Q&A: Ex-Bungie CEO Harold Ryan reveals his latest project as a ‘new category of gaming company’

Harold Ryan, CEO of ProbablyMonsters and former Bungie CEO. (ProbablyMonsters Photo)

Harold Ryan has had a long career in the video game industry. His first job was as a tester for the 1996 Windows game Hellbender. From there, he worked his way up to eventually become the CEO of Bungie, the development studio behind the hit Halo and Destiny franchises.

Ryan stepped down as Bungie’s CEO in early 2016, after a 16-year run that saw it develop from the weird little indie video game company that made the Marathon games for the Macintosh to a major global independent production studio.

In late 2016, Ryan went on to found a new company called ProbablyMonsters, headquartered in Issaquah, Wash., which subsequently went dark for almost three years.

But earlier this week, it put out a press release as a mission statement, saying that it was “a new category of game company for the next generation of gaming, neither a traditional developer nor a publisher.”

We caught up with Ryan to learn more about his newest endeavor.

I came to realize a long time ago that my true passion for this was to build teams, to build new IPs, and then help the creative talent that came to build that with me, to bring their vision to life, to take their abilities and grow with them,” Ryan said in an interview.

The leadership team at ProbablyMonsters includes COO Lonnye Bower, former worldwide technical lead at Microsoft; CFO Douglas Kirkendall, formerly of Oak Harbor Capital; and Chief People Officer Shannon Armstrong, an ex-Amazon manager.

ProbablyMonsters has already launched two new studios, Cauldron and Firewalk, with a third in the planning stages. Cauldron is headed by Tony Hsu, former GM of the Destiny business unit at Activision Publishing, and Ryan Ellis, former creative director at Bungie. Firewalk is led by Dave Matthews, former art director at Bungie and WB Games, and CJ Cowan, who was the story lead on the House of Wolves and The Taken King expansions for Destiny. Both new studios already have unnamed projects in development.

Funding for ProbablyMonsters comes from an $18.8 million Series A round that closed in July. Its investors include Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys; John Goff, chairman of Crescent Real Estate; and venture capitalist David Oxford.

The company’s press release made a point of mentioning that its goal is to “establish a positive creative culture” while simultaneously creating and publishing triple-A video games, which is a segment of the industry that’s become notorious lately for grinding up its employees. I sat down with Ryan to discuss his goals and plans for ProbablyMonsters.

GeekWire: One of the reasons why I wanted to talk to you was that you said ProbablyMonsters is a “new category of game company.” If you’re not a traditional developer or publisher, how are you going about doing things?

Harold Ryan: The grounding for saying it’s a new category is that, as I’ve been working over the last few years on building up the business plan for ProbablyMonsters and our approach to building teams, games, and new IPs, what I heard from all of the investment community is that the plan was interesting and different.

The biggest difference for us is the development process we follow. We first look at building the team, taking the idea of a game from the game director or a vision holder for the experience that they want to bring with an audience. We’re working with them to refine that, to help them understand the impact and implications of how, where, and when to bring their idea to market, to help them get a better understanding of the kind of team and culture that they want to build and work within.

Then we really partner with them on both developing their intellectual property, the game, the team, and their relationships in the industry so they have the right partners to bring it to market.

At the same time, ProbablyMonsters takes care of most of what you would typically call the boring side of our business, which is finance, recruiting, human resources, facilities and all that stuff. In a lot of cases, those are things that get in the way of really talented, creative teams. In that way, we’re really a partner and a parent to the studios as they build and grow over time.

GeekWire: So you’re not just the kind of publisher that signs the checks and gets out of the way. You’re actively taking a role in the corporate culture.

Ryan: Yeah, and at the same time, every studio we build is set up as an independent business. While in their incubation period, until their team is developed and ready to do so, we manage the business side for them and help them to grow, but they all have a clear path to being truly independent.

The goal of ProbablyMonsters, and my goal, isn’t to collect and hold onto studios. I really want to see new, independent studios that have strong, stable cultures and business plans exist in the market. That’s really the endgame for us.

GeekWire: You’re actually helping to make these indie companies, and then just kind of letting them fly free into the world.

Ryan: There’s a level where they get to the point where they have shown that they understand what it means to build and run the business. I know a lot of teams in the industry, where I talk to them about the difference between running a business and building their teams and their games. A lot of the reasons why teams end up looking to get acquired is because the leadership that has the real talent for bringing a new experience to market feel like it’s a distraction to do the mundane.

So I wouldn’t say we’re throwing them into the wind necessarily, but if it becomes the right path for them to be wholly independent of ProbablyMonsters, or even if they’re just capable of doing that but choose to stay and use us to help provide them with stability, the team we’ve helped build and grow is that much more capable of doing the right things for the people on their team. They’re responsible leaders at that point. They understand the balance of business and creative goals, and it allows us to scale a lot farther.

(ProbablyMonsters website screenshot)

GeekWire: What is it with your own experience that’s made you want to build a company this way?

Ryan: I came to realize a long time ago that my true passion for this was to build teams, to build new IPs, and then help the creative talent that came to build that with me, to bring their vision to life, to take their abilities and grow with them.

Also, there’s what I think is a real need in the industry overall. Game development … it’s a career for people. This is their life. It should be stable and predictable from a compensation and benefits point of view. I think a key element that is missing too often in gaming, is to work to develop positive cultures, where people feel respected and trusted and safe.

I’ve always valued that, at least attempting to do that. The structure of ProbablyMonsters, the kind of business it is, is really allowing me to work with people, to develop them to the point where I think they have a real opportunity to flourish and grow.

GeekWire: That was something I was wondering about when I read your press release, was how much of this is a response to the current conversation about crunch culture.

Ryan: It’s not just that, certainly. Crunch culture is a really important thing to understand. It’s a real issue.

There are a couple of things that are intrinsic for me. When I talk about building a culture of respect, it’s important that the company has a business plan that respects the people you bring on board. You know that you have the runway. When you commit to someone that’s got a full time job, you actually have the capital reserve to back it up.

There was a reason for us to raise money up front. It’s to give us a stable baseline to build teams on, where we could commit to something like: “Hey, come in. Yes, it’s a new startup, yes, we’re going to build new things, but it’s already a stable place to work. We already have great benefits. We’re going to encourage you to take time off and use your parental leave if you have a kid, to come here for a career, and to come here and have a life that you enjoy.”

One of the things — I’ve made this point a few times to other people — is that when you think about crunch itself, it’s important to understand that for some people, crunch is five minutes after five o’clock. For other people, it’s somewhere north of 120 hours.

I like having open avenues for communication where people feel like their leaders are approachable, where they can express themselves, whether it’s the culture or the time at work or the work process. The things that make it a comfortable place for them to be are things that they’re comfortable talking about. Being comfortable is part of helping the company to evolve and grow its culture to match its team.

Then, on the other side, you have it from an experienced business point of view. I think this is an important part of what the leadership team at ProbablyMonsters adds to studios as we build them, as we bring in and unite groups of talented people and help them to grow into a studio, we’re also bringing experience and expertise to them.

People need to understand that it’s okay to use their time off. I just had a director on one of my teams in one of the studios, who had a kid about six months ago. We have 14 weeks of parental leave. He said, “Well, I can’t take it. It’ll ruin the business.” I’m like, “No. It’s not just a benefits package that’s meant to be there so we can say we have it.”

These managers, these people on the team, need to know that this exists because we believe it’s part of you having a healthy life. It’s part of you maintaining a connection with your family. Things like encouraging people to take time off, having corporate holidays that map to days when schools are closed and when people travel on a frequent basis, and allowing people to spend time to connect as their families grow.

I think that’s all part of what a leadership team has to understand, coach, and manage towards, at the same time as having that communication pathway with the studio teams.

GeekWire: Your people have to know that it’s actually okay to use their benefits, as opposed to being passive-aggressively convinced not to do so.

Ryan: Absolutely. I think part of it, too, is when you look at the business plan, it’s on the company to not sign up for deals where they only have budget for 500 man-hours, but it’s a thousand hours of work to get a thing done. So in order for the company to survive, in order for the team’s career to survive, crunch is required. I think you have to build and manage business plans where that’s not true.

The important piece about understanding what crunch means to people, is that when you’re building something that people enjoy, something they love, something that’s entertaining, something that they play … it’s never going to be a one-size-fits-all. Some individual people may or may not spend extra time on it, but it is about making sure that it’s clearly understood and managed. If the impact of how they spend their time, including the leaders, becomes a drag on the team, you manage that.

I myself over the years have gotten to the point where I know it’s important to let the team know that I’m leaving the office and I won’t be online. I won’t be on my email 24/7, I won’t be answering texts at 2 a.m., I will take my vacation. Those are all important examples to set, manage, and communicate in order to address that culture.

GeekWire: It’s funny that this is the sort of thing that you have to establish as a difference between you and other companies in the field right now.

Ryan: These are things that I’ve found are really important to reinforce. I think people’s expectations are unfortunately skewed.

With ProbablyMonsters, our literal statements of our cultural goals are trust and be trusted, respect and be respected, and lead approachably. It’s not that those are the only goals for working at the company, but that’s after spending a lot of time looking at the reality. What’s it like for other people? How do they feel when other things go wrong in the environment they’re working in? To me, that’s a stable baseline that they just don’t expect.

I’ve had a lot of amazing conversations with people and the leadership. I’ve declared, we want you to feel respected, down to how something was communicated, if they felt it wasn’t respectful. To me, it’s an amazing opportunity to be able to have the conversation about reinforcing positive expectations. So when someone doesn’t feel that your intention came through, they actually have the opportunity to find out.

When you think through a whole bunch of the things that go sideways in this industry, as we keep working on that over time, as we get better at it, I think we have a chance to address a whole bunch of issues.

GeekWire: And you guys are explicitly an AAA development studio.

Ryan: ProbablyMonsters itself is building AAA studios. There are a couple of reasons for the first two studios to be AAA, and that means a bunch of things, but in and of itself, I think it speaks to a scale of resources from real estate to tools, and the ability to pivot and have a voice in the industry.

For me, starting the first two studios as AAA was really that it was something that had a predictable enough path and a stable enough base that it would allow us to build on it. We’re focused today on those two studios. We’re actively working on developing a third now. As we look to the future and success, we’ll keep growing new studios, but yeah, starting from a stable baseline is why the first two are AAA.

GeekWire: I’m curious what AAA means in this context. It’s a fairly broad category.

Ryan: It is. It sets people’s expectations as far as the size of the team. For me, the sweet spot for a team has between 75 and 125 people. That’s enough people to have enough experts, people with long-term experience, with talent, and enough to balance out people taking vacations and having the opportunity to learn and study from each other. When we say it’s going to be an AAA studio, at least to me as a game developer, it means I’m joining a team of somewhere north of 75 people.

For most developers, I think – I haven’t done a poll – it also sets an expectation for the scope of the game, and its iteration to final execution. There’ll be time to iterate on concept, pre-production, and production of given phases, with enough time to build and think and re-plan.

At least today, I think it also means that you know your partners for taking a game to market are managing PR and product marketing, and that there was an advertising budget of some kind. The world keeps evolving, and who knows what it’ll be like in three or five years, but I think it helps us set all those kinds of expectations.

GeekWire: So ProbablyMonsters has existed since 2016, and you’ve just had your heads down working since then.

Ryan: Yeah. We probably spent the first year talking to teams, and looking at the development process in the industry as a group. I’m thinking about the impact of culture, how to communicate culture, how to build teams, and really started pulling together our games studios in earnest about two years ago.

We came to the point of doing an announcement, but if you’re going to build an AAA-quality scope of game in a short-ish period of time, you’re going to need a lot of external partners. So we’ve been reaching out and building a network of global development partners to go with the teams in our studios.

GeekWire: And your other two studios are in Issaquah as well?

Ryan: We actually just moved them into a building over by Burgermaster, close to Kirkland. It was a key selling point to a bunch of the team that they’d be that close to Burgermaster. [laughter]

GeekWire: Did you approach the owners at Burgermaster about venture capital? They’re going to be making a lot of money off of you.

Ryan: Yeah, they will be. We tend to have a big impact wherever we go.

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