JULY 22, 2015 • During the last 20 years licensed brands have gotten a bad name with gamers going far back to gems such as Judge Dredd and Star Wars: Masters of Teräs Käsi. Which makes the success of Massachusetts-based Disruptor Beam, Inc. all the more novel. This is a social game developer built up around the concept of leveraging major licensed brands well.
Launched in 2010, the studio aimed high and secured the Game of Thrones license out of the gate – releasing the highly regarded social game version of the hit HBO series three years later. What did Disruptor Beam turn to next, a deal with CBS Consumer Products for a Star Trek title the studio is putting the finishing touches on for a release later in 2015.
Disruptor Beam founder and chief executive Jon Radoff was early to multiplayer and social gaming, and professes a strong preference for compelling storytelling in games. What he likes about adapting strong media brands is the established dramatic narratives they offer – fertile ground for growing something new and involving to experience. DFC went to Radoff to understand better how licensed IP can be done right.
DFC: You have obviously been interested in the social nature of games for a long time having started GamerDNA, a game community and even writing GameOn, a book on the business of social games. Coming out of your experience at GamerDNA, what was the spark that led you to decide to launch a social game studio in 2010?
Jon: My interest in games actually dates back to way before GamerDNA. At NovaLink, an online game publisher, we produced Legends of Future Past, which is a multiplayer text game that was played over the CompuServe network. I’ve always thought that games are fundamental to the human condition. People like playing games and playing them together. If you go back to a time before computers almost all games are social in some way. Games are, first and foremost, about a connection with other people and the shared experience of playing together. That has always fascinated me and continues to drive me to this day in our work at Disruptor Beam.
DFC: How did you see the business model for Disruptor Beam at the start? What was the opportunity in your sights… how did you see your studio could be different and thrive? And how did you choose the name for the company?
Jon: We are a free-to-play game company – always have been. It is important for games to prove themselves to players without asking them to part with $50 or $60 right off the bat. Free-to-play games allow people to try before they buy, which we saw as a huge opportunity. The free-to-play model also allows us to keep adding content and really extend the lifetime of our games. Game of Thrones Ascent is a great example. We launched it 30 months ago and people are still playing it – lots of people! If we had been a premium or “AAA” game, it would have had a shelf life of a few weeks and then people would have moved on.
Business model aside, we also saw an opportunity in working with properties around which large communities existed – like Game of Thrones and Star Trek. People in these communities already share a love for the lore. At Disruptor Beam, we focus on building a game on top of that, creating highly social experiences that are hyper-authentic to the lore.
How did we choose the name? Well, we wanted to disrupt the game industry and veer away from a strict focus on paid customer acquisition. Now, that is certainly a part of what we do, but not all that we do. We set out to create games that have a real grassroots and organic enthusiasm around them and we’re doing that. In addition, we wanted to disrupt the typical publishing model in the game industry. The publishing model is broken, and many developers serve as nearly outsourced R&D. Instead we are vertically integrating all aspects of running a game business. Plus, we thought “Disruptor Beam” sounded pretty cool.
DFC: Please give us the overview of Disruptor Beam today. How many people work there, and what is your development philosophy?
Jon: We currently have 46 full-time employees. Our philosophy? Well, we don’t hire specialists, a trend that has overtaken the game industry. We won’t hire just a 3D modeler or just a client programmer. Instead we hire generalists who are super smart and capable and can adapt to various needs. Our artists are great 3D artists, but they also understand how to do shaders and understand programming. All of our engineers are full stack engineers.
So, the pipelines we have for product and art development are different than many traditional studios. This approach allows us to be way more efficient and also do more “bleeding edge” work. You’ll see that when Star Trek Timelines comes out – it will showcase some of the things we’ve been working on that really haven’t been done in mobile games in the past. In addition, our culture is of utmost importance at Disruptor Beam. We give people a lot of autonomy. They have ownership over their projects and that too allows people to do their best work.
DFC: Please tell us what your philosophy on team sizes is. Do you consider your development teams on Game of Thrones Ascent and Star Trek Timelines to be lean and mean or fat and sassy?
Jon: Virtually any company would claim that their team size is the optimal team size, so that is a tough question. What I will say is that the problem inherent in some older studios is that they are motivated to hire temporary staff – even though the people being hired aren’t aware of this – to work on a particular project. But then when the project completes or the funding dries up they have layoffs. It works for the publisher, sure, but it creates an unhealthy ecosystem in general. At Disruptor Beam we hire people that are versatile, so even though the company and roles may change, we have a vision for their long-term involvement and how they can help us grow.
DFC: We like to follow local development regions and have watched the emergence of initiatives like the Massachusetts Digital Games Institute. What is the state of the Boston area today as a home base for making games? How deep is the experienced community of game designers and developers? What makes being close to Boston right for Disruptor Beam?
Jon: There is a lot of depth within the Boston community. At the same time there is not a lot of scale to the size of that community. I would estimate that there are a couple thousand people employed in the game industry in Massachusetts – MassDiGI would probably have the exact number. There is a tradition of multiplayer and online games in the Boston area. But, the region is in transition from AAA console game and PC development companies like Irrational, Turbine and Rockstar New England.
The growth opportunity here now is not so much around AAA development, but really more around the companies that are now the vanguard of a whole new industry: socially connected, online and mobile games. Disruptor Beam is just one of those. We are the largest independent mobile developer in Massachusetts right now. We’re leading the way in this transition.
DFC: Game of Thrones got Disruptor Beam off the ground, how did a brand new studio land the franchise and how did you fund the project?
Jon: Well we didn’t really “land” the project. They weren’t in the market for a Game of Thrones online and social game. We developed the concept for the project ourselves and then pitched it. We started with George R.R. Martin himself and convinced him that a game about Game of Thrones that would be authentic to the world he created was a great idea! Once GRRM was excited, then HBO was excited about it as well. Sprinkle on top of that a little bit of luck and Game of Thrones Ascent’s development kicked off. We funded the project with venture capital.
DFC: We have never been quite sure what a social game is or even if it is a separate category. In our view any game you play with others is a social game. How do you define social games? It is said you always intended to make social games differently and better, please explain what that means in vision and execution.
Jon: Well, I agree with your definition of what a social game is. If you turn back the clock five years, the term social game was meant to describe a game running inside a social network like Facebook. The criticism of those games was that while you have a social network that you are embedding a game into the game itself did not tend to be very social. The socialization was more about customer acquisition than gameplay. What we wanted to do with Game of Thrones Ascent was create a game on a social network, but with depth of social interaction focused on politics and diplomacy. We saw an opportunity to create deep social relationships within games that existed on social networks. Of course now Game of Thrones Ascent is not just on Facebook but across mobile devices as well.
DFC: You often speak highly of Bioware, what is the attraction for you and how has that been utilized at Disruptor Beam?
Jon: Games at their best are a storytelling medium. I think Bioware has done a great job in the single player game space in bringing emotion and story to the forefront. They’ve turned shoot-em-up games into experiences where you become emotionally invested – where you care about the story and what happens to the people in it. I admire this about them as a company. I also love to play their games myself.
Where we are trying to take this same concept is to bring it into the multiplayer space – bringing story into free-to-play games that pit people against each other or have them cooperate in some way to accomplish a goal.
DFC: MMO game mechanics intrigue you, but how much of the MMO experience can reasonably be utilized in a social game?
Jon: By MMO what I think you are saying is MMORPG. Many social games and mobile games are “MMOs” even if they have little or no social interaction among people. But, if we are talking about MMORPGs, it is not our goal to port MMORPGs to mobile. MMORPGs demand hours at a time in front of a screen to enjoy them. But, it is possible to engage people in mobile games that are just as impactful as the type of social experience one has within an MMORPG. For example, with Game of Thrones Ascent and Star Trek Timelines the politics of these worlds are actually part of the games themselves and we create game systems that promote that.
DFC: We find many players that grew up on titles like World of Warcraft find the experience of social games to be frustrating and limiting. In many cases we hear complaints that they would rather just pay for the full game and be done with it. Do you have a way to capture those consumers that would be happy to pay a bunch of money upfront?
Jon: What you are talking about is really two different types of game. There are parts of an online or social game that are about paying for access to more content and the fact that things take time are relevant to free-to-play games – allowing millions of people to play in a shared environment. If some of those players complete the game quickly then you don’t have a multiplayer game. Some people want to pay $60 and get a full game experience, but those are really a different type of game.
DFC: So far you have placed a large emphasis on extensive narrative and dialogue in your games based on established fiction and characters. How much more difficult would this be to do if you were launching your own IP?
Jon: That is one of the challenges of launching a new franchise – players don’t already love your world and characters. That’s why the vast majority of games that attempt original IP will fail. Maybe we will try original IP someday, but that is currently not our strategy.
DFC: Can you give us an idea of how Game of Thrones Ascent is doing in terms of number of users, number of paying users, revenue, stickiness or any other metric you care to share?
Jon: We have had around 10 million installs of Game of Thrones Ascent.
DFC: What will it take to grow Disruptor Beam beyond two franchises?
Jon: We do have more in the queue! We have some unannounced products in development…awesome ones.
DFC: What does it take to deliver consistent engagement with consumers?
Jon: Consistent engagement is really about driving a social experience that allows players to feel connected with other players. It is the socialization that keeps players coming back for more.
DFC: How is consistent engagement done differently between Game of Thrones Ascent and Star Trek Timelines, and why?
Jon: I guess you’ll have to wait for Star Trek Timelines to come out!
DFC: How does consistent engagement play into the successful monetization of your titles?
Jon: Any type of media ultimately has one type of currency and that is attention. Media companies are in the business of converting that attention into economic advantage. This is true whether you are a TV network, a retail game, or a mobile free-to-play game. So, consistent engagement is a huge factor in successful monetization.
DFC: Please give us a rundown of what items you sell for both Game of Thrones Ascent and Star Trek Timelines?
Jon: The main things that are sold in Game of Thrones Ascent are Sworn Swords mercenaries and their equipment.
For Star Trek Timelines, a large focus will be the player’s ability to collect all the favorite characters from all the series. We’re not really ready to go into a ton of detail on monetization within Timelines, but can say that Star Trek characters are key.
DFC: What items are popular with players?
Jon: For Game of Thrones Ascent the most popular items are direwolves and dragons because people love pets.
DFC: What is your winning pitch to sell IP owners that it makes sense to green light a social game based on their brand?
Jon: We at Disruptor Beam understand better than anyone else how to dig deep into source material and to understand why people love it and are invested in it. Then we translate that love into authentic game experiences. We don’t just re-skin a game with an IP layer on top of a game engine. For us, the source material is the foundation of our games.
DFC: When should an IP not become a social title?
Jon: I could only answer that for us and would say that if we don’t understand the source material and why people love it then we shouldn’t be building that game. Just as we are probably best at knowing when to do it, we also know when it isn’t right for us. When we are meeting with IP holders, they should feel confident that we aren’t on a fishing expedition for IPs. We look for IPs that we understand.
DFC: Last November when your $3.2 million in Series A funding was announced, it was reported that Disruptor Beam was planning a cross-game social platform. Please tell us more about your plans in this regard.
Jon: We are building a lot of expertise around building virtual economies, customer acquisition, etc. – all of the important components of a socially connected mobile game. A big part of what we have been investing in is essentially translating that expertise into technology assets that we own and that can be reused in future products.
DFC: What are you plans for expansion? Do you desire to continue specializing in licensed IP for social games or intend to branch out into something different?
Jon: What is important for us is continuing to build the Disruptor Beam brand and we are doing that by building products that people love. In the future we will continue to work with other well-known brands, but if we do a good job there is always the possibility that we could do our own original franchises. That is further off.