Harold Ryan, after more than three years in stealth mode, is finally ready to talk about his next venture after leaving as head of Bungie, the game studio behind hits like “Halo” and “Destiny.”
Ryan said he’s set up ProbablyMonsters as a different kind of game developer: It functions as a holding company and incubator that will launch and support multiple subsidiary studios, each one built around a specific game title.
“The teams we’re building are set up as independent studios,” said Ryan, ProbablyMonsters’ CEO and founder. The overarching goal: “to build a culture of trust and accountability between the leadership and people on their team.”
The Seattle-area company is unveiling its first two development studios: Firewalk Studios, led by Tony Hsu, previously SVP and GM of the “Destiny” business unit at Activision; and Cauldron Studios, headed by Dave Matthews, formerly lead character artist at Sony Computer Entertainment of America and art director at Bungie and WB Games. Ryan said ProbablyMonsters is in the process of forming its third studio.
Though he’s now talking publicly about ProbablyMonsters, Ryan is still stingy with details. Both of the studios have signed to top-tier publishers, according to Ryan, but he wouldn’t identify them. The games the ProbablyMonsters studios are developing have budgets of over $50 million, but Ryan declined to divulge anything about the titles — including genre or release timeline — saying that will be left to the publishing partners.
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Ryan also wouldn’t say which platforms ProbablyMonsters is targeting for its games. But the upstart’s titles will likely leverage next-generations consoles from Sony — the PlayStation 5 — and Microsoft’s Xbox (code-named Scarlett), which are both due out in late 2020 and promise more advanced features and powerful capabilities. Meanwhile, there’s a new wave of streaming game services and app-subscription bundles from the likes of Google and Apple.
ProbablyMonsters, based in Issaquah, Wash., currently has around 70 full-time employees; roughly 50 of those work at Firewalk and Cauldron.
In July 2019, ProbablyMonsters closed a private $18.8 million Series A round of funding led by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and John Goff, founder and chairman of Crescent Real Estate and Goff Capital. Other investors include Luther King Capital Management affiliates, individual game-industry execs and venture capitalist David Oxford. Ryan, who retains majority ownership of ProbablyMonsters, said he’s not looking for additional investors at this point.
Ryan’s thesis is that the structure of ProbablyMonsters will provide better stability for game studios. For many game creators in the industry, “it doesn’t feel stable for people. It doesn’t feel like a safe place to work,” he said. “The goal for ProbablyMonsters is to be predictable.”
Over the past two years, multiple indie game studios have shut their doors — in some cases, without warning. Telltale Games, the company behind a popular “Walking Dead” game, laid off virtually its entire staff last year; it has since been resurrected by two game industry veterans looking to tap into its intellectual property.
ProbablyMonsters is forming the subsidiary studios as independent LLCs, with the parent company providing centralized services like legal, finance and HR. The ProbablyMonsters team includes: COO Lonnye Bower, former senior engineer at Bungie and worldwide technical lead at Microsoft; CFO Douglas Kikendall, formerly CFO at TheTVDB.com and Oak Harbor Capital; and chief people officer Shannon Armstrong, who oversees HR and recruiting and was formerly a senior recruiting manager at Amazon.
“A lot of times people end up running a game studio because they’re good at developing a game,” said Ryan. “My role and the role of ProbablyMonsters is to be mentors and leaders for them to build a strong culture and manage teams responsibly.”
Key personnel at Firewalk, in addition to Hsu (who has experience with the launches of “Destiny” and “Call of Duty: Black Ops”), are game director Ryan Ellis, formerly creative director at Bungie and lead artist at Oddworld Inhabitants.
Cauldron Studios’ game director is CJ Cowan, who was previously the story lead for “Destiny’s House of Wolves” and “Taken King” and Bungie’s director of cinematics for the bulk of the “Halo” titles.
Ryan said after he exited Bungie in 2016 as chairman, president and CEO, he wanted to create a new kind of triple-A game company — industry jargon that refers to big-budget projects — informed by his 20-plus years of experience in the biz. He negotiated Bungie’s divestiture from Microsoft in 2007, secured over $1 billion dollars in funding, and landed strategic partnerships with Activision, Sony and Microsoft for the studio. Prior to running Bungie, he held positions at Microsoft, Ensemble Studios and FASA Studios.
As for ProbablyMonsters’ name, Ryan explained, that arose when the team realized people were going to ask what kinds of games they were going to produce. “We said, Well, there’s probably going to be monsters in our games,” he said. “We ended up liking the name.”