In the case of SotS, I see no need for bias to explain Tom’s review. Based on the time I spent with the demo, the game’s UI is a fetid pile of half-baked crap. There might be an actual game worth playing buried under it, but I can’t imagine trying to do so what with all the other good games out there. (And I’m not so desperate for space-based 4X games that I feel the need to grovel at SotS’s altar, accepting whatever dribbles of gameplay it deigns to hand out.)

I agree 100%, I wouldn’t want Tom to review GalCiv2 or Dark Avatar. But that has no bearing on the Swords of the Stars review IMO.

Speaking as a consumer/gamer of PC games, I bought GalCiv2 because of the positive comments it received on the Civfanatics forum and from various reviews I read. But Frankly my fellow Civ4 fanatics had more to do with my purchase then did any review I read… Sorry Guys

And I would have to say that GalCiv2 had increased sales because of Civ4, riding its coat tales and all. Bottom line is if its a good game the word will get out.

Wait, you wrote something for 1up, in that it’s not a reprint of a magazine article they cover? Willingly? They didn’t have to bound and gag you? :P


So my question is, what’s to be gained by doing this? If people don’t like your game, how is railing on others going to help that? If it seems you don’t want to change your initial ideas and improve them, aiming for something that will enthusiastically endorsed by fewer people, why not court them and ignore others?


I’m just going to jump in and jump out, because I swear I’m trying to swear off forums (no time!), but since I have something worth saying (for a change), I thought I’d hop in and say it because I’m guessing that publicly he’s too stand up a guy to himself.

Tom had the option to review GalCiv2 in a venue where, at least in terms of the core group of gamers that actually care and submit links to Kotaku and Joystiq and Slashdot in hopes of grabbing their 15 minutes of fame, it probably would have escaped notice, i.e. none of the gaming-only mags. And I can personally vouch that he of his own accord took a pass, and the only reason I know this is because he went out of his way via a shared editor to ask me to write part of his monthly column covering said game. The guy cares about the integrity of what he’s doing, and that’s more than I can say about a lot of people I’ve known in this industry.

So there you go. Apologies if that’s too mushy, Tom, I’m not trying to embarrass ya. :) Just thought people should know.

Here’s the '96 article Tom mentioned. Hard to read as I didn’t want to piss off the H-scroll gods but it’s number 13.

As far as Cirulis goes . . . I never did like his CGW articles. It’s been so many years I’m a bit fuzzy on the specifics but I recall him frequently writing with this air of conceit where he’d lash out at other gamers using the most demeaning stereotypes of fat, pudgy, pimply, living in parents’ basements losers when he himself didn’t come off as the paragon of a virile tanned, toned, alpha male. Kettle, meet pot. This whole incident with Tom and the censoring of negative feedback on Kerberos’ forums pretty much ensures I won’t be buying anything remotely associated with Mr. Cirulis.