Jon Radoff, creator of “Space Empire Elite” and “Final Frontier”

Jon Radoff is an internet entrepreneur whose career has gone from dial-up to “Beam me up.”

Jon Radoff Headshot

Radoff broke into the gaming business as a teen, writing the BBS door games Space Empire Elite and Final Frontier for the Atari ST in the late 1980s. He built one of the original commercial games on the internet, and founded several gaming and net-related companies since then.

These days he’s the CEO of Disruptor Beam. The company’s latest game, Star Trek Timelines was released for Android and iOS on Jan. 16.

Space Empire Elite is probably the first BBS door game I played as a kid. Did you ever play? Share your memories in the comments. Want to try these old games today? I’ve included links to BBSes at the end.

This interview was conducted by Skype on Jan. 29. It has been edited for length and clarity.

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I gather that you’re a fan of science fiction and fantasy. You ran a BBS called Middle Earth and you created a BBS door game called Final Frontier. Were you a big fan of Star Trek and Lord of the Rings in particular growing up?

Yeah, I’ve read that stuff from as far back as I can remember. Of course Star Trek, the original series, was on the TV all the time when I was a kid. My father was a big fan, and I must have watched all the original series shows about five times. Star Trek: The Next Generation came out when I was teenager, which is about the same time as I wrote the game Final Frontier. Of course, that phrase was inspired by the opening words of Star Trek.

In middle school, I tried to put together a play-by-mail RPG Star Trek club with some friends. We set it in an alternate universe so that we could re-shuffle the aliens and the alliances. Our club ultimately fizzled. But your new game, Star Trek Timelines really brought that idea to life for me. Thanks to a temporal anomaly, players can interact with almost any character from any Star Trek series. How did you guys at Disruptor Beam settle on that premise once you decided you wanted to make a Star Trek game?

The thinking behind it goes back to the fantasy that many Star Trek fans have had. You’ve got an enormous number of episodes and a huge number of characters to draw upon, and it’s that idea of putting together your dream team crew from characters across all the different eras. Some people have compared it to something like fantasy football, but in space, with ray guns.

The other element beyond that is that Star Trek is a universe where, yes, combat and violence tends to play a factor. But more importantly it’s the clash of different philosophies and ethical issues and science and technology, exploration. All these other themes were part of Star Trek as well. We had to challenge ourselves to create a game system that would allow you to do interesting things with all these different crew combinations, yet at the same time send them off on missions that reflected the types of narratives and stories that Gene Roddenberry had in mind when he envisioned the universe of “Star Trek.”

A screen capture of a ship combat in Star Trek Timelines

A screen capture of a ship combat in Star Trek Timelines

Disruptor Beam produced Game of Thrones Ascent, and now Star Trek Timelines, and both these games are associated with really big properties, huge fan bases. You’ve clearly been thoughtful and careful about the way you’ve approached them. Tell me about how you won over the IP holders once you decided you wanted to make games in these universes.

The core value of Disruptor Beam is authenticity, which manifests in several forms. It’s how we work with each other, how we talk to each other, the transparency we have within the organization. But the way that manifests on the product side is just that we only build products where we’re really in love with the IP and the universe.

I think that authenticity shines through in the products we build, because people see the characters and the themes and the stories are presented there in a way that’s extremely consistent with the vision that was behind the original property.

Take Game of Thrones, for example. While there’s lots of violence in it, it’s not really about the violence so much as it is the politics that lead up to violent outcomes. When we made “Game of Thrones Ascent,” we tried to construct a new type of game system that involved story, interesting decision-making and dialogue in a way that you feel like you’re making the kinds of political decisions that the characters and noble lords within that universe tend to do.

With Star Trek, we went back to the source material and tried to think through what Gene Roddenberry was really thinking about. It comes back to this diversity of themes: the sense of optimism that’s present within Star Trek, and this overriding human hunger to explore. That’s what we want to try to bring to life in the game.

You can find games which provide very compelling combat simulators, and that’s appropriate for certain kinds of universes because it is fundamentally about starships fighting or people fighting each other with swords or light sabers or whatever. In Game of Thrones and Star Trek, to really be authentic to the source material required us to think through not just the combat simulation component, but what is the stuff that makes the story relevant to the characters and forms the emotional connection with the audience? I think that that is really what we’re great at, and something we certainly aspire to do even better and better. We want people to know that when we deliver a game, what they’re going to notice first and foremost is that authenticity of the storytelling brought the game experience.

How long did it take to develop Star Trek Timelines? How big of a team did it take to pull it off?

Star Trek Timelines is about 25 people working on it. It started small with a team of just two or three people, and it grew over time. It’s taken us 18 months to get to the point from really working on it to being able to ship something.

We tried a lot of ideas early on. Some of them looked similar to games that exist already. But every time we tried something that looked very similar to other games — like adventure game mechanics as you might find in a JRPG, or traditional collectible card game mechanics — it wasn’t delivering the authenticity that we really demand in anything we’re going to create.

We came up with this new branching narrative system that was able to utilize crew and skills that were relevant to Star Trek and give you the dilemmas around how to solve certain kinds of problems in classic Star Trek style. Each mission is essentially like a mini episode where you’re encountering many of the same themes and challenges that the crew would have in those situations. Because we have time travel, which is also a very significant theme within Star Trek, you can replay them, try them different ways, figure out the more difficult pathways and combinations that you need to unlock and complete every variation that might be present in a mission.

A screen capture of a character stats page in Star Trek Timelines

A screen capture of a character stats page in Star Trek Timelines

John deLancie reprises his role as “Q” in this game. He narrates and introduces the player to the game. How did you decide to include him? Was it just natural once you decided to go with a time-travel concept? What was it like to work with him?

It was a dream more than anything else. Early in the product we would talk to each other and say stuff like that, “We should make Q play an interesting role within this story.” And we dreamt of being able to get him involved. We didn’t think that he would even be interested, frankly, in working on a game.

We talked to CBS and CBS knows him really well, so they made the introduction and he just fell in love with the idea behind the game. He saw that it was not just an opportunity to bring Q back and relive that character again, but he saw the storytelling in the game, the authenticity. John is very picky about what he wants to work on. That’s again where our authenticity paid off. Had we not had that, if we were just doing any kind of game, he wouldn’t have been interested. It was really only because he saw that this was something fans would be able to connect to that he wanted to be involved with it at all.

I was reading your book Game On, and there’s a point where you talk about social games and about how they reach that need people have for social interaction. I know you are still adding features to Star Trek Timelines, so I wondered what your plans are for player interaction in the game?

That will be the next set of things that we really focus on. We launched the game and wanted to make sure the core game mechanics within the system were all present. But we have a lot of ideas around how we want to improve some of the existing game systems like starship battles, more controls over staffing your ship, upgrading your ship and things like that.

But then also introducing really interesting mechanics for fleets, where you can team up with your friends and work on cooperative and competitive missions within the game. That’s really where we want to bring the game. It’s a game about altering the fate of the entire galaxy through your actions, and ultimately through collective actions with your friends.

If it’s okay with you, I’d like to step through our own little temporal anomaly here and revisit the past. Could you tell me about how you were introduced to computers? What did you enjoy about them?

My father worked at Digital Equipment Corp which was one of the first big mainframe and then minicomputer manufacturers here in Massachusetts. He used to take me in on the weekends and plop me down in the computer lab. I’d be there on a VT-100 terminal connected to a mainframe playing all these text-based, character-based games people made. My first games weren’t very oriented around reading, but I remember there were Space Invaders games; Empire, which was a precursor to a lot of the strategy games we have today; and Dungeon, the original version of Zork I, II, and III all put together, which was a very popular game on the DEC platform.

By the time I was 10 years old, I was a big bulletin board system user. I was playing door games. I was on early PC boards, Commodore 64 boards. I was using a C64 at this point.

I became really interested in making games and also writing bulletin boards. So when I was about 13, I wrote Space Empire Elite, and then at 14 I wrote Final Frontier. Later I wrote a bulletin board system called Paragon for the Amiga computer. But Space Empire and Final Frontier were originally written as a BBS door for the Atari ST computer, primarily for a BBS called FoReM ST.

I have to say that Space Empire Elite was one of the first BBS games that I ever played myself as a kid, and so it’s always had a special place in my heart.

The inspiration for Space Empire was a text-based single-player game I had played on the C64 years earlier called Kingdom, which probably goes all the way back to mainframes, for all I know. It’s a very simple game design. It’s just this looping gameplay where you have soldiers and they need food and you have to pay them and there’s always this turn-by-turn decision to make to balance funding your soldiers versus feeding your peasants. You try to grow your kingdom in light of that. Very, very simple game. I figure a few hundred lines of code.

That sort of simple looping, that tight loop around the resource-based decision that you make, was the inspiration for Space Empire. So I took that as the basic gameplay for Space Empire, and then added to it this multiplayer component. As you continue to grow your empire in space, you can also attack other players, which took it to the next level, which was to make it a social game experience, even though we didn’t use the term “social game.”

When you wrote Space Empire Elite, did you have in mind to sell registrations, or was it something where the game became popular and you realized “I should try to make this a business”?

Both of those games were shareware. They were distributed in a way in which any bulletin board could put it on their BBS for free. But if you had more than a certain number of players playing the game, the sysop of the BBS would have to register. I think I charged something like $15 for Space Empire and $25 for Final Frontier.

Back in those days, bulletin boards would compete to be the best. Having interesting games on them was one of the ways that system operators [could differentiate their BBSes]. Running a BBS was not a commercial enterprise for almost anyone. It was a fun hobby and if you ran one, you wanted to have the best stuff on there. One of the ways you could do that was great games.

Today some of the social games that have been created, for Facebook in particular, are in many ways the exact same game mechanic that were put on bulletin board systems many years ago. Space Empire was a good example of that, because from a strategy standpoint, the strategy was pretty simple. It was just build planets, get more troops, and stuff. What made it interesting was teaming up with other players, forming alliances with them, diplomacy, backstabbing. That made it interesting for people to play.

That was exactly my experience as a kid. As you say, it was a fairly simple mechanic, but when you can team up with people, when you can lie to people, or people lie to you, and you log on one day and find you’ve been destroyed by someone you thought was your friend or whatever. That was the thing that made it really compelling.

(John laughs) Yep!

Tell me a little about Final Frontier. That game strikes me as being along the lines of Trade Wars — more of an exploration, trading game. How did that come about?

It was definitely inspired by Trade Wars. A game about travelling around to different space systems, then colonizing planets and using them to generate resources, then looping that resource development back into upgrades for your ship and the ability to expand your influence over star systems. So, again, pretty tight loop. It was a loop that I really liked in Trade Wars, but I wanted to focus more on exploration and bring it to a new audience, because nobody had been able to play a game like that on Atari ST bulletin board systems.

You were still in school at that point, but were these two games a success commercially in your mind? Did you really make much? Or was it just every once in a while someone would mail in a registration?

Well, I certainly made a significant amount. By today’s standards in gaming, it wouldn’t be considered significant. For a teenager in school, I made far more than any other conceivable employment than even a slightly older teenager could have made. A lot of the money I made from Space Empire and Final Frontier became the seed capital that I use to start NovaLink when I was 19. [That’s where] I created another game called Legends of Future Past which ran 10 years and had a very devoted following behind it.

Back then there were only a few [types of] Atari ST bulletin board systems, and there weren’t great games. So I was able to build some games for them and capture a very significant portion of the FoReM ST bulletin board system market.

I want to revisit what you were saying about the core mechanics of those games. They are very simple, and yet, they are still relevant today. Space Empire Elite strikes me as being similar to Star Trek Timelines in the sense of needing to build up that economy and keep it balanced, the same way that you need to level up your characters in Timelines, and have a balanced team so that you can accomplish those missions. What lessons do you take away from those door games and from “Legends of Future Past” that are relevant to what you’re building now?

I think I increasingly appreciate the emotional connection people form with games. The most effective ways I’ve found to do that are through the way people socialize through the framework of the game, combined with story elements that touch people. So, yeah I think that Space Empire and Final Frontier had a little bit of narrative in it. Of course “Legends of Future Past” really was a game about narrative because it was a live, interactive fiction game that people stuck with for years and years and years.

Those are the two things that I think we’ve continued to accomplish with Game of Thrones and “Star Trek”. First, really interesting social gameplay. Game of Thrones Ascent has been out three years, so it’s further along the development of those social systems. That speaks to the sophistication and depth of the social gameplay that we intend to role out in Star Trek over the next year. But second, really interesting story and characters that people connect to, so that they care about it.

We talked a little bit about the registration system for Space Empire and Final Frontier. My understanding is that Legends of Future Past was different: people paid subscriptions, $6 per hour or something like that?

It was. The price per hour varied depending on how you connected, so $6 per hour was an evening rate for playing it on the CompuServe network. But we were one of the first to offer the game on the internet as well. I forget what the price per hour was on the internet, but I think it was half or less than that.

In the early days, it was mostly college students and people at a few large companies that had internet access. We made the game available on the internet in like 1993. This is right on the cusp of the commercialization of the internet happening. But people were playing it. I think we were the first, or one of the first commercially accessible online games.

What I’m working up to is the notion that most social games now seem to use as in-app purchasing and virtual goods as their primary business model. Having sold games in different eras in different ways, how would you say the business model affects the style or the narrative of the game itself? I imagine Star Trek Timelines would be very different if it used a different model, the same way that Legends of Future Past might not have existed without a subscription model.

The main advantage of free-to-play is that it makes the game something that has sustaining power behind it. If you look at the various business models for games out there, there’s free-to-play with in-app purchases, there’s subscription models, there’s advertising, and then there’s retail purchases where you pay once and then you’re done.

There are issues with those various models.

Retail is very good at delivering a certain experience, one that can often be really, really awesome for a period of time. But then you complete the game, and there’s no further gameplay, and there’s typically no social interaction between players.

To add a level of social interaction between players requires ongoing upkeep of the game, and servers, and also constant evolution of the game through new features and content. So there has to be an ongoing funding model for the game beyond simply that initial retail purchase.

If you look at advertising, subscription, and free-to-play, the variation between those models is that advertising is annoying and actually doesn’t pay that much, so what you’re able to do with it isn’t significant.

The problem with subscription is that it has a very high bar, so to get someone to pay a subscription fee effectively narrows your audience down to a vanishingly small size. The actual ability to turn that business model into funding for a game that could potentially go for years is very low.

Which leads you to free-to-play. The way I look at it is it’s sort of like when I was playing “Dungeons and Dragons” and “Magic: The Gathering” years ago. You start with it free because you’re playing over at your friend’s house. The cards are theirs, their books. And you’re like “Wow, this is really fun, I want to get my own books, my own modules. I’m gonna start buying miniatures, collecting cards.” The way we think of [free-to-play] is that it’s part of a hobbyist lifestyle. It’s about that idea that you’re collecting things and building things and bringing it into your lifestyle in a significant way and it becomes something that supports an ongoing world that you can return to, as opposed to a one-off experience that lasts a few days.

I’ll just ask you one last question. Timelines is all about time travel, and some of the best Star Trek episodes used time travel. Of all the different time travel episodes, what would you say is your favorite?

So I’ll pick one from two different eras. So from the original series, “City on the Edge of Forever” of course is a great one. Terrific storytelling. Harlan Ellison did a great job with the script of that, even though they changed it a lot. Just great idea behind it, and of course it has the Guardian of Forever.

Although we don’t name him specifically, [the Guardian is] kind of an Easter egg for Star Trek fans [in Timelines]. Anyone who is familiar with the episode and has gone and opened a pack from what we call the “time portal,” if you hit the jackpot and get the choice of a rare character as part of opening a pack, you hear this word “Behold!” which is taken right from the “City on the Edge of Forever” episode.

From The Next Generation, there are quite a few great time-travel episodes. The one that came to mind first was “Tapestry,” the episode where you’re not quite sure if it’s time travel or just a dream state that Picard is in. Q sends Picard back in time, like a Ghost of Christmas Past experience, to his days in Starfleet where he can try to not get in some trouble and see how his life would turn out had he not done that. He ends up as an astrophysicist in the alternate time sequence, wearing a blue shirt, and working on the Enterprise in a low-ranking role. We kind of laugh at that here. “Astrophysicist is obviously the worst job in Starfleet” is the message we should take away from that.

Star Trek is always asking a “what if” question, which I think is also a hallmark of great science fiction. “What if there was this technology?” “What if there was this legal or philosophical structure in a society?” It lets you speculate around that. A lot of the time travel episodes aren’t just time travel as a plot device, they’re using time travel to look at the “what if” scenarios.

“Tapestry” is interesting because you get to see Picard in a different form, but also Q as the character who is motivating that whole thing. Star Trek: The Next Generation wasn’t organized around long story arcs like Deep Space Nine was later, it was still very episodic, which was typical of that era of television. What they did do, though, was interesting character development over time. So the Q of “Tapestry” is a much different Q, a wiser Q. Still kind of Loki-esque in his approach to the universe, but much different than what you see in the “Encounter at Farpoint” episode.

Readers: Want to play Space Empire Elite or Final Frontier?

Want to try Jon Radoff’s old BBS games? There are still some Atari ST BBSes online today which host one or both of his games. You will need a telnet client like SyncTerm to connect:

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