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Ex-Blizzard Entertainment veterans Jen Oneal, J. Allen Brack and John Donham announced today that they’ve teamed up to form a new game studio, Magic Soup Games.
Now that’s a power trio.
The three co-founders each worked on and led companies behind some of the most recognized games and franchises in the world, including World of Warcraft, Star Wars, Tony Hawk, EverQuest, Diablo, Skylanders and many more. With Magic Soup, they’ll be drawing on decades of experience to build triple-A original games that are genuinely uplifting and inclusive for players around the world.
“J., John, and I have similar ideas about the types of games we want to make, and we’re tightly aligned on company goals and principles, so this was a natural fit for us,” said Magic Soup CEO and cofounder Jen Oneal, in a statement. “We know the quality of our games will be a reflection of our team culture. We’re doing the work up front to make sure we’re fostering creativity, fully remote collaboration and a diversity of backgrounds.”
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The trio funded the new studio themselves in an effort to preserve creative independence. It is striking that they decided to work together and form a new studio at a time when economic doldrums have shaken the industry. And they each could have joined or led much bigger game development teams.
In an email Q&A with GamesBeat, Brack said, “My years at Blizzard were dominated with Blizzard games, so more recently there was a whole lot across the industry to catch up on. Playing games helped inspire me, and reignited my conviction in their potential for powerful positive impact on the world.”
He added, “And that’s where I find myself today – full of fire and energy to create something exceptional. I am even more committed to getting it right, from the start, at Magic Soup. And I’m grateful for Jen and John’s partnership in that vision.”
Meanwhile, Donham said in an email Q&A, “All three of us love to build, and there’s nothing more fulfilling and aspirational than building a new company from the ground up. We’re excited to create the games, vision and culture from the start and to handpick a team of professionals who share our values.”
Rising through the ranks
Oneal got her production start at LucasArts in the late 1990s working on the Star Wars and Indiana Jones game franchises before becoming a producer at Activision in 2003, where she produced several titles in the Tony Hawk franchise.
She later became an executive producer at Vicarious Visions in 2008, where she led multiple teams that
produced both owned and licensed IP games, including Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 and several Skylanders and Guitar Hero titles.
In 2016, Oneal became the studio head of Vicarious Visions. During this time, she oversaw the development and production of Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy, several Destiny 2 expansions and Tony
Hawk Pro Skater 1 + 2. She was one of the recipients of the Great Place to Work for All award in 2018, in large part for her broad focus on culture and values.
In early 2021, Vicarious Visions became part of Blizzard Entertainment, and Oneal joined the Blizzard
leadership team. There she served in multiple leadership roles, including co-lead of Blizzard. She left that role after a few months in November 2021.
Oneal is a passionate advocate for advancing the state of diversity, equity and inclusion in the video game industry. She currently serves on the board of Women in Gaming International as well as the leadership team of the National Coalition for Equity Impact. She also served as an advisory board member for the Young Women’s Leadership Initiative and was a board member of the Girls Scouts of Northeast New York. She is a frequent speaker and panelist on the subject of culture and DEI.
As for doing the startup, she said in an email Q&A, “There are games out there that I love, that inspire new ideas for games I’d love to make. Having my own company helps me focus on exactly that. And I’m most happy when I’m building up a team, helping them get great opportunities and fostering an environment where they can succeed. I also feel strongly about creating a diverse and inclusive company, and it’s fulfilling to be able to create something from the ground up where that is a core principle from day one.”
Big moments at Blizzard
The three leaders spent time at Blizzard during critical junctures in the storied company’s history. I asked them about their impressions of Blizzard in a written Q&A, but they steered clear of the biggest controversies while expressing their support for game developers, creativity and inclusiveness.
Brack has worked in games since 1994. He started his career at Origin Systems as a quality assurance tester on the Wing Commander series, one of the most popular space combat franchises at the time. Later he moved into production where he worked on an unreleased MMO version of Wing Commander. In 2000, J. went to Sony Online Entertainment, where he met John Donham. Together they led production for the award-winning massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMO) Star Wars Galaxies.
He joined Blizzard in 2005 and worked on the World of Warcraft team. Over 12 years, he served in various roles on the team, eventually overseeing all aspects of development and operations. During this period, World of Warcraft solidified its position as the No. 1 subscription-based MMO in the world,
reaching over 100 million players worldwide and regular expansions that rank among the fastest-selling PC games of all time.
Brack also worked to form new teams within Blizzard to create WoW Classic, an acclaimed re-creation of the original pre-expansion experience of the game, and the first Warcraft mobile game, Warcraft Arclight Rumble.
In 2018, he succeeded longtime Blizzard leader Mike Morhaime as president of Blizzard. During his tenure as president, Brack partnered with Oneal, then head of Vicarious Visions, to collaborate on the company’s Diablo II remaster, Diablo II: Resurrected.
He saw some controversies at the time, like when the studio came under fire in 2019 after it punished a Hong Kong Hearthstone player for voicing support of his country’s protests against China.
And Brack’s tenure ended not long after the company was sued for sexual harassment by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing. The agency accused Blizzard of having a “frat house culture” and failing to protect women and others from unfair treatment and predatory behavior at the company. When he left, he was replaced by two leaders, Oneal and Mike Ybarra in August 2021.
Just a few months after that Oneal left the co-lead role at Blizzard, and, like Brack, she stayed under the radar until announcing the new startup today.
The operations chef
Donham is a seasoned game executive and serial technology entrepreneur with experience in building successful startups, leading video game franchises, and managing global teams and businesses.
As one of Magic Soup Games’ three cofounders and head of operations, Donham works to ensure the
company runs smoothly day-to-day and is well-positioned for continued stability and future growth. He started his career in 1992 as an engineer, game designer, and live operations leader making
multiplayer games at Simutronics, including GemStone and DragonRealms.
In 2000, Donham John joined Sony Online Entertainment, where he met J. Allen Brack. Together they worked on the award-winning massively multiplayer online role-playing game Star Wars Galaxies. He went on to run SOE’s San Diego studio and the EverQuest, Planetside, Untold Legends, and Field Commander franchises.
In 2006, Donham cofounded Metaplace, an early version of the metaverse. In 2009, he took over as CEO
and focused the company on the multiplayer social games Island Life and My Vineyard. Metaplace was
acquired by Playdom in 2010, and he became VP of Technology.
Playdom was then acquired by Disney, and Donham was subsequently entrusted to run all product and technology for Disney’s social games. In 2011, he joined Sequoia-backed startup TuneIn as CEO. Over the course of several years, TuneIn grew to more than 50 million monthly active live audio listeners around the world.
Under his leadership, TuneIn secured exclusive content deals from companies such as the NFL, NBA, MLB, CNN and MSNBC and was a launch partner for popular consumer products from Sonos, Amazon’s Alexa,
Google and Tesla.
Donham returned to the video game industry in 2019 as part of Blizzard’s executive team, reuniting with
then-president Brack. There he also met Oneal and helped with studio operations across the portfolio. John also led the company’s transition to a work-from-home environment at the beginning of the pandemic. In 2020, John moved to Amazon, where most recently he served as the head of Prime
Gaming and oversaw Game Growth, Crown Channel and DEI & Learning teams.
While all three leaders will have a hand in building games and the company, each will also have a primary area of focus.
“Jen has great experience as a team builder, culture driver and game maker. John and I are thrilled that she’s helming the company,” said Brack. “John has decades of experience in both games and startups and will run operations. I’m excited to wake up every day and focus on game development with the team. The three of us look forward to the kinds of games and teams we’ll build in the coming years.”
The company has just five people, and the founders refer to them all as “chefs,” each dedicated to creating awesome games from a kind of creative soup.
The studio is a fully remote operation.
As for the name, Brack said, “Making a game is a lot like making a soup. Both take time, both require a lot of iteration and different ingredients. Both require a lot of tasting and testing, over and over. Each new Chef can bring something new – new tasting notes, new spices and new flavors. Even then, to end up with something truly amazing, well that takes a bit of magic.”
And as for the game, Oneal said, “It’s too early to discuss the details. But the spirit is that we will lean on our experience building triple-A games and triple-A teams to create something that brings out the best in people, that celebrates the positive power of what this medium can express. We’re working on something that doesn’t fit neatly into any existing genre today.”
I asked whether the leaders had to go through their own healing process after leaving Activision Blizzard during a tumultuous time.
In part, Oneal answered, “I worked at Activision for almost twenty years. When you spend that much time with people working on something you’re all so passionate about, you become close friends. While I have many good memories of my time there and the great games I got the opportunity to work on, what I cared most about was the people, and it was very difficult to leave, especially during an overall challenging period.”
She added, “After leaving, I still wanted to help women in the industry and continued my non-profit work. I’m very active on the board with Women in Gaming International. I regularly participate in their mentorship programs, panels and talks. It is very gratifying to be able to work one on one with mentees and to see them succeed.”
And she said, “I’m so grateful that J. and I stayed in touch. That was part of the journey, feeling like we were going through this big change together. We have bonded over our love of making games and figured out that together we can make the company we always wanted to make with the kind of team we always wanted to work with.”
Meanwhile, Brack said, “For some time it had been clear I had differences in vision with Activision Blizzard. Yet with 16 years at Blizzard, separation was incredibly difficult, but I believed the organization would heal faster under someone new.”
He added, “I’ve been reflecting a great deal on my role in driving cultural change. I’ve been listening to and reading many personal accounts and opinions about the things that should have been better. As a leader and a human, it furthered my commitment to strive for continual improvement. This is a lifelong quest.”
And he said, “I have also struggled with wanting to account for the real progress that was underway. In my time as president, Blizzard improved identifying and addressing employee inequities and added new company-wide policies for employee safety. We also exited multiple leaders whose behaviors were not aligned with those values. I still believe Blizzard can re-emerge as a haven for creatives with a positive culture for all employees, and I know there are a lot of good people investing their energy into just that.”
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