Following Baldur’s Gate 3, WotC And Hasbro Are Investing $1 Billion In Their AAA Game Ecosystem

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Hasbro and Wizards of the Coast want a bigger piece of the gaming industry’s pie, especially after the huge success of Larian Studios’ Baldur’s Gate 3. To that end, both companies are investing nearly one billion dollars into their shared gaming ecosystem, which includes half a dozen studios. Some of these studios are working on more Dungeons & Dragons games, while others are working on other Hasbro IP–Atomic Arcade is tackling a G.I. Joe Snake Eyes game, for example–and still more are creating brand-new IPs. We saw one of these new IPs revealed at last year’s The Game Awards: Archetype Entertainment’s Exodus.

At GDC 2024, I sat down with Dan Ayoub, Head of Digital Product Development at Wizards of the Coast, to talk about what these new games will look like, how WotC and Hasbro plan to protect developers’ jobs while pouring a ton of money into a brand-new initiative, and whether future D&D games will stay in Faerun or explore other settings (I’m keeping my fingers crossed for Eberron).

GameSpot: I was really surprised to learn y’all have a ton of studios working on several new games. Has this been going on for a while and I just haven’t been privy to it?

Ayoub: I wish I could say that was the case. It has really been something we haven’t talked too much about. But if you think about it, it just makes a ton of sense, right? Hasbro is a company focused on games and play, but it’s kind of a well-kept secret that we’ve got this incredible video games [division] going on. So if you think about it, Hasbro’s a 100-year-old company. And like you, I grew up playing D&D, and a lot of Hasbro board games and things like that. But I look at my own kids and things like that, and their play engagement patterns are entirely different.

So if you think about it, if you squint, yeah, of course it makes sense for Hasbro to have all of these games going on. And certainly, you referenced Baldur’s Gate [3], Monopoly Go!–we’ve been doing a lot on the license side and I think we’ve been a little more out there talking about that. But I’m really excited to be able to talk about what we’re doing internally because we’ve got a billion dollars in games being developed right now, across multiple studios across North America. So why don’t we just jump right into it? So I guess the first studio worth talking about, because we just announced it at The Game Awards, is our Archetype studio out of Austin. And that’s being run by James Olin and a bunch of the Mass Effect 1 and 2 team.

And a common thing you’re going to see as I talk about the studios is we’ve built these studios around people and teams with DNA behind the types of things that we’re trying to make. So that’s been a really exciting project to work with the team on, and we were thrilled to finally be able to announce that to the world [at] The Game Awards. And frankly, the reaction blew us away; [we’re] just blown out the water. So I think that was a great watershed moment too, because it was not just the coming out of the game for us, but I kind of saw it as our studio’s coming out.

Exodus is a sci-fi RPG coming from Archetype.

We’ve got [a studio] in Montreal that’s working on a large Dungeons & Dragons-based game. That’s Invoke Studio. We’ve got Atomic Arcade in North Carolina that’s working on Snake Eyes. As we like to say [that that game is] not your daddy’s G.I. Joe. A very edgy take on Snake Eyes, and I’ll come back to the strategy there a little bit. And, of course, we’ve got Archetype and also Skeleton Key in Austin–I can’t say too much about [Skeleton Key’s project], but it’s something spooky.

And I think if you look at the different studios, you’ve got some really interesting approaches with each. You look at Exodus and it’s like, okay, this is a new IP, this is not an existing Hasbro or Wizards IP. And one of the great things about being in Hasbro [is] we’ve got toys. We’ve got all these other things we can do with it. So rather than, “Okay here’s a Hasbro IP, go make a game,” we’re trying to go the other way–create something through a digital space where it’s the fastest-growing medium and where more and more eyeballs are going, so that feels like the right place to do it.

Then of course you look at Atomic and Invoke and those are classical Hasbro or Wizards IP from G.I. Joe to Dungeons & Dragons. And Skeleton Key again is kind of like, okay, we’re going to try and do something new and innovative from a gaming side. So we’ve got, as I mentioned, about a billion dollars in games being developed, you got hundreds of people across all of these studios who are actively hiring as well. So we’re growing up these studio infrastructures. So it’s quite a large endeavor happening under the Hasbro umbrella right now.

Are there any, for lack of a better word, safeguards designed for this level of forward-looking and spending? I love the idea of all these studios growing and tackling all these new IPs, but also–just reading our industry right now–there’s just so many studios that grew a little bit too quickly over the pandemic and now good people are being laid off because the numbers aren’t quite matching the numbers that people were bringing in in 2020 and 2021.

We’re being diligent about our growth and I think the good thing is we’re obviously on the other side of the pandemic now. I think the studios are really now coming into that period where they’re growing. I think we’ve certainly looked and seen the lessons over the last couple of years. I think we’re being very diligent about our growth. We’ve got a lot of seasoned professionals who have been in the industry for a long time, and of course we’re still part of Hasbro, so we’ve got that constant dialogue back and forth with Hasbro about how quickly does it make sense to be growing and things like that. But this is a core part of Hasbro’s growth strategy, over the next several years. So the investment obviously is considerable, but yeah, I like to think we’re being very measured and diligent and just making sure we’re not growing too quickly.

Going back to what you said earlier, what do you mean when you’re saying that WotC and Hasbro are trying to build to the strengths of these studios? What’s the process?

[In some cases,] we went out and sought certain people. And in some cases it was the opposite, it was just people we were talking to. So, [as an example,] Atomic Arcade is doing the Snake Eyes game. We’ve got a lot of folks there that worked on Arkham, like our studio head. We wanted people who brought Batman to life, to, in very much the same way, what we want to do with Snake Eyes. And honestly, I cannot wait to show you. I’m a huge G.I. Joe fan and if you had seen what the team has done–I cannot wait to show this to people. And that replicates across our studio ecosystem. It was very much a conversation of, “Okay, what kind of game do we want to do? What makes sense, and what are the strengths we can bring to it?” And a big part of that strength is just talent that’s already done it before.

Some of these studios will be working on Hasbro properties that are totally separate from Wizards of the Coast.

How are they bringing Snake Eyes to life in a video game?

So myself and a lot of people on the team, at the risk of aging us, grew up with the ’80s cartoon and things like that, and then the comic books and things and all of that fun. So the question is, in some respects, the philosophical creative approach of how do we make this [game] work in a medium where new people might be discovering it [for the first time]? And the answer to that is just obviously make a great game first.

[Snake Eyes] is just an amazing character. He’s got that mix of commando, but he’s also a ninja. And I won’t say too much about the story or the game and things like that, but he is definitely the piece with which we’re looking to introduce or reintroduce a bunch of other characters and things like that back to the world. I don’t know if you were a big comic guy, but I was and I’m going to totally sound like a geek here but, in issue 21–it was one of those famous comics–there was just no dialogue, it just totally focused on [Snake Eyes being mute]. And for a character that can’t communicate, they can’t speak, it actually creates some fun gameplay mechanics for us as well.

When the time comes, we will have you sit down with [the game] and you will love it. [The team] have come up with some really, really clever ideas.

Can we expect to see more totally new ideas that don’t connect to any existing Hasbro IP?

We have a couple of ideas in the oven. So the short answer is yes, you can expect to see us do more new IP campaigns as a medium. Again, I’ll go back to my statement, Hasbro is a company that has play in its DNA and that is what it was based on. And play has changed over the last hundred years considerably. And Hasbro is making a lot of investments in the video game space because that’s where people are playing, more and more. So some of those will be expressions of things like G.I. Joe, like D&D. But you are going to see more and more new IP being developed under that banner as well.

I’d love to see a Baldur’s Gate 3-like game set in D&D’s Eberron or Planescape.

For all these studios, are they independent? Do they communicate with each other? Are they helping each other out? What’s their relationship?

Yeah, great question. The goal is building a lot of the studios, they’re all being built obviously under very strong creative leadership. So we want to give them the flexibility, it’s all about empowering the creative powerhouses we’ve brought in. And they do communicate amongst one another as well. So it’s kind of a combination where they’ve got a tremendous amount of creative independence. My role and our role within Hasbro is just how do we plus things up so four plus four equals 10? How do we amplify what they’ve got? We bring some structure to it, some centralized services, so we’re not replicating things with everybody. But yeah, the teams have a tremendous amount of creative liberty. We all work together really, really well. I am fortunate that I know many of these creatives, the industry is so small, from other stages of my own career. So yeah, it’s a nice mix where everyone’s got a lot of creative freedom, but they get the benefits that come with being part of a larger organization.

Given the success of Baldur’s Gate 3, is the goal for all of your D&D projects to replicate those systems? Or make games that are as different as possible an experience from Baldur’s Gate 3?

We were obviously thrilled at the reception of Baldur’s Gate 3. I think that proved a lot of things. People want these kinds of games and they want high quality, and things that are true to the franchise. So we obviously don’t exist on an island. When we make a D&D game, we work with the D&D team. We also want to tie into what they’re planning for future releases and things like that. So the different types of games and the roadmaps we have are tied in with a larger D&D strategy. So you may see some overlap, but if you do, it’s intentional. And that’s kind of where I go back to the studios having their creative freedom, but there’s still that larger plan. So you’re going to be seeing a number of different kinds of D&D experiences coming.

Baldur’s Gate 3 will not be the last D&D game we see–not by a long shot.

In terms of working with the D&D brand and doing your best to be on the same page, how do studios work alongside the system change as D&D 5e transitions to One D&D?

It’s an influence in some cases. So let me go and use Baldur’s Gate as an example. I mean, that was a very direct expression of the books and the [5e] rule set, and we will do games that are like that. And we will also do games that are just more action oriented and things like that, but it’ll always be grounded in some form to D&D, whether that grounding might be from a direct expression of the rule set, it might be the world, it might be characters. We’ll express it in different ways, but it’ll always be authentic.

And in terms of just settings, and maybe you can’t get into this, but Baldur’s Gate 3 is obviously set in Faerun, the best-known D&D setting right now and one that–at least for me–I’m a little tired of playing in. Any efforts to try to create a D&D-inspired game that isn’t necessarily set in that main world of Faerun?

Yes.

Just yes?

Obviously you hit the nail on the head–that’s certainly the most popular area. When you go to people wanting expressions of what they know, that’s a big part of it. We are going to play around the edges, a little bit as well. I can’t say too much more than that.

Look, man, Eberron is right there.

It’s funny, I’m a huge D&D player and I’m playing in Eberron right now.

Hell yeah. Any sort of roadmap for all of these games?

We definitely have a roadmap that goes pretty far in, actually, with dates kind of written in pencil as to when we think all of them are coming. And as we do project updates and things with the teams and things like that, we are constantly evaluating and reevaluating. You can probably guess based on what’s been announced, kind of like how the ball starts rolling. But we’ve not called any dates yet, although that time will certainly come when we feel a good level of confidence.

We don’t want to rush out with anything. This business is really, really important to us. It’s close to me personally. It’s close to all of the creatives we brought in, so we’re very diligent about making sure everything has time to get to the right stage.

This interview was edited for both brevity and readability.