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.