Well before the first episode aired on HBO late last month, members of Boston-based developer Disruptor Beam had already seen a little over half of season three of Game of Thrones. They flew down to New York City and sat within a well-guarded theater, taking in the aftermath of the Battle of Blackwater and catching up on the progress of the encroaching winter. They know what's happening next week, and the week after, and they're using that knowledge to create the freshest interactive TV show tie-in ever made.
Game of Thrones: Ascent, free to play on Facebook and now Kongregate, captures the spirit of George R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" series by focusing on the most important elements — politics and the intrigue. You're a young lord, establishing your position in society using your cunning, wealth and force of arms. It's about creating alliances, forging relationships and choosing the right time to burn those bonds to the ground for the sake of power. It's text and 2D art, sending minions on missions, building your territory and harvesting resources to better outfit your agents.
There is no gratuitous nudity or excessive gore — these are things HBO puts in the show to keep it interesting for folks that don't get it. Disrupter Beam founder and CEO Jon Radoff gets it.
"I read A Game of Thrones ten years ago and fell in love with it, well before the HBO series had ever come along," Radoff told me during an interview last week. "I managed to form a relationship with George R.R. Martin, and he loved the idea of a game that would bring the politics and diplomacy of the Game of Thrones world to life in an online game. We were working with him on a game design for this even before the first season of the HBO series came out.
"This was a game that we were going to build one way or another."
The success of the HBO series was an unexpected bonus for Disrupter Beam team. Suddenly the game they were creating had a built-in fan base numbering in the millions, and publisher concerns over the viability of a Facebook game that was more than mindless clicking were no longer an issue.
"We thought what could be neat about Facebook," said Radoff, "is the idea taking that social graph you've got there and using it as a way to promote new types of gameplay around diplomacy and politics and social storytelling."
Despite the game's popular television tie-in and unparalleled depth and complexity (or perhaps because of it), some players just won't play a game on Facebook. So now it's on Kongregate, and one day it could make it to mobile platforms. Radoff wants Ascent to be available on every platform possible, so players everywhere can play with brand-new content every morning after new episodes air.
"We kick out roughly three to four dozen quests a week, along with a handful of new items pertaining to the episode and some nice background art," said Game of Thrones: Ascent live producer Rich Gallup, who joined Radoff on the call.
The day after last week's episode, "Walk of Punishment", aired, Royal Ledgers, a Valuable Prisoner, Wolf-Shaped Bread, and a blade called Chopper were new items available in the in-game store. The update also introduced dozens of new quests, weaving the players' characters into current Game of Thrones events.
This up-to-date content is all thanks to the brave sacrifice of lead designer Tim Crosby and lead narrative designer Jessica Sliwinski, who flew to New York to watch the show before anyone else did.
"HBO’s not gonna be like ‘Okay, here’s a YouTube link, just keep it private’ or ‘sure, here’s some DVD’s, rip them and spread them across your team.’ We consumed a little more than half the season in one go," said Gallup.
Based on the notes taken by that pair of designers, the team writes up quests, creates items and fresh artwork, packages it all up and sends it off to HBO for approval. Having already created a ton of content covering the first two seasons of the show, it's a relatively quick and painless process.
“Because of the great practice we had with creating over 1,000 quests for season one and the weekly drops we did for season two once the game went, we have a really nice cadence and have a really strong bond of trust between us and HBO," Gallup explained. "We know what they’re looking for, they know what we’re trying to do. Now it’s really just slight nudges on any push.”
It's pretty damn impressive, when you think about it. A television show airs Sunday night. On Monday morning there's a video game to play that includes content from the show you just watched. SyFy and Trion Worlds are attempting to do something similar with Defiance, but Game of Thrones: Ascent's text-based, 2D art construction makes the implementation infinitely more viable.
As Gallup put it, “The immediacy with which we can provide our players with new content that ties into the show, it’s the stuff from the future from when we were kids. I watch it on Sunday, I play it on Monday.”
As I write this, patch notes for this morning's update have just gone live. Another several dozen quests have been added, plus players can now equip their noble and Sworn Sword retainers with the weapons of the Unsullied, the slave warriors of Astapor.
There are two seasons and four episodes of content awaiting new players in Game of Thrones: Ascent. Next week there'll be more. You've got some catching up to do.