The man responsible for the insanely popular Halo franchise, which garnered $3 billion in the span of its first three releases, is ready to talk about his new project.
Harold Ryan, the former studio head and then later president of Bungie, the local game development company responsible for the Halo and Destiny franchises, left in 2016 to quietly establish a company focused on creating partnerships between video game developers and publishers.
Its name, improbably, is ProbablyMonsters.
“The bigger and bigger the consumer audience gets, the more and more original entertainment they’re hungry for,” Ryan said. “Building the right culture is an important part of being able to do that sustainably.”
Perhaps it’s not surprising, considering Ryan’s history. When Bungie was bought by Microsoft in 2000, it resisted moving into a standard Microsoft building in a move to preserve its culture of independence. In 2007, Ryan led Bungie’s departure from Microsoft after employees alleged Microsoft was prioritizing the Halo franchise over new projects. Bungie left behind Halo’s intellectual property in the split.
ProbablyMonsters, based in Issaquah, will be coordinating production contracts between developers that create what the industry calls “AAA games” and publishers that market and sell those games. It revealed two new development studios to work on such games — ones with production and marketing budgets that could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars but will keep players engaged for months, or even years, like the Halo or Destiny franchises.
“Triple-A games cost a lot of money … and I think when you are a publisher, you are going to be careful of the content you are creating,” said Kristina Hudson, director of the Washington Interactive Network, a local gaming industry group. “So a lot of times there’s not a lot of originality from the triple-A developers. You see more creativity from the independent developers.”
There are a few independent video game developers. Bungie is joined by another Seattle-area game publisher TinyBuild.
But most AAA-game development studios are stuck in the push-and-pull between them and publishers. In 2018, the Korean game publisher NCSoft shut down Carbine Studios, a game development studio in California created by the minds behind World of Warcraft. In February, the same publisher laid off more than 100 employees from Bellevue-based ArenaNet, which developed Guild Wars 2.
“They were trying to build new teams, new IPs (intellectual properties), and this is sort of universal in the bigger games companies,” Ryan said.
In January, Bungie announced a split with its publisher of 10 years, Activision (responsible for the Call of Duty franchise). Bungie promised new Destiny releases every two years as per their contract, but production was delayed. Activision said the release of Destiny 2 didn’t meet revenue expectations.
“The industry needs more triple-A studios and I think that game developers really need and deserve a sort of stable, reliable place to work with a great culture,” Ryan said. “I think that people working in the industry are being underserved by the quality of the place they have to work at.”
Much of ProbablyMonster’s 70-person staff was plucked from Microsoft, Amazon, Pixar and a handful of gaming companies. One of its new studios, Cauldron Studios, is led by Dave Matthews, who built the God of War franchise, and CJ Cowan, who had a hand in Destiny and Halo titles. Another, Firewalk Studios, is led by former Destiny executive Tony Hsu and Ryan Ellis from Bungie. ProbablyMonsters is working on a third AAA studio.
ProbablyMonsters is surrounded by game companies. The Seattle area is home to the Xbox Game Studios, Steam, Nintendo North America, and numerous AAA game developers. Since Hudson established the Washington Interactive Network in 2004, the number of gaming companies in the region has grown from 37 to over 400. Game companies raked in $28 billion in 2015.
“We are a global hub of interactive media entertainment,” Hudson said, listing augmented and virtual reality platforms that game companies in Seattle are experimenting with. “This industry constantly surprises me.”
ProbablyMonsters closed a private funding round in July that gave it $18.8 million to incubate new studios and develop new game concepts. Ryan said they’re slowly building game concepts and attaching them to publishers.
“Entertainment itself is so talent-driven,” Ryan said. “But to set up an environment where the talent is properly respected is … a hard union to pull together.”
This story has been updated to clarify which video game franchises Bungie produced.