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2023 started off on the wrong foot for Wizards of the Coast, with the company cancelling a slate of games and confirming layoffs in the first week of the year.
The company's year has trended dramatically upward since then.
The Hasbro subsidiary has seen Baldur's Gate 3 launch to a rapturous critical reception, while its partnership with Scopely for Monopoly Go resulted in a rare new game entering the top of the mobile charts, out-performing games like Roblox and Candy Crush Saga in US consumer spending in July.
Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz, Wizards of the Coast and Hasbro Gaming president Cynthia Williams and Hasbro digital games group's head of digital games Tim Fields are clearly pleased with recent developments.
We ask if Baldur's Gate 3 has been commercially successful in measure with its critical plaudits, and Williams essentially answers in the affirmative.
"We're very pleased with how it's performing, and Larian is very pleased with how it's performing," Williams says. "There are a lot of definitions of 'commercially successful,' but everyone's very happy now because our fans are happy."
Baldur's Gate 3 in particular has been the subject of a lot of conversation about setting the bar for what people might expect from other AAA RPGs, even though the conditions that led to the game – a big budget with a large independent studio and multiple years of full-priced Early Access release – are not exactly common.
"It is those who are the best in the world at the types of games they make that we are excited to partner with"Tim Fields
"Larian Studios is a terrific partner for Wizards of the Coast because they are among the best in the business at building deep RPGs and CRPGs in particular," Fields says. "Their history as a studio is terrific, and the amount of love they have put into the products they've built and to building out a really faithful and deep incarnation of the Dungeons & Dragons ruleset and world is amazing. We love working with people like Larian.
"Whether a company is publicly traded or privately held, it is those who are the best in the world at the types of games they make that we are excited to partner with. You see it with Larian and Baldur's Gate 3. You see it with Scopely on Monopoly Go, and a bunch of our other partners as well. Those are the types of folks we're always going to be excited about working with, and we're eager to visit with."
That is a talking point Fields and Williams return to throughout our discussion.
"We are very interested in talking to other partners who have a great idea for a game they think people will love that they think would benefit from also representing one of our many beloved brands across Hasbro," Williams says. "Come talk to us, we'd love to hear what your ideas are."
We ask if that emphasis on working with the best external studios in the world suggests the company is taking a quality over quantity approach to its digital gaming efforts.
"Very much so," Fields says. "We know there are a phenomenal number of games and other ways that players around the world can spend their time. We also know that by creating the best games in the world, we can engage far more of those players and delight them in a much better way than we could with a shotgun approach. So we remain committed to making sure that the games we build and the teams we partner with are delivering products of the highest possible quality. That's what we always strive for."
Thinking back on previous eras where platforms seemed overrun with less-acclaimed Dungeons & Dragons and Hasbro brands, we ask if that's been a deliberate change in strategy for the company. They demur, with Williams noting her and Fields only joined the company about a year and a half ago.
"We don't necessarily have a limiter on it that says 'there's only one [game per brand]' but we do focus on the quality of that experience..."Cynthia Williams
Williams is also clear that the company isn't entirely averse to having multiple games based on a single property in the market, saying "some IPs and brands lend themselves to more varied expression of the brand."
She points to Monopoly as an example. While Monopoly Go is the big thing of the moment, people should still expect to see the brand appear in other video games and even casino games.
"We think about it as 'Who are the fans of the IP and what are they looking for from that brand? How do they want to engage with it?' If that leads towards fewer games but we're meeting the needs of our fans, we're okay with that," Williams says. "And we don't necessarily have a limiter on it that says 'there's only one [game per brand]' but we do focus on the quality of that experience so we're delighting the fans of that brand."
While the company's success this year is being led by external projects, Wizards of the Coast has built out a North American studio system including Austin-based Archetype and Skeleton Key, North Carolina's Atomic Arcade, Invoke Studios (formerly Tuque Games) in Montreal, and two more studios in the company's home state of Washington.
Fields suggests the company's split approach of making some games itself and working with external partners on others will continue.
"The diversity of gamers is so huge at this point – geographically, from a platform standpoint, the types of genre they enjoy – that getting great at building terrific experiences for all of those different elements of the portfolio is a huge undertaking, and very challenging for any single company to master," he explains. "But by combining an internal approach for those types of games that are best suited for first-party internal development with the types of partnerships like Larian and Scopely, we feel it gives us the best opportunity to bring these wonderful brands in different gaming expressions to players in all the different parts of the gaming ecosystem.
"The challenge for us becomes just determining of all the many games we'd love to bring to life, which ones are we uniquely positioned to build and operate, and which ones are we best-served to find partners who are amazing at that sort of thing?"
As for what gets made internally, we know Invoke is working on a Dungeons & Dragons game while Atomic Arcade has been making a AAA title focused on the G.I. Joe character Snake Eyes. Williams says Wizards of the Coast is also looking into making greater use of the many brands it has access to through parent company Hasbro, among them Transformers.
"Certainly we have a lot of fun talking about how you might do some integration between Transformers and G.I. Joe after that little cameo at the end of the Transformers: Rise of Beasts movie," Williams says. "I think you'll see us do more of that. But then again, we have some great partners who are doing that as well; Splash Damage is working on a Transformers game for us now, and you'll see more Hasbro games coming out.
"In my mind, we're early in the lifecycle of building out a robust first-party digital gaming experience."
It's not all about established IP. Williams says in addition to Snake Eyes and two Dungeons & Dragons games, Wizards of the Coast also has one original IP in the works at Archetype: a multiplatform sci-fi RPG. And while it's beginning life as a gaming IP, the company has plenty of expertise to extend it beyond digital entertainment.
"We see a way we can bring that to life and to fans not only through the game, but through role-playing adventures associated with it, and folks on the Hasbro side are seeing you've got some folks pretty excited about some cross-expressions," Williams says. "There's fully a possibility of licensed consumer products with it, you could end up seeing things happen on the toy side with it.
"But the main thing is this is a creator who is so passionate about the game and doing a phenomenal job of bringing it to life. We're not going to do lots of original IP, but when a great idea comes to you, you have to consider it."
The mobile side of the business and the launch success of Monopoly Go is particularly interesting given that established mobile company like Playtika recently halted work on new games, saying user acquisition costs had gotten too high to make it an attractive business.
Williams says Monopoly Go benefitted on that front by having the brand recognition of Monopoly.
"In our conversations with folks at GDC and other parts of the industry, we're seeing that having terrific, beloved, well-known IP associated with your game is helping on the user-acquisition front and the cost of that," she says. "I think we're starting to see people who might have traditionally not been as concerned about having an IP attached to their game start conversations about some of our brands, given the lift that can give to a game and helping with that user acquisition challenge."
So does that give brand-holders more leverage in talking with potential mobile partners?
"I don't know if I'd use the word leverage," Williams says. "I do think where there's a good fit between the brand and the fanbase and who the game developer is trying to reach, there's a lot of positive momentum that can come from that for both the brand and the developer."
And even if global game revenues declined last year (and mobile is expected to be down slightly this year as well), Wizards of the Coast is broadly optimistic about the market.
"There are just over three billion gamers in the world today," Fields says. "By 2040, we should expect there to be significantly more than four billion people who play games on a monthly basis. This will lead to an expansion of all these markets. The mobile market, while it may have slowed slightly post-pandemic, is continuing to grow. The PC market is continuing to grow. And our partners at Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft are continuing to expand what's possible on a console. At the same time, we should expect to see other devices, smart TVs and so on, continue to bring more ways of playing more games to gamers across the world.
"So at Wizards of the Coast and Hasbro, we're really excited about what we see as several more decades of growth across all sectors of the gaming business. And what we're deeply committed to is helping to bring terrific games to players regardless of what brand they love, what genre they love, where they are in the world, and what platform they love playing."
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