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It looks like there is life after Azeroth.
Ex-Blizzard veterans Jen Oneal, J. Allen Brack and John Donham have formed a new game studio dubbed Magic Soup Games. They spend a long time building big businesses at Activision Blizzard, but they left at a turbulent time after shakeups at the company as it saw lots of turnover in the wake of leadership changes and a harrowing sexual harassment lawsuit.
They left Blizzard at a difficult time, and we subsequently saw the stories the company’s reputation brought down with the lawsuit and ongoing unionization efforts. There was very little said about each leader as they departed, and in some ways, I was surprised they didn’t join big companies instead.
But it is clear that the three leaders combined have some powerful leadership skills. That should make them a magnet for talent and future funding rounds. And while there are only five people on the team now, Magic Soup Games should be one of the startups to watch in the future.
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I submitted written questions to the founders and these are the answers I received back. I followed up with more questions and they answered a lot of them.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
Life after Blizzard
GamesBeat: You left Blizzard during a tough time, under tough circumstances. How difficult was it? Was there a kind of healing process, or process where you had to clear your head, to go through before doing this? How does this feel like a fresh start in the wake of leaving Blizzard?
Jen: 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.
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.
I’ve also gotten involved in diversity initiatives outside of the industry. I’ve joined the leadership team of the National Coalition for Equity Impact which is sponsored by the Rand Corporation. This group is a community of diversity practitioners and those interested in advancing the cause. Any amount of positive impact I can make in this space is very fulfilling.
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.
JAB: 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.
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.
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.
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 a powerful positive impact on the world.
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.
GamesBeat: Why did you feel like this was the right path for you after Blizzard?
Jen: 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.
Once I found out that J. and John had similar goals for the kind of games we want to make and the kind of company we want to build – it was an easy decision for me.
JAB: I have a lifelong love of games and strong convictions about the positive impacts games can make in the world. The right path for me was working with people who share that love and passion for this great medium. People with shared vision and values focused on culture and employees. A startup is also appealing because it’s totally different. At big organizations, there is a lot of operational overhead, and more senior roles are further from the day-to-day game development. At Magic Soup we can be nimble. We are a small team and everyone is focused on making the best game possible.
GamesBeat: Some people may have expected all of you to run things at bigger companies, given your background. What made being part of a startup studio more interesting?
John: 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.
Chefs in the kitchen
GamesBeat: How many people have you already hired?
Jen: We’re five Chefs today and working fully remotely from different U.S. states. We intend to grow our team slowly over time and want to give the starting team adequate time to create and iterate on the right ideas before entering production.
GamesBeat: So … you call your employees chefs?
Jen: We are all chefs in this kitchen. It’s a sign of respect and an acknowledgment that everyone is an expert at their craft.
GamesBeat: Have you raised money? How much? From whom?
John: We are proud to be working with investors who believe in us and our mission.
GamesBeat: Is there any connection to Activision Blizzard?
JAB: We have no connection to Activision Blizzard.
GamesBeat: What city is the studio based in?
Jen: We are fully remote and our current employees work from different states. Fully remote is important to us for two key reasons. First, because we want the broadest access to talent. Second, we know flexibility is important to employees. Our Chefs can live their lives without having to be tied to an office. Take your laptop on a road trip, work remotely while visiting family. We value that and the positive energy it provides.
Jen as the CEO
GamesBeat: Did you go through an interesting process in deciding who would be CEO?
John: J. and I are so excited that Jen is our CEO. All three of us have been CEOs, presidents, or studio heads in prior roles, but we knew Jen was going to be our CEO after our first conversation about it. She brings such great experience in team building and culture setting that it was clear from the start. That feeling extends to the three of us – for each of us, we’re focused in the area where it feels like a natural fit: Jen as CEO, J. leading game development, and me running operations.
JAB: I totally agree, and I’m personally excited to wake up every morning focused on game development.
GamesBeat: Do you have a general description of what you want to accomplish at Magic Soup?
JAB: We want to make massive triple-A games that have positive themes, and to work with people who deeply understand and enjoy the craft of game creation. We also want a high-performing team that brings together many backgrounds and perspectives to build super-fun games. And, importantly, we will be driven daily by our values, particularly being gritty, hungry, and humble.
What’s in a name?
GamesBeat: What meaning does the name have for you?
JAB: 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, new flavors. Even then, to end up with something truly amazing, well that takes a bit of magic.
GamesBeat: Why do you think the two of you will connect well and be able to pull off some magic?
JAB: I remember Jen and I having dinner about a year ago. When the night was wrapping up, we got into a conversation about what we wanted to build next. When I put my No. 1 game idea on the table, and Jen put her No. 1 game idea on the table, it was essentially the same game. We both sat back in our chairs, not saying a lot, just thinking. We didn’t know then but that was actually our ‘back of the napkin moment’ culminating in what we are talking about today. There’s power in having a shared vision—not only for the kind of game we want to build, but what kind of culture we want to create.
GamesBeat: How should games be more inclusive?
Jen: There are a lot of areas for us as an industry to focus on. Making inclusive games starts with having diverse developers who can authentically represent different backgrounds, ideas, and perspectives. Authentic and meaningful representation within a game is critical for inclusivity.
The hero’s journey and the human experience are universal, even if a story is told from a different perspective from your own.
It is encouraging to see our industry supporting players where they are, giving more access to new gamers globally. More thought is going into accessibility to ensure players with various abilities can enjoy games. Developers are making games more welcoming by putting in mechanisms to reward positive behaviors and eradicate toxicity. At Magic Soup, we will no doubt keep learning and adding to our ambitions here.
GamesBeat: Is diversity a priority for hiring? What’s your pitch for bringing people into your company?
John: Our pitch is to join us if you want to work on a massive, inspiring triple-A game, in a fully remote work environment, driven daily by our values. From the start, we are creating an environment where underrepresented developers can do their best work.
JAB: Absolutely. Diverse teams make better games that are appealing to more people. The World of Warcraft team, for example, increased the number of women including those in leadership roles, ending up with the highest percentage of any development team at Blizzard.
And I admired how the Overwatch team prioritized inclusion right from the start, also seeking feedback from the diversity-focused internal Employee Networks to create one of the most inclusive casts of characters in the industry.
Industry-wide, there is more work to be done. These things matter and make a difference, and will be a priority for us at Magic Soup.
What are you cooking?
GamesBeat: What kind of games do you want to make?
Jen: 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.
GamesBeat: Is there something in the new company that is like the antithesis of what you did before? Like are there some things you don’t want to do that have happened elsewhere?
John: For us it’s important to look forward, not backward. We’re excited about our ability to make the types of games we want to make, with people who are aligned to our vision and values at every level, all within a developer-friendly environment that we get to own and establish from the very beginning.
GamesBeat: I imagine starting up a new game studio is a lot of work. Why do you want to go through that? Is there something to prove or accomplish?
John: All game development is hard, but a start-up is a different type of challenge vs making games at big established companies. We have a lot of energy and passion around making games. We’re excited to do that together. And we think we can build something meaningful.
GamesBeat: Is this a great time for a startup?
John: For us, absolutely. The gaming market has seen tremendous growth through the pandemic, technologies continue accelerating, and IPs are further integrating across mediums. That sense of constant advancement and change can be intimidating if you’re just getting started and looking for your own place in the industry, but for the three of us, drawing on our experience leading teams and large-scale entertainment properties, it’s a great time to be starting a new game company – especially one where the focus is on building the right culture as a foundation.
GamesBeat: There is a lot of change now. Are you embracing any new technologies, like generative AI, blockchain, metaverse, etc. that you’re pursuing?
Jen: It’s too early for us to talk about our plans for the game we’re making.
Looking at the past 30 years, there have been certain moments when the world changed a lot, like the introduction of dedicated 3D graphics cards, the PS2, or the iPhone. In those moments, new technologies unlocked new capabilities and reached the mass market, causing an explosion of content. It does feel like right now is one of those moments again. How much more is the world going to change in the next 5 years? We think a lot.
That said, the most important thing for the video game industry to focus on these days isn’t just
the technology. It’s about building a great game with a great team culture. And that’s what we’re prioritizing more than anything right now.
Activision Blizzard in the rear-view mirror
GamesBeat: Activision Blizzard still has ongoing challenges. Are there changes you want to see happen there? What are they?
JAB: It’s unfair to comment from the sidelines. We care about the communities and teams we worked with, and know that there are good people working to create a positive culture for all employees.
GamesBeat: Are there changes you want to see happen in the larger game industry? What are they?
John: As an industry, we need more focus and progress on DE&I, mental health, and player toxicity, to name a few. These are complex areas but they are also fundamental to gaming’s growth in decades to come. And it’s critical that company leaders are actively involved – in their own organization and also coming together across the industry – to drive meaningful change.
Change requires transparency, and sharing what’s working both for current employees and for attracting the next generation of game developers.
GamesBeat: I’m assuming there are five people in the company. When you say there are five chefs, is that all five people in the company? Or does that refer to game designers, and then there are more people who help them (like dishwashers?)
Jen: We are currently a team of five, and we’re looking to add chefs to the mix – so anyone interested should check out our website. Everyone who is a part of Magic Soup is referred to as a chef as a sign of respect for their skill and discipline. And we’re a startup, we’re all washing dishes!
GamesBeat: Have you found any particular tools that really help you run a remote company? Were you skeptical about it at first and then came to like it for any reason?
Jen: There are great benefits to working remotely such as the time savings from removing the daily commute and being able to work from anywhere with a flexible schedule.
In the past few years, there’s been an emphasis on technology improving remote work environments, but less focus on adapting and improving the human skills necessary for interacting virtually. Collaboration with a fully remote team is different, requiring new hard and soft skills.
We think organizations that are successful in working remotely are not just adopting specific technologies, but are focused on developing people skills as well. We’re committed to leaning into this area because we see it as a long-term benefit for everyone in the company.
GamesBeat: I think there are plenty of people in the industry who would look to you for inspiration. What do you say to such people? How do you think what you’re doing is going to inspire people?
Jen: Our number one goal is to make a great game with positive themes that appeals to a broad audience. We want to do it with a high-performing diverse team working fully remotely. If these are the right ingredients for you, consider this your invite to the chef’s guild!
GamesBeat: How much money did you raise and from whom? Or is it self-funded? I think people made lots of assumptions about why both of you parted ways with Activision Blizzard. Are there any assumptions that you would want to debunk or just clarify, like such and such had nothing to do with why I left?
All: Yes, we, unfortunately, can’t share more here.
One more thought to share unrelated to any previous question…
JAB: I believe strongly that video games are inherently a people endeavor. You need talented people who operate at a high level both creatively and professionally, and they need to do it for years in order for a video game to be made. Thinking of, prioritizing, and focusing on the people and the team is the way to succeed.
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