Tanya Watson signs on as president of JJ Abrams’ Bad Robot Games

JJ Abrams’ Bad Robot Games has named game development veteran Tanya Watson as president and chief operating officer.

She will join Anna Sweet, who is CEO of Bad Robot Games, which started in July 2020. Back in May, Sweet announced that the company had raised $40 million, and with Watson on board the company will expand into game publishing.

Bad Robot Games is a division of Bad Robot, which is Abrams filmmaking company. Watson was previously cofounder and CEO of Squanch Games, and she was part of the original creative team of Fortnite.

In an interview with GamesBeat, Watson said that the game division will build on Bad Robot’s DNA of storytelling and worldbuilding. The publishing organization is a rethinking from the ground up on to service creators at a time when having a traditional publisher is no longer enough to guarantee success.

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Watson has a lot of experience heading production teams that get games done. And she is part of a diverse team which, with two women in charge, is pretty rare in the game industry. Bad Robot Games plans to launch immersive worlds that can spread to different game genres, platforms, and media. I saw Watson years ago when she introduced Bulletstorm to the press at a raucous event at Electronic Arts. She also worked on big games such as Gears of War and Unreal Tournament.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Above: Tanya Watson is president and COO of Bad Robot Games.

Image Credit: Bad Robot Games

GamesBeat: What was most interesting to you about taking this position?

Tanya Watson: I decided to start looking around–obviously I talked to a lot of companies. But what I loved about Bad Robot is that it’s a company that’s creatively led. Even looking at the Bad Robot Productions team, JJ, Kate, they’re directors, writers. They’re the ones who are in it making the content. I thought the opportunity to be able to build this games team alongside them was too great to turn down. They’re also thinking very much in the innovation space as far as where the future of entertainment is going. I wanted to be a part of that here.

GamesBeat: How many people are there now on the gaming side?

Watson: The games side is just under 50 people. The Bad Robot side is about 100, maybe just over 100. We’ve got a few different things going on. It’s quite exciting.

GamesBeat: Are you still prototyping, or are you actually in production on something by now?

Watson: We have a few projects in early stages. One is the internally developed project with Mike Booth’s team, which is the triple-A multiplayer co-op game. We have a few projects going on the publishing side as well that we’ll hopefully talk more about soon.

GamesBeat: Have you worked with Anna before? How do you see your role as different from what kind of things she has to do?

Watson: I’ve actually known Anna since 2003. We have an amazing story. We both got our starts at Microsoft, at the XSN Sports Group. Do you remember the XSN Sports Group? NFL Fever?

GamesBeat: Was it Joe Montana, or was he before that?

Watson: I think that was something different. But we met on that team. We were both at Microsoft, and she went the programming route while I went the SDET route. She ended up going to Valve to build the business at Steam, while I ended up going to Epic on the production track. I spent 10 years at Epic and Anna was at Valve for 10 years. It’s interesting, because she went the business path. She was deeply into developing the business, creating ecosystems, raising money. I went down the production, building games path.

We’ve always kept in touch, though, and when this opportunity came up it seemed like such a great partnership between the two of us, with her experience in business, building ecosystems, and my experience building games, producing games, running studios, getting things out on time. We seemed like perfect foils for each other.

GamesBeat: What were some of your games? Was Bulletstorm the start of it for you, or did you have more before that?

Watson: At Microsoft I worked on Jade Empire. I had a brief time on Dungeon Siege II. I worked on Vanguard: Saga of Heroes. I was on Gears of War as a test lead at Microsoft, and that was when I moved over to Epic. I was a producer on all the Gears of War games. Then I was executive producer for Bulletstorm and executive producer for Fortnite. I was part of the original creative team and got that up to alpha before I started Squanch with Justin Roiland.

GamesBeat: Was that before Fortnite was battle royale, when it was still–I don’t know what you would call it.

Watson: Save the world, yeah.

GamesBeat: That was an interesting pivot.

Watson: I can’t really talk about Fortnite. But there are things to say. Fortnite was a love that–we definitely saw that as something we grew and built on over time.

GamesBeat: Were you attracted to or worried that you might be going into something that was more like a movie company, as opposed to a game company? Or a hybrid of Hollywood and games? There’s been a long, maybe sad history of Hollywood and games. There have been some awfully big successes, but sometimes you remember more that Hollywood and games don’t get along.

Watson: I got a bit of a taste of this when I was at Squanch, having founded that with Justin Roiland. He co-created Rick and Morty. I saw just how amazing the partnership could be. Justin and JJ, they bring a completely different perspective. They don’t have the shackles of game-making like creators can sometimes get over time. I saw how great it was to marry that creative energy with what we could build on the game side. For me, Bad Robot was this even greater opportunity to bring that to the table. JJ and his team are so plugged in and supportive of what we’re building here. I didn’t even worry about that in the slightest. I just saw this great opportunity to make more cool stuff with great creators.

Above: Bulletstorm

Image Credit: EA

GamesBeat: What were some of the things that were exciting to do at Squanch?

Watson: The thing we were innovating on while I was there–Trover Saves the Universe was a game built from the ground up to say, “How do we make a game that feels like a playable episode of Rick and Morty?” Doing comedy and games requires building a game team in a completely different way. That’s what we did. We set out to build a game team that was able to iterate quickly, that could take advantage of world-class voice talent and writing. We partnered with all our writers and concept artists coming from the TV animation side. That was part of why I saw such a great opportunity here at Bad Robot. We can continue to work with best-in-class creators on the film and TV and entertainment side and bring them into games and make them even better.

GamesBeat: I visited Pixar once when they were launching Monsters University. They had this villain character, and one of the biggest decisions they made over the course of the whole movie was to change that villain’s gender, from a man to a woman. They did that late in the production process, and it made everybody pull their hair out, having to redo so much of the animation. They normally operate in a way where they script out everything in detail and then build it. And what they were saying to me was that this is the exact opposite of games. In games you iterate constantly to get it right, even up to the last moment. I’ve always been curious about that contrast between the way different creators have to operate, especially under deadlines.

Watson: I haven’t been here for very long, but what I’ve seen on the Bad Robot side is that we’re in the fold of Bad Robot. They want our teams. They want us to speak to the future of technology and filmmaking. How does Unreal play a part? How do all these tools play a part? Even down to discussing NFTs and the future of where all that goes. The nature of the team being so future-minded makes that easy. It’s not a static working environment. They’re looking to the future. That’s another big reason that I think this is going to continue to go well.

Fortnite is about to explode onto Android.

Above: Tanya Watson worked on the original Fortnite

Image Credit: Epic Games

GamesBeat: It seems like an interesting time right now, because you can have these different choices about things like platforms and business models. Things that were otherwise set in stone not long ago. You had either premium or free-to-play. Now NFTs and things like that offer some new opportunities to make gamers happy and have them pay for things, too.

Watson: It’s an interesting place that the game industry is in right now. But that’s honestly the reason I’ve always loved working in it. I’ve been in it now for almost 20 years. There’s the one constant, which is that things are always changing, always evolving. Whether it’s VR–we were a VR studio at Squanch. Or it’s NFTs or evolving business models and new technology. I couldn’t imagine working in another industry.

GamesBeat: Does the word “transmedia” still make sense in the present time? Are you in some sense a division of a larger entertainment company?

Watson: Bad Robot Games is an independent company. We are treated as a department of Bad Robot, but Anna as CEO and me as COO, we’re 100 percent responsible for all of the day to day operations of the company. I feel like that is important. I feel like that’s a unique aspect of what we’re doing and what we’re building, under the complete support of the Bad Robot team.

We’re not just looking for–we say “crossmedia” but it’s the same kind of idea. We’re looking for more interesting ways for people to be able to enjoy entertainment, regardless of, is it a game? Is it TV? Is it film? Is it animation? People who love an IP–no one has to call themselves gamers anymore, because everyone plays games. We’re approaching it from that angle. Where’s the best place that a story can be told? Is it interactive? Is it a game? Is it film? Is it TV? That’s the approach the Bad Robot team brings to it. It’s reinventing the way those stories are played and experienced.

Generally speaking, the audience is pretty close to what Bad Robot would be targeting. We like to have a broad audience we’re reaching. One of our big pillars at the studio we’re trying to build is games that everyone can see themselves in. That’s important.

GamesBeat: Are you looking for more diversity in your games, then?

Watson: Yes, yes. Stories, characters, creators, the whole thing. That’s an extremely important aspect of the studio we’re building.

GamesBeat: I don’t think that’s controversial in movies. For some reason it is a bit controversial in games?

Watson: [laughs] Why do you think that is? Maybe it comes from the fact that myself and Anna are both women, but we still have work to do here. We have an incredibly diverse team of amazing creators. I think we attract people because of that, because the leadership is that way. People know they can expect to have a good place to work. We’re working hard on that.

GamesBeat: Are you fully staffed yet, or do you think you have a ways to go adding people?

Watson: We still have some growing to do, yes. All our projects are in early stages. I’m expecting that we’ll probably double by the end of next year, or close to it. But then hopefully we can stabilize for a bit while we get some things out.

Above: Gears of War

Image Credit: Epic Games

GamesBeat: It does seem like everybody has some of a problem with that right now. There’s such a boom going on in games. A new studio gets funded every three days, I think. I would guess that means there’s a lot of competition for talent.

Watson: But it’s always been like that. Especially–well, I’ve always worked in the Unreal space, or for most of my career, and getting Unreal developers has always been harder, always more demand. I want to say it was seven or eight years ago, but you remember when there was a wave of acquisitions happening. Everyone was asking what would happen to the next generation of indie game developers. And then you saw them all be born out of this changing tide. I feel like that’s just where we are right now.

As a studio we haven’t had any challenges whatsoever with recruiting. It may just be the people we have on the team, or what we’re building. But that hasn’t been a problem for us yet. Knock on wood.

GamesBeat: There were some years where everyone was talking about how strong the indie game developer community was in San Francisco. And then they all disappeared. Facebook hired them all.

Watson: It’s wild out there. You’re right.

GamesBeat: The talent war seems different now, though. Even policies for things like remote work are going to matter now. Are you focused in Los Angeles, or are you all over?

Watson: We’re fully remote. Before I joined, there were some plans to have a home base in Los Angeles, but since the pandemic we decided to go full remote. We’re not doing hybrid. We will have an office space in Santa Monica, a really cool one that’s on the Bad Robot lot. When it’s safe to return there I’m sure we’ll have lots of visitors. But as a general rule, no one has permanent desks there. Everyone will be working from home.

Coming from Squanch, we were a distributed company. I saw just how well that worked. We’ve been building the culture from the ground up thinking in that way. We’re able to offer benefits to the team that reflect this remote working environment as well. We’re pretty excited about it. It’s been going well.

Above: Unreal Tournament

Image Credit: Epic Games

GamesBeat: You’re a pretty lenient COO. You’re supposed to be cracking the whip, right?

Watson: It’s an interesting thing. People work more when they’re working from home. When they’re engaged, they work more, until you have to tell them to stop. It’s nine o’clock! Get off Slack! We have to do the opposite thing, which is give people time off. The studio is closed. We have almost 40 days a year where the studio is closed. The reason we do that is so that everyone stops. There’s no reason to be on Slack. Just stop working. No one will be around to answer you. We don’t want people to get burned out being at their computer all day and all night. We push hard for having some balance.

It’s funny. I thought that maybe I should put a shed in my backyard, just so I could have a place to walk to. I could have a commute again.

GamesBeat: Is there anything else you’d like to mention today? Are there certain kinds of people you’re looking for that work well at the company?

Watson: Certainly anybody who’s looking for a place that values diversity absolutely. We’re an Unreal Engine-based studio, so any folks who need to learn new skills in that realm as well. Even if we don’t have job postings, we’re kind of hiring for everything right now. We’d love to hear from you. And we’re truly trying to build a new kind of studio here. Even on the publishing side, which we’ll talk about more in a bit.

We know we’re in an era where a great game developer, and especially in the indies, they don’t need a publisher in order to be successful. Everything we’re building right now is about, knowing that, how do we build the best possible publishing business that can support those creators? Anna and I and others are excited to talk about this more as that comes to light as well. There’s just too much–the amount of great things we could be building together, with all the access we have to the talent on the Bad Robot side, is fantastic. We want to be able to bring that to other games if they can use it. If they can take advantage of that, we want to help support them.

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Source: VentureBeat

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