Hasbro’s $1 billion bet on internal game development

Hasbro’s $1 billion bet on internal game development

Last year was a massive one for Hasbro’s video game business, with Monopoly Go and Baldur’s Gate 3 providing the toy maker with two of its biggest hits in games to date.

But those games were licensing deals, externally developed by Scopely and Larian Studios, respectively. And despite the success of those partnerships, Hasbro is actually investing considerably in building out its own internal development. That’s something Dan Ayoub, head of digital product development at Hasbro’s Wizards of the Coast brand, is keen to emphasize when we speak with him at the Game Developers Conference.

Then Ayoub

“The biggest thing to takeaway, which is honestly a little surprise to a lot of people, is that Hasbro is in fact making video games,” Ayoub says. “And we have a considerable investment in our studio structure; we’ve got over $1 billion in games right now being developed.”

The company has four AAA studios right now. There’s North Carolina-based Atomic Arcade, which is working on a Snake Eyes GI Joe game that Ayoub calls “not your daddy’s GI Joe.”

Montreal-based Invoke Studios is working on a Dungeons & Dragons game, while the Austin, Texas-based Skeleton Key is, as the name might suggest, “doing something spooky.”

Finally, there’s another Austin shop called Archetype, where BioWare veteran and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic lead designer James Ohlen is working on a new franchise called Exodus.

“What we’re trying to do [with original IP Exodus] is have the tail wag the dog a little bit and have things going the other direction for the company”

Ayoub says the push for internal development is a natural adaptation for the company.

“Hasbro’s a 100-year-old company and it’s built on play,” he says. “It’s always been about play, it’s always been about entertaining people. And gaming is the predominant form of entertainment for a lot of people, and it’s something that just continues to grow. So in a lot of ways, it makes sense for Hasbro to be in this space.”

And just like more established publishers, Hasbro is looking to build out a portfolio of distinct offerings for players.

“One of the great things we took from the success of Baldur’s Gate 3 is that people really, really like a great, well-executed D&D game, so we’ve got something like that. And with Snake Eyes, while it’s not a new IP, it’s hopefully going to be a shot in the arm to the GI Joe franchise and we can do some new things and express it in different ways in video games than we have traditionally.”

And even though Hasbro has a broad array of known properties it could rely on, Exodus shows its interest in building original IP as well.

“What we’re trying to do there is have the tail wag the dog a little bit and have things going the other direction for the company, which would be something new, where we can create a new IP through video games and then take advantage of the size and scale of Hasbro to do other things with it as well,” Ayoub says.

Exodus promo art showing the two main characters posing on an alien planet.  In the sky behind them, an image of another planet changes into a picture of the warp gate they use for light speed travel

Hasbro is hoping that Exodus will make use of the toy maker’s expertise in non-digital games as well

This isn’t the first time Hasbro has had ambitions for the games industry that extended beyond licensing. In the 1990s, it set up its Hasbro Interactive division, later acquiring the Atari brand and strategy developer MicroProse to build a business of retro-themed titles and PC strategy games. But after the gaming business hit a rough patch, Hasbro sold the interactive business to Infogrames.

When we ask Ayoub why we should think Hasbro is in it for the long haul this time, he points to the investment the company has already made.

“We’ve got a portfolio that goes much, much larger than anything we’re talking about right now”

“Over $1 billion is in video game development right now,” Ayoub says. “And that is just these studios. That’s to say nothing of the other game investments that are happening. Definitely I’ve seen the company put its actions around its words in terms of building these studios around strong leaders, thinking about the long game as well. We’ve got a portfolio that goes much, much larger than anything we’re talking about right now.”

Hasbro’s interest in gaming has already endured some rough times, as 2023 began and ended with layoffs at the company, which said the goal now is to focus on “fewer, bigger, better brands.”

“What we’re doing in the video game space is definitely in line with that conversation,” Ayoub says when we ask how the expansive portfolio fits with the narrowed corporate focus.

“Video games is part of that thing when the company says it’s going to be focusing on certain things. Video games as a category is a piece of that. Really what we’re doing there is quite in alignment with that larger Hasbro strategy.”

Given that Hasbro has still been plenty active on the licensing front, we ask about the risk of diluting the brands and competing with itself. For example, does the Dungeons & Dragons brand really bring as much value to an internally developed Hasbro game when fans of the franchise have so many other options for a D&D game?

Ayoub points to Baldur’s Gate 3, but not as an example of competition for Invoke’s upcoming project.

“For the company and for myself, that was a fantastic example of execution of the brand in an authentic way,” Ayoub says of the Larian-developed game. “And the players came. They loved it and are asking for more. And I think you can see that with other brands as well.

“I’m old enough to remember a plethora of Star Wars games that maybe weren’t what we hoped they would be as a gamer, but when those high-quality titles came, the audience came with them… The appetite is there if we ‘re authentic, and we’re focused on quality. And that is absolutely the priority, and in many ways, the reason for the genesis behind these internal studios.”

As for how the company is going to ensure the games it actually makes live up to that quality bar, Ayoub points to the way these studios have been set up.

“Video games is an integral part of Hasbro’s strategy going into the next 100 years”

“A common theme you’re going to see among all of these studios is leadership and teams that have kind of done something that we’re trying to do before,” he says, noting that the leadership of Atomic Arcade worked on Batman: Arkham Asylum, and is looking with Snake Eyes to do for that character “something similar” to what the Arkham games did with Batman.

Beyond that, he stresses that Hasbro has a “very, very deliberate plan” with its internal studios, and is willing to give them the time they need to get it right.

“Everything’s going to stay in the oven as long as it needs to,” he says. “We’re not going to rush anything out.

“Video games is an integral part of Hasbro’s strategy going into the next 100 years and we have to make sure that everything that comes out is top quality, is authentic, and is something we can build upon, because we’re talking about a couple studios and a couple games right now, but we have much larger ambitions for that.”