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Vidgame couple build new venture around 'social gaming' trend

Posted by Scott Kirsner  March 26, 2010 10:00 AM

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If you're a Facebook user, you've no doubt been invited to take part in Vampires or Mafia Wars, two free online games that invite you to start a clan of vampires (or a mafia family) with your friends, complete challenges to earn points, and establish dominance over other groups. Both are examples of "social gaming" games that spread through social networking sites, are relatively inexpensive to build, and generate revenue by selling virtual goods or currency to players, for real money.

Disruptor Beam, the latest start-up from husband-and-wife entrepreneurs Jon Radoff and Angela Bull, plans to play in the social gaming arena. Radoff mentioned the new venture on his blog last Friday; we met earlier this week to talk in more detail.

"We think there are three important elements to a role-playing game: story, character-building, and progression," Radoff says. "A lot of the existing social games have the idea of progression, of advancing through a world, but they don't have the other two." Radoff likes to say he and Bull have been building social games since the early 1990s, when they launched a text-based fantasy game called "Legends of Future Past" on the CompuServe online service.

GamerDNA was the most recent company that Bull and Radoff started together; it was an online gathering place for die-hard gamers. The company raised more than $5 million in venture capital from Flybridge Capital Partners in Boston. Last year, after cutting its staff in half, GamerDNA was acquired by a New York-based gaming site for an undisclosed sum.

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What was the lesson there? "GamerDNA built a lot of great stuff for a year or so before thinking about revenue," Radoff says. "Thinking about revenue first could have made a difference." (Bull left GamerDNA in early 2009 to start work on Disruptor Beam. That's Radoff and Bull at the center of the photo, taken at a GamerDNA office-warming party.)

This time around, Radoff and Bull aren't raising venture capital (at least initially). Their plan is to work with content partners who will help fund the development of social games and also share in the revenues. Disruptor Beam's business model will mimic that of the two leaders in social gaming, Zynga and Playdom: selling virtual goods and currency that give you status, skills, or help you advance in the game. 

Radoff says the company is working on three games simultaneously two with partners, and one on its own. The nice thing about social games, he says, is that they can be inexpensive to develop (costing $100,000 and up), "which lets you experiment, building games for different audiences, with different game play mechanics."

The first game to launch, perhaps as early as May, will be "Gods of Rock," which Disruptor Beam is developing independently. Your role is that of an aspiring rock star who needs to write songs, obtain instruments, and generate income. "Eventually, you can become a music mogul, sign up your friends' bands, and help produce them," Radoff says. (No drugs or booze in "Gods of Rock," though Radoff notes "there will be energy drinks.") The start-up is working on a second, history-based game in collaboration with Powderhouse Productions, the biggest producer of non-fiction TV programming in New England.

Powderhouse co-founder Tug Yourgrau isn't saying much about the game (or the related show) yet. "We've been working with them for about two months," he says. "For us, it's a containable investment in a new area." The show hasn't yet been sold to a network, Yourgrau says, adding that "the game will probably launch first."

Disruptor Beam envisions working with other TV producers, movie studios, publishers and even other game developers to create social games around new or existing media properties. 

Radoff says that aside from himself and Bull, the "nucleus" of Disruptor Beam includes a programmer and game designer. It's mainly a virtual team at this point, though they do spend some time in the downtown Boston offices of Hangout Industries, which offers free office space to a handful of start-ups. Radoff tells me the company is currently hiring for user experience designers, illustrators, and graphic designers.

You'll be able to see Radoff at next month's "Business in Gaming" conference at MIT, which includes a panel on social gaming.

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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