Former Bungie CEO Harold Ryan has been ramping up a very big game company since he unveiled Probably Monsters last year. The company raised $18.8 million to fuel staffing for the company’s two triple-A game studios. And now it has crossed more than 100 employees across the headquarters and two studio divisions.
But it’s getting harder to hire people during the pandemic, and it wasn’t easy making the transition so entire studios could work remotely. But in an interview with GamesBeat, Ryan said the company and its staff have adapted to the pandemic, as much as they can. And they continue to work on still-secret, ambitious games that will no doubt run on next-generation game platforms.
Ryan has worked on games that have generated more than $5 billion in revenue, including Halo, Destiny, Age of Empires, and MechWarrior. He spent 15 years at Bungie, where he served as CEO, president, and chairman. He also had key jobs at Microsoft, Ensemble Studios, and FASA Studios. He started Probably Monsters in 2016 and announced the company six months ago. His team has worked on more than 30 blockbuster franchises. Probably Monsters owns Cauldron Studios, led by Dave Matthews, and Firewalk Studios, led by Tony Hsu.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Are you expanding.
Harold Ryan: Yeah, we keep growing. We hired our hundredth employee right about at the beginning of this month. That’s pretty exciting for us. We’re close to our plan for staffing size. We have a goal of being around 110 as we look at building and planning. We’ve now converted our entire hiring process to remote. By the end of this month, we’ll have new employees who we’ve never seen in person.
GamesBeat: That has to be hard. You can’t shake somebody’s hand anymore and say, “Come on board.”
Ryan: I think I saw you last at DICE, when this stuff was starting to become prevalent around the U.S. Even then I was conscious of staying away from people, even if I was connected to them. It’s definitely been different.
GamesBeat: I’ve heard a lot of people say that when hiring a person, or when VCs decide to invest in a company, they’d never do it without meeting someone in person. That’s one of those rules that’s fallen down now. People are improvising.
Ryan: The thing that’s always true about interviews is you only get a short window, even face to face. It doesn’t really reflect what’s going to happen over the years that you work with someone. For us the thing we’ve tried to do is make sure people understand who we are, and that they know who they’re joining. As a company, you’re forced to put yourself forward so they know what they’re signing up for as much as possible and trust that it’s going to be a good fit for them.
A lot of the people you hire in the industry, you can look at their reel, the games they’ve worked on, the roles they’ve had, and have a good idea if they’re technically capable. Most of the fit for people in a company is really about, do they feel like they belong? Do they feel like it’s the right place for them? Because if they do, then they’re open to learning and collaboration and more active conversations to solve for the things that settle people at companies. We’ve tried to double down on explaining who we are.
GamesBeat: I just talked to Mike Frazzini over at Amazon, and he said that they’re realizing people aren’t going to be as productive right now. Anybody you hire might have a longer learning curve.
Ryan: For a lot of us, learning to teach and interact and tell whether someone’s afraid to ask a question in person — it’s something we read through reactions that are harder to see over vidcon. We’ve seen some people who are more efficient, because they’re getting more time blocking. They’re uninterrupted for periods of time to focus on what they want to.
The biggest issue for us is we’ve been working to solve — first we moved our whole development process over to remote, so that we could access all the services of the office. But we’re finding that a lot of people’s home internet connections don’t work well for staying connected in real time to a server for doing work. We took the step early to — we’ve been shipping desks and chairs and monitors and cameras to people’s homes, because most people don’t have a good place to sit and work and stay focused at home for six, eight, 10 hours a day. Most of our team didn’t. We’ve been trying the best we can to set up a remote office for everyone.
GamesBeat: That’s probably something you never would have done otherwise.
Ryan: A couple of big issues were related to security. If you ever have prototype hardware, most of those agreements require that it be locked in an office. That part, for us, has slowed things down a lot. We’re keeping everything we have as a prototype in the office.
For me, I’ve tried to get people to take a break from work when they go home. It’s one of the bigger things we’ve been coaching into people, and ourselves. Now that there’s zero travel time, everything’s instant, you really have to plan breaks. You have to turn things off and step away, or you can get pulled into long, long work hours. It was a hard adjustment for the leadership team over the first few weeks, and I think for a bunch of our studios, where we — all of a sudden there was no travel time, no walk for coffee. That took a lot of breaks from people. We’ve been programming that back into our schedules.
GamesBeat: For the structure of your company, are you adding employees into the first studio still, or is it filling out the second team?
Ryan: Our hiring has been balanced across — we’re three entities. There’s Probably Monsters, Cauldron Studios, and Firewalk Studios. The hiring’s been pretty even into each entity. As the teams grow and progress and their milestones get closer to full development and production, we’re growing our capacity to keep services up.
GamesBeat: I remember one of the startups entering the game engine space a few years ago saying that one of their big advantages was cloud game development. You can be anywhere, work from home, and still be working on the same files anyone else is. How far along have the tools come to enable that kind of operation?
Ryan: It really depends on how much you’re working on the same assets or how your assets are grouped. If you’re authoring a game level and it’s really high resolution and has really big assets in it, and then somebody does a pass and adds a terabyte of data, most people can’t download a terabyte on their home connection very quickly.
What we deployed for our team, the first thing we did for everyone is we created a system that allowed them to remote into the office so they could still use their office computers to get stuff done. That works great as far as the bandwidth between that computer and the server, but you have latency. The controller latency for everything you do there gets in the way of some tasks. Cloud development, where everyone can access for anywhere — if you’re working with files that are small enough, that works well. But if you’re working with big files you still have wait times to swap content back and forth after making big changes.
GamesBeat: Are there things that you want or need now for some of these folks to develop to make life easier?
Ryan: The first thing we did in reaction to COVID, we started off ensuring the team that we’re totally flexible. We’re going to be at home, and if you can’t work, we understand. Whether it was their setup or kids or family or whatever’s going on, we have a PTO plan at our studio. Don’t file any PTO. We’ll extend that through the middle of May. We’re going to do everything we can to support you to work from home, but it’s not required. Take what you need.
We opened up our help desk system for people to get in from outside. If you need a chair, a lamp, whatever, open a ticket and we’ll get it to you. We started fixing that up for people. It’s been a lot for people to try to turn their homes into offices.
GamesBeat: It seems like the game industry — it’s had problems with crunch over the years. Now you come into a situation like this and almost have to have the industry itself fix more than one problem at the same time.
Ryan: An important part of our business structure, when we started building these new studios, is that we have enough stability at Probably Monsters that we could work to make sure that our business plans enabled our project teams to take breaks and not have to — one thing that causes crunch is when business plans are built around getting more done than the team can reasonably do. There are lots of things that lead up to it. For us it’s important to provide our studios the ability to have a safety net that we could apply long before the answer becomes, work them team overtime.
With people working from home, we started doing things like — because we’re flexible, some people are working four-hour blocks. They’re working the middle of the day, the afternoon, and other times. We’re a goal-oriented business, so we don’t track how many hours people work. But we started with the studio heads, the studio leadership and team leaders, and they’re now actively — there’s a 5 p.m. or 6 p.m. schedule for most people. “Disconnect and wind down.” The teams have started doing social events starting at 6 p.m. in their time zone. People are getting together and playing games or doing whatever.
We’re constantly reminding the team to be kind to themselves. Be mindful of the people around you, your family. If you need time, take time. Don’t let this burn you out. But we’re constantly reminding ourselves and our teams that there’s a lot going on. This is not a license to work yourself too much.
We’ve looked at our milestones and plans and we try to make some adjustments. We’re largely still on track, but there are some tasks that are hard to do. People are so used to standing around a whiteboard and drawing and talking. The virtual ones are good, but they’re not great for replacing communicating in person.
GamesBeat: Does the scope of projects have to change to accommodate this kind of work lasting for a long time?
Ryan: I don’t think it affects the scope of our projects. Because we don’t know how long this will happen or how often it will happen — we already had plans to support people working remotely. We’ve certainly accelerated that with the pandemic. We have plans to continue to invest more in supporting remote work and evaluating what it means to treat people’s homes like remote offices.
I don’t think it will cause us to adjust the scope of our games. It does mean there’s a minimum level of technology we have to support, a sophistication of infrastructure, to still make triple-A games when we’re doing it remotely. Luckily for us, we’re at a point — one of the strengths of Probably Monsters is the excellence of the facilities, from a technology point of view. We’re able to build out and support multiple studios with one solution. It makes it very efficient for us to invest in the technology required to hold triple-A developers together from all over the place.
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.