The popularity of Dungeons & Dragons is unlikely to be news to members of the games industry.
Aside from the fact that it's hard keeping track of how many games professionals play it regularly themselves, there's a natural crossover between the audiences of tabletop RPGs and video games.
And the popularity of D&D is not waning. More than 50 million people played in 2020, according to an infographic the game's publisher Wizards of the Coast released back in April -- a 33% increase on an already record-setting 2019, and the seventh consecutive year of growth.
Naturally, Wizards of the Coast is keen to grow this further, and the realm of video games is a particularly promising opportunity. In fact, president Chris Cocks tells us that video games are now "core to our brand blueprint and how we plan to expand our audience."
"As big and robust as tabletop gaming is, video games are bigger still," he says. "Around 60 million people shop in hobby stores around the world primarily purchasing strategy, role playing and collectible games like Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons. 600 million people globally play those same genres on consoles, PCs and phones, so the potential is enormous."
Not that either Dungeons & Dragons or Magic: The Gathering are strangers to video games, of course. Looking at D&D alone, Cocks says the licence has been used on more than 100 video games in the past 47 years, with classic examples include Eye of the Beholder, Baldur's Gate, and Neverwinter Nights.
"Among video game fans, D&D enjoys brand awareness equivalent or superior to huge names in the space, games like Elder Scrolls, Warcraft and The Witcher," he says. "And when we poll our fans, video games are by far the number one request for how we can extend the brand. So, we see video games as core to the future of D&D."
Just looking at the next five years, Cocks says fans should expect "at least six new D&D video games," starting with next week's co-op brawler Dark Alliance and the upcoming Baldur's Gate 3 from Larian Studios, which is currently in Early Access.
"Video games are by far the number one request for how we can extend the brand. We see them as core to the future of D&D"
"Beyond that, expect us to continue to push the envelope on AAA role-playing, exciting co-op themes and even role-play/strategy hybrids," he adds.
Unlike properties from other entertainment forms, there are unique challenges in bringing the world of Dungeons & Dragons to gamers. While video games introduce a new element of interactivity to film and TV IP, D&D is already an interactive experience -- arguably more so than games are. Tabletop players are not limited to the often binary choices defined by the developers, and the only graphical limitations are your imagination.
Dungeons & Dragons is all about agency and adventuring with your friends, all of whom bring their own unpredictability to the table. Even the roles you can play are more malleable, with characters as much defined by your personality as the abilities you choose to invest in. This breadth and depth of D&D is something Cocks is keen to explore in future games, noting that some titles can focus on a specific aspect of the experience.
Next week's Dark Alliance, for example, plus players in the role of canonical heroes from the lore of D&D -- most notably, the drow Drizzt Do'Urden of R.A. Salvatore's popular Icewind Dale novels. The game centres around real-time combat against waves of enemies in a way that Cocks says is meant to "bring to life the moment in a campaign where a DM says 'Now, roll initiative!'."
Baldur's Gate 3, on the other hand, is more about the setting -- the southern regions of the Sword Coast -- as well as giving players more options in how they interact with the environment and talk their way out of tricky situations. Even the turn-based combat system is designed to be reminiscent of tabletop sessions.
"Each game we will bring to market will explore a different, exciting adventure and set of gameplay themes in this diverse universe," says Cocks. "In one game you might run a thieves guild and traverse the Thieves Highway of Waterdeep, in another you might marshal dragon hosts in the war-torn world of Krynn. In still another, you might explore the very origins of the D&D universe in real-time combat. The brand's richness is an enabler of tons of amazing game experiences so rather than a challenge, we see it as an amazing opportunity."
Wizards of the Coast can also afford to take a few more risks when it comes to reaching new audiences. Case in point, Dark Alliance will be available on Xbox Game Pass when it launches on Tuesday.
"The nature of video games makes D&D naturally far more accessible for even those not familiar with the rules and arcana"
"We are fortunate in that we are a very healthy company financially," Cocks explains. "It allows us to play the long game as we think about new game initiatives and our portfolio. Xbox is a fantastic partner -- I actually started at Microsoft in games and the Xbox Division specifically -- and Game Pass allows us to scale a new game IP very quickly to a massive audience."
Video games present another opportunity when it comes to expanding D&D's audience: making the game more accessible. To newcomers, the prospect of complex character sheets, dice rolling to check against specific stats, and learning the rules behind an entire fantasy universe can be a little daunting. Cocks emphasises that the 5th Edition ruleset, adopted back in 2014, is more about "pushing the rules to the background and [bringing] the exploration, table-talk and player inventiveness to the fore" -- but does acknowledge that video games extend this by handling all the "maths" in the back end.
"All the player needs to do is make a decision about what they would like to do in a given situation," he says. "If I want to sweet-talk my way past a city guard, the back end does the heavy lifting and all I have to do is decide what to say. If I want to sneak past an Orc boss, I just press my gameplay stick softly and the game will complete the physics in the back end. The nature of video games makes D&D naturally far more accessible for even those not familiar with the rules and arcana."
Even the games media have been picking up on the crossover between video and tabletop games, with personality-led teams sharing their D&D sessions online as a further way to engage with their audience. Is this a gateway for gamers to get into the RPG, or is it simply a consequence of how popular it has become?
"It's a bit of both," Cocks says. "5th Edition was a huge enabler of D&Ds growth. It made all the right moves to make easing into a fun play session fast and accessible for seasoned and new players alike, particularly with its emphasis on character and storytelling. Couple that with the rise of streaming platforms and user-generated video as a dominant form of entertainment media, and that was a potent one-two punch to explode the game's popularity.
"At the end of the day, games press are games fans. When you offer a great game, they naturally want to play and cover it, and when you add onto that really strong growth, a rapidly expanding fanbase, and a lot of tailwinds fueling that growth, you get to a virtuous cycle pretty quickly."
Wizards of the Coast's attention is currently on the upcoming launch of Dark Alliance, so it's unclear when we'll know more about future Dungeons & Dragons video games. But it is clear that variety will be key to its efforts. The bulk of previous D&D games have been RPGs like Baldur's Gate, but in this upcoming action title, the company hopes to show just how flexible the licence can be.
"We don't feel like we need to boil that ocean with every single game experience," says Cocks. "Instead, the depth and breadth of D&D allows us to explore a wide variety of play experiences backed by awesome lore, amazing monsters and characters, iconic stories and a gameplay system that invented the genre and still maintains the gold standard for it today."