On Monday, September 23, 2013 Greg Leeds, Chief Executive Officer of Wizards of the Coast, had an interview published by ICv2 on the state of the industry and so very much more. I found most of his answers really interesting as, for me, they gave more information on the state of Wizards and the hobby gaming industry then I had a previous handle on after reading most of the news on EN*World and various other sources gaming news sites.
ICv2: What’s your assessment of the state of the games market and Wizards of the Coast’s place in it?
Greg Leeds: The games market is doing well from our standpoint. Our business is up significantly, particularly being driven by Magic: The Gathering. We’re seeing player growth, store growth and revenue growth across the board both here in the U.S. and on a global basis.
ICv2: Is the market growing, your share, or both?
Greg Leeds: With the data we have, it appears that the market is growing. From our perspective, retailers, as is our goal, are becoming financially more successful, and with that financial success they’re investing in great play experiences and attracting more people to the industry in general and not just to our brands.
Over the last few years I have been wondering about the play experiences that Wizards of the Coast has been sponsoring. Events such as Friday Night Magic, Kaijudo Master Challenge, and Dungeons and Dragons Encounters were clearly designed to bring more players into local retailers, and thereby, increase sales both for Wizards and the store; but with fewer retailers out there I had the feeling that this might be too little too late.
There will people out there who will say, yes but Pazio has been beating the pants off of Wizards so who cares about their sales. And here's the thing you have to remember about those sales figures, Pazio didn't start beating Wizards of the Coast until the new edition of Dungeons and Dragons had been announced. So essentially you're comparing an active producer of new purchasable content, Pazio, with an inactive one, Wizards of the Coast. For them to continue to have very strong sales even over the course of the last two years indicates than with the release of the new edition that they will once again dominate the market.
ICv2: The vision for D&D which was hinted at a year ago is becoming clearer, with an ambitious transmedia narrative that all feeds back to the game but also has its own parts of the story. Can you talk about the overall strategy for what you’re doing with Dungeons & Dragons?
Greg Leeds: We are very ambitious with Dungeons & Dragons, and as you say, the strategy that we’re pursuing is starting to emerge. One of the most important things with Dungeons & Dragons is that we are able to take the same stories and themes and execute them across platforms, not just in the paper side of the business but the digital side. It’s beginning to happen now with the launch of The Sundering. It’s our opportunity to rewrite the story of the Forgotten Realms and bring the realms back together.
The first and most tangible example of that is Bob Salvatore’s book, The Companions, which is doing extremely well. We’ve got five other great authors who are working on The Sundering. Those stories will then be taken to digital and paper products.
On the digital side, we’ve got a really exciting line-up of things that will be coming out shortly. The Neverwinter launch from Perfect World came out in June and already has two million people who have downloaded the game. This brings a whole bunch of new fans to the D&D business.
Next month we’ve got a new mobile game coming out, which is a battle RPG called Arena of War. It will bring in all kinds of new players who want to have that RPG experience on a mobile device, either a phone or a tablet. On the traditional board game sides, we’re coming out with Lords of Waterdeep as a digital tablet experience sometime in early 2014.
As we bring the stories together with all of those expressions across those platforms, we think D&D is poised for a completely new generation of consumers and excitement around the brand.
The multimedia approach that Wizards of the Coast is using to revitalize the Dungeons and Dragons game in the modern marketplace is a sound strategy for a company in a niche market. Unlike other game companies Wizards is actively marketing the game across a large swath in an effort to expand the core game's audience to new groups. That is fantastic because otherwise we're going to continue seeing the hobby shrink further and further until we only have a bunch of old grognards who begrudgingly play the game and watch it die with them.
I'm not so sure about the number of players for the Neverwinter game that Mr. Leeds mentions. At the Gen Con Presentation (you can read more at Dungeons and Dragons 2013 Gen Con Presentation) they announced that Neverwinter had reached the 2,000,000 subscriber mark so I'm not sure if the 2 + million he refers to includes that original quantity or if it is its own unit. If it is then Perfect World's Neverwinter expansion has brought in more than $39,980,000 (assuming all purchasers bought the base expansion pack, $19.99 per base expansion pack x 2,000,000 users = $39,980,000), which is a good thing for Wizards of the Coast.
ICv2: Are you saying that the novels are the launch of the narratives and then they’re expressed in other media rather than it being a simultaneous thing?The Isteval character is a great introductory character to the Sundering Event. His video is well done and really gets even a staunchly Greyhawk fanboy such as myself thinking about the Forgotten Realms in a positive way.
Greg Leeds: Some things are done simultaneously and some things are done in sequence. In particular, one of the key characters in the novel line is Isteval, who will come in the mobile Arena of War game. In that sense, that there is sometime simultaneous and sometimes slightly delayed, but in over time they will be simultaneously experienced on different platforms.
ICv2: Fiction, paper games, online games, and comics are all places where this narrative is expressed, is that everything?
Greg Leeds: If you include in paper games board games in a digital tablet format and in a paper format, yes. And we continue to work with our Los Angeles connections on the potential for a film. Unfortunately I can’t announce anything at this time but we are looking for all venues of telling our story.
Again, I think it is a fantastic move to evolve the game's story through a multimedia approach. Now there is a risk that in doing so you create a narrative that turns off players who don't want to be involved in your cannon games, but after having read several of the Legends and Lore articles by Mike Mearls I am beginning to have faith that their goal is to create an involving storyline that you can be a part of, but only if you want and that their core books will be setting neutral - in as much as they ever are.
ICv2: We recently did an interview about The Sundering and how it’s going to be playable with 3.5, 4 or Next rules and your folks made the comment that they’re disengaging the narrative from the rules so you can play however you want all around the same narrative (see "Exclusive Interview on The Sundering"). Can you talk more about that interesting strategy?
Greg Leeds: The idea is that we don’t want any of our audience split based on the rules they’re familiar with and like to play. We want to offer an opportunity for whatever your rules choice is so you can enjoy the narrative that’s coming up and the characters in the story lines that will excite the fan base in the future.
ICv2: Is that the strategy going forward?
Greg Leeds: Yes, absolutely. That’ll be a strategy you’ll see for years to come.
Being, relatively speaking, system neutral is a huge benefit for the company in many way. It will provide them with the ability to be a content provider as opposed to a system provider which should make the relaunch of Dungeons and Dragons Insider (and hopefully Dragon and Dungeon magazines) a more profitable endeavor. After all, it's easier for me to purchase something for my game if I don't have to worry about converting all the game mechanics every time I start to work my way through the product.
We'll have to wait and see how successful they really are after the system is finally published though.
ICv2: Maybe take some share back from Paizo?
Greg Leeds: We’re not in a share game; we never have been. I’ve been with Wizards of the Coast for five years and we’ve always talked about how our role is to build the hobby gaming industry. We’ve said that from the beginning; we stick by that now. I wish the best of luck to all hobby game manufacturers. All of them.
"We’re not in a share game; we never have been" is a powerful statement about the way that Greg Leeds sees Wizards of the Coast's roll in the industry and how they expect things to shake out after the publication of the new edition. I'm not sure how things will end up, but I would be surprised if they weren't right as they have the name recognition, they are redeveloping the fan base through an innovative understanding of their place in the market, and they have the money to spend on ensuring their place in the industry.
ICv2: One of the surprises to us is that the market seems to have been able to absorb two new successful CCG launches, but in recent years there were a lot of CCGs launches that crashed and burned in a year or less. What does that tell you about the market?
Greg Leeds: What it tells me is what I’ve believed, which is that the hobby gaming industry competes in the general entertainment industry. When you think of that, it means that we are only capturing a small percentage of the total entertainment leisure time and money that our potential consumers have. So our opportunity in the industry is to build way beyond where we are today . . .
This last part I'm including from the interview is important to me as it tells more about Greg Leeds' thinking in relation to the hobby industry in general. Unlike previous C.E.O.s at Wizards, Greg seems to be a man of ambition and vision - which is incredibly important in a hobby that has more competing interests than ever before. During his tenure as Wizards C.E.O. he has been able to expand their presence at locations such as Barnes and Noble, Wal-Mart and Target by getting large displays of Magic: the Gathering cards on their floor; and that is a remarkable feat as Wal-Mart in particular has always treated Magic like it was plague ridden.
With Greg Leeds' ambitious nature I hope that he is able to continue to bring the hobby industry out of the niche stores and into the big box stores. Doing so will make it easier to purchase the game supplements and by-products that I love without the headache of having to deal with the arrogant clerks at the hobby shop. It would also lower the overall costs associated with a hobby that has made the fifty dollar print book the standard (seriously, who has that kind of money to spend on a hobby)!