A few years ago when husband-and-wife entrepreneurs Angela Bull and Jon Radoff started Disruptor Beam, it might have seemed like a long shot for a no-name game studio in Framingham, Mass., to try for a license to make a mobile video game based on the hit fantasy novel series that would become “Game of Thrones.” At the time, HBO was developing the cable TV show. It would be an even longer shot to work directly with the author himself, George R.R. Martin.
But Radoff, Disruptor Beam’s CEO, did it, with persistence, some serendipity and novel ideas about how storytelling can mix with online gameplay in elegant ways. Disruptor Beam’s “Game of Thrones” game now has over 11 million downloads, and its success has since opened the studio to more major licensing deals with franchises like “Star Trek.” In the last year alone, the game studio has seen its revenue grow 300 percent. It’s far from the largest game studios in size, but Disruptor Beam now employs 75 people, with just under $10 million in financing raised from investors, including Converge Venture Partners and GV, formerly known as Google Ventures.
Martin doesn’t play video games and writes his novels on a computer that runs DOS, an operating system that peaked in about 1995. Radoff convinced Martin to let him take his beloved fantasy series and adapt it into an online multiplayer game for smartphones and Facebook — something that could have been disastrous or, even worse, mundane. But it was far from it. It was a critical and commercial success. This is the story of how Radoff was able to pitch Martin, and, like anything, it started with an idea.
For as long as Radoff could remember, he had been obsessed with the idea of using technology to tell a story. Early computer games like the text-based “Zork” and “Dungeon,” which he played on a mainframe, were among his influences.
While Radoff was making his own games at an early age, his path to Disruptor Beam with Bull started when they met over an online game called “GemStone.” After doing one term at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Radoff said he stopped attending classes and ultimately dropped out so that he could Bull could build their first game development company together. Their biggest hit was “Legends of Future Past,” a text-based game that was considered one of the first massively multiplayer online role-playing games.
After starting two other companies together — one focused on web content management, another focused on behavioral advertising for the gaming industry — Bull and Radoff started Disruptor Beam around the turn of the 2010’s. Initially, the studio spent its time doing contract work for other companies, including GSN Games, which has an office in Boston. The games they helped make early on — including a 50 Cent-branded blackjack game for Facebook that didn’t perform as well as expected — weren’t representative of the kind of interactive storytelling ambitions they had, “but it allowed us to cut our teeth on the technology” and prepare for what’s next.
While Radoff was at his last company, gamerDNA, he watched the success of game developers like BioWare, which thrived with big-budget, story-driven games like “Mass Effect” and “Dragon Age” that came out for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. With Disruptor Beam, Radoff thought if he could take that same passion for storytelling and video games and apply it to an even wider audience with the billions of people who use smartphones and Facebook, there would be a “huge market potential.”
For Radoff, the thing that would really help Disruptor Beam take off was getting a license for a popular franchise and turning it into an interactive multiplayer storytelling experience for the masses. So one of his first ideas was to make a game based on “A Song of Ice and Fire.” Before it would become “Game of Thrones,” the fantasy novel series had been a favorite of Radoff’s.
“I thought that if I was going to really innovate on story, the right way to do it was bring that innovation into a world that people were already in love with,” Radoff said. “‘Game of Thrones’ gave us the ability to go into that world while giving us a canvas to try some ideas.”
It was in April 2010 when Radoff had the idea to turn “Game of Thrones” into Disruptor Beam’s first company-owned game. In pursuit of people who could get him closer to Martin, Radoff got himself introduced to a literary agent named Vince Gerardis through a mutual friend. Gerardis, he had heard, had become known for helping fantasy and sci-fi authors bring their titles to TV and film, so Radoff figured he might provide an in to getting closer to Martin. What Radoff didn’t know when he had his first phone call with Gerardis was that the man actually represented Martin.
During that phone conversation, after talking about other adaptation ideas he had, Radoff said he remembered mentioning how his dream project would be to make a “Game of Thrones” game, not knowing that Gerardis could become Radoff’s direct line to its creator. “I told him I want to take things that have a real fanbase foundation and turn it into a game that would be really successful,” Radoff recalled, to which Gerardis asked for Radoff’s best example. “Game of Thrones,” Radoff answered, and Gerardis responded with silence. “I had no idea I was telling this to the person who represented George,” Radoff said.
Thankfully for Radoff, his mistake of not realizing Gerardis as Martin’s agent did not result in the kind of gory death that has been depicted repeatedly on “Game of Thrones.” Instead, Radoff got a second phone call with Gerardis, who made him realize how close he was. “He said, ‘do you know I work for George and I sold the book rights to HBO?’” Radoff recalled.
Radoff pitched Gerardis on his idea for a story-driven “Game of Thrones” mobile game where people would play together, in which the story’s politics, moral ambiguity and character-driven interactions would play a core part. That got him an invitation to meet Martin in person. But it would take nearly a year of further conversations with Gerardis and other agents for that to happen.
Radoff said his main challenge was that licensed games — as in games based on existing works, like books or movies — don’t have a great reputation. Many of them end up being quick cash grabs and they don’t become meaningful sources of sustainable revenue as a result. Radoff had to sell these agents on his idea for a game that would build its own dedicated community and live on for years.
“I had to spend that first year explaining this vision for both being authentic to the source material, but also creating a game that would be truly sustainable,” Radoff said. “Both of these elements were important to HBO, as well as George: building the franchise and keeping fanbase invested. It took a lot of convincing, but I was an experienced entrepreneur so that was definitely helpful.”
“More people need to die in this game.”
A month before “Game of Thrones” premiered on HBO, in March 2011, the time had finally come for Radoff to meet Martin at the author’s home in Sante Fe, N.M. For the better part of the day, Radoff met with Martin and discussed his ideas for the game. He said he was fascinated by Martin’s decorations, including dioramas of fantasy battles and hundreds of figurines inside Martin’s library tower. “It was a geek’s paradise,” Radoff said.
Radoff said he had met a lot smart and rich people in his life, but never someone he admired as much as Martin, who he called a “creative genius.” Even if Martin wasn’t the most technologically up-to-date person — Martin uses a DOS-based word processing program from the 1980s — Radoff said Martin was able to immediately grasp why a story-driven online game for smartphones and Facebook could have a large impact. After all, while Martin may not be current on gadgets and other technologies, he has written plenty of science fiction outside of his fantasy megahit, which, for Radoff, meant Martin could take a larger view of how technology can change people’s lives.
“I would argue he is a technologist, not a technology owner,” Radoff said.
In pitching a “Game of Thrones” mobile game, Radoff said he told Martin it would be focused on some of the persistent themes that make the books so compelling: political intrigue, moral ambiguity, the competing motivations of the characters and factions and, of course, the uncompromising brutality. Radoff said he ultimately convinced Martin by demonstrating an understanding of what made “Game of Thrones” tick. “He saw that I got that and I think that’s what convinced him that we had the authenticity to pull it off,” he said.
Several months later, in November 2011, Disruptor Beam signed a license agreement with Martin and HBO for a social game based on “Game of Thrones.” But the deal and the resulting game, “Game of Thrones Ascent,” wouldn’t be announced until May 2012.
To celebrate, Martin wrote about the announcement in his Livejournal, using the eccentric voice he’s known for:
I don’t know much about social media. I don’t have a facebook or twitter account. But I’ve been told a few people have them, and that some of those people like to play social media games. I’m told the biggest social media game involves running a farm.
Surely, I thought, there must be something one could do on social media that would be more fun that growing turnips and feeding chickens. Like, say, scheming and plotting, murders and marriages, contesting for power.
Radoff said he went on to meet with Martin two more times before the game was finished: once for an intensive review of the game’s design, and once more for a review of the game itself, which came with some constructive feedback. One suggestion Martin made was to include certain images and patterns for the game’s banner design component. Another suggestion was equally, if not more, important: “More people need to die in this game,” Radoff recalled Martin saying.
“‘Game of Thrones’ is this dangerous world. There is no character who can’t be killed,” Radoff said.
“Game of Thrones Ascent” came out in February 2013 on Facebook — back when 250 million people were playing games on the social network, less than half of the 550 million who logged hours using a Facebook login in 2015.
It would come out a year later for smartphones and tablets, in the summer of 2014, and the general sentiment was that the game “manages to capture the intrigue of the popular TV show,” as Kotaku wrote in a review. Facebook chose it as a staff favorite the year it came out, Touch Arcade said it was “dripping with enough fan service to please even the most hardcore Game of Thrones fan,” and AOL’s now-defunct blog Massively called it the “biggest surprise” of 2013.
For Radoff, the game’s success, accelerated by the intense popularity of the HBO show, helped pave the way for Disruptor Beam to make games based on other major franchises, including “Star Trek,” which it adapted into the mobile game, “Star Trek: Timelines,” released earlier this year. But getting these deals weren’t nearly as difficult as the first. Now they’re coming inbound, Radoff said.
“Now that we have two of those products in the marketplace, we have a lot of these content companies coming to us,” Radoff said. “We’re a company that intends to have several of the world’s greatest franchises as the foundation for our games.”