‘It just brings the fantasy to life:’ Wizards of the Coast president on D&D, Magic, and what’s next

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Perhaps no other company has had such a guiding influence on geek culture as Wizards of the Coast.

The Renton, Wash., based company has been delighting players for decades with its fantasy role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons and its strategy deck-building game Magic: The Gathering, two stalwarts of the gaming world. Despite being very different games, both have a lot in common. “They’re both anchored in deeply social play,” said Chris Cocks, Wizards of the Coast president.

Cocks joined us for a special live taping of the GeekWire Podcast from Renton — part of our GeekWire on the Road project —  to discuss the company’s work, the resurgence of its classic games, how it continues to develop and grow games without alienating players, and possible high-tech integrations coming down the pipeline.

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He said the charm of Wizards games is how they encourage people to interact using nothing but paper and their imaginations. Dungeons & Dragons, also called D&D, is all about creativity and working with the other players.

“D&D is all about storytelling. It’s all about that native urge we have to tell stories and to explore worlds and journeys together. That’s kind of the core of the game,” he said.

But the company is also putting out feelers into other areas, including its recent development of Magic: The Gathering Arena, a way to play Magic online with people around the world. The company is also experimenting with even more advanced tech applications, he said, including augmented reality technology.

“Just imagine being able to play a game of Magic with your cards. And as you play a card, those cards come to life,” he said. “Or the AI is able to detect when you have two cards come together. They have some kind of little fight. It just brings the fantasy to life or gives a nudge for the fantasy for you.”

Continue reading for the full Q&A, edited for clarity and length. Listen to our conversation in the player below or watch it in the video above. 

Clare McGrane: So for people who are familiar with D&D and with Magic: The Gathering, they may not actually know much about Wizards of the Coast, which is the company that makes those games. So when you run into people and tell them what you do, what do you say? What is your job?

Chris Cocks: I think the easy answer is I get to make amazing games that are enjoyed by tens of millions of people around the world. D&D has been around for 44 years, entertaining people since, gosh, 1974. [Magic: The Gathering] came out when I was in college, in 1993. We’re celebrating our 25th anniversary. And it’s just fun to be able to bring people together around kitchen tables and gaming stores and computers and phones all around the world.

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Todd Bishop: So Chris, you’ve been the president for just about two and a half years. And I should point out, if people want to read deeper on Chris’s experience at Wizards of the Coast and his past, Kurt Schlosser, one of our GeekWire reporters, wrote a great profile of you this past week and an interesting story about the resurgence of D&D. But you have your own personal history with many of the games that Wizards of the Coast makes. How did you originally start playing these games?

Cocks: So I was introduced to Dungeons and Dragons when I was about nine or ten years old by my best friend’s big brother. He was our Dungeon Master and he got me into D&D. And before that, I’d never really read. I’d never really story-told, and it opened up this amazing new world to me. And the rest is history.

McGrane: What was your first character?

Cocks: Oh gosh, when I was nine? Probably not very sophisticated. My go-to character is a fighter-thief.

Bishop: For people who aren’t familiar with the games, Chris, how do you explain the overall appeal and how do you get it across to somebody? What’s so magical, if you will, about these games?

Cocks: Yeah. Each game is different. They’re both anchored in deeply social play. D&D is all about storytelling. It’s all about that native urge we have to tell stories and to explore worlds and journeys together. That’s kind of the core of the game. Magic is more of a competitive or cooperative experience and you’re able to really play this deep strategy game where you’re able to create your own deck and it’s kind of like 3D chess, where you’re able to bring your own unique pieces to the board. Both are really fun. They each allow you to bond with other people. As I said, Magic’s played by 10 million people. D&D, I think the last count was 12 million actively play. And it’s all about just kind of making friends and having fun.

Chris Cocks, president of Wizards of the Coast, poses with Mitzy, a dragon on display in the gaming company’s Renton, Wash., headquarters building. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

McGrane: So you did recently, though, release a product that lets you play by yourself with a computer, essentially. Magic: The Gathering Arena, which is kind of a successor to Magic: The Gathering Online… What did you want to accomplish with Magic Arena that was different, say, from previous versions or from playing in person?

Cocks: So Arena is our new digital version of Magic. It’s for the PC and it just launched in open beta about a month ago and it basically allows you to play over 1,200 cards — all of the cards in the format called “standard” in Magic — and you’re able to play it with millions of people around the world instantaneously. And basically what we’re trying to do with Arena is a couple things. For the newer player, we’re trying to make the entry point into Magic super-duper simple.

Arena’s free to play, you get a ton of cards when you first start to play and you’re able to be paired against hundreds of thousands, millions of people … who have a similar skill level or a similar kind of deck as you, so you’re really matched pretty evenly. And it’s got a great tutorial system to help you learn the game.

And then for the more competitive or experienced player, Arena’s going to really anchor our efforts in streaming and e-sports, which are a huge driver of games today. I think just in the first month that Arena was out, Magic was the 10th biggest game on Twitch and YouTube in terms of number of viewers and the sixth biggest game in terms of viewership, which is a huge leap for the game. And we only see that growing over time.

Bishop: Chris, one of the things we’re really big into at GeekWire is learning leadership lessons from the people who we talk to. And oftentimes people draw from their work or from their life experiences or from the games they play to talk about their leadership lessons. I’m curious, are there any tactics or strategies from D&D or Magic: The Gathering that you can apply to your role as Wizards of the Coast president?

Cocks: One of the things that people make fun of me about at work is: One of the core ways we think about strategies or developing our games or developing our properties is we talk about it in terms of castles and boats. Castles are like these big IPs that you have… They’re important aspects of our business, but they tend to be kind of more solidified. And boats are these things that we can kind of send off and explore new realms or new ideas. So that’s a fantasy metaphor that we use from the games. I actually lost a bet and I had to name myself, in Arena, Boaty McCastleface for the whole team.

But I also think l the other core thing that you learn from our games is the power of storytelling in explaining things and in bringing strategies and concepts to life.

Bishop: I know that one of the boats that you’re exploring and sort of sending off to see if it comes back with anything interesting is this whole idea of augmented reality, AR. And I know this is very early, you’re just looking at it in an exploratory phase. Things like the Microsoft HoloLens and the Magic Leap, where you would wear goggles and it would have an impact on the tabletop in front of you. Because at its heart, for example, Dungeons & Dragons is a tabletop game, even though you’re getting into more digital areas.

Where do you draw the line though? Because this is a fundamental question for all of these technologies. Where does your imagination as the player stop? Where should it be appropriate for it to stop? And where should technology take over? How do you think about that?

(GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Cocks: Well, I think with AR, some of the new technologies are pretty sophisticated. Certainly, Magic Leap and HoloLens are amazing pieces of technology. They’re still pretty early, and they aren’t necessarily ready for broadscale consumer adoption yet. But then you also have like phone platforms like what iOS does and what Android is doing, that are maybe not as sophisticated because they don’t have all the bells and whistles and sensors, etc., associated with them. But each kind of have their roles.

If you’re thinking about high-end and what we’re thinking about in terms of exploring there, just imagine being able to play a game of Magic with your cards. And as you play a card, those cards come to life, similar to like what they might do on Arena, where you have animations that kind of blow up with the cards. Or the AI is able to detect when you have two cards come together. They have some kind of little fight. It just brings the fantasy to life or gives a nudge for the fantasy for you.

On a simpler technology, like just using your phone, I think we’re really interested in the whole concept of being able to dungeon crawl or adventure in real life. So being able to walk around and someone being a Dungeon Master in your neighborhood who leaves little adventures for you, and you can see portals into those adventures through your phone and be able to experience those. All of these are just drawing-table ideas that we’re experimenting with, but we see a lot of interesting potential to expand immersion and to bring more people in.

McGrane: You have, as you mentioned, millions of fans around the world who feel very strongly about the games and are passionate about the games. And even when you try to do something like Arena, there’s a bit of a resistance because you’re changing something that people love deeply or adding something to it that’s new. So I’m curious how you balance paying tribute to that and being loyal to the core of the game and trying to still evolve and grow it and keep it, not stagnant, but moving.

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Cocks: When you’re a company that’s responsible for games that are measured in decades of longevity — when you think about the player base for games, a lot of free-to-play games measure their loyalty to the game in days; we measure our loyalty to our games in years — you have to take the people who play the game very, very seriously and what their expectations are for that game.

But I think one of the concepts that we have is we constantly want to expand the notion and the boundaries of what those games are. So while you try to respect what people who’ve been playing the game for a long time think and expect of the game, you always try to experiment with that “boats” mentality about new ways that you can bring new people into the game. And that’s either through new game expressions, it might be through new entertainment expressions, whether those are books or things that we might do online or through more traditional kind of entertainment mediums.

And you just balance the approach and make sure that the people who’ve been here for a long time have their meat-and-potatoes experience and the people that you want to bring in tomorrow, you’re taking a nod to what the meat-and-potatoes experience is, but you’re maybe offering them a slightly different entrée or different appetizer.

Bishop: So we’re here in Renton, Wash., this week and that’s why we’re here at the Southport complex. And you are really remarkable, as Wizards of the Coast, for being a sizable technology company here. Even though, obviously, you’re involved in tabletop games, this is a technology venture, in a lot of ways. What’s it like to run a tech company in Renton?

Cocks: I think we’re fortunate in that I’ve never gone to a game development studio, whether it was in this iteration of my career or in previous jobs, where there hasn’t been an active Magic club or an active Dungeons & Dragons club. It’s just common inside of games and it’s even common inside of a lot of technology companies, as your article about a bunch of CEOs who play D&D shows. So we the great fortune of having people who’ve been playing our games for a long time and have a lot of passion for them.

I think Renton is an easy place for people to get to. A lot of our employees live in West Seattle. They live in Bellevue. Or they live in the Issaquah corridor. And that’s an easy 20, 25 minute commute. And then, the other nice thing about Renton is it’s really kind of closer to more of the exurbs of Seattle so you can go out to Maple Valley or you can go to closer to Tacoma and your money can stretch farther. And that tends to be a benefit for people who are either already in Seattle or moving into Seattle from another part of the country, which maybe has a lower cost of living.

McGrane: I want to go back and touch on a technology that’s come up a couple of times now: Live-streaming for both Magic and D&D has really taken off. And the thing that’s interesting about it — and people may be surprised about it — is that it’s players. It’s fans. It’s not necessarily Wizards of the Coast employees are out there running these live streams. So tell me about how that has been for Wizards to kind of launch into that arena and how it’s part of the business now.

Cocks: I think it’s been a huge catalyst for our business. D&D Fifth Edition came out about four years ago and we’re on trajectory for our fourth year of good size, double-digit growth. In excess of 30 percent growth per year for D&D. And I think part of that is Fifth Edition is just a great product. Fifth Edition is the latest version of D&D and the rule set. It’s kind of guidelines focused. It really helps with open-ended, problem solving and storytelling. But I think streaming has been a huge tailwind for us.

I think in the last year we’ve had 7,500 different people who stream D&D and there’s hundreds of millions of minutes of viewing time. I think nine or 10 million people watch D&D in a given year, which is amazing because it’s famous actors. It’s famous voice actors. It’s just, you know, Joe and Jane Schmoe down the street just having fun and playing the game. We do surveys of gamers, and we find out: “How did you learn about the game and how did you get into it?” In 2018, for the first time ever, watching a stream and learning about the game from a stream eclipsed learning about the game directly from a friend. It just shows the power of platforms like YouTube and Twitch and we’ve really been leaning into that.

Bishop: It’s funny because Clare wrote about this over the weekend and I was reading her story and I was like, “Wait a second. So they turn on a camera and they point it at the table? Or the people? It’s not really clear to me.” So Clare had to explain to me, basically.

McGrane: Yes, normally you look at the people, which is the most interesting part. So the reason I was reading about that this weekend is I was at a panel of D&D designers at GeekGirlCon in Seattle. And they were talking about the changing face, or the changing perception, of D&D and how traditionally it was seen as ultra-nerdy and something that was very much for boys and men. That was the perception at had, even if that wasn’t the player base that it had, but both the player base and the perception has changed dramatically.

And you talked about this earlier, reaching out to different communities, whatever that looks like. Whether it’s younger people or people who aren’t quite as nerdy or people who are of different demographics, women, ethnic minorities, etc. And streaming has been a big part of that, from what they were saying, at least. So I’m curious, in what other ways are you working on that perception and changing those kinds of stereotypes and saying these games are for anybody who wants to play them?

Chris Cocks of Wizards of the Coast records the GeekWire Podcast with Todd Bishop and Clare McGrane in front of a live audience in Renton, Wash. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

Cocks: As I mentioned, that clubhouse mentality that many games have — we try to really knock the doors out of that clubhouse and really have a big tent. Invite people in. And I think the single most important way we can do that is making sure that anyone can see themselves in the game. And really showcasing powerful male heroes, powerful female heroes, people with different outlooks on life and different orientations. Wherever that orientation may be. And making sure no matter what color, creed, stripe or flavor you are, you can see yourself in the game and be able to play that game. That’s important to us in D&D. That’s important to us in Magic and something I think we’ve been really leaning into over time, and I think it helps with the game.

Bishop: So what would be your advice to somebody like me who was always a little bit intimidated by the kids in school, when I was going to elementary school, who were doing this thing called D&D. I almost was turned off just because it seemed so mysterious and this world that was kind of like an alien world that I didn’t want to jump into. What would be your advice to somebody now like me who’s an adult wanting to get into it, seeing how cool it is. Is there a first step that you would suggest, other than just sitting down with friends and playing a game?

Cocks: Oh, sure. There’s a lot of first steps I think you could take. I think streaming is one of the best avenues that you can go watch. You can go on to Twitch and see dozens of different streams at any given time. And if you find a good stream, like Dice, Camera, Action or Acquisitions Incorporated, it’s just like watching great improv. It’s funny, people play off of each other and it inspires you about how you could bring a group of people together and be that witty and that charismatic together.

If that’s maybe a little bit too big of a gap for you because you’re just kinda shy, we also have other games that kind of help onboard you into the game. So we have board games and that kind of have a ready-made character for you and the board game actually acts as a Dungeon Master.

And then we have a new card game coming out that’s kind of like Exploding Kittens meets Dungeons & Dragons, called Dungeon Mayhem. And it’s just a really simple game where you take the role of kind of a classic character — like a Rogue or a Paladin or a Fighter or a Wizard — and you battle each other across the table. My wife wasn’t a big D&D or fantasy fan growing up. And my daughter definitely is not a fantasy fan. And my son and I have gotten them into Dungeon Mayhem and that’s kind of their entry point into the franchise.

Bishop: You’ve got the coolest job ever. I mean, to grow up as a D&D fan and have this history with the game. Did you ever think you would be running the company that makes these iconic franchises?

Cocks: Well, let me not geek out too much…

Bishop: Please, come on! You’re on the GeekWire Podcast, Chris.

Cocks: Let me put it this way: If I was able to go back in time and have a conversation with my 10-year-old self, I think my 10-year-old self would approve. He’d be really happy with how things worked out. It’s great because, when I started playing D&D, I’d never read a book. I’d never written anything creatively. I was just a kid who was — I was diagnosed as hyperactive by my doctor at the time, and told not to drink caffeine. Which was hard as a 10-year-old and in Cincinnati, Ohio.

When I discovered D&D, it really just lit a creative flame inside of me. And I started reading. I read the Lord of the Rings series. I read the Shannara series. I started writing for the first time. I start making my own games. It pointed me into a new direction that I think has made me a much more successful and complete person as a result of that. And when I told people about that at work, I can’t tell you how many people said: “That happened to me at the exact same age, at the exact same time.” And it’s just such an honor to be able to share something that had such a positive impact on you and not just bringing smiles to your face but helping you complete yourself as a person. And that’s what really gets me going, when I wake up in the morning and get to go to work.

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