Jay-Z's Empire on Facebook: The 'who', 'why' and 'how' [Interview]

Empire on Facebook
Empire on Facebook

Raise your hand if you follow a musician or band on Facebook or Twitter. (If this writer could type one-handed, he'd be right there with all of you.) When you consider that simple exercise, it's not hard to see why acts like the Wu-Tang Clan, Jimmy Buffet and now Jay-Z look to social gaming to capitalize on their rabid fan bases.

But after a refreshingly honest chat with Happy Giant Media--creator of Jay-Z's new Facebook game, Empire--founder (and LucasArts veteran) Michael Levine, it's clear that it's not quite that simple. We sat down with Levine recently to learn just how Empire came to be, what's to come for the branded social game and what this means for the future of Facebook games.

How did this game come to be?

We just said, "You know, if we're going to do this, let's try to do this with the most respected, smartest guy in music." And that's Jay, and if you know anything about Jay, his whole M.O. is don't do it with a big company, do it yourself--more risk, more reward. That pattern has been successful for him, so that way of thinking fell right into it.

Tommy Mottola is a partner in this company, who is former chairman of Sony Music, and he pretty much made the introduction. After lots of meetings to finally get to Jay himself, [we] showed him the idea. He got it instantly. He liked the idea, saw the potential and said, "Let's do it."

Empire Brooklyn
Empire Brooklyn

How did you come up with the idea for following Jay-Z's life, and how closely was Jay involved in the game's creation?

We used to say this at LucasArts--Tim Schafer and Ron Gilbert, I always quote them: Games are aspirational role-playing. Jay-Z, and his "life", has become one of the biggest aspirational stories in the world, from his real life, to his businesses, to his music. And I hear that from my wife reading Glamour magazine.

That idea, getting to walk in his footsteps, make choices that will affect your career in a game mechanic setting and move from real city to real city--this is one of the only Facebook games that I know that features real-life cities from across the planet. And we're going to keep adding cities. We have London and Los Angeles ready to come out soon, and we'll add Tokyo.

You're going to get to go on tour and create these business ventures for yourself and locations that you'll have to collect upon, like a typical Facebook game. We met with [Jay] several times during the process, and we worked very closely with his team, including people from RocaWear and different aspects of his business who gave us imagery and they pushed us on the quality.

They wanted [Empire] to look as good as any Facebook game, if not better. We think we've achieved that. The realism in it is important to him. The second level, Brooklyn, we did early on to sell him on the whole thing, is an exact block-by-block replica of Dekalb and Clinton. You'll start to see things from his life appear in the game, the 40/40 Club he has now, the Barkley Center that's being built. To start incorporating aspects of that into the game is the plan.


Why go with this style of social game to target hip hop fans?

We've been working on this for a good nine-plus months. This was way before CityVille came out. In the planning stages, this was about the time that Crime City emerged. That was one of the original inspirations, to be honest. That was one of the first games that used graphical characters and environments, which we had been doing all along.

Given that this game was really a mix of business tycoon plus music, mini games--the dice game, Cee-lo, against your actual Facebook friends--you can have rap battles, we saw what was working in a lot of the Facebook games. Very quick interactions you would see in maybe Mafia Wars, but with a graphics, music and a kind of hip hop vibe to them.

We wanted [Empire] to be realistic and give you a feel for these different environments that Jay experienced throughout his career. And not only is it the big, glitzy cities ... we've got Virginia Beach in there. Not to take anything away from Virginia Beach, but we're going to have other cities that Jay went to and were important to his career.

Empire Beach
Empire Beach

What do you make of the hip hop trend in Facebook games?

I would say it's bigger than hip hop, though, because you've got the Margaritaville game and the Grateful Dead game that just came out as well. I think it's bigger than that. Who are the people, the human beings, that have the biggest following Facebook, Twitter, any social network out there?

They're not actors. They're all musicians. From Eminem to Rhianna to Shakira to Jay, there's no one more followed as much as musicians. This is interesting in an era when the music industry is having such a problem, the power of music is clearly still super powerful. The bond that these artists have with their fans is bigger than any Hollywood actor out there.

As other industries are crumbling and having problems, new ones emerge and you have to stay ahead of the curve. I think that's part of what he saw here too.

Are you digging Empire on Facebook at the moment? What musician do you hope releases a Facebook game next? Sound off in the comments. Add Comment.