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Former Bungie CEO Harold Ryan has been slowly taking the wraps off of his big game company that he’s created in his post-Halo, post-Destiny life in 2019: Probably Monsters. He has raised $18.8 million, and he now has three triple-A games in the works.
In April, Probably Monsters revealed that more details about Firewalk Studios. It’s leader is Tony Hsu, the former senior vice president for Destiny at Activision, and it is making an exclusive multiplayer game for Sony Interactive Entertainment.
In an exclusive interview with GamesBeat, Ryan said that the deal with Sony shows that the company’s approach to managing multiple games and studios, along with its focus on triple-A games, is working.
“It really proves beyond our resumes that the platform we’re building and the process we’re taking for bringing together talented teams is working, and it’s working to the delight of the biggest publishers in the industry, as we look at partnering our teams and their games to bring them to market,” Ryan said. “I think we’re staying true to putting people first as we build the Firewalk team, as they come more and more into the light. You’ll see it really is a people-first team that’s a great example of focusing on making it a place where people can bring their whole selves to work.”
The Bellevue, Washington-based company now has more than 230 people working in three studios. Two are Firewalk Studios and Cauldron Studios, and Probably Monsters hasn’t revealed the third studio’s name yet. We do know it’s working on an unannounced role-playing game.
When the pandemic started just a year ago, Probably Monsters had a little more than 100 employees. Ryan wants people to know the company is serious about making the company a destination where both seasoned and new game developers can have a sustainable career. He wants to have a people-first culture.
“I tell people often that on the back of my shirt, it says “People, Culture, Creativity,” and that really is our focus,” Ryan said. “That is our drive. When we look at our plans, we think about people first, and that takes time.”
Building triple-A games
Ryan has worked on games that have generated more than $5 billion in revenue, such as 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 Firewalk and Cauldron, which Dave Matthews leads. Cauldron is working on a narrative-driven triple-A game, but it’s still under wraps. What isn’t under wraps is Ryan’s approach to managing multiple games and studios at once. Part of the secret is just bringing in good people and letting them do what they want.
It’s not surprising that Sony would turn to Probably Monsters, as the PlayStation company still makes some huge bets on blockbusters. I recently argued that triple-A games aren’t under siege or disappearing. I believe that all of the fads of the moment — nonfungible tokens (NFTs), blockchain, augmented reality, free-to-play mobile games, live services for games on FIFA Soccer, esports, user-generated content, remakes and retro — are not taking away from your triple-A games. As my colleague Jeff Grubb pointed out, these are all additive. The game industry is expected to hit $175.8 billion in 2021, according to game and entertainment data firm Newzoo. As an industry, gaming is taking away time from sports, movies, music, TV, and other hobbies.
The game industry has enough money to go around, and Probably Monsters doesn’t need to raise more right now, Ryan said. Everything in games is getting funded. Investors are pouring money into public offerings, acquisitions, and game startups. Even indie gamemakers are benefiting from this, and they continue to be the creative heartbeat of the industry, supplying the innovative games like Hades that triple-A game companies aren’t making. The first quarter saw $39 billion invested into the game industry in 280 announced transactions, according to InvestGame. That quarterly amount was higher than $33 billion reported for all of 2020.
When a first-party company like Sony trusts a startup like Probably Monsters, that means it is betting that its game can help it with its main mission, which former SIE chairman Shawn Layden recently said at our GamesBeat Summit event, of growing the overall market for games beyond the players who are already loyal PlayStation fans.
“When I started Probably Monsters, I wanted to bring more high-quality triple-A studios and games to the market and have more people learn how to build them,” Ryan said. “For me, what triple-A really means is, as a game that has a focused-player experience, a team really understands what they want to deliver in the game. They don’t have to make sacrifices that take away from that experience. And so I think there’s a real balance in delivering a true triple-A game that should be more about the experience the consumer is going to have when they play it.”
As for having a triple-A studio, Ryan believes that you have to create a positive culture and enable developers to engage with their audiences for the long run.
“In the end, I think that is going to deliver amazing results,” he said. “For me, triple-A exists because as a way for us to plan and ensure longer-term careers for the people that are working here. When you are thinking about delivering a focused vision and not making sacrifices, you get to iterate or polish your creativity as you’re bringing it forward. Our real strength isn’t about a perk related to food or drinks or whatever. It’s really about being a place people really do thrive.”
Firewalk Studios was founded in 2018 with Hsu as the studio head. Ryan Ellis, the former creative director at Bungie, is the game director for Firewalk, and Elena Siegman (who’s been at studios like Harmonix, Irrational Games, and Bungie) is the executive producer.
The first office was in Ryan’s garage.
“Firewalk Studios was the second studio that we built a leadership team around,” Ryan said.
When Sony signed the deal, it wanted the Firewalk Studios team to operate separately from the others. And so Ryan obliged by building a 1,500 square-foot building. That helped create a secure space at the beginning for the team to operate privately.
“At my core, I’m a builder,” he said. “I like building teams. I like building buildings. And companies that last.”
The team now has more than 100 people and it includes a roster of seasoned developers who have helped deliver top-selling, culturally impactful titles, including the Destiny franchise, where all three leads worked successfully together on both development and publishing, as well as Call of Duty, Apex Legends, Mass Effect, and Halo.
This collective expertise helps this team focus on delivering a rich multiplayer game experience with great gameplay and art.
Ryan’s central business team focuses on leadership mentoring, funding, publishing negotiations, staffing, administration, and technology for every studio. That leaves the studios free to focus on their games, culture, and their people, Ryan said. Studios get creative and financial freedom, and so they should have control over their funding. Sony’s Hermen Hulst, head of PlayStation Studios at Sony Interactive Entertainment, said in a statement that Firewalk has an extraordinary team and its original multiplayer game will be an exciting addition to its portfolio.
Ryan said his company has been hiring from all over, including internationally. In the post-COVID future, the hope is to bring people together physically in the Seattle area. Hsu said in a recent blog post that the company’s goal is to give gamers moments when they’re surprised and delighted at what unfolds before them in a game.
“It’s why I used to stay up until 2 a.m. playing Phantasy Star Online night after night with the same group from Server 9,” Hsu wrote. “Or how the neighbors who showed up at my NYC apartment to complain about the noise, ended up jamming with us in Rock Band instead. … We’ve carefully assembled an amazing and diverse team of best-in-class talent who are focused on creating these moments.”
How to run a post-COVID company
Ryan is still figuring out how to pull the company into a cohesive whole after the pandemic is over.
The more the team can limit cross-time zone communications and travel requirements, the better, Ryan said. That said, he said it’s more important to continue to grow the culture and relationships in the teams than it is to think about where everybody should work.
“We don’t know exactly what that structure is going to look like, once COVID settles down, but our focus will be on continuing to build stronger relationships across our teams,” Ryan said.
As the teams get vaccinated, Ryan is looking forward to meeting in person. The company will start doing team barbeques again and bringing families together, starting in small groups. Before the pandemic, the team had monthly barbeques at Ryan’s house.
“When you know people in your environment, that’s trust and it really helps build the team and attract new leaders,” Ryan said.
Ryan said he believes in diversity and one of the cultural pillars at the firm is that you are respected for who you are.
“Every game studio should be a place that people can plan to work for a long-lasting, fruitful career where they get to do work and deliver games they’re proud of,” Ryan said. “How long should we be able to do this? For me, I’m having an amazing team. I love seeing the teams come together. And people really feel like they can be in a place where they’re safe, where they’re respected and trusted.”
He added, “One of the amazing outcomes I’ve seen of building cultures in the studio is where people feel respected. And then they can trust. You see a lot of communication about how they’re feeling and people offering to help. And then on the Probably Monsters side, with our experienced HR team, they have a lot of bandwidth. And we put a ton of support in to help people get if they could use help.”
As for delegating, Ryan said it’s about coaching and mentoring the leadership team about how they make decisions about their games.
“For me, as the CEO of this company, it’s about reinforcing because I think you really have to convince people that you really mean trust and respect, approachability, and accountability. And so it’s about me coaching people to make sure they’re guiding and empowering as they’re building teams,” Ryan said. “You look at my direct reports, and my job is to hold the cultural bar and make sure that we have a business that allows us to stay true to our culture.”
He said the teams should hire leaders that believe in the culture and participate in fostering it and growing it and evolving it over time.
“If you want to have a culture that lasts, you first have to write it down, put it on the wall, get everyone else to read it,” Ryan said. “And it has to evolve.”
“A lot of what I spend my time working on is helping the leadership teams to navigate the pushes and pulls of business versus culture,” he said. “It’s that emphasis on staying predictable to their teams, thinking long term in their plans, between COVID and everything else. It’s put a lot of pressure on what you’re delivering and when you’re delivering it. How do you get a team built with remote work? I spend most of my time mentoring. I’m actually sleeping really well. It’s not keeping me up at night. I wake up in the morning excited to go to work.”
The game industry should have more places where you can say that.
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