Getting 'anti-social' on Facebook with Game of Thrones: Ascent

The massive Game of Thrones universe is coming to Facebook, and narrative designer Jonathon Myers talks to Gamasutra about the unique challenge of leading storytelling in a complex, detailed world.
After a legacy of fantasy novels and a successful ongoing HBO television series, Game of Thrones is coming to Facebook. Bringing author George R. R. Martin's fantasy universe to the massive Facebook gaming space is partially a natural fit -- the world of faction loyalty, subversive social politics and shifting loyalties lends itself to social media. Yet it's a big challenge, too and one Boston-based startup is tasked with the job. Boston-based Disruptor Beam was recently founded with the goal of bringing story-driven worlds to the social games space. It's the brainchild of serial entrepreneur Jon Radoff, who most recently founded GamerDNA, but started off in the online space with 1992's NovaLink, which distributed Legends of Future Past across the CompuServe network. Now Radoff helms a company that's developed its own proprietary HTML5 engine oriented toward social gaming; Disruptor Beam is funded by early-stage venture capital and backers including Harmonix's founders. Narrative designer Jonathon Myers takes the lead on shaping the essential story environment for Game of Thrones: Ascent on Facebook, and works with a team of writers and designers reporting directly to Radoff and lead designer Tim Crosby. Myers worked on Indiana Jones Adventure World and Owlchemy Labs' Jack Lumber before finding a home at Disruptor Beam, who was looking for someone with experience on a live story-driven game. Currently, Game of Thrones: Ascent has five contract writers who collaborate remotely on a daily basis, Myers explains, with planning and tracking quintessential to the process. "Tim and I have together developed a pipeline for quest writing that includes spreadsheet tools for the writers that enable quick output and revision before a smooth export into the game," Myers explains of the process. "It's like a truncated RPG toolset with a focus on preparation for fast release to the build environment." Myers says that when it comes to Game of Thrones: Ascent, the investment toward story in the social game is massive -- and in his opinion, remarkable for the Facebook space. Fans of Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series must maintain an incredible attention to detail to keep up with the author's detailed universe, and that requires a lot of work on the part of the narrative staff -- which includes former writers from BioWare's Star Wars: The Old Republic, former staff of 38 Studios and Zenimax, as well as one of the writers from Green Ronin's Game of Thrones pen and paper RPG. game of thrones 1.jpgMyers' first assignment on the project was to determine first steps when it comes to adapting a fervent fanbase and an obsessively-detailed universe for the world of Facebook gaming: "I was tasked with setting out how we could translate the experience of the books, tv show and universe into an interactive narrative experience," says Myers. "The first step was fully immersing myself in the material and taking notes on the primary experience so that moving on from it into the interactive would result in authenticity, which is a major design principle," he says. "The huge web of characters is a space in which you can get lost, and spending even a little time on the wiki will prove that. All characters are surrounded by family, friends and enemies who all want to tug at or push each other in the pursuit of power." Characters in the series are frequently confronted with difficult moral and ethical decisions that define them as characters, he points out. "Once I realized that is what it's like for a character to live in Westeros and play the Game of Thrones, it was clear we needed to offer that exact experience as authentically as possible while also allowing players to experience the people, places and events of the Ice and Fire universe they love," says Myers. "The dense lore is the universe, and it's available as a space in which characters (playable and non-playable) can live." When it comes to the Facebook space, the team hopes to leverage the series' existing environment of social conflict -- which Myers believes comes to bear especially in today's age of political conflict in the Western world, where many people turn to Facebook to state their positions. "Take away the cat videos, up the stakes to life or death, displace those interactions into a medieval setting and you've got the roots of Westeros," he says. "In our game, we're offering a chance to step into a role and play out those alliances and social conflicts in a story and character-driven environment that is ready-made for it," he adds. "We've claimed that we're actually an 'anti-social game', and players will be able to backstab each other to their heart's content," he adds. A goal for his team is to deliver on letting audiences experience the primary themes of "power and obligation." There are some clear traits about the series that lend themselves to social games: Loyal readers and passionate fans getting to pick distinct families to represent within a complex ecosystem. Yet how will the team ensure the more subtle elements stay intact? "Pledging fealty as a bannerman to a Great House is the core decision any player will first make in our game," Myers says. The world of the books employs a number of different narrative perspective, with events seen through the eyes of various individuals with different roles to play, different cultures and customs, and different concepts of stakes. "In the same way, we're putting the player into a role and we give them a perspective on the world. That perspective is most defined by the Great House to which they are sworn," Myers says. "It determines the region in which the player exists. It determines how a player will experience narrative events." Myers says it's important for the team of writers and designers to take these varying perspectives and allegiances into account. "We break down our writing plans with that in mind and at times different writers are tasked with handling particular perspectives," he says. The series' underlying themes often heavily involve violence and sexuality, yet Facebook gaming is generally considered an all-ages space. Yet the team doesn't want to compromise: "We're not looking at this as something for all-ages," Myers says. "The Facebook population is diverse, and we want that diverse audience playing the game, but staying true to the source is of the utmost importance." "We adhere to a notion that a graphic description is often not as powerful as the imagery created in the mind of the reader when left to wander," he continues. "We fully embrace the world and within a few minutes of play you're involved in the themes you mention. We don't shy away, but we do take extra steps to handle things with maturity. We vet it with peer reviews if something is risque. It's also important that we provide the option for players to avoid doing unsavory things as a character. Moral decisions provide different options and outcomes so the player can experience these situations in a way they feel most comfortable." game of thrones 2.jpgThe social intrigue already provides some ready-made mechanics for players, but crafting an over-arching narrative that unites all of that is its own interesting challenge. Fortunately, the narrative team is able to craft a world of original NPCs with their own points of view, roles and status. "Once the stage is set, and the player is cast in the role of noble, there's nowhere to go but up" Myers says. "If you were a newly minted noble under a great house, wouldn't you see it as the time to jockey for a higher position? But if others have the same idea as you, it can get ugly... So yes, there is an original story thread that that is consistent with the universe and actually works parallel to known canon events. I can't say much more than that at this point." Myers admits that it was at first "terrifying" to deal with Game of Thrones' passionate fanbase and the intimidating volume of lore associated with the A Song of Ice and Fire universe. But with the full blessings of HBO and the author, the team began to gain the confidence to move forward and get creative. "Having a very talented team that works together and has extensive knowledge of the universe helps. We all have a sense that we're onto something special and unique here. We're driven to take this opportunity and make something of it," says Myers. "We definitely feel the weight of responsibility to the fans, but we're all huge fans ourselves so this weight is more like an accepted challenge than a burden." The team has a community manager dealing with the outward-facing efforts, and the narrative team will continue to work with that person going forward: "I really believe community management is a key to building a live social game as a service, in particular with narrative content," he says. "In past projects I found community was crucial to the assessment of releases in connection with the typical empirical data." As a writer, Myers says one of the biggest challenges becomes wanting to do too much with too little time, given the project's rapid development schedule and having to delegate. "On the other hand, what's most gratifying is seeing content come in from our talented writers through a system and style that Tim and I developed from scratch while observing how RPG writing could be channeled into a social game," he says. "We're taking a lot of risks, and after many moments of doubt I now love to see all the content fill up the game as planned. Seeing a tester's reaction and receiving positive feedback about our authenticity is also a great thing." It's hard to be open about the process of working with such an enormous licensor, and specifics are often kept private -- "I'll say that it's been wonderful," Myers says. CEO Radoff has liased with author Martin himself, and HBO is "likewise very supportive," in Myers' words, "releasing information about our game and art through their own channels." "Working with a strong IP on a social game is great because you have a wide audience ready to inhabit a world they already know," he adds. "The basic worldbuilding is complete, if you just work with what's there."

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