Making a game of “Game of Thrones”

What does it take to turn the bleak, epic world of Game of Thrones into a social Facebook game? A willingness to embrace the fantasy world’s most anti-social elements: Greed, betrayal, and maybe just a bit of old fashioned war. In this guest post, Jon Radoff, chief executive and founder of Cambridge game studio Disruptor Beam, talks about how his team is working with George R. R. Martin to make the world come to life.—M.M.

Anyone who watches “Game of Thrones,” the hit HBO series about kings, warriors, and wizards, can’t help but notice one thing: the people in the show’s mythical, medieval world, are simply not very nice to each other. In fact, without all the backstabbing and skullduggery, it simply wouldn’t be “Game of Thrones.”

This post comes courtesy of the Massachusetts Digital Games Institute (MassDiGI), a statewide center housed at Becker College and aimed at promoting economic development within the Massachusetts video and digital games industry.
This post comes courtesy of the Massachusetts Digital Games Institute (MassDiGI), a statewide center housed at Becker College and aimed at promoting economic development within the Massachusetts video and digital games industry.

So when our Cambridge-based game company, Disruptor Beam Inc., set out to build “Game of Thrones: Ascent,” we knew we would have to capture that behavior. It was really important to us to go back to the source material, to talk to George R.R Martin, the author of the original books the show is based on, to talk to the show runners at HBO, and think about how we could best create a game that brings across the experience that draws fans to the books and the series.

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All too often, companies take a license for some TV or movie or book property and splash it across some existing product like a coat of paint, then sell it. That’s why licensed games tend to be awful, because the makers don’t think hard enough about the type of story that drew people to the property to begin with.

Any social game should serve four motivations that drive gamers: immersion, which is about the story and the experience that make it fun; achievement, which is about mastering skills; cooperation, which is about working together to build things; and competition.

But a game based on a property with a dedicated fan base should be deserving of that devotion. People are incredibly passionate about the books they’ve read or the shows they’ve watched, and they want to see something that’s not just a knockoff, but that is true to the heart of the property.

So with us, we’re going to bring that backstabbing and skullduggery into Game of Thrones Ascent. People call it a social game, but in this case, I’m going to call it an anti-social game, just because it has people behaving so badly.

When I first went out to see him, I found George to be super smart, but he hadn’t played many games beyond tabletop games – although he’s played “Master of Orion” hundreds of times. George comes from a background in science fiction, but he’s really a big history buff. He’ll drop anecdotes about the Roman Empire, or stories from medieval British history. You can see the influence of actual history, especially in the way noble families interact with each other in his books. It shows in the way you never quite know who the bad guy is. The characters who seem the nicest tend to be naïve, and suffer for that.

That authenticity, and George’s storytelling, are what make “Game of Thrones” so compelling. George is really about actions and consequences. You never really know what people are thinking. That’s what we wanted to bring alive within the game.

First, we had to distill his world to the elements that are really important. His is a very character-driven story, which means we had a huge opportunity to craft really interesting interactions between players. Most games are social in that people play with each other, but they don’t really impact on each other. We want people to influence each other, being either helpful or harmful. You’ll be able to marry another character in this game. You can also marry your children off.

We’ve been spending a lot of time with George, and his influence is deeply felt in the game. Part of that is bringing in some of the dangerousness of the “Game of Thrones” stories. On the last trip I took to Santa Fe to see him, he loved the progress we made, but he did comment that the game had to be a little more lethal.

In a social game, unlike other digital games, there’s no click and reload button that lets you get back to where you started, fully restored. You’re stuck with the consequences of your decisions. We’ve made story and decisions mean something in this game. For example, we have a concept of sworn swords – henchmen who pledge their loyalty to you. The basic game play has you sending your sworn swords out to do stuff for you; on quests. George thought the game ought to allow for sworn swords to get killed.

That’s a tough one for a social game, because it means you lose your retinue and have to keep going. Yet we came around to George’s way of thinking, and came up with an interesting game mechanic to give them the possibility of death. Now, if you fail, one of the possible consequences is that the sworn sword is killed.

Being able to have a retinue that serves you, and have the people in it suffer injuries or death, is very true to the world of “Game of Thrones.” Similarly, people can triumph in the game in different ways. Sometimes it’s through brute force. Sometimes it’s by intrigue, or political maneuvering, or even money. Almost any problem in the game can be solved through battle, trade, or intrigue.

Right now, we’re alpha testing “Game of Thrones: Ascent.” We’ll be going into a closed beta test phase soon. We don’t have a release date yet, but I think it’s safe to say it’ll be early in the new year.

Games fuse together so many elements of technology and design. My role is never to be completely satisfied with anything we’re doing, but I’m very much aware how much fans love the “Game of Thrones” world, and how much they’ll want the game to be true to it. Not every game based on a property has delivered, but we feel good about this one. We’re ready to face the skeptics – with intrigue, deal-making, and sometimes, brute force.

Learn more about the Massachusetts game industry at Massachusetts Digital Games Institute (MassDiGI).