Talking Video Games With Disruptor Beam CEO Jon Radoff
Disruptor Beam CEO Jon Radoff has been in the business of tech—and especially video games—for a very long time. He is a serial entrepreneur who started a company that eventually went public (Eprise), and in 2006, Radoff founded GamerDNA, a social community that eventually pivoted into an advertising network.
His latest company is Disruptor Beam, a game company dedicated to creating mobile and social games with high-quality, captivating storytelling. The Framingham-based company has released games based on several popular franchises, including Star Trek, The Walking Dead, and Game of Thrones.
I had the chance to ask Radoff about a number of topics, including his storied career, the local video game development scene, and more. If you’re interested in learning more about Massachusetts’ video game industry, check out our recent deep dive.
Alex Culafi (AC): To start, I’d love to hear a bit about the story of Disruptor Beam, and how it was founded.
John Radoff (JR): We founded the company in 2010 with a pretty ambitious goal: to bring deep storytelling and immersive game experiences to emerging platforms, all surrounding popular worlds like Game of Thrones and Star Trek. After seeing what some other companies like BioWare, as one example, had done with both storytelling and licenses for console, we knew there was a great opportunity to bring these types of deep game experiences to platforms like Facebook, but also mobile. We envisioned the mobile market growing more sophisticated over time, and ultimately were excited by the idea that these rapidly evolving smart devices can become a conduit for emotion and storytelling.
To provide a bit more history, back in 2010 and 2011, Facebook games were limited to mostly shallow gameplay where you found yourself just doing a lot of clicking of the mouse, with no deep meaning to keep you coming back to the world. We wanted to change that! And we knew exactly the license to start with for this type of game and platform: Game of Thrones. It offered robust storylines and characters, along with political intrigue, backstabbing and betrothals, and had an existing fan base with the to-be-aired new HBO TV series and existing popularity of George R.R. Martin’s novels. Game of Thrones Ascent launched on Facebook in 2013, followed by launches on iOS and Android as well.
It's been quite the adventure! We now also have both Star Trek Timelines and The Walking Dead: March to War under our belts, both featuring the same storytelling and immersiveness we first set out to integrate into all of our games.
AC: How did you get into game development?
JR: Well, I’ve been personally interested in games and the technology behind games since I was just a boy, when my father first introduced me to computers. I developed my first game, Space Empire Elite, a bulletin board system strategy game for Atari ST BBS systems, in high school, which then led me to developing a second game as a teen.
After high school, I spent some time at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, which furthered me down the path of pursuing it as a career. At that time, I met Angela Bull in an online game, a woman that would become my business partner and, eventually, wife. We knew we could build something better than the games we were playing. So, I ended up leaving WPI to start NovaLink with Angela. NovaLink was an online game publisher that created the game Legends of Future Past.
AC: Why did you choose Boston? Why have you stayed?
JR: There is an amazing network of talent here due to the large amount of colleges and universities in the area with game development concentrations. In addition to developers, there is also a rich pool of software engineering and data science talent here—key areas of focus for us at Disruptor Beam. This is how we’ve been able grow our team largely from local talent. Even in the cases where people have relocated to Boston to work for us, Massachusetts has so much to offer—amazing schools, hospitals, recreation, and so on. I’ve also lived in Massachusetts my whole life—it's a great place to live and work.
AC: How would you characterize the Boston game development scene as it has evolved over your career?
JR: When I was at WPI, there were very few schools that offered courses and majors dedicated to game development in the New England area. MIT and WPI were among just a few. That has changed dramatically with schools like Northeastern, Emerson and Becker College all providing programs now. That growth among schools has contributed to a robust, local game industry community. But, it isn’t just strictly games. There’s also always been a strong industry around the Internet and “online” here—this dates back to my days with NovaLink, as well as with the founding of online game companies like Turbine and GSN. And, the Internet itself was actually invented in Cambridge! The depth of experience and innovation in the area is truly amazing.
AC: What would you say the strengths and weaknesses of the scene are?
JR: If you are in the game industry or looking to break into the game industry, you can pretty much find an event in the Boston area every single week to attend to learn more or connect with others. That is definitely a strength—there are numerous platforms for people to engage with and connect with like-minded individuals.
If there is one weakness, I’d say that there aren’t a lot of examples of companies that have been scaled out successfully here in the state. Massachusetts has been great at starting and innovating in games, but there aren’t as many examples of huge game organizations in the area. That said, you don’t actually need to be huge to be successful! There are billion-dollar mobile games, for example, being built with 100-ish person teams.
AC: How would you compare the experience of being a game dev in Boston today vs that of several years ago?
JR: Well, there are certainly different and greatly improved tools available to developers now versus a number of years ago. But, the biggest differences have had to do with the size of the market. The audience for games of all types has grown significantly, which means that game creators like us can appeal to a much more diverse set of tastes.
I’d also say that the backgrounds required of talent in the games business has expanded. It really isn’t just the designers and developers anymore. The game development process today draws on a huge variety of technical skill sets, including everything from advanced technical graphics production to data science and high-performance server operations.
AC: What are your favorite games?
JR: I’ve had so many favorite games over the years, but I’ll mention those that I’m enjoying most right now. Aside from Disruptor Beam’s games, of course, I’ve been spending a ton of time playing Darkest Dungeon and Stellaris on my Mac. On PS4, I’ve been playing Monster Hunter World and Star Wars Battlefront II. On Switch? Zelda! For my iPhone and iPad, I’ve been getting into Fortnite. I also tend to spend a lot of time trying competitors’ games in the character-collection and war game genres as well.