Chasing Innovation Inside the Company Behind D&D, Magic and Avalon Hill

New games, movies, TV, comics, you name it, Wizards of the Coast is doing it

Magic: The Gathering Credit: Wizards of the Coast

Dungeons & Dragons, Axis & Allies, Magic: The Gathering, Duel Masters and, soon, Transformers: Chances are that if you’ve played a board game, a card game, a tabletop game, you’ve played a Wizards of the Coast game. With a 27 year history of success under its belt and a back-library that spans nearly 50 years, Wizards of the Coast is in many ways the face of tabletop gaming.

But company president Chris Cocks tells Glixel that to stay that way, they need to shake loose from some of the trepidation that comes with such successes and continue to chase risky ventures, push changes despite the reluctance of long-time fans and invest in new ideas. With nearly two years at the company, Cocks seems to be already having an impact.

There are a half-dozen video games in development for Magic the Gathering, and the company is looking into continuing the expansion of those property into movies, comics and books. Dungeons & Dragons is undergoing a renaissance of sorts, with interest stripping stores of content faster than the company can create it and Wizards is weighing the possibility of TV series, movie deals and has in development a slate of video games that will hit double digits by 2020. Avalon Hill, the tabletop games of which seemed to nearly disappear under Hasbro, is seeing new games and new takes on old classics, some of which may soon be heading to tablets. And Wizards of the Coast is digging deeper into its parent company’s properties. Next fall, Wizards of the Coast will be releasing a new Transformers trading card game.

All of this comes from a new approach to handling the company’s big, tentpole properties, which Cocks adopted shortly after taking on the role of president in 2016.

Castles and Boats
While a life-long fan of Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering, Cocks came to Wizards of the Coast through video games. Before joining the company, he spent eight years with Microsoft working in product management and marketing with Xbox on franchises like Halo and Fable. Before that, he was at Leapfrog as vice president of educational games. But he says he got into the gaming business because of a beloved title that married Advanced Dungeons & Dragons with classic video game role-play. “I was inspired to get into the video game industry based on my girlfriend giving me Baldur’s Gate,” he says. The Bioware game tapped into his love of D&D, formed back when he was a 10-year-old, sitting around a table playing with friends.

He knew coming into Wizards of the Coast, that the company had a lot going for it, but wasn’t aware of what sort of problems he might be facing until shortly after he joined in April 2016. Cocks had an early one-on-one meeting with Aaron Forsythe, the current director of Magic R&D who came up through the company after joining it as a long-time fan of Magic and one-time pro-player. “He said, ‘Wizards of the Coast is really great at continuing games, but we’ve kind of lost our ability to create new games,’” Cocks says. “In the first couple of months, I really discovered that was true.”

So Cocks went about figuring out a new approach for the company as a whole, he landed on something he describes to Glixel as the Castles and Boats approach. “The castles are the big brands with large fan bases, high expectations, lots of history and lore. We spend a lot of resources on those,” he says. “The boat is more of a test. It’s very fast, very flexible. If a boat doesn’t succeed, that’s OK; you can launch a new one. D&D and Magic are both castles for us.” And a game like the upcoming Transformers title is a boat. “With the Transformers trading card game, we can be nimble,” he says.

The game hasn’t been formally announced yet, but Cocks says it’s a title aimed both at young teens and the collector and toy audience. It will come out in September or October. “We think Transformers are cool and the game has interesting, unique mechanics,” he says. “All cards are two-sided, over-sized and feel bigger, weightier in your hand.” Cocks says the game has a relatively light learning curve, but a lot of depth. “It should take one or two times to understand how to play,” he says.

The game, which has a unique rule set, is built around two decks. One of the decks is a hero deck and the other is a powers and abilities deck used to “amp up heroes.” The strategy around play, he says, is to choose the right hero with the right abilities and powers. They’re also considering making a digital version of the game, once it launches, depending on how it is received. “Transformers will be brand new to Wizards.”

Magic: The Gathering
As one of Wizards’ two castles, Magic the Gathering is a massive, popular property. “Over the course of its 25 years, north of 30 to 35 million people have played Magic and 10 to 15 million play it actively today,” Cocks says. “Digital has been a long part of that history. Online has been around 14 to 15 years.”

Earlier this year, Wizards announced Magic: The Gathering Arena, a digital version of the game designed to be more closely tied to the card game. “With Magic Arena, we’re updating all of the underlying tech with new game rules and a new engine,” Cocks says. And the game will feature standard card sets as well as the physical game’s new cards. It’s currently in beta.

“Beyond Arena, we have a series of other games that are on the drawing board or we are actively working on,” Cocks says. “Magic is a really cool fantasy franchise and we haven’t given people a good opportunity to explore it.” When I ask what that sort of expansion would mean? Movies, books, comic books, video games? “All of those,” he says. “We probably have a half dozen video games in development in addition to Arena, both from us and from partners. They include everything from trading card games to battlers to role-playing games to strategy games. Then we’re also working with partners like Fox on movie opportunities. And we’re introducing new comic books next year with IDW. We’re also exploring other opportunities like creating digital shorts.”

Dungeons & Dragons, the other castle at Wizards of the Coast, received its latest update - the Fifth Edition - about three and a half years ago after two years of large-scale beta testing. “It really helped us refine the rule set and open up the world of players,” Cocks says. “After three and a half years, we had our best sales in November. It sold out and we’ve been struggling to restock. It’s a great engine of play.”

Cocks’ personal history with D&D echoes the history of a lot of folks who are helping to fuel the game's resurgence. He started playing when he was 10, in 1983, and recently returned to the game to play it with his son, who is now 10. “Everyone raised in the ‘70s or ‘80s when D&D was a cultural phenomenon, are rediscovering the game with Fifth Edition,” he says. Adding that those same early players also have in many ways taking over a lot of powerful, creative positions in Hollywood. “The sweet spot is 35 to 45,” he says. “They grew up playing D&D and were inspired to be storytellers by it.”

The resurgence is also being helped along by the popularity of tabletop, gameplay streams by folks like Wil Wheaton and others. “They create webisodes based on D&D campaigns,” Cocks says. “They create these dramatic arcs over the course of play. And we see millions of people consume this content. It shows that it’s fun to get a group together and go on this adventure and act silly as you socialize together.” For the first time, he adds, people asked about how they got into D&D, listed watching videos online as a bigger source than recommendations from friends.

And as with Magic, Wizards is starting to plumb the depths of the game’s rich lore and history. “We are looking at TV series or movie deals as well as more web-based content and actively pursuing a larger slate of video games for D&D,” Cocks says. “Right now we have a slate of four to five coming in 12 to 18 months and five or six set for 2020 and beyond across a variety of genres.” While that may sound like a lot, since 1987 there have already been more than 100 games based on the slew of D&D properties, he noted. “At its core, D&D has a couple things going for it: A rich lore and rich history and six or seven different worlds. That’s a rich vein to be able to tap into. Also, the history associated with it means that when you play D&D it feels very authentic because it’s a mature property and has had so many iterations of it. The secret to D&D is that really the rules are just guidelines.”

Avalon Hill
While Dungeons & Dragons’ history traces back to the ‘70s, Avalon Hill’s history of miniature wargames, role-playing and tabletop titles started hitting in the ‘50s. The library of the Baltimore, Maryland company includes a dizzying array of titles that touch on everything from Robin Hood and Shakespeare to WWI and WWII to Dune, Starship Troopers and Dr. Ruth. After Hasbro purchased the company in 1998, the toy creator added many of its strategy games to the label, including Axis and Allies, Risk and Stratego. Not surprisingly, Cocks sees a lot of value in the company. “I think there is a big place at the table for them,” he says. “Board games sales have been increasing 25 percent a year and are projected to continue to grow at that rate.”

My interest, bringing some of these vastly complicated, long-to-set-up titles to the iPad or computer, seem to also align both with a larger call for ports and Wizards of the Coast’s experiments. Cocks points to The Lords of Waterdeep, which was published by Wizards in 2012 and then released on iOS a year later, as a good example of that. “I love what Playdek did with that,” he says. “We’ve found that if we can bring new fans in and give them something fun to play, they will generally reward us. There is a great synergy between digital and table-top players.”

But why, I ask, hasn’t Axis and Allies come to tablet yet? “I think we will be correcting that in 12 to 18 months,” he says. “We might throw some fun variants in there as well. I want to to make new games. I want to make variants of existing games. What about Axis and Allies and Zombies?”

Wizards approach to Avalon Hill is, in many ways, the most evident sign of how it likes to sort through both a long-lived history and create new properties. In figuring out what to do next from Avalon Hill’s library, Cocks says they look for the Zeitgeist. “What are players asking for,” he says. “We watch social media. We survey our players.” That also ties in nicely with the company’s approach to hiring. “The most important, if not fundamental, thing we do to have a holistic approach is to hire fans of the games,” he says. “We want people who are passionate and feel ownership. What that tends to do is create authentic experiences.”

Along with that comes a bit of tough love when it comes to the company’s and brands biggest fans, he adds. “We call it 'kicking in the door of the clubhouse,'” he says. “One thing about gamers and the gaming community is that a lot of people want to go in and play and be a part of the community. But they also want to be the last one in, because they want to feel special. We think the community feels more special the bigger it gets. You see that in how we address D&D stories and rulesets, making them as open-ended as possible. You see that in what we’re doing in Magic with Magic open house that we do in 6,000 stores around the world. And you see that with what we’re doing with games like Arena. There’s a huge developer focus to help people learn the game, to feel like the champion.”