How ‘Halo’ Veteran Harold Ryan Plans To Revolutionize Game Studio Culture

Given the imminent arrival of the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, the recent releases of games like like Crash Bandicoot 4 and Star Wars: Squadrons, and with countless blockbusters on the horizon, you’d be forgiven for losing track of every major gaming development–even if they had the potential to fundamentally transform the way the industry operates. This month, ProbablyMonsters took another step towards shaping how games could be made, and it’s one you shouldn’t overlook.

The company, which exists to “unite, guide, and empower talented teams to create exceptional interactive experiences”, announced the creation of its third, yet-unnamed studio, led by creatives from the critically acclaimed Borderlands and Torchlight franchises. The chief architect behind this, ex-Bungie CEO Harold Ryan, is no stranger to success–and he doesn’t plan on breaking old habits.

Ryan, whose 25-year career in the Pacific Northwest has seen him generate over $5 billion of revenue through iconic franchises such as Halo, Destiny, and Age of Empires, established ProbablyMonsters after leaving his role as CEO, president, and chairman of the board at Bungie in 2016. 

Now headquartered in scenic Bellevue, Ryan has a pioneering vision for game studios–one he modestly discussed exclusively with “With ProbablyMonsters, I’ve been given the opportunity to create something unique–the first of its kind,” he says. “We’re a new category of game company.”

ProbablyMonsters’ MO is simple: to build a family of developers with “strong and compatible cultural bonds that transcend from studio culture” and to the games they develop. With it, the organization will bring some better news to an industry that’s plagued by countless, disheartening headlines about poor working conditions.

Already, its HQ is home to its first two teams–Cauldron Studios and Firewalk Studios–which are each developing inaugural AAA next-gen franchises. The newly-revealed third team is focusing on a next-gen co-op RPG. Ryan, with the support of his 150-strong team, is doing everything in his power to revolutionize how they work.

From one Master Chief to another

Ryan’s passion for game creation started at a young age, galvanized by coding lessons on a TI 99/4A from his father, a retired U.S. Navy veteran who Ryan describes as “a real-life Master Chief.” After graduating in Electrical Engineering from Washington State, he entered the world of gaming as a contract tester at Microsoft for Wing Commander-style simulation Hellbender, the first 3D-accelerated PC game for Windows–a game with architecture that eventually allowed Ryan to work on every game shipped by Microsoft over the next few years.

By 2000, Ryan was a release and test manager for the original Halo; by 2004, he was Halo 2’s executive producer and project lead. When Halo 3 rolled around in 2007, he spearheaded the move to make Bungie independent from Microsoft, before going on to make Halo: ODST and Reach. After closing Destiny in 2014, he shifted his focus towards mentoring his team–a culmination of everything he’d learned during his career, and the perfect jumping-off point for shaping his new, culture-centric company: the intriguingly named ProbablyMonsters.

“It was clear we had a lot of really experienced, highly capable business and gaming leaders, who probably were monsters in the industry,” Ryan explains. “When we were in stealth mode, someone asked what kind of games we’d make. The answer was that they’d probably have monsters in them–these two factors were the genesis of our name.”

Going solo–with friends

In 2016, Ryan felt it was time to build a new company from the ground up; the teams he’d led for years were also hungry to step up and lead themselves. Ryan’s close working relationship with Microsoft, both before and during his tenure at an independent Bungie, helped shape his vision for ProbablyMonsters’ collaborative model.

“I have an innate passion to build and lead teams,” he continues. “Working with multiple developers, and seeing the process from end to end, informed my opinion on the importance of culture in building a positive working environment for developers.”

In the last few years, high-profile and much-loved studios have been lambasted by staff and fans about their working conditions, among them CD Projekt Red and, just this year, Naughty Dog during its closure of The Last of Us Part II. Over the last two decades, Ryan himself experienced how the game industry “can be perilous for game developers,” but adds: “I don’t want to just identify the problems. I want to find a solution.”

“ProbablyMonsters is founded on the belief that a positive culture and well-resourced environment will unlock every developer’s potential, transforming their imagination into exceptional player experiences,” Ryan says. “This is a big goal and we still have a lot to learn, but we’ve already made a lot of progress by building three sustainable AAA game studios that all share a people-first cultural foundation.”

In almost five years, ProbablyMonsters has “gone from a vision on a whiteboard, to 150 talented developers from over 60 companies,” attracting creatives from Sony, Microsoft, Activision and Pixar, to name a few. “Our practices, training, and communication process have attracted people from a wide variety of backgrounds, and I’m really proud of that achievement,” Ryan says. However, it’s how he structures his human resources that should attract the attention of developers around the world.

The ProbablyMonsters way

Each studio built by ProbablyMonsters is formed around a game director, who has a particular focus for the experiences they want players to have in their games. Around this, the company assembles a team with a shared passion and vision for what they’re building, and set to work in creating a game based on this. Yet while every studio has a different specialism, they maintain the same access to assistance, expertise and mentorship from the wider company.

The bottom line is that each member of the team, at every level, must uphold values of respect, trust, approachability, and accountability. “These founding principles are literally written on the walls of our company,” Ryan says. “Providing an aspirational environment alongside a shared purpose, along with stability for developers, unlocks greater creativity for developers.

“Sustainability is important to gamers because it gives them better games. It’s important to developers, giving them a healthy career and a team on which to thrive. For publishers it’s important too, because the investment involved in building trust and respect in a business relationship to build and bring a game to market is a lot of work. Sustainable, long-lasting game studios are good for everyone.”

A collaborative future, not just for gaming

Ryan believes that the success of the gaming industry hinges on long-term, deeper collaborations between studios, with a player-first vision–and ProbablyMonsters’ own direction reflects this.

Citing the recent acquisition of Bethesda by Microsoft, he explains: “There’s an increasing hunger for AAA games and studios. We know there’s a high demand for AAA studios and publishers as more original high-quality entertainment is needed. We expect major publishers to look for more long-term partners, and it’s entirely possible that this deal sets a precedent.”

As such, Ryan expects the biggest challenge facing developers will be picking which studio in the industry they want to work with–specifically, on a cultural level.

“Videogames are the largest entertainment category, bigger than music and movies, and it’s time to evolve our industry by treating the artists and developers with respect, caring for their careers, their health, and their families,” he adds. “Putting people first should be the benchmark for the entire industry so that we see great games and healthy careers on a wide scale.”

For this to succeed, Ryan says that cultural cultivation must come from the top. “Leaders must realize that wanting to have power is the difference between authority and leadership. Leadership is about setting examples, training, empowering, and protecting, not about having power over other people.

“It’s also important for leaders to be held accountable. Across all industries, I believe ensuring leaders stay accountable is key to making the world a better place–it’s a principle that extends beyond the gaming industry.”

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