Building innovative games around iconic brandsJon Radoff is the CEO of Disruptor Beam, an independent studio building social games for beloved brands like Game of Thrones and Star Trek. Jon combines a deep love for strategy games with a knack for innovation. He’s got great stories to tell about bringing iconic properties to life with rapid prototyping and early fan involvement. Tune in to find out what really goes on behind the scenes at a top independent game studio.
[Amy Jo Kim] You have a fascinating and varied background. Can you give us a whirlwind tour? Tell us the highlights and lowlights and really the pivotal moments that set your direction and propelled you to what you’re doing today.
[Jon Radoff] Sure, well, I’d been doing things both in digital entertainment as well as some non-entertainment stuff, but all kind of internet-related for over a couple decades now, but when I was in high school, I was writing bulletin board system games. Went to college for about 5 minutes, dropped out, decided to start a game company back when social networks were called America Online and CompuServe. Built some multiplayer like fantasy role-playing games. Stepped out of games for a bit, so started a software company called Eprise that built content management software. I started an advertising network company. Now I’m back in games again with Disruptor Beam. The idea of the company was to bring really immersive story-driven, really deep games to the world of mobile and social, which at least up to the point where we had started doing this, really was just dominated by more casual products. We wanted to bring these enriched PC game experiences to that format.
That’s what we’ve been doing. That kind of went along with getting to know George RR Martin and the HBO folks and bringing Game of Thrones to life in a mobile game, and now we’re working on a Star Trek game. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last 25 years or so.
How did you get that Game of Thrones license? Tell us the story of how that came about.
You know, it was really just persistence and luck, I’m sure, played a huge factor in it. When I started the company, we didn’t actually have the idea of going after licenses at all, let alone Game of Thrones, but we knew that there was this real gap in the mobile and online social gaming market around real player-to-player social interactions. You had these things called social games, but they weren’t actually that social. They were kind of called social games because they were placed inside social networks and kind of depended on spamming what would have then been called the Facebook wall and stuff like that to get customer acquisition, but they weren’t actually that social mechanically when people played them together.
We had this idea of creating games that would have deep political and diplomatic and relationship-building aspects to them. That was really the genesis of the company. Now, while we were working on that, we realized that also getting people into the game would be important, and keeping them engaged in the game would be important. It occurred to us that if we wanted something that would be deeply political, there would be no better fit for the kind of game we wanted to create than Game of Thrones, a book that I had read initially when it first came out, probably 10 years earlier.
I just had this idea, “Let’s go after Game of Thrones.” It was not even an HBO series yet. I managed to work my way to George RR Martin and his agent, and it took a while. It took a couple of years of pitching it to them before they finally bit and then HBO also entered the picture at the same time. We had to work with them as well, and they actually added a lot. They’ve been wonderful to work with and have really helped create awareness around the product in an amazing way that wouldn’t have happened had it just been a book. That’s how it happened. Really, just entrepreneurial hustle, luck, persistence, not taking no for an answer.
Wow. What were you doing during the 2 years that it took to close the deal, from starting to pitch to closing it? Were you building other games?
We were consulting with other game companies in helping them build games, so we were doing work with GSN and other companies that were trying to build gaming start-ups, so, yeah, the pre-history of the company was a combination of that but also investing in the technology platform that we created to build social and mobile online games. Yeah, both of those kind of in tandem, but once we got the license to Game of Thrones, we tailed off any kind of third-party development that we were doing in favor of doing our own first-party game development.
You were definitely playing a long game.
Yeah. I started a few companies now, the intention with Disruptor Beam certainly was never to be like a consultant. We want to build games that would really change the landscape in the social and mobile gaming market. We tried things that people thought were crazy at the time like having story and dialogue as part of the game experience, which are a staple of RPG games on PC and console but had never really been tried on mobile. We were told we were insane for even thinking that the audience would accept that on mobile. We certainly found that there’s an audience out there who loves it and are really engaged by it. I commented earlier about how we had this mission of creating something that was truly, deeply social and had these political elements and stuff.
Well, in the last year, a couple that met inside Game of Thrones Ascent actually got married in real life after meeting in the game. To have those kind of social interactions in a mobile and social game, I think, is something we’re really pioneering. Of course, this has happened in the past in MMORPGs in PC games and stuff like that, but something that you really hadn’t heard of until we came along and tried to create a game that engages people in story and gets them really communicating and helping each other.
What do you think it is about your game that led to the kind of dynamics that would lead to somebody getting married like they do in every MMO ever? There’s always … You could call it PTM, playing to marriage. You said, and this is fascinating, Jon … You said that you really wanted to do something different in the genre, different than hadn’t been done. People told you were crazy. Then people got married having met in your game. Tell us about what was different about your game, or what is different about your game, in particular the aspects that led to those kind of dynamics.
Well, there’s a couple things I can point to. I think one is just the prominence of story within the game, so humans love stories because it gives us shared experiences and it gives us a narrative around the things that we’re doing which otherwise would just be a bunch of disconnected actions. When you’re engaging in that same story together, you immediately have a common ground to draw from in your experiences. I think that as a starting point, of just having people be able to meet in the course of a game, and then have something that they feel like they’re actually already doing together, in a sense, it’s almost like being able to go on a date, but electronically.
Then I think it’s really allowing the social fabric of the game to come to life through shared adversity. It’s also not just a game where you’re only going through a story; you’re going through a story in which there are a lot of enemies, and there’s a lot of people trying to kill you in Game of Thrones. The fact that you’re teaming up and facing tough odds together, I think, also has a tendency to drive people together, closer. When you run into obstacles and things in real life, it’s the same thing; it sort of plays on the same kind of experiences and brain pathways and whatnot that cause people to bond with each other. That’s the kind of experiences that Game of Thrones Ascent has been able to craft for a lot of people.
You’re talking about co-op bonding, bonding through cooperative experience where you’re banding together to fight at something greater than yourself?
Well, I think it’s both. It’s cooperative and it’s competitive. It’s cooperative in the sense that you’re banding together, but you’re also competing against others as well, so your group competing against other groups.
That’s a team sport?
I think so, sure.
That’s basically every team sport, right?
Yes, although I think that a big difference between a team sport and a game like this is in sports, the narrative is about the players and the competition and the path to becoming a champion, for example, whereas in this, the narrative certainly draws on that partially, but it’s more about the immersion within a fantasy universe in which there’s this unique story taking place. I think there is this team sport element to it, but the fact that it’s embedded within a story that people can relate to is also what makes it a lot stronger.
That was beautifully put and really interesting and insightful. You’ve been a hands-on maker and company-builder for many, many years, but you’re also an author and a speaker. What was it that prompted you to start writing and speaking about game design and sharing your insights in that way?
Yeah, good question. You know, I guess I always wanted to try my hand at writing a book, and really that was sort of the initial impetus behind writing Game On. I think it was a challenge. It was a lot harder to write a book than I ever imagined it to be. Writing a book isn’t just the same as writing a lot of blog posts or a lot of short articles and then putting it together because you have to be able to deliver sort of a larger set of content around a common theme and organizing elements, which just makes it harder. If anything, I gained a lot of appreciation for people who, unlike me, do this all the time. Like, there are people out there who are always writing a book and are constantly publishing, which isn’t me. I don’t do it all the time because I’m running a company, but hopefully I’ll do it again someday, and I certainly gained a lot of appreciation for how hard it is to do.
Yeah, I think for me, it was the challenge, and I had some ideas that I just wanted to share. I didn’t completely agree with the general take on gamification at the time when I wrote it, which was the essence behind the book. That was the other aspect, which is, at least when I wrote this … It published in 2011, so it’s been a few years now, but at the time, the concept behind gamification was that it was all about leader boards and badge systems and point systems, sort of much more oriented towards the reward system of a game, which I don’t actually believe that is gamification. I think gamification is actually more about the immersion in the story, the narrative and the aspiration.
How you bring someone into an experience like that is where actual gamification takes place. Rewards are fine. Rewards can be something added to that, but I saw a lot of companies going out and building gamified systems in which they were focused on a reward scheme, but they weren’t thinking about the experience, the story, or anything that actually anyone would care about. I thought that was something that people needed to understand better so that people could understand what is a game really. A game isn’t just a reward system. That’s 10% of a game, maybe.
Bingo. Yes. Of course, you know, I feel the same way. What’s interesting, though, is that I feel very much the same way because I’m a game designer as you are, game creator, but something I’ve also learned from talking to so many game creators, particularly on this podcast, is there’s many different takes on what a game is. Because your take, which is very narrative-focused … You mentioned narrative in your core take on a game. That’s one kind of game. Another one of my dear friends, Tracy Fullerton, who runs the USC Game School … Tracy is very much a narrative designer as well, starts with narrative, deep understanding of narrative, etc. Many of her best games come from there.
I’m more of a system designer, so I’ll start from systems. For me, a game is a set of systems so that your experience evolves over time. I often will partner with a narrative game designer or partner with someone else, but as you know, there is many different kinds of games. Some games hardly have any narrative at all, and they’re awesome. Some games, like yours, narrative is core to the thing that makes it powerful and long-lasting, right?
Sure, although I’d say that almost any game has some kind of narrative to it. Now, narrative doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re telling a story with dialogue and a plot. Like, you can still have a fiction around a game so that it’s accessible to the player and they understand what’s going on. Otherwise, games become nothing more than sort of mathematical abstractions. It’s important to be able to structure a game in a way that people can comprehend. Chess is a good example. Chess, there’s a way we could play chess in which the figures don’t really mean anything other than a particular set of rules about how they move around the board. We could call it pieces A, B, C, D, E, but that doesn’t make it as easy to understand, and it’s not as easy to approach if we do that.
Yeah, I want to be careful when I talk about narrative. Narrative doesn’t just mean coming up with a plot. I don’t know what the plot of Candy Crush is, for example. I think there might be a plot, but there’s still a narrative, and there’s still characters, and they’re sort of ways to take the match 3 concept and wrap it within familiar objects that make it accessible to me.
That’s fascinating. Let’s drill down on that. Talk to us more about the narrative in chess because I think what you’re talking about are things like character and setting that can almost create the foundation for a narrative without creating narrative. Talk to us about what your thoughts are about that, how you think about narrative that’s not obvious, and what are the elements that can set up like minimum viable narrative?
Well, I guess I think back to how I approached chess when I was a child learning about chess for the first time. If chess had just been a bunch of rules on a checkerboard about how certain pieces moved around, it probably wouldn’t have been as interesting to me, but the fact that it was sort of wrapped within this fiction of a royal court and there was a conflict going on, actually brought the game to life in a way that wouldn’t have happened without that. That said, there’s games like Go that are essentially that abstract, and there’s a huge number of people who love a game like that, but I didn’t pick up Go. Whatever it was about Go didn’t work on me when I was a kid, whereas chess did. I think the story aspect of it, even though it’s the most tenuous of stories, is part of what made it appealing to me and I think makes it appealing to a lot of other people.
You don’t need character and plot and setting and themes and all these things that people talk about in fiction writing. You can have aspects of it. Sometimes it’s world-building. Sometimes it’s just a matter of humanizing aspects of the interface or the objects that you interact with, but it’s about making it more familiar.
What’s the narrative in Minecraft?
Well, in Minecraft, it’s really about you being the builder, but of course you build something, and then you create an environment. When it gets into multiplayer modes and stuff, it can almost be whatever people want it to be. I think Minecraft is an environment really about creativity in which the creators are defining the stories.
Wow. You mentioned that you really felt you wanted to present to the world a different view on gamification that was truer to what a game actually is and what makes a game appealing. These days, what topics are near and dear to your heart? What do you care about sharing these days?
Well, right now, I mean, the mission of Disruptor Beam is what I’m focused on, which is I think that there’s a huge number of people on mobile devices, a billion plus people who are playing games on mobile devices, yet the vast majority of them have not really gotten to experience all the things that a game can offer. We want to create games with deep social interaction, interesting mechanics, stories that people find compelling, and that’s sort of what we set out to do with Disruptor Beam, and that’s why Game of Thrones was the first game we did.
Now we’re working on a Star Trek game. I think what we’re trying to prove is in mobile devices, you can have games that are just as deep and meaningful to people as you had on PC games in the past. In fact, in many cases, more meaningful to people because they’re able to access the games and re-enter those worlds a lot more frequently than they would be with something that’s stuck to their desks.
That’s wonderful. Does user-generated content play any role in those games?
Well, define “user-generated content.” They’re not Minecraft-like in that the entire landscape of a 3D environment is defined by the character. It’s not user-generated content in that people are not writing stories that are immediately become part of the world, but on the other hand, there are social interactions, and the social structures that they form are certainly player-generated content. A big part of Game of Thrones Ascent is people forming alliances and determining how they are going to vie for control of Westeros with the other players in the game. All of that social organization-building that our players do at the alliance level is not just sort of the game mechanics that are built in. They’re going way beyond the game, and they’re talking to each other, and they’re figuring out how exactly they’re going to run these organizations.
Similarly, we’re trying to put the same kind of stuff into Star Trek Timelines, and I’m sure that’ll be a part of any game that we’re building in the future.
Very similar to the guild dynamics that happen in MMOs, it sounds like?
Yeah, exactly. I mean, that’s exactly right because in MMOs, which people typically think of MMOs as being more oriented around PC gaming markets, MMOs have guilds where a lot of the social interaction happens between players and then also between guilds. Historically, there haven’t been many examples of that. Now, there are certain things like Clash of Clans, of course, has a very active guild system in which people compete. We’re trying to unlock more than just the pure competition. It’s also a big part about people in the guilds together engaging in a story together, cooperating with each other, building relationships with each other over the course of time.
That sounds fascinating. Let’s turn our attention a little bit to how you bring games to life. As you mentioned, you’ve founded several companies. You’ve had quite a bit of experience trying out different methods of bringing your ideas to life. At what stage and at what fidelity do you start testing your ideas, particularly with like your early target customers? How do you go about bringing these ideas to life? How did you do it on Game of Thrones? What are you doing now on Star Trek?
Well, I’d say we’ve done it different ways for both of those two products. Game of Thrones Ascent was built relatively quickly at an earlier stage of the company with fewer resources, fewer people. We certainly tried to get as many people as we could entice playing it early, so the good thing about Game of Thrones is that there’s a huge fan base out there, so finding people willing to look at a Game of Thrones game isn’t hard, whereas it’s difficult to get people to try out some sort of more generic game unless it’s from an extremely well-known designer who they’re wanting to play the next game from. I wasn’t that.
I used the fact that people loved Game of Thrones, and we talked about what was going to be exciting about it, and we brought people into the testing. With Star Trek, I’d say it’s similar in that, of course, it’s a huge fan base of people. Over 100 million people are Star Trek fans in some form, so again, not terribly hard to identify people who are interested in trying it out. We’ve gone to the next level with Star Trek Timelines where it’s not just sort of the alpha and beta testing stuff, but we’ve been at conventions, so we’ve been at Penny Arcade Expo (PAX). We’ve been at a couple of different Star Trek conventions. We’ve actually been there with the game in very early builds of it, and the opportunity’s there. We didn’t think of those conventions as marketing opportunities so much as we thought of them as a chance for us to get the game in front of hundreds or, in the case of PAX, a couple thousand fans over the course of only a couple of days and really get statistically significant feedback on the game systems that we were building that we then brought back into our game design process.
In fact, in the most recent Star Trek convention at Las Vegas back in August, we brought a build to the convention and showed one version of the game for the first couple of days, listened to the feedback, our engineers back home made some changes to it, and we shipped a new version to the second half of the convention, and were actually able to observe how people were receiving changes to the game made over a real short period of time. I think that whatever the strategy is, though, I think the thing that makes any of those workable is just this idea of having an agile enough game development process and platform that allows you to iterate quickly so that you can listen to feedback and it becomes actionable because I think a lot of games get tested, but then designers don’t actually listen to the feedback and incorporate it into the game in terms of meaningful change. That’s what we’re trying to do by exposing the game earlier with people that we think should enjoy playing it.
That was great. I’m sorry. I muted because I was listening so intently, and that was so well said. This idea of iterative play-testing is really what you’re talking about. You’re talking about being agile, but you’re also talking about bringing your game to life with iterative play-testing. That was like a big play-test at the convention, correct?
Talk to us about iterative play-testing, where you start when it’s just you and your team. Or, maybe like, most game teams I’ve worked with and I’ve talked to do these concentric rings of testing where it starts just with the team and then it might go to the studio, maybe you include some admins who aren’t as tech. Then you go to super fans, then you go … Do you have these … What is your process, your iterative play-testing process? Who do you test it on over time as you’re bringing a new property to life?
Well, we actually try to expose it to a wide variety of people relatively early. When a game is really early, there’s nothing really playable, so it’s still concept. If you showed what you were working on to people, they wouldn’t even recognize it as a game, or it would be so rough they don’t even take you seriously, so early on, we’ll be sharing concepts. Actually, the first time we were at Penny Arcade Expo, we had very little to show, but we were there just to talk to people and tell them what the ideas behind the game were so we could confirm that what we thought was a good idea is something that was resonating with the audience. I think you have to be careful, though, in these concentric rings that you’re talking about because all of these different rings have any number of positive and negative errors that you can experience and lots of survivorship bias, and all kinds of things like that that can kind of take you off-track pretty easily.
I think it’s really important to expose game development teams to the market as much as you can because the development team themself, while they love it, and certainly you want to hire teams that love the idea, love the kind of game that you’re creating and have sort of a personal affinity for it, it’s rare for them to actually be entirely representative of a mass-market product that needs to be appealing to millions if not tens of millions of people. Making sure that they get exposed to them in some form, whether it’s talking to customers, listening to them, seeing how people actually play the game early, I think, is just important. Super fans can also give you a lot of false positives, too. Super fans can be totally enthusiastic about a feature that may only appeal to 1,000 people in the world. It’s important that you’re getting a lot of points of feedback, not just sort of different pockets of feedback.
Yes. One of the things that a lot of the teams that I work with struggle with and that I work with them on is figuring out who to listen to when. You alluded to a particularly difficult time in a game’s development, which is when you want to get feedback on rough ideas or say a really rough early prototype or just ideas. You mentioned you then would take those ideas to particular fans to just get feedback on the ideas. Let’s talk about that stage a little. I do think it’s a particularly difficult stage. What have you learned about how to actually get vetted and useful feedback at that stage versus just asking everybody? Like strategically, who do you ask at that rough, early stage to get the most vetted feedback?
Sure. Well, what was so … I’ll actually start the step before that, I think, which is … Let’s take Star Trek as an example, so we thought that something that would be really important for a Star Trek game is to really be authentic to the source material, and we had a belief that many games, not all of them, but many games that have been built around Star Trek, and there have been quite a few, haven’t actually been that authentic to the material. We tried to start by thinking amongst ourselves, “What is it that actually is authentic about Star Trek?” We determined the things like the optimism of the universe was really important because that was Gene Roddenberry’s vision. We also thought that if you look at the plots and the themes that happen in Star Trek, they don’t all revolve around violence. They also involve politics and diplomacy and technology and science, exploration, and violence, by the way, because violence is also a part of it, so people can-
They also involve love a lot.
Sure, all of those things, so relationships, philosophy, ethics. All these themes are present in Star Trek. Star Trek is … That’s what makes Star Trek really complicated by the way. I tend to love all the stuff that’s in science-fiction and space opera, so I love Star Wars too, but in some ways, I envy Star Wars game designers because it’s pretty clear what you have to build for a Star Wars game. You either are building star ships fighting each other or Jedi fighting people. If you can do one of those two things really well, you can build a great game, whereas in Star Trek, while phasers blasting is important and photon torpedoes ramming the hulls of other ships is a part of it, if that’s the only thing you do, you’re really just building a combat simulator for Star Trek, but you’re not really telling a Star Trek story. That was kind of the challenge.
Number one, we had this idea that for Star Trek, we would have to bring that to life, so we started talking to people at conventions about building a Star Trek game that would bring to life not just the combat aspects but the diplomacy, science, technology aspects as well and more of the story-telling. Immediately, we started getting a very positive reaction to that. The first convention we tried this at wasn’t a Star Trek convention per se. It was Penny Arcade Expo, so of course it appeals to lots of gamers, but it’s a pretty wide swath of gamers. There are people there who certainly are hardcore Star Trek fans. There were people coming by our booth wearing Star Fleet uniforms, but also there were plenty of people who like Star Trek, don’t actually think of themselves as Star Trek fans per se, but certainly have fond memories of watching Next Generation episodes and a number of the movies and whatnot.
We wanted to make sure that the game we’re creating would appeal to both of those. One of the real early things we were finding is that this message that we had of delivering a game that would be part combat but part telling the stories of Star Trek about seeking out new worlds and civilizations would also be an important part of it. People really responded to that, and we got feedback like, “Yes, that’s what I’ve always been missing in Star Trek games,” so we knew we were onto something with that. It wasn’t just us talking to ourselves. The other kind of pillar of the game was we thought people really had a lot of affection for the characters of Star Trek, whether it’s the original series like with Kirk and Spock or whether it’s the Next Generation with Picard and so forth. There’s all these characters that people had affection for, so how do you get all those characters into one game?
We again drew upon one of the recurring plots that always comes up in Star Trek, which is space-time anomalies and mirror universes and these things crossing over, and in fact, we see it even happens in some of the movies. We thought, “Okay, let’s run with that plot in a way that no one has really tried before and bring all the characters together because that’s what people really want. They want to see what their dream team crew is, almost in a fantasy football sense but in space.” What happens when you put Picard and Spock together on the same crew? Of course, there was a risk with that, that people would think that’s a crazy idea, but it turned out that very, very consistently when we talked to people about it, they just loved that idea.
That’s how we did the early testing, was testing the messaging behind the game and what we wanted to build. That gave us the confidence that those would be the principles that guide the game, so it’s going to have … It wasn’t going to be combat, and it would involve all the characters in this narrative premise of the space-time anomaly. That gave us a lot of confidence through a year-plus of development on it that those key things wouldn’t change. Like, lots of things did change in the game along the way in terms of how we manifested that game mechanically, but we could always ask ourselves whether something was in service to those core principles of the game.
Then it just became about testing it with people to see whether they were reacting to the game systems that we were creating in a way that they understood what we were trying to accomplish. It wasn’t enough just to have fun with it. It was also that they got the idea that the crew was important and it was a crew across all the different timelines, and sometimes they’d be in a combat situation, and sometimes they’d be in more of a story-telling kind of philosophy or ethics, science, diplomacy situation.
Did they comprehend during this early testing phase when you were first showing them game systems? Did they comprehend that it was basically fantasy football meets the Star Trek universe? Did they go, “Oh, yeah, I see what this is”? Did they make the leap to that model?
Occasionally people have made the connection. The fantasy football analogy is sort of imperfect in that there’s not this exterior real world happening where we’re trying to predict what’s happening and that governs your choices. The fantasy football aspect of it is just the idea that I can throw people together in ways that wouldn’t normally be possible. People found that appealing. Did they understand it? I’d say, no. The early things we tried totally didn’t work, and we really had to have a lot of tries at it before we started delivering the actual vision. Many of our ideas just didn’t work.
Talk to us about that because that part of it is so often hidden, but it’s incredibly valuable in creating every hit, is that iterative process where you tried some early things and they don’t work? What did you learn from that? What were some of the early things that turned into the thing that did work?
Yeah, I think we sort of had a series of revolutions rather than evolutions in the course of designing some of these game systems. Some of the things we tried really early just didn’t work particularly for the target market. We tried, for example, like a JRPG take on how you beam your away team down to a planet and have them resolve things. The problem there was, like in the JRPG, JRPGs are very good at modeling out combat situations, so it’s great for fantasy characters or even science-fiction characters that are shooting each other and you’re trying to defeat the other side. Not as good for telling non-violent stories.
In all the cases where we wanted to have violence, it worked fine, but in all the others, it didn’t. We tried that. We probably burned a couple of months at least trying that approach to the game system, and it ultimately didn’t work, and we made the tough decision just to completely abandon that and try something totally new and different. It was pretty clear from the early versions of it that we were getting closer to it. It was a more abstracted model, and then we started showing people it. There were other issues where people were confused and whatnot, but we knew that we were kind of at least in the range of what the feature needed to be. Through a series of just sort of innovations and trying different things with random chance or the way you branch through the narrative, we got to something that we think works pretty well.
It still has to be determined because we haven’t shipped this yet, but, yeah, we had to try very different things in the course of delivering it, which I think, by the way, is a difference between the way we’re approaching game development and the way a lot of others in the social/mobile space do. When you’re dealing with an IP like Star Trek, for example, we make a commitment that we’re building the game for that IP. Then it’s about trying the different game systems that can deliver upon the core principles of that particular game, that Star Trek game that we’re trying to build, versus there are other game development companies that will do sort of rapid iterations around a lot of different game concepts that are not particularly tied to an IP. Then when an idea seems to stick, then they kind of double down and start investing more heavily in that.
As big of an advantage as IP can be, it also imposes constraint, which is Star Trek’s a tough IP for the reasons we talked about early. We had to kind of figure out … It was more like solving the problem of Star Trek than it was just coming up with some new game concept that would stand alone.
You mentioned you’ve tried the JRPG and then you found that it worked well for combat but not for other situations. That’s an amazing piece of learning. It seems so clear in retrospect, but not so clear when you’re trying it. Then how would you describe what you went toward? Is there a genre, or is there a structure that captures what you’re moving toward now in the way that JRPG was what you tried?
Well, I think we ended up coming up with something that’s a lot different than other games. I think it’s actually a novel game system that people haven’t tried before. It certain has elements of role-playing games in general in it and branching narrative and choose-your-own adventure kind of aspects to it. All those things are influences on it, but I haven’t really seen a game that tries the exact game system that we’re attempting in Star Trek Timelines. There’s really 2 big game systems in Star Trek Timelines. There’s what happens when ships fight each other, and then there’s what happens when you get into more of a story-based, what we call away team mission, where your guys beam down to a planet to solve some problem there. The away team missions are much more about story-telling and the unique competencies of your crew, and the starship battle system is more of like a more traditional combat mechanic around assigning your crew to your ship and getting certain kind of combat moves that you use to counter an opponent.
The starship combat system, while there’s a lot of depth to it, has less pure innovation in that we didn’t design a whole new approach to space battles with that game, but on the story-based away team missions, that’s where it got complicated because it was really, really important to us to deliver a game that wasn’t just about the starship battles, which wouldn’t have been true to Star Trek. We really wanted to tell all the stories of what happens down on a planet.
That’s really exciting, Jon, that you have some innovative gaming systems coming down the pike for us to all test out. Do those systems have anything to do with diplomacy?
Yeah, diplomacy is one of the kinds of interactions that you have in the course of these away team missions, so sending down characters that have diplomatic skills and choosing to go down the diplomatic paths versus other possible … You can solve some problems in multiple ways. In fact, that’s an important aspect of this game system, is that every challenge, every story, has different ways that it can be resolved. Actually choosing to resolve it diplomatically versus trying to resolve it through, say, science or some other approach, or combat for that matter, is a choice you’ll make as a player. It’s about telling the story, giving the player interesting choices, giving them the opportunity to develop characters and their crew that they can use in different kinds of situations.
You told us a story earlier about as a child realizing that chess was really about these interesting diplomacy aspects rather than just a series of moves. Now, you’re building these innovative games with diplomacy and narrative and other things like that. What would you say your super power is as a game creator, as a designer? What’s your sweet spot? What kinds of projects light you up the most?
Let me revise maybe one comment you just said. I think chess actually is about the patterns and the pattern recognition and the strategic moves you’re making, but I think what makes the game more approachable when you’re trying to learn it and what speeds you along the learning curve and the interest, is sort of the narrative components and the setting of it, which makes it feel exciting to imagine yourself controlling a royal court, making some decisions. I think later on, like I don’t think Kasparov thinks much about the fantasy of a royal court. When he makes moves, he’s thinking about the patterns and how to dominate through essentially the mathematics of the game. I’ll just add that.
I don’t know what my super powers are. I think I’m lucky that I’ve been able to recruit really good people, so if I had anything, I would say I have a knack for finding people with a lot of talent and persuading them to come join a team of other people with a lot of talent and hopefully I can just keep doing that and get good designers who do things way better than I do.
Who’s your super star designer that you’d like to give a shout out to?
You know, it’s a team effort at Disruptor Beam. There’s a lot of people who are designers here, and we don’t necessarily think of design as like there’s a designer and then everybody else isn’t a designer. We think a lot of people have design contributions to make, so certainly lots of names run through my mind, but I wouldn’t want to take away from the design contributions that any member of the team makes.
Got it. Okay, so just to reflect, you’re saying that your super power is pulling together amazing teams around a really strong mission?
I hope so.
Awesome, well, you know, that’s a rare and amazing super power. Like, total respect from me.
Time will tell whether it’s a delusion or a super power, but it’s certainly what I aspire to do, and I love finding talented people and unleashing them on a really hard challenge. I feel like if that’s the only thing I can do right in life, then things will be okay. That’s what I try to focus on.
One more question. I want to follow up on what you said about that narrative can help people learn a game and can help the game be more approachable, as with chess. Certainly Kasparov isn’t thinking about that when he’s playing, but what about your players once they’re beyond on-boarding? Because, as we know as game designers, on-boarding is one kind of experience. Learning a game is one kind of experience. Sticking with a game is another. That’s like another phase of the experience. You’ve had players who have gotten married through your game. Do you feel like the narrative that you’re providing in your games is important for people sticking, or like Kasparov, are they just then playing the mechanics?
Well, I think the games that we create have social elements to them that get people to coordinate their actions more, so in a 2-player game like chess, the only social interaction is whatever the two participants who are in strategic opposition with each other happen to want to say to each other, and it’s sort of just a point in time. Maybe they have social interactions beyond that individual match, but in a social game where there’s a lot of cooperation, players have to coordinate a lot, so they’re either coordinating resources of time or the materials and the various statistics that are present within the game, agreeing on strategy, helping each other, deciding when and where they’re going to do things within the landscape of the game.
When, I think, you introduce these elements of coordination, and it’s not entirely automated by the game but the coordination depends on the players communicating and working with each other to pull off their strategy, that’s where in MMORPGs, whether it’s a raid boss you’re trying to defeat or a grand strategy game where you’re trying to dominate territory or a game like Game of Thrones Ascent, which is more politically-oriented, that’s where you open the door to these enriched social experiences.
Wonderful. Jon, thank you so much for sharing your time and your insights and your wisdom with us. This was amazing.
Thank you very much. It’s been great to be on this.