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Disruptor Beam: Big name IP is about player retention, not acquisition

CEO Jon Radoff shares takeaways from making mobile games for Star Trek, Game of Thrones, and The Walking Dead

Decades ago, there was a stigma around developers that worked primarily on licensed games, that they were just buying a big name to slap on an inferior product for a quick buck. That's clearly not the case with Disruptor Beam, the Massachusetts-based studio behind Star Trek: Timelines, Game of Thrones: Ascent, and the just-released The Walking Dead: March to War, three mobile games with a four star rating (or higher) on the App Store.

But even if the quality concern has been addressed, Disruptor Beam CEO Jon Radoff told recently that people still make assumptions about a licensing-focused studio.

"People frequently believe the reason we do licensed game products is customer acquisition because of the name recognition," Radoff said. "And it certainly helps, but it's not sufficient on its own to build a successful game. The real reason you build games in these worlds is because of retention. If someone really wants to live in the world of Westeros, or they want to be in the universe of Star Trek, then they have very limited options when switching out of the product to do that somewhere else."

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Given that desire to live in the world of a given license, Radoff said it's important that when they get there, everything's true to that world.

"We put a real premium on what we call authenticity and staying true to the source material. That includes not just bringing the plot, themes, and characters into the game, but also looking at what is central to the franchise, and then figuring out the actual game systems it really requires based on the IP."

For example, when the studio struck a deal for its first title, Game of Thrones: Ascent, Radoff had access to the creator of the fantasy series, George R.R. Martin. The most important thing he asked was what the books and the world were really all about. Martin saw them as stories about politics and the ways the different characters interacted with one another.

"So that meant to build a truly authentic game, it had to be about the politics, and bringing that to life," Radoff said. "That's why we created game systems around things like marriages and betrothals. Alliance participation would be really important, and the multiplayer aspects of people uniting and backstabbing each other would just be the way the game was crafted to be true to the IP."

"We're not into retrofitting a game system into an IP just because it's what was already built. By the same token, we don't want to retrofit a team into building something they don't have that personal passion for"

Disruptor Beam took a similar approach to Star Trek, making combat and violence a comparatively small part of the package compared to exploration, discovery, and problem-solving elements. While Radoff acknowledged the Star Trek TV and film franchise has gone back and forth in how much it relied on each of those pillars, he said it's all "authentic" in that it holds true to Gene Roddenberry's "very optimistic view of humanity's future in space and keeping the spirit of exploration and discovery alive."

Having gone through this process a few times, Radoff had one takeaway for developers of licensed games that might seem obvious, but still bears repeating.

"When you build the game, the team of people has to be populated by true fans of the IP," Radoff said. "We're obviously making games for other people, for the audience that's out there, but it's a lot easier to empathize with those fans when you yourself enjoy the same material. It goes hand-in-hand with the idea that we're not into retrofitting a game system into an IP just because it's what was already built. By the same token, we don't want to retrofit a team into building something they don't have that personal passion for."

Building trust between the developer and the licensor was also another key element for Radoff. Disruptor Beam has obviously done a good job on that front, juggling three huge properties from three significant companies who could probably all insist on having the undivided attention of whichever studio they had handle their license.

"I think they take a lot of comfort in the fact we've invested a lot in processes and systems to make sure we can do a great job," Radoff said. "And we've learned something new from each partnership we've got and are able to bring our knowledge to bear in other games we're working on. If we weren't able to do that pattern recognition, if we weren't able to have this broad view of the marketplace and what makes you successful, I don't think we'd be as successful as we have been."

One of the key ways Disruptor Beam has earned that trust is through frequent and detailed communication.

"I think frankly, it's not in the DNA of most game companies to communicate that effectively with outside partners because they want to go heads down, become auteurs, and build their own vision," Radoff said. "But it's important when dealing with this type of IP to realize it's not going to be just ours."

"If the game industry has proven anything, it's that you can't just start throwing people at the problem and scale up proportionately to the level of headcount you hire"

There's also the fans, and of course, the creative partners who work on the source material. That's another key point for Radoff; he wants to have direct relationships with those creators, not just because it helps ensure a better game, but because they can help convince the business people that Disruptor Beam really "gets" a property and would be a good steward of the license. It also ensures that Disruptor Beam isn't staking it business on an uncommitted partner.

"We have to be [connected at] a relatively high level of most of the companies so we're working with the people who have the vision for the IP and want to build it over the long-term," Radoff said. "That way they're not looking at this as transactional, like it's a game that might as well be another coffee mug or a t-shirt that they can pick up a percentage on. We want them to be looking at this as an opportunity to build the community in the long term."

That's exactly what happened with HBO on Game of Thrones: Ascent.

"Part of HBO's strategy always was to figure out systems to keep the fan community engaged between the seasons, because the show isn't on for 40 to 45 weeks a year, and that's a long period of time," Radoff said. "What HBO told us when we were first working on it was that their ambition was to figure out ways to engage the fan community in the story and the themes, to keep them actively involved and caring about Game of Thrones every day."

This approach has worked well for Disruptor Beam so far, but it has put something of a cap on how big the company can grow, or how fast.

"For us, it's organic," Radoff said of the growth strategy. "If the game industry has proven anything, it's that you can't just start throwing people at the problem and scale up proportionately to the level of headcount you hire. Every company that's tried that has basically failed. I won't name names, but there are notable examples of people who had one or two hits, and suddenly they hire 1,000 or 2,000 people in response to that. And then they discover that 1,000 or 2,000 of those people don't really do anything. So we're very conscious of that."

One thing the studio has found helpful is making sure that it's putting new hires to work on live ops of existing games so they can learn about the studio's culture, processes, and design approach before tackling a completely new title. Of course, the mandate that the developers be fans of the properties they work on could be tricky (though no doubt trickier if they were working with less widely loved brands).

"You might say that's slightly limiting in terms of the ability to just add zillions and zillions of products, but we're not a company that wants zillions and zillions of products," Radoff said. "There is a limited number of Walking Deads and Star Treks and Game of Thrones in the world, and those are the kind of entertainment franchises we want to work with."