Jon Radoff feels lucky. He’s the chief executive of chief Boston-based Disruptor Beam, the game studio that negotiated to get the game license for Game of Thrones before it took off as an acclaimed series on HBO. His team toiled on their social game based on the title and finally debuted their Game of Thrones: Ascent on Facebook in February. By that time, Game of Thrones and the “A Song of Ice and Fire” book series were enormous hits. Now the social game has taken off as well, and Radoff is running with it.
Like the rest of George R. R. Martin’s creations, the Game of Thrones: Ascent game is heavy on narrative story, dark themes, complex characters, political intrigue, and choices that matter. You won’t find players clicking all of the time or engaged in fast-action fights. You’ll find them talking and plotting. All 2 million of them.
We caught up with Radoff at the recent Casual Connect game conference in San Francisco. Here’s an edited transcript of our talk.
GamesBeat: How did you get the rights to make a game based on Game of Thrones?
Jon Radoff: I got into the business to do things a different way. My view has always been that the cost of customer acquisition was just going to go up and up, to a point where it wasn’t sustainable. I think most companies are past that point. Our view of the market was to focus on worlds that people love to be in already and build games for that.
We’re trying to do a lot of what BioWare did in the triple-A game market. We have a similar focus on licensed intellectual property as the basis for worlds people want to be in, but we also have the real focus on narrative structure and story. In our games, we have a lot of dialogue – more than half a million words in our game. That’s a couple of pretty big novels’ worth of text. People interact with characters and make decisions and modify their alignments. They define who they are in the world through the course of making these choices. That’s something that social and mobile publishers hadn’t really tried before we did this.
So far, that bet has paid off for us in a couple of ways. We got a bit lucky with Game of Thrones. We did the license before the show became popular. As a consequence, our cost per install (CPI) is almost nothing. That’s not to say that we don’t incur other costs later in the form of royalties and whatnot, but it’s a much more sustainable funnel. Everyone’s interests are aligned along the funnel, which you don’t have with the advertising-driven version of customer acquisition.
The story stuff has worked very well. We’re not a game for everyone. It’s not a “clicker.” You have to think about what you’re doing. You have to put yourself in the mindset of who you are within the world. To some extent, it’s a more hardcore game or midcore game, or whatever people want to call these things. For people that like Game of Thrones – who enjoy the show or read the books and want to get into that world – we’re giving them an interesting way to engage with that.
GamesBeat: How long did it take you to make it? What was the start time, around when you first got the license?
Radoff: The design took about six months, and we were in production for about a year. The game launched in February.
GamesBeat: That’s a longer development process than most startups would be able or willing to do. What drew it out so much? Did you have to iterate a lot?
Radoff: We did a lot of iteration, because we were trying things nobody had done before, particularly with the dialogue and narrative. Trying to figure out the right balance and how to present that to players was hard. We made at least three big overhauls of the whole user interface around that experience. We were in closed beta for five months or so.
GamesBeat: But you were getting feedback that whole time, right?
Radoff: We were. It’s funny. On the one hand, there was a sense of despair. Every publisher we went to said this was a game that would never work because of the dialogue and that type of content.
GamesBeat: Even with the Game of Thrones license?
Radoff: Yeah. They’d just tell us to build Clash of Clans or something like that.
GamesBeat: It’s a web-based game. Is there a mobile version in the works?
Radoff: There is. We’re working on tablet versions right now for Android and iPad. We don’t have a date yet, but pretty soon – by this fall sometime.
GamesBeat: Did you see a big bump when Season 3 started?
Radoff: Yeah. Going back to the narrative, because it ties into that, a unique thing we’re doing with the game is tying the narrative and the content to episodes. When an episode comes out from HBO, within the next day there are new items, quests, content, and characters – a bundle of content directly related to the show you just watched. When the the Red Wedding happened, the next day you could take it out on some Lannisters and buy items and stuff that you saw within the show. We saw a big bump around the Red Wedding.
Somewhat surprisingly, we just continue to see more and more traffic over time in the game. Our original idea was that it would maybe die down when the season was done, but what we’ve found is that Game of Thrones is a very weird and wonderful thing. People are hungry for it all the time. Now that the season is over, they want to be in the game even more, because it’s a new outlet for them to be part of that world.