Disruptor Beam brings the world’s biggest licenses to the small screen
When initially starting conceptual work on what would eventually become their first published game, Disruptor Beam looked around the world of mobile role-playing games, and noticed that they were very superficial in their structure. “They didn’t have the depth of the game mechanics that I grew up with, playing bigger tabletop games or computer games,” says the studio’s CEO Jon Radoff. “We thought there would be a big market for games like that, and we chose to focus on strategy role-playing games—games that have the high level strategic war game or ‘big map view’ of the world, but with a lot of story components and character development that comes from the role-playing side.”
As he started to think about these games, Radoff noticed that customer acquisition costs were skyrocketing, and that it was getting harder and harder to get people to stick with a product over the long term. “So it dawned on us that we should, at least with the first few products, try to focus on applying this strategy RPG idea that we had to worlds that people were already deeply in love with.”
He went out—“somewhat naively, frankly”—looking for those licenses, and started pursuing one that you may have heard of: Game of Thrones. Over the course of nearly two years, Radoff developed relationships and eventually got in front of George R. R. Martin and HBO, talking them through (and then ultimately showing them) his ideas. “Really it came down to authenticity, because George wanted to see a game built on Game of Thrones, but he wanted it to be something that was also true to the universe that he crafted,” Radoff says. They signed a deal, and Disruptor Beam built a Facebook and mobile game called Game of Thrones Ascent. Maybe you’ve heard of that, too: It’s been out for two-and-a-half years, and has been installed about 10 million times.
So—how’d he do it? “I think we were the first people that came along and understood the role of politics and diplomacy [in his stories],” Radoff says. “The character-driven stuff within his stories is what matters. We realized it wasn’t really about dragons and people chopping each other in half—it’s about the decisions the characters make that lead up to the things that get them killed. In Games of Thrones Ascent, what you’re really doing is building up an alliance.” Players choose a side in a fictional conflict, but are playing with real people; in fact, people have met in the game and later gotten married in real life. “It’s a really social game, involving working with each other, and working against each other in many cases, to get what you want out of the world—which is gaining enough power to ascend the Iron Throne.”
“That really gave us the street cred to start doing more with that,” says Radoff. In familiar fashion Disruptor Beam went big, and the result is Star Trek Timelines.
The game takes place in a universe where a temporal anomaly brings together characters, settings, and stories from TOS, TNG, DS9, VOY, and ENT. Players take the role of a captain, gathering a crew of Star Trek characters, who have differing ways of dealing with the various challenges that come your way. “We’re visiting all of these nostalgic plot lines,” says Radoff. “It’s a really graphical, beautiful game where you’re on a Starship and you’re going all over the galaxy, encountering all sorts of scenarios.”
The inspiration for Timelines stemmed from the studio’s work on Game of Thrones Ascent, which is a game with loads of depth and MMORPG-style mechanics, but re-worked for a mobile audience. “We saw a huge opportunity for a similar type of game set within the Star Trek universe, and we also felt that no one had created a truly expansive and graphically intense experience for mobile devices that Star Trek is deserving of,” says Radoff. “We wanted to be the team that brought a game to Star Trek fans that delivers an amazing visual experience on mobile.”
“I love the fact that when people see Star Trek Timelines, they say, ‘Wow,’” says Radoff. “We don’t hear people say that very often about mobile games, and we’re proud of the visual experience that we’ve been able to create.” He says it’s always difficult when you working on a game that’s as visually compelling as Star Trek Timelines not to lose sight of the fact that looking good isn’t enough. “A game also needs depth, solid mechanics, and a whole lot of fun.”
Radoff comes from a background that’s a bit different than many who start game studios. “The first time I ever started a company was back in the days of AOL and CompuServe,” he says. The company was NovaLink, an early ISP. In 1991, while still at NovaLink, he created Legends of Future Past, which was one of the first commercial MMORPGs. He later started an advertising network company called GamerDNA, as well as a web technology company called Eprise. \
“The advantage for me from that experience was just being able to weave in more aspects of how you build and grow companies from outside of gaming, yet also have a lot of the experience of what goes into making a great game,” Radoff says. “I think for me, that blended experience is what I try to bring back into the company in terms of the type of company we’re building, with respect to personnel and the individuals we recruit. I would say we’re fairly nontraditional from a gaming standpoint on how we go about recruiting and determining who is going to work on what.”
Indeed, for the past decade, the game industry has been all about hyper-specialization in terms of roles: artists good at making certain, narrowly-defined parts of the pipeline, and programmers who only work on various specific technologies. “We hire almost entirely generalists,” Radoff says. “The generalists we hire are the rock stars who, you can put pretty much anything in front of them, and they’ll be able to figure it out. Rather than hire someone who’s just a server programmer or just a client technology person, we’re always hiring full stack engineers.”
“In our art department, we actually look for high-level technical competence in even our artists,” Radoff continues. “A lot of our artists could be tech artists if they needed to. They know how our pipeline works. They understand how to go into the engine and optimize models. They understand how to actually work within Unity. I think it’s that ability to have people that understand a lot more elements of the overall game development pipeline that has allowed us to have more compact units that do more with it.”
Recruitment is a key part of this formula, clearly. “We have such an experienced team here and we hire people and let them work on such a wide range of things, that we tend to attract developers who are veterans in their career, and are also looking for the combination of both the challenge but also the ownership that comes with being able to work on a bunch of things that fit together rather than one small thing for a long period of time. People love the autonomy that they get here.”
How has the studio been able to work on such licenses? A little bit of good luck, according to Radoff, but mostly because of the team of veteran game developers who have worked on not only mobile games, but also console and PC games. “The Disruptor Beam team has worked on everything from Rock Band to Lord of the Rings Online to Eve Online and beyond,” he says. “These are games that have made their mark on the console and PC world. Our goal is to take mobile games to the next level and to bring the level of depth seen on console and PC to mobile. It is our team’s experience that allows us to do that.”
“Long odds have never bothered me,” Radoff says. “I’m an entrepreneur. I’ve been an entrepreneur my whole life. I started companies that always looked like a long shots early on, and this was no different. I think one of my basic theories of entrepreneurship is kind of ‘make your own luck,’ to some extent, by persevering. It took a long time. It was no simple feat, but we kept with it and it’s paid off.”