Jon Radoff is carrying some heavy responsibilities these days. He has to keep fans of Game of Thrones and Star Trek happy, and he’s going to have to do it at the same time.
Radoff is the chief executive of Boston-based Disruptor Beam, the game studio that negotiated to get the license for Game of Thrones before it took off as an acclaimed series on HBO. His team toiled on its social game based on the franchise and finally debuted Game of Thrones Ascent on Facebook in early 2013. By that time, Game of Thrones and the “A Song of Ice and Fire” book series were enormous hits. Radoff’s social mobile title has been played by 9 million people, and his team is continuously updating the game to keep fans happy.
The group is also working hard on creating a new Star Trek game, dubbed Star Trek Timelines. That project will let you command a starship with an all-star crew. That is, you’ll be able to select crew members from any of the Star Trek properties. The launch date isn’t set yet for Star Trek Timelines, but Disruptor Beam has fueled up for it, raising a round of money for the purpose.
We caught up with Radoff at the recent Game Monetization USA Summit in San Francisco. Here’s an edited transcript of our talk.
GamesBeat: What’s your update on where things are with both of your big projects?
Jon Radoff: The big thing we did over the last year was bringing Game of Thrones to multiple platforms. We created more social activity around alliances and the whole alliance war that’s going on in the game. That’s been good for us. We’re now hitting 9 million installs on the product. It’s a very dedicated, loyal customer base.
The success story around Game of Thrones Ascent is the way we’ve been able to maintain the paying audience. We have 54 percent lifetime retention of our paying customers. If you go back to February last year when we launched, 54 percent of all the paying customers we’ve ever gotten are still active within the last 30 days.
Getting there has required us to learn a lot of things, both in terms of managing the community, incorporating players into that process, and creating [a live events system] that engage them for not only daily type things, but over long courses of time.
GamesBeat: Is that the same across all the platforms?
Radoff: It is. It’s a cross-platform game. If you play on Facebook, you’re competing with people on Android and iOS. They all exist in one ecosystem together.
GamesBeat: I wondered if Facebook on the desktop is going to tail off at some point.
Radoff: Maybe it will for some people. Facebook has actually been very successful for us. We’re seven quarters in building the game, and this is the seventh quarter of consecutive growth on Facebook. I think that Facebook has been challenging for a lot of companies, but for us, because of orientation around the community, which has this foundation in the brand itself, we maybe have an easier time engaging people who are already on Facebook who love Game of Thrones and bringing them in.
For us, Facebook has been great. It consistently grows. It’s the most economic way for us to get customers if we want to do paid acquisition, although paid acquisition is a tiny portion of our customer acquisition. It’s mostly organic — people learning about it from their friends. I have no complaints about Facebook, although I know we may be unusual in that respect. I know a lot of original Facebook developers have moved off to mobile.
Mobile has been very successful for us too. We have more revenue on iOS than on Facebook now; iOS is our largest market. But Facebook still grows, and the lifetime retention of Facebook is a little bit stronger than on iOS. I think that’s because of the social-network effect. You’re playing with your friends, seeing what they do, engaging and talking about the game more frequently. Mobile devices can only retain the social community inside the individual product. Other than that, you’re dependent on things like the notification streams on the device, which aren’t super effective as a re-engagement tool compared to Facebook timelines.
GamesBeat: Is there a second-screen attraction here for some people?
Radoff: I’m not actually a big believer in second screen. I’m skeptical of that whole space.
GamesBeat: But you might do some updates related to the show that people are talking about the next day.
Radoff: Yeah, but I don’t see that so much as second screen. When people talk about second screen, they mean watching the show while holding their device and syncing up and looking at different things. For certain things, like sports or news, I can see that. For dramatic TV, if you’re a producer in that space, you want the viewer to be glued to the screen at every moment, not distracted by another device.
For us, I don’t see it as a second screen so much as continuity in the experience. People sit down and watch, say, an episode of Game of Thrones on their iPad using HBO Go. Then, the next thing they do is go into the game because as you just mentioned, whenever a new episode comes on the air, we’re putting new game content up the next day. It’s all related to the show you just watched. It’s about different ways you can experience Game of Thrones, but it’s not about the game you play at the same time you watch. That’s the piece I don’t believe in, at least for dramatic TV.
GamesBeat: The Telltale guys are launching their game. I wonder if that will have any overlap with your audience.
Radoff: Of course there will. We’ve had nine million installs, and some percentage of our customers are going to try any Game of Thrones product that comes along. There’s certainly overlap in the addressable market.
Their game and our game are similar in one respect, though, which is that they’re games that primarily appeal to Game of Thrones fans. That’s a huge market. We have 15 million-plus people watching the show. Plenty of those people want Game of Thrones games. Beyond that, they’re very different games. We have a strategy game about living the life of a lord within Westeros over a long period of time and interacting socially — or anti-socially — with other people. They’re about sitting down and playing through an immersive story, an adventure-game experience. Some people will play both, but they’re such different games that they aren’t really incompatible with each other in the marketplace.
GamesBeat: So it’s only a problem if there’s too much Game of Thrones out there. It seems like there’s not enough so far.
Radoff: We don’t appear to be in danger of too much Game of Thrones, no. If anything, people are hungry for more stuff. We may see, beyond Disruptor Beam and Telltale, one or two other games in the future in the Game of Thrones universe, but that’s still not a lot. As long as each game occupies a different place in the overall world, provides a different type of game people want to play, a different social engagement, a lot of these games are going to coexist.
GamesBeat: Have you thought about territorial expansion? Is there much opportunity there for this IP?
Radoff: As far as we can tell, Game of Thrones isn’t that popular in Asia. We’ve looked at Japan and China. Of course, when you’re dealing with China, there’s a lot of people there, so you can find an audience for virtually anything. But it’s not super large. Our type of gameplay, at least in our game, would be very difficult to acculturate to the general preferences in China. It doesn’t seem like Game of Thrones Ascent, anyway, would have a huge following there.
Star Trek is also sort of an unknown IP within Asia. We have the opportunity to try some different things within that game, though, that’ll make it easier to bring to multiple audiences. We’ve never localized Game of Thrones Ascent other than in Russia. We did that because we had a Russian partner company that worked with us. We know that with Star Trek, we’re going to localize right out of the gate in a few languages — German for sure, probably several after that. That’s making us think about the game a bit differently as far as some aspects of gameplay, so we know it’ll be easier to maintain the update rhythm that we like. … Every week there’s new content, new things to do. Star Trek will be the same in that respect. One of the challenges of doing that when you’re also trying to address multiple locales is … all that localization has to be a tight part of your content production process. We’re thinking about how to accomplish that.
Asia, I don’t know. We have another product in the pipeline I can’t talk about yet, another big, well-known IP that is very popular in China. It’s one of the most popular things in China as well as in the West. That game we’ll probably bring to China pretty early in the process.
GamesBeat: It looks like movie and TV games and brands in general are something everyone is after in the mobile-game business. I don’t know how to interpret the situation exactly. It’s almost like it’s the new social casino game.
Radoff: Movie IP is always going to be a bit challenging. It’s different from stuff that’s based on TV or books. Movies tend to be a point in time where something happens, and there’s a lot of excitement around it. Then, the spectacle’s over, and you don’t have the same way of re-engaging.
I continue to be excited about the community-building power of television. There are exceptions. Something like Star Wars has a community that endures well beyond any individual movie, but that’s because they’ve populated it with all this other content. That’s the exception. It’s always going to be hard to just take a film and make a game of it — although as we saw in the triple-A market, where everyone started realizing that licensing could sometimes be a good idea, we’re starting to see the same thing happen in the mobile space.
It’s easy to take a game skeleton and whitewash it with a particular IP. It’s more difficult to build games from the ground up that are true to the IP and do the things that IP demands. In Game of Thrones, the idea of having politics and diplomacy and marriage alliances and all that rich social gameplay came about not because we took another game design and tried to retrofit Game of Thrones on it. It came out of our own conversations with [Game of Thrones creator] George Martin and our own enjoyment of reading the books. Star Trek will also need to do some unique things.
It’s hard to do that kind of game development on the low-budget basis that people often want to do when a movie comes out, and they want to quickly turn it into game content. We’ll see. It’ll be the same as we saw in triple-A. There’s going to be a lot of licensed game spam, but there’s going to be a big difference between [games] that are just a flash, a point in time, versus games like Game of Thrones Ascent, which is going on two years and still has a very loyal following.
GamesBeat: I wonder if there’s some healthy realization in Hollywood or wherever else that people in those places should have higher expectations. Once you’d do a Facebook game or a mobile game as an adver-game to raise awareness for the movie or a TV show … now that thing can make real money.
Radoff: It’s conceivable that a successful game reaching the top of the iOS charts could make more money than a film. It’s entirely possible. I don’t think Hollywood understands that model, though. They’re very good at creating amazing experiences, but the idea of sustaining audiences every day … is what the online-game business is about, very broadly, whether it’s MMORPGs or social games — that daily level of interaction where people keep re-entering the world.
We’re licensees from them, so we pay all our partners royalties based on developing the IP. It’s not that different, from a business standpoint, to how it was done in triple-A in the past. One difference, though, is that we work with them closely to make sure that their social channels are tied into ours. With HBO, it’s building awareness of new expansions and updates to the game. We’re doing the same with CBS on Star Trek. Even ahead of the game coming out, they were starting to build the community and get people interested. There are fan pages on Facebook that have millions of people on them. That kind of close integration is going to be important, and it’s another aspect you don’t see in the markets you were just describing, where we went from adver-game to a game that’s based on the IP with the idea of making money itself.
GamesBeat: How do you look out for any minefields in the idea of planning for IP? The TV show is kind of on its own track as opposed to the books with Game of Thrones. Then you’ve got something like 40 years of Star Trek canon to tiptoe around.
Radoff: The first thing we do is make sure our team is populated with people who are experts on the IP. With Game of Thrones, the people who worked on it all read the books. Most of them have read them multiple times and gone on to watch the show. Same with Star Trek. We have people in our office … literally, there’s one guy who can see three seconds of any given Star Trek episode and tell you a summary of the plot. You have to have that.
But it’s also about partnering, too. It can’t just be us being the experts. It’s about us dealing with the community and sharing knowledge with them and engaging them in the process. Many of the super fans are out there in the community and want us to listen to them. They have a lot of ideas that are good for us.
Both HBO and CBS are very much part of our production pipeline. As we’re creating stuff, they respond to it, review it. They’re always lockstep with us. We’ve created that machine within our company that makes sure we’re always integrated with them.
GamesBeat: Is there a section of the Star Trek IP that you’re focusing on?
Radoff: With Star Trek Timelines, the narrative premise of the game is that there’s a crisis in the space-time continuum. All the different timelines have been mashed up. There’s original Star Trek material, Next Generation, many of the films, Enterprise, Voyager, Deep Space Nine. It’s all there. You can go to one part of the galaxy and relive some of the stuff that you’ve seen in favorite episodes all across the franchise, as well as plenty of new content.
That’s one thing that’s going to be fun about Timelines, the idea that we’re pulling in all this content from decades of canon. It gives us a huge number of characters. The central thing you’re doing in Timelines is assembling a crew of all your favorite characters. If you want to see what it’s like to have Spock and Picard and Janeway and Sisko on the same ship, you could put that together. That’ll be a lot of fun for people who’ve enjoyed the shows, whichever is their favorite.
One thing we’ve found talking to the community of fans, everyone has a favorite character. It’s very diverse. Every individual series has a following among a group of people for whom that was their favorite. Trying to bring all these micro-communities around Star Trek together into one game they can have a lot of fun with is the challenge, but it’s also the opportunity.
GamesBeat: You raised money to deal with a lot of things at once, it seems like.
Radoff: Yeah, we recently raised a bit of capital. We’re using that to fund the development of Star Trek, but we’re also investing in a lot of infrastructure at the company. One of the things we’re building is a platform that allows us to more rapidly create games. A lot of the pieces under the hood are repeated elements. A lot of our games are about collecting. All the systems around virtual-economy management and social functions and stuff like that, we’re trying to build one platform that allows us to roll that out across different games.
From a player’s standpoint, the way that platform will manifest is that we’re trying to create something like a Battle.net, or even a Steam, for the mobile space. You could have social interactions and presence information across multiple games in our network. Once you start seeing your friends playing Star Trek, you’ll learn that it’s out there and be able to try it. You can message them and talk about it.
GamesBeat: A little of that GamerDNA [Radoff’s previous company] is still showing up.
Radoff: A little bit. There’s only three of us that worked at GamerDNA that are also at Disruptor Beam, but we’re only 35 people altogether. It’s interesting that you see that. Going back to GamerDNA, I always had this vision that the stories and the way people interact socially around different games was the basis of a community. Trying to bring back that expertise and create a community of communities around our games is something we want to do.
It’s not unique in all of gaming. Steam and Battle.net are two examples right there that have done that. BioWare has done that around multiple games. But it’s all been focused on the triple-A market. I haven’t seen anyone accomplish that in the mobile space yet. Mobile games are going to become increasingly high in production value. They’re going to appeal to traditional core gamers as they come over. They’re going to be hungry for the social immersion that they’ve been offered in MMORPGs in the past. We think we’re already creating that in games like Game of Thrones Ascent and Star Trek, but we’ll also create that social connective tissue around multiple games.
So, the funding is going into a combination of things. Primarily getting Star Trek built and out the door sometime next year, but also making all these investments in the foundation of the company, the platform technology. That’s where we think the enterprise value of a company like us is going to come. The enterprise value isn’t from the individual games. It’s from your customer base. It’s from these millions of people. How do you continue to provide great services and social connectivity so that future games are able to exploit all of that enterprise value?
GamesBeat: It’s interesting that you’ve been ahead of the curve on the value of using brands, where a lot of companies are just dipping their feet into that market.
Radoff: We were led to it by the conclusion. Again, you mentioned GamerDNA. At GamerDNA, we essentially morphed into an advertising network because selling ads was how we made money. I was the guy being paid multiple dollars per install for, at that time, mostly MMORPG-type products. We were starting to see the early stages of paid user acquisition [UA] isn’t dominated by paid acquisition. It was informed by GamerDNA, and my experiences selling ads to game companies, knowing that if I wanted to create a game company we would need to be more than that. So far it’s worked. Millions of customers have come to the product, and we haven’t had to pay these crazy $2, $3, $4, $5 [costs per install] that you hear about. If we’d had to fund customer acquisition the old-fashioned way for Game of Thrones Ascent, we’d probably have spent more than $10 million just to do the UA.