RENTON, Wash. — There’s something special about a workplace where you meet with the president of the company, ask to take his photograph and then watch as he voluntarily positions his head beneath the claws of a giant dragon.
Such is life at Wizards of the Coast, the gaming company based in Renton, Wash., where Chris Cocks has been overseeing the ongoing success of classic tabletop games such as “Magic: The Gathering” and “Dungeons & Dragons,” as well as a significant push into digital initiatives that will attract new fans.
GEEKWIRE IN RENTON: Join us Thursday evening for a live podcast interview with Chris Cocks
Twenty minutes south of Seattle, inside a rather ordinary glass office building not far from I-405, Wizards is home to the creative minds that have turned millions of people worldwide into diehard players of the 25-year-old “Magic” and the 44-year-old “D&D.” And it’s home to Mitzy, the Shivan Dragon that has leapt straight from a deck of cards into the company’s headquarters lobby.
Founded in Renton in 1990 by Peter Adkinson, a former systems analyst at The Boeing Co., Wizards was acquired by toy giant Hasbro for $325 million in 1999. Beyond its juggernaut fantasy titles, Wizards also served as distributor of the Pokémon trading cards for several years.
Cocks has led the efforts at Wizards for the past 2 1/2 years, joining the company after more than 11 years at Microsoft, including a stint as a group product manager for Xbox. Like many of the fans he caters to today, Cocks fell in love with Wizards’ games as a kid and he counts himself lucky that he gets to work on something he’s always been so passionate about.
“It’s a privilege to work on something that was so foundational to you and the person you developed into,” Cocks said. “When I started playing ‘D&D,’ I really didn’t know how to tell stories. It inspired me to read. It inspired me to start writing and designing. Being able to go work at a company that [makes] not only a product you really enjoy, but something that had such a profound impact on your life … I think that’s pretty cool. It’s a story that’s not just unique to me. I think it’s common across a large percentage of our employees.”
Cocks, who will be GeekWire’s podcast guest during a public event in Renton on Thursday, is responsible for driving a lot of the strategy and business decisions at Wizards and making sure the right teams are in place to execute on its next moves. Traditionally those moves have been around “Magic” and “D&D” and tabletop board games.
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Over the past decade, gaming and tabletop culture has seen a significant resurgence in popularity. “Magic” has seen strong sales growth nine of the past 10 years and Cocks attributes all tabletop success to a number of factors, including Gen Xers reconnecting with the games they grew up on and millennials finding an attraction to the mainstream acceptance of nerd culture.
Growth in hobby game stores, a core driver of Wizards’ business, is also a leading factor in the company’s success. And the huge audiences attracted to the streaming of games online, on platforms such as YouTube and the Amazon-owned Twitch, has helped “D&D” in particular see record sales. Cocks said they’re in their fourth year of in excess of 30 percent growth per year on “D&D.”
“I think in a digital age — and digital is super important to us — in a digital age, people crave authentic human contact, one-on-one contact or group contact,” Cocks said of the board game business.
But increasingly, more moves are being made to address digital strategies.
“The tabletop side is obviously where the majority of our businesses is today and we still see a big robust future for that,” Cocks said. “The digital side is kind of where the disconnect comes between the straight-line growth curve and the hockey stick. So a fair amount of my time is spent on new initiatives and helping to build those teams and groom our plans for that.”
The company is set to release a major crossover between “Magic: The Gathering” and “Dungeons & Dragons” with “Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica,” a new sourcebook that will get players of the two games in the same multiverse. Cocks said to expect more of that, with classic worlds from the past and new worlds that are still to be created.
Digital games with a heavy focus on cooperative play will be another big area of focus for Wizards as well. Its biggest property right now is “Neverwinter,” a free-to-play, massively multiplayer online (MMO) role-playing game developed by Cryptic Studios.
The company wants to expand significantly on “Magic’s” huge fan base. Earlier this year it launched “Magic: The Gathering Arena” in open beta and Cocks called it “a new, very modern way to play the authentic ‘Magic’ that people love.”
“We’ll be expanding that pretty aggressively and we’ll also have several new ways to play ‘Magic’ across more and more platforms,” Cocks said. “So ‘Arena’ is on PC today, but you should expect ways to play ‘Magic’ on your phone as well as a console.”
A host of games are already in development for PC and console. The next one that’s out that’s been publicly announced is “Warriors of Waterdeep,” by Ludia, which is a kind of a phone-based dungeon crawler, based on the iconic “D&D” city of Waterdeep.
And like everyone, Wizards has an eye on augmented and virtual reality.
“We’re mostly in the prototyping phase of that. We think it’s really cool technology,” Cocks said. “We think there’s some interesting overlap between tabletop play and screen-based play. The biggest challenge right now is the interfaces are still a little expensive and not really optimized yet. But we’ve got a HoloLens bopping around between teams and a Magic Leap bopping around.”
Wizards of the Coast has employees in 15 different locations worldwide, with Renton, where it employs 500, the biggest by far. There is a regional marketing and sales hub in London, and sizable regional offices in Tokyo and Sydney, Australia.
Most of the company’s designers, artists and developers are based in Renton.
“We’re a unique games company in that probably half of our population works on tabletop products and the other half of our population works on new digital games that are coming out,” Cocks said. “But they all work on either ‘D&D’ or ‘Magic’ or ‘Duel Masters’ or ‘Avalon Hill’ or ‘Transformers,’ which is our newest trading card game.”
Since joining the company, Cocks said about 80 percent of the people they’ve hired have been for new digital initiatives, and they’re still hiring for positions such as back end developers, digital designers, 3D artists and producers.
“We still have grown in our tabletop business, but we haven’t had to create whole new teams in that side of the business because it’s more of an ongoing effort,” Cocks said, adding that traditional operations and logistics are as big a part of tabletop as creative development and design. “For ‘Magic’ we have to ship a couple billion cards a year and they all have to simultaneously show up in over 6,000 game stores on the same night. ‘D&D’ we have all these books that have to go to all these game stores and all these Amazon fulfillment centers.”
Cocks has played “Dungeons & Dragons” since he was a 9-year-old kid. A neighbor down the street, whose brother served as dungeon master, got him into it. He played with pen and paper through eighth grade, switched over to digital games and played those “D&D” games through college. He took a break when he couldn’t afford computer games anymore, eventually picking it up again a couple of years after college.
He made a career switch in 1999 when his girlfriend (now wife) bought him a copy of the role-playing game “Baldur’s Gate” and it served as his inspiration for deciding he’d had enough of consumer packaged goods with Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati. He wanted to get into the video game industry.
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Still relatively early in his “campaign,” if you will, at Wizards of the Coast, Cocks views the need to attract people to join him as one of the easier parts of the job — even from Renton, when he’s up against the tech giants rooted more securely in Seattle’s traditional tech hubs.
“There’s a lot of passion that goes along with working for us,” he said. “We’re a super healthy business, so we’re able to pay competitively and offer pretty good benefits packages. I think we’re able to pull our weight when it comes to recruiting.”
And he still promotes a flagship product, and the playing of “Dungeons & Dragons,” in the simplest of terms.
“I think the biggest reason to do it is it’s fun,” Cocks said.
Join GeekWire for a live interview with Wizards of the Coast President Chris Cocks on Thursday, Nov. 1, at the Hyatt Regency at Southport in Renton, Wash. The event kicks off at 5:30 p.m. Click here for more details and to register.