GamesBeat: Seattle was hit pretty hard early in the pandemic. Did you have to work unusually fast to make the transition?
Ryan: We did. The first thing we did was — there was an email from me to the team, because people were asking all kinds of questions, and it was before there was a firm answer from anywhere. The first question was, “I feel like I should stay home,” and the answer was, “You should stay home.” “I feel like I should say home to take care of someone.” You should stay home. “I’m worried I can’t work well from home.” Don’t worry, we understand if you can’t work from home. That was our response to people worried about technology or anything else. It’s the way we try to operate as a company, thinking about the business taking on the burden and letting people focus on their lives. That was the first step.
We definitely pivoted hard to look at how well we could support this. Luckily, and I think this has to be true for a lot of people in the industry, we’re already working with international development partners, and have been since the first weeks of development on our titles. To a certain extent we had a bunch of systems set up that would work well for international offices. The hardest transition was getting that to work from people’s homes, because they aren’t set up with the same kind of connections.
GamesBeat: Are you beefing up the internet connections for employees, then?
Ryan: With 100 people, we still have a relatively nimble help desk and IT team, but trying to help people diagnose when you can’t show up at their house to look at it — what kind of connection do you have? Have you updated your router? If you have default firmware sometimes it doesn’t connect so well, things like that. We’re slowly working with people to identify who needs their internet connection improved. We’ve also beefed up the connection at our current office to support more bandwidth.
GamesBeat: Was there also thinking that you aren’t just a Seattle company anymore? You could hire all around the world because everyone is working remotely.
Ryan: Our intention for Probably Monsters was always to grow outside of just being the core Seattle studios. Part of that is building the teams and building a company to focus our learning over time. Learning to run two different studios at the same time — there were a bunch of things to figure out, processes and systems, and those are all easier to do when time zone and distance aren’t issues. Our intention, once we’re done streamlining our operations for local studios, is to start expanding and make sure we have the right practices and systems in place to build and run studios.
A lot of that is around the sophistication of business and technology. You have different tax rules and employment laws and all kinds of stuff like that changing even from city to city. The city of Seattle is different from the city of Redmond. Benefits have to be calculated in a certain way. We’re taking on those complexities one step at a time as we grow beyond employees and studios that are local.
GamesBeat: It was probably a good thing to have raised all the money for this beforehand. I hear from different investors now that it’s taking longer to get funding, even if there’s a lot of money available for gaming startups.
Ryan: There’s two sides to it. Entertainment is showing, again, that in moments of crisis, it’s something people turn to, to separate from their daily stresses. They’re filling their needs digitally. Playing together but staying remote, the whole thing that’s going on right now, that’s really good. Game sales are up for a lot of people.
What I’ve seen from a few potential investors is that there is some money. If they didn’t lose all their money in the stock market, they’re looking at entertainment as a sector that’s still really attractive. But it is true that a lot of people are used to meeting face to face and shaking hands, at least in the U.S., doing deals in person. Now they have to evolve toward doing it all remotely. That can slow things down.
Fortunately for us, and we’ve seen this locally at some studios — with GDC and E3 being cancelled, that’s a lot of business meetings, a lot of opportunities for games to get signed, that are falling by the wayside. We certainly couldn’t predict a pandemic, and that’s not the reason we raised a strong capital reserve, but from the very first, the goal of Probably Monsters was to provide predictable stability to our studios and to the employees and to our business partners. If we’re working on a milestone and the pandemic slows us down, we have the ability to carry the difference until we’re able to deliver that milestone. One of the main goals of raising that money was to give us a real capital reserve for our game development teams.
GamesBeat: How many of your people are from outside Seattle now? Have some of the last ones you’ve hired come from outside the area?
Ryan: Two of the people we hired this month are relocating from California. I’m not sure — just as the pandemic was starting we hired someone who came in from England. The lockdown in Seattle was already starting, so they started working from home. I’m not sure of the locations on everyone, but I know — probably 25 percent of our hires this month are from outside the Seattle area.
Part of what’s happening is that now that all the interviews are virtual, that barrier of booking travel and the expense and time away from their current jobs and lives is moving away. Inasmuch as the process is evolving, it’s one thing that’s more efficient when doing things over video. My hope for the people taking jobs is that it gives them a chance to see more companies and pick the best fit for them. That’s our focus with our interview candidates. We can’t rely on meeting them in person, so we have to rely on them getting to know us as well as possible remotely, so they can make a good decision. I think you’ll see more people finding better jobs for themselves by doing it this way.
GamesBeat: Do you play games with your new candidates?
Ryan: The game industry is small enough, in a lot of cases — now that we have 100 people, we’ve hired from more than 40 different companies. We’re well-connected. In a lot of cases someone we’ve dealt with or played games with recognizes someone from somewhere else. But we’re together doing vidcon social hours with the new hires every time they come onboard. The whole team gets to pop in and out for about an hour and a half and say hello. Individual teams are booking movie nights where they all watch the same movie and have chat running. They’re playing games online. It’s been good. It’s very helpful for the team.
GamesBeat: If you think about designing games for quarantine, making them more social is important right now. I don’t know if you’re already heading that direction.
Ryan: It’s absolutely one of the things I believe in strongly. Anything you do is better if you can share it with your friends. There’s a lot more collaborative, maybe more socially positive interactions in games we’re thinking about building. It’s one of the pillars for both Cauldron and Firewalk. Thinking about aspects of trust and family in their games, how they build that in their team culture and how that comes forward in what they want to foster in their game audiences. If we build games that are competitive, there’s still going to be competition, but it’s a question of how you enable, or how you foster positive online interactions. Both with current friends, new friends, and strangers, if people stay strangers. It’s a great direction to see games going.
GamesBeat: It feels like the world is going to be tilted digital even after we come out of this.
Ryan: We were already heading toward that as far as game consumption goes, if you look at the percentage of games purchased digitally versus physical. It would be interesting to see what the number of actual packages shipped looks like. It’s going to be interesting to see what it does to connectivity. It’s certainly stressing the internet everywhere. That’s going to be one of the things that comes out. What does it take to improve the internet’s ability to serve everyone at full resolution? Sometimes the team in our chat channels is saying, “Internet storm today, video’s choppy.”
GamesBeat: I hope they figure that out before the next generation of hardware arrives.
Ryan: It’s always been one of the things about cloud gaming and streaming games. When you get up to full resolution 4K games running at 60 or 120 frames per second — there’s all kinds of real-time content or downloaded content that can hit the internet hard. It’s something to think about.
GamesBeat: I wonder whether there are some rules about the console cycles that are now being broken because of this. There were always certain sales patterns, notions like starting with a new IP at the beginning of a console cycle. You make the real money on the second and third games in a cycle, that sort of thing.
Ryan: The thing that’s become more and more true over the years is that the new generation allows you to hit a consistent step in fidelity, in the resolution of what you’re presenting to the consumer. But it’s also now a question of how much more you can increase their connectivity. How strong are the social bonds you can pull forward? Something I’ve always enjoyed in the technology of games I’ve built over time is creating that platform for people to connect, pushing that forward as a meaningful part of the experience overall.
More and more that’s what you’re seeing in the platforms. They’re thinking about this new platform, whether it’s physical or digital, that provides a level of emergent experience, but the question is, how does it relate to people’s social networks? Is it a new one? Does it tie to an existing one? How does it pull people together? That’s part of what the focus is going to be in the next generation.
GamesBeat: This question doesn’t really have an answer, but what do you think as far as when to go back to normal, when to come back to the office?
Ryan: Back to normal is a good question on its own. Will it go back to normal? Once we’ve accepted a social distancing piece like this, it has to be an intrinsic part of what we’re ready for. On our part, we’re taking a hard look at people who — if somebody’s work flow from home is 90 percent efficient, they’re probably going to be in the last group of people we think about bringing back to the office as we see what really happens. There are some people for whom working from home means they’re really struggling to get their jobs done. Their work flow just doesn’t work well that way, or maybe they don’t work well that way. Some people on our teams are just missing people face to face.
When we think about going back to the office, we’ll approach that very slowly and responsibly, taking cues from the health organizations and the status, but also I think you’ll see us doing video meetings for a long time before we bring a lot of people together.
It’s an exciting time to be able to grow. A bunch of companies are struggling, but we’re on pace with our growth. We have plenty of funding. We’re stable. We’re going to keep moving and building the studios as we go forward. We’re going to keep looking at improving our business, but I think if there’s anything for people to go after with this, it just reinforces how important it is to be a positive workplace for your team, to be supportive, to think about them first. This stress has pushed a — how can I work? What does work mean to me? My hope, and my goal for the team, the careers people build in our studios, is to provide stability for them. More and more that’s going to be important for everyone.
In the end, we’re here, and we’re going to keep growing. I hope the same is true for the whole industry. But we’re absolutely a good point of stability for our teams.