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Harold Ryan, former CEO of Bungie, doesn’t do anything small. And so it’s no surprise that he is running one of the most ambitious video game startups in a long time. Today, Ryan’s ProbablyMonsters is announcing it has raised $18.8 million for the company’s two triple-A game studios.
Ryan has been running Issaquah, Washington-based ProbablyMonsters in stealth since 2016, and today the company is revealing its studios: Cauldron Studios and Firewalk Studios. The combined teams have more than 70 employees.
“For me, starting ProbablyMonsters was really a chance to step back, think about all the things that I wanted to learn or should have learned over the last 25 years in games,” Ryan said. “It was also a chance to try a new approach. My goal was to set up a new category of company.”
In July 2019, ProbablyMonsters closed a private $18.8 million Series A round led by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones; John Goff, chairman of Crescent Real Estate and Goff Capital; Luther King Capital Management affiliates; gaming executive and venture capitalist David Oxford; and other private investors.
The amount clearly isn’t likely to be all the money that the company needs. But as an opening round, it’s pretty good. And the company can probably also get funding from game publishers that are working with each of its studios.
The company plans to offer a new business model for games focused on creating world-class development studios and original games. Each studio is working on an original triple-A game (intended for the PC or consoles) that has been signed by a leading (unannounced) game publisher.
As structured, ProbablyMonsters is a new category of game company for the next generation of gaming, neither a traditional developer nor a publisher. Instead, it creates and sustains independently operated development studios, each specifically formed to develop hit entertainment franchises in genres they are passionate about.
Under Ryan’s leadership, the ProbablyMonsters team wants to establish a strong foundation built on successfully leading multiple triple-A games while establishing a positive creative culture, starting with studio formation, culture, people development, creative development, funding, staffing, administrative, and technical needs. Ryan wants to help mentor the teams to build the right culture and communicate well about the values and expectations for the workplace.
This kind of ambitious game startup doesn’t happen every day. But Ryan has had a unique career. He had a good run at Bungie, taking leadership roles at the studio that made Halo and Destiny for 16 years, from 2000 to 2016. During that time, the studio grew from less than 100 to more than 600 people.
With over 20 years of game industry history, Ryan has been part of teams that generated over $5 billion revenue through blockbuster franchises such as Halo, Destiny, Age of Empires, and MechWarrior. He has held distinguished roles including CEO and President of Bungie as well as key positions at Microsoft and with Ensemble Studios and FASA Studios.
Ryan negotiated Bungie’s divestiture from Microsoft in 2007 and demonstrated the company’s vision as a leading independent game developer while securing over a billion dollars in funding and forging strategic partnerships with Activision, Sony, and Microsoft. He is known for creating exceptional and highly creative results — both critically and commercially — with efficient teams, clear goals, and an atmosphere of respect and transparency.
The tenure at Bungie wasn’t free of controversy. Ryan got into a controversial pay dispute with Halo’s music composer Marty O’Donnell, and that wound up in tough litigation. That sort of personnel battle seemed to happen regularly at Bungie, which was always a high-stakes company.
After leaving the company in 2016, Ryan said he was able to spend time with his family, including helping his son work on a computer science project during the summer. He called that an amazing experience.
Then he began dreaming up the structure and culture for ProbablyMonsters. The name comes from quizzing about what his new company would do, with the typical response being, “I don’t know what it will be but it will probably have monsters in it.”
The culture is designed to be enticing for game developers who crave stability, diversity, inclusion, and respect, Ryan said. Stability in particular is not something that many game developers enjoy in today’s industry. Ryan wanted to learn how to grow a triple-A team from scratch and give it the backing so that developers could create with independence, freedom, and less worry about the future.
“With the goal of ProbablyMonsters of build new triple-A studios, I really wanted to create an environment of collaboration, one where the people felt like their, their career was predictable, it was stable,” Ryan said.
ProbablyMonsters’s team includes Lonnye Bower, chief operating officer and an engineering leader who was formerly worldwide technical lead at Microsoft. Fiscal management and strategic planning expertise is provided by Douglas Kikendall, chief financial officer, and formerly CFO at TheTVDB.com and Oak Harbor Capital.
Human resources and recruiting is overseen by Shannon Armstrong, chief people officer, formerly a senior recruiting manager at Amazon.
Firewalk Studios is headed by Tony Hsu, previously senior vice president and general manager of the Destiny Business Unit at Activision Publishing. Hsu is a champion of new gaming IP and has extensive gaming and strategy experience including the massive launches of Destiny and Call of Duty: Black Ops.
Firewalk’s game director is Ryan Ellis, formerly creative director at Bungie and lead artist at Oddworld Inhabitants.
Ryan said the company formed separate studios, rather than one studio with separate teams, to simplify the businesses.
“Letting those cultures grow is a lot easier in separate companies,” he said. “It’s also as we develop their games and pick, potentially pick different partners.”
Those studios can control their own fates and make decisions that are best for their particular team or game.
As for triple-A itself, Ryan said that is where the teams have experience and can create the best outcomes.
“Triple-A is really about long-term stability, building the business plan around that kind of game,” Ryan said. “And building triple-A studios first was really about getting something that we do really well as a leadership team.”
As for team diversity, he said the company has a good start.
“You to include enough diversity in the conversation, to learn to be inclusive. But that has to be a continual loop. Meaning you need to build an environment and handle an environment where people feel respected and trusted and you can listen to them and understand and educate yourself over time as a business and as individuals about how to make people feel empowered and listen to them.”
Cauldron Studios is headed by Dave Matthews, who has over 20 years of experience managing triple-A teams while helping build franchises like God of War and Myst. Matthews was formerly lead character artist at Sony Computer Entertainment of America and art director at Bungie and WB Games.
Game director for Cauldron Studios is CJ Cowan, who was previously the story lead for Destiny’s House of Wolves and Taken King releases, and Bungie’s director of cinematics for the bulk of their Halo titles.
Ryan said that ProbablyMonsters is committed to building a positive creative culture where game developers can thrive while creating and shipping original triple-A games.
Ryan said he wants to unite, guide and empower talented game developers in a stable and predictable business environment. He wants to minimize painful transitions for creative teams, avoiding things like the wrenching spinoff of Bungie from Microsoft as well as its subsequent parting with Destiny publisher Activision. In those transitions, employees had to make some life-changing bets on where to work.
For the opening round investors, Ryan didn’t go to a lot of famous venture capital firms who are known for seeking big paydays after funding a hot company. He liked Jerry Jones as an investor because of his interest in building teams and running them. Jones has also been interested in esports investments.
“I’ve always been a big fan of intrinsic alignment,” said Ryan. “We picked people who were an additive part of the conversation.”
Ryan said the teams continue to expand and hire new developers, and they’re also working with extended teams and vendors around the world.
As for monetization, Ryan said the company would be flexible.
“The two things that we really look out for is keeping the conversation going with people who are watching the industry, from a business analyst view, and marketing and market segmentation planning, but then also looking at the impacts of what that means, from how people like to participate in the game, how they like to consume, and how they like to pay for it,” Ryan said. “And keeping the team understanding where they have flexibility, or where they have to design to be ready for a pivot.”
He added, “You can’t over index on exactly how things are today, because we are not launching today. And even realizing that, the business model on the day of launch may have to evolve really quickly. One of our strengths is being efficient with creating the ideas and building the team and building partnerships that allow us to finish yet but hopefully keep our budgets reasonable and keep our market position so that if we do have to flex drastically on how we monetize the game, then we can.”
Author: Dean Takahashi