Former Bungie CEO Harold Ryan showed everybody how to go big or go home earlier this month. He announced that his ProbablyMonsters is announcing it has raised $18.8 million for the company’s two triple-A game studios.
Ryan is going to need a lot more money than that to pull off not one but two ambitious triple-A projects in an age when there are a lot of pressures on the creation of blockbuster video games.
But Ryan has some cred. He helped build Bungie into the company that it is today. He took over when it had 100 people, and it now has more than 600. He left in 2016, and then went to work on starting ProbablyMonsters.
And he has done a good job convincing people to believe in his vision for triple-A games. ProbablyMonsters has more than 70 employees across two studios. In July, ProbablyMonsters closed a funding round led by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones; John Goff, chairman of Crescent Real Estate and Goff Capital; Luther King Capital Management affiliates; gaming executive and venture capitalist David Oxford; and other private investors. I spoke with Ryan for nearly an hour, even though he didn’t say a word about the kind of games that his company will build. Still, I found it to be an interesting conversation, and I hope you do too.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: I think you hated my initial coverage of Destiny.
Harold Ryan: [Laughs] Hated? I don’t know how I could have hated it.
GamesBeat: Well, to the degree that you noticed it.
Ryan: I’ll say that there were many points of missed expectations around Destiny, to be fair.
GamesBeat: Well, that was another day. It’s interesting what’s happened since then. I wanted to ask you about Probably Monsters in that context. You achieved some great things at Bungie. In starting up something from scratch, what is the ambition here? Is it to follow some of that same path, or to do something different?
Ryan: For me, starting Probably Monsters was really a chance to step back, think about all the things that I wanted to learn or should have learned over the last 20, 25 years in games, and to really try to take a new approach. To explain Probably Monsters, not that it was my goal to set up a new category of company, but I think I ended up believing that the best structure to grow new triple-A studios and new IP was what turned into a new category of entertainment company.
The team at Bungie was ready to exist and keep moving forward with Destiny, and then it was a great time for me to take a break, spend some time with my kid before they went to college, and spend some time reflecting and planning for the future. That’s where Probably Monsters started.
GamesBeat: Are you empty-nesting now?
Ryan: Yeah, it’s pretty amazing. They gave me the opportunity to spend a whole summer with my son, who’s studying computer engineering, working on computer engineering projects together. They were game prototypes. It was an amazing experience, to do that while working with a small group of people on culture and structure planning for Probably Monsters. But yeah, he’s going to Alabama. He’s a ways away. It’s a different scenario, for sure.
GamesBeat: There are two studios here, right? That’s usually a bigger beginning than most new companies.
Ryan: One of the needs I see in the industry, honestly, is for more triple-A studios, and I think for more people to learn how to build and grow a triple-A team. Combined with that, I really wanted to see more stability in the career that people have in game development. The goal of Probably Monsters is to build new triple-A studios. I wanted to create an environment of collaboration, but for people working here, one where they felt like their career was predictable, that it was stable, that they had the feeling we were going to be around.
As a game development business, to balance out the things that happen when you’re building games, it’s really about having multiple shops going at one time. It’s also something that, over the years at Bungie — when we spun out of Microsoft, we had three teams. We built ODST and Destiny and Halo: Reach. Those were in development or pre-production at the same time, all with separate leadership teams, all building and growing. A lot of the lessons from watching us try to build that way, and from all the games I’ve published as well — I got to work with probably 20, 25 different studios over the years publishing at Microsoft. Looking at what I thought helped teams grow and flourish is a big part of going after multiple studios at once.
GamesBeat: Was there a good reason to do it this way as opposed to doing one studio with multiple teams? Having two entirely separate studios?
Ryan: Absolutely. There’s a bunch of reasons. One, in this case, we think the right size for an internal, full-time studio is somewhere between 60 and 100, maybe 120 people in that company. Even though we’re starting everything with the same cultural baseline, pushing for trust and respect and approachability in leaders, the teams are evolving into their own methods, how they like to communicate and manage. Letting those subcultures grow is a lot easier in separate companies.
Also, as we develop our games and potentially pick different partners to take the games to market, doing that as separate entities is functionally a lot easier and more predictable for our partners and for us than if we were just one company.
GamesBeat: With the investors, I see that there’s nobody mentioned that’s tied to one of the platforms. Is platform independence important here?
Ryan: To me it’s always been important for a team and a title or a game to be able to pick a partner that can add to it, both for bringing it to market, to be able to delight the fans it’s going to, but also to be a part of the development process. In fact, all of the investors we really went after were investors that could add different perspectives and realms of experience, in business and team-building and entertainment and technology. Our full investor list is a bunch of people that add a lot of expertise to the conversation when we talk about how we’re approaching things and where we’re moving toward in the future.
GamesBeat: Jerry Jones is interesting because he’s been interested in esports in the past. Is that a direction you’re going to pursue? Or does his interest here have more to do with games in general?
Ryan: Certainly Jerry, in the conversations we’ve had with his teams as well, is very interested in team-building and positive cultures and companies that come from it. That’s where a lot of our conversations are. They have their interest in esports as well, but I think they’re a strong partner for us because of how we both feel about building teams.
We look at esports as more of a mode of engagement for fans with a game than as a type of game to build, if that makes sense. It’s an important piece to understand. When we think about streaming and video engagement and how we engage with fans, esports is another way to engage with them. I won’t put words in Jerry’s mouth, though.
GamesBeat: Is it fair to say, then, that the things you make might be multiplayer, they might touch on esports, but that’s not what the company’s all about?
GamesBeat: You’ve been going for a while now. Do you have something that’s going to be announced on a certain timetable? Do you have a foreseeable road map?
Ryan: We don’t have a timetable right now for game announcements or partner announcements on our games. The focus right now is really on announcing the company, so it’s easier for people to understand what we’re doing and where our focus is, but also to help us hit a global reach with our recruiting and partner development.
GamesBeat: How many people do you have now?
Ryan: Right now, across the studios and the parent company, about 70 full-time employees.
GamesBeat: That sounds like both teams are just partially built at this point. Do you still have a ways to go to fill out the teams?
Ryan: Yeah, both teams are at 25 to 30 full-time employees. I give a range because we’re interviewing and growing all the time. But we’re still very much in development.
GamesBeat: I guess there could have been a lot of other routes to go here. It almost seems easier to build a mobile game studio these days. Why did you choose this particular direction, given that there are so many other options out there?
Ryan: For me, starting the first two studios as triple-A development studios is about long-term stability. Building the business plan around a game that would take a couple of years to build and growing a team at that scale and funding at that scale was really about a space that is, to me at least, a little more predictable. Certainly we’re open to building games on lots of platforms and in lots of genres and at different scales, but building two triple-A studios first was about, one, hitting something that we do well as a leadership team, but also looking at the stability that comes from establishing an experienced triple-A studio.
GamesBeat: How would you describe Bungie’s company culture? What is going to be different about Probably Monsters?
Ryan: The Bungie team today, honestly, I don’t — I meet with the leads a bunch. I’m not in it and experiencing the culture together. There are a bunch of things we worked to do when I was a part of the leadership team at Bungie that are incorporated, and some of the lessons from other studios as well, for Probably Monsters.
I think the biggest thing that’s important from a culture point of view is about, one, making a conversation with the team about what they should expect when they come to the company, how they expect they should feel, how they expect to be treated, what they should expect of their leaders, and what’s expected of them in correlation. Then keeping that conversation moving forward. It’s that active part that’s really important. It’s always something that can evolve as your team evolves over time.
GamesBeat: In the days when Bungie grew up, there were different things that people prioritized and were aware of. Anybody starting a new studio these days, they have to be aware of how people feel now about things like crunch and making a company sustainable. It’s a different world today.
Ryan: The core of it, and this is what I posted — when we were first incubating Probably Monsters as an idea with a small group, the challenge I made to us as a group was that if we could define a culture we really believed in and use it as a bar, meaning let it drive who we work with and how we work with them and who we hire and how we lead, really establish our goals, and keep that as something that the team understands — the kind of thing where you write it down and hang it over the front door so that everyone understands it, everyone expects to talk about it and be a part of it. That’s something everyone’s absolutely bought into. It’s been a big part of it.
If you walk into the studio at Probably Monsters today, it’s not over the door, but right when you walk in the door, you see the current statements of the culture pillars and goals and how we want to be treated as individuals at the company.
GamesBeat: I see it right behind your head there.
Ryan: Yeah, it’s down the hall over there. Honestly, I think it’s a conversation that has to evolve, but it’s also something that — you have to make it distinct enough and believe in it strongly enough to write it down and put it in front of people. And then be approachable about disagreements or definitions that are different for people.
As you said, people’s expectations have evolved, but one thing — I’m happy with our current cultural statements because I think they — if you look at all the things that stop people from feeling safe and comfortable with adding their voice to the collective vision and quality of what you do as a team, ultimately they’re about people feeling respected and being respectful, feeling trusted and being trusting. To solve all those issues, leaders have to be approachable. You can’t always understand how someone feels or how something affects them or where they’re coming from. If you can succeed at establishing that cultural baseline, then you can come to understand and deal with and learn and grow with your team as you expand.
These days, you look at — entertainment has shifted to a global audience. We build it with global teams. As much as we have 25 to 30 full-time employees in the studios, we have tens if not 100 or more vendors, contractors, and companies we work with globally already in our development cycle. By the time we bring our games to market, it ships everywhere. It’s more important than ever these days to be a globally inclusive company in how you work with your team, and to let that carry into how you engage with and listen to your audience.
GamesBeat: By extension, do you feel like you have good diversity in your teams now?
Ryan: We have a good start at diversity on our teams. I believe you have to include enough diversity in the conversation to learn to be inclusive, but it has to be a continual loop. You need to build an environment — if you can build an environment where people feel respected and trusted, and you can listen to them and understand and educate yourselves over time, as a business and as individuals, about how to make people feel empowered and listened to, then you can build an inclusive environment and partner that with diversity. Then you have a true team. You can do that.
GamesBeat: It’s interesting to look at who you’ve recruited so far from different parts of your past — Microsoft people, Bungie people. What is the conversation like when you’re seeking to pull someone into a new venture like this? What are some of the things you can communicate to people to convince them? “You have a good job now, but we can bring you into something better here.”
Ryan: There are a couple of things for us. One, to help try to enhance our diversity we actually have a strong non-solicit policy that’s blanket for Probably Monsters. Meaning, we really encourage people to let our jobs postings and our conversation about our company attract people to apply or approach us about working with us, rather than just sticking with our friends network and pulling those people along. Certainly our friends are more likely to be comfortable reaching out to us if they’re interested, but that’s really made a difference in — probably two-thirds of the company now, across all the studios, are people I didn’t work with at Microsoft and never worked at Bungie, when you go through the whole of the teams.
One of the strongest selling points has been truly wanting to be approachable, to make culture a focus of conversation, to make building a strong team a priority first. Then you combine that with building a brand-new triple-A studio from scratch, and also the idea that we’re building original IP as well. In the game industry, those are amazing opportunities. Most people don’t get a chance to work on new IP or be a foundational part of a triple-A studio.
GamesBeat: Are you clear at this point about working on original IP rather than licensed IP? Or are you not crossing that bridge yet?
Ryan: For the two teams right now that are underway at this point, they’re developing and building their own original IP. As we talk to people now for those teams, that’s absolutely there. In total for the team, the real focus is on building original entertainment experiences. If one of those happened to be in a licensed IP, absolutely. There are plenty of worlds out there that exist that are amazing places to imagine building experiences and games.
We have a bunch of opportunities to do that, but we’ve also balanced that with — as we’re building teams, we started our process with our game directors working on their vision and lining up what they’re excited about. For both our studios, we did balance licensed versus original and compared them, but for these two studios, they have amazing IP that are going to delight a bunch of fans when they come to market. We have the opportunity to build them with our partners and take them there.
GamesBeat: It seems like there’s more interest in platforms. We have a new platform war going on now across so many different big companies. We have Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo, but also Google, Amazon, Facebook, and so on. It seems like you guys have some interesting choices for potential partners, for possible exclusives, or deciding to go completely multiplatform. How are you thinking about that?
Ryan: You’re right. There’s a ton of innovation and diversity coming into the market. It does feel like — in three years, it seems like there are going to be 10 different stores that have significant populations where people can go buy your game, whether it’s Amazon or Disney or Microsoft or Sony and on down the line.
For us it’s really about working to understand where we think our audience is going to be and what’s actually going to match, what’s going to marry our creative with an engaging and evolving conversation with the audience when we’re talking about games, when the game goes into their hands. These days you’re not actually done with a game when the audience gets to engage with it and starts talking about it. That’s actually when the next real phase of development starts.
One of the strengths that Probably Monsters adds with my team’s background and expertise — when we’re incubating our creative ideas, we’re building mock marcom plans for them. We’re looking at market segmentation and go-to-market plans and how we might announce that kind of game and where that audience is consuming their information and where they’re passing information back. We’re constantly looking at that across our games and partner relationships as far as how to best bring our creative vision to the market.
GamesBeat: Are there any segments in the market you’re paying close attention to? Do you have any hints about where you might be working? I can’t imagine you’re making social casino games, but is there anything you can say to narrow down where the focus is for your two studios?
Ryan: For me it’s important that the teams get to own that message when they start talking about their products, defining what it is and what it isn’t. So not at this time. But absolutely, when we get to that point, between the development studios and the partners, that conversation will happen.
GamesBeat: $18 million sounds like a lot of money in some respects, but building the kind of company you’re building, it seems like you might need a lot more. Is that in your plans, to raise money in stages? Especially as it sounds like it’s possible there will be more studios.
Ryan: The first two triple-A studios are a real focus, but we are actively working on developing plans and building up a third studio at this point as well. Part of that is — we’re looking at a three, five, 10, 20 year plan for the business overall. We don’t currently need to raise more money, but absolutely, when we map out scenarios in future years, we’re positioned to build partnerships and raise money if we need to.
So far we’ve been lucky enough to be really efficient with our IP and team development. We’ve been able to build original IP and teams and sign great deals with partners long before we ran out of funds.
GamesBeat: I talked to Paul Bettner recently about raising money. He went a very different route, going away from the traditional VCs and going toward a lot of smaller independent investors. One thing he liked about that was the option to have an even longer-term vision before there was some kind of payoff. Is that something we can read into who’s investing in your company as well? There aren’t as many — what you would call the traditional large venture capital funds.
Ryan: You can definitely categorize, in the realm of investment, our opening fundraising round as more of a friends and family round. People who’ve invested as long-term partners. I’ve always been a big fan of intrinsic alignment when you talk about business deals or funding relationships, where everyone shares the same motivations and goals, where success is the same for everyone. That’s absolutely what we have in our opening round. It’s a pretty happy place for the company and for the investors.
GamesBeat: At the same time it’s interesting that there’s probably more game-knowledgeable venture capitalists now than there ever has been.
Ryan: Absolutely. Certainly, there are a bunch of great people in the VC space, and they’ve put in a lot of time thinking about what’s working and not working. They have great advice to give and they can be great partners. For our opening round, though, it was much more — we took our time and picked people that were an additive part of the conversation. To the point where I actually pursued more diversity in our investors, from a business experience and industry experience point of view, rather than wanting to have the view of a single well-educated VC or industrial partner.
GamesBeat: For now, are you concentrated in the Seattle area?
Ryan: Yeah, right now the first two studios are being built in Seattle. That has to do with there being a ton of talent here, and a lot of technology advancement as well. As we learn and grow as a company, as we get better and better at incubating, building, and launching studios, we start first without the added difficulties and challenges that have to do with time zones and having to travel to see people face to face.
At the same time, half the studio or more is in video conference meetings on a regular basis, because we already have global partners. We’re very much working to have our team and all of our processes scalable globally as we develop here in Seattle first.
GamesBeat: Is there anything behind the names? Probably Monsters and Cauldron and Firewalk?
Ryan: Probably Monsters was really — we knew we were going to be self-funded for a long time, and we also know we want the teams, once the studios are ready to announce their games, to own them as the developer of their games themselves. But without just saying “no comment” all the time — when people asked, “What kind of games are you going to build?” I’d say, “I can’t really tell you what kind of games, but I can tell you there’s probably going to be monsters in them.”
I’ll typically show up at DICE every year, as well, with a monster game design pitch. I’ll take one or two of the people on the team and bounce an idea of them, but they end up being the crazy owner of it. Sometimes they’re a little too crazy for the team to think about as real products. But I’d have a few people be interested in building them when I showed up with DICE with these game pitches.
It’s a fun name. It talks about what we’re doing. Game development is all about building amazing experiences, harnessing your imagination and turning it into a player experience. There’s a good chance we’ll build a game or two that has monsters in it.
GamesBeat: How do you look back now on Destiny, in hindsight? The experience of doing it, the lessons of it?
Ryan: For me personally, Destiny was the biggest team, the biggest game I’d ever had the pleasure of being a part of. Seeing a team scale at that point was a great learning opportunity. It was also — I don’t have the whole metrics of the industry off the top of my head, but it came out at a point where service-based games became — both because of streaming and Twitch and all these things that came with that, it became a situation where you ship the game and evolve it with the fanbase. It pointed out, for all developers, how critical it is, when you have a connected online game, to be ready to evolve with your fanbase, and quickly.
Historically, a lot of my teams have built connected games with strong messaging. That’s really where a lot of the market, a lot of consumers are going for their entertainment. They’re connecting. They’re streaming. They’re talking about it.
The other thing, too, it points to how big the market is getting. It keeps expanding. The more connected people are, the more people there are to participate in entertainment. It drives home that side of iterating with your fanbase, but it also shows — and it certainly has been true since then, and going forward even more so — what maybe used to be niche markets are probably still 8 million or 10 million players. There are real opportunities to build amazing experiences that fit what people are looking for at a whole range of scales.
GamesBeat: It was interesting to see how the live service evolved at a time when that wasn’t happening yet in triple-A games. It was mobile games that were learning and doing a lot of the live operations stuff. A lot of the market has shifted that way now.
Ryan: It was one of the key drivers for making Probably Monsters different, really thinking about how to approach marrying technology and forward-looking business planning with creative evolution. It’s too much to say that the industry needed Probably Monsters, maybe. It certainly needs triple-A studios. I believe there’s a need that Probably Monsters can fill. There’s that real need to evolve and iterate with your audience on a rapid basis with a triple-A game. You have to have a strong technology base, and you have to have a strong business plan for how to fund it and how to move it forward. At the same time, your creative team has to understand that audience and be ready to meet their needs and push forward to being a delightful part of their entertainment experience.
There’s a real opportunity for us to set an amazing trend for our studios, where you can look at a Probably Monsters studio, and their names will be the forward piece when we get there, but what they have behind their amazing creativity is going to be this stable baseline of mature business planning, of already knowing what it feels like to launch a triple-A game and engage with a triple-A audience and evolve. We’ve lived a bunch of that already. We can look on the first day at a team and say, “When you succeed with this audience, this is what they’re going to want on the first day. On the second day they’ll want the next thing.”
You look at gaming over the years, it used to be like, it takes eight hours to finish the campaign. But now, between YouTube and remote driving of PCs and consoles, if someone gets stuck somewhere, they get help. They get through it. The puzzles that made the game experience last a long time might not make it last anymore. So what is that value now, that reward, where they feel like they’re being rewarded for their effort to participate in your game with a truly engaging experience? There are lots of examples of being able to analyze and project and then come back and talk to the teams about how to anticipate and be ready for things you can’t anticipate when you bring your game to market.
GamesBeat: I’ve never seen a company like Bungie split itself in two so much, and then wind up coming out of it and going through these wrenching transitions, where half the team might stay behind and half the team might go forward. I wonder how a company, or even an individual, survives that and manages to make it through those transitions. Joining Microsoft, leaving Microsoft, half the team staying on Halo, half the team going to Destiny, and then Destiny going through different versions and eventually leaving Activision — there were so many changes that happened over the years. It always seems to have come out more interesting afterward, but still, it doesn’t sound like it’s a lot of fun when you’re going through that.
Ryan: When I think forward to the future for the Probably Monsters studios, I’m definitely very much working to plan for them to have predictable futures and transitions. A big part of doing that is, one, to give them leadership teams they trust and talk to, so that everyone can be confident that they can communicate proactively throughout the levels of leadership in the company. But also to keep the business planning something that’s efficient and flexible to the point where, if you do have to go through a dynamic transition, you can do it without it being gut-wrenching for the team. It’s the kind of thing where they can feel safe and look forward to it.
That’s a real strength of the Probably Monsters structure overall. When the creative teams are heads-down on their games, the leadership team at the Probably Monsters level can actively be looking out for things that may change drastically in the market, that could affect the team in some way, and communicate that ahead of time, protect for it, and manage the transition to keep it a place where they feel safe.
That’s one reason why I look at wanting to build a long-term, stable career for people inside the studios that Probably Monsters builds. When you’re building games, you want to do a bunch of unexpected, delightful things, but when you’re turning around and thinking about your family and friends and those basic human needs — do you have a roof? Do you have food? Do you have health insurance? Do you have time to be yourself and move your life forward?
All those things are intrinsic to a company respecting the team. It’s very much a core part of where Probably Monsters is positioned to enable our studios, for them to be able to hire people and make plans where they can believe in the stability of the forward-looking plans for their team. Then they can focus on doing amazing things that have never been thought of before and put that into the game experience they build while keeping their lives stable.
I think the game industry in general has that evolution go through. The risk of becoming predictable that people think about is that it means the games will be boring, but I think being able to marry the two, where it doesn’t feel like you always have to be on the edge of having a stable job while you’re doing something amazingly creative — I said before, maybe it’s too much to say on my own that the industry needs Probably Monsters, but I think we’re filling that need of setting these teams up with the possibility, and I think the probability, of having a stable long-term career while doing something at a triple-A scale.
GamesBeat: There are some interesting things happening with business models in the industry now. You have subscriptions, and you have the reactions everyone’s having against loot boxes and other aspects of free-to-play. You can look at different examples of where limits are being hit, I think. We had Star Wars Battlefront II, and Anthem’s development as well, a lot of different lessons out there about how things have changed and where gamers are communicating what they want.
Ryan: For me, there are two things we look at for that. One is keeping the conversation going with people who are watching the industry as far as business analysis and marketing and market segmentation planning, but then also looking at the impacts and what that means as far as how people like to participate in a game, how they like to consume it, how they like to pay for it. Keeping the team understanding where they have flexibility or where they have to be ready for a pivot.
The easiest way to sell it to the team is to say, “We have to be building for the future consumer.” We can’t overindex on exactly how things are today, because we aren’t launching today. Even realizing that the business model that they launch may have to evolve really quickly. Depending on how people feel about it, what the regulations are — any of those things could evolve in the market.
So far, our strengths in being efficient with creating IP and building the team and building partnerships that allow us to — we haven’t finished yet, but we’ll hopefully keep our budgets reasonable and keep our market position. If we do have to flex drastically on how we monetize a game, we have a reasonable chance, a real chance of the team being profitable and getting to do it again.
The real lesson there for me, looking at studios in the industry, is making sure we’re in a position where this is a stable, rewarding career for game developers. All the while we’re working to build things that hit the top of the charts, but the most important thing for the team is building something that they’re proud of, and to have a real career in game development.
GamesBeat: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Ryan: The thing that’s important about Probably Monsters is making sure that people understand we really believe and are working to be something new as we stand up studios and look to mentor and establish them as independent development entities building new IP. I believe the first step there is about culture. It’s about communication.
The one thing that strikes me in that is that a culture of respect and trust — when you talk about things that break with an audience from a monetization point of view, it’s when they don’t feel respected and they don’t feel trusted. But for the teams that stumble, if they’re approachable, if the audience can talk to them and feel like they respond — I think the future consumer — even today’s consumer, but more so the future consumer — is very much like the future game developer. Everyone is coming to an understanding that they deserve to be trusted and respected. They deserve to be heard. To me, that makes a real alignment between company goals and how we work internally, but also how we interact with our fans when we bring our games to market.