“Glorious.” That’s the word Marcus Lehto, a 20-year veteran of industry icon Bungie and one of the guiding forces in the creation of its flagship franchises, uses to describe the experience of building his own studio, V1 Interactive, from the ground up.
“Moving from a huge behemoth like Bungie to being completely independent was simultaneously refreshing and absolutely terrifying,” says Lehto, who was art director on several Halo titles and creative director of Halo Reach. “Starting my own studio was something I aspired to do long before joining Bungie, but I’m glad I waited. At Bungie, I learned so much about what works well with the development of complex games and how failures in leadership can lead to catastrophic hardships for employees.”
Over the two decades he spent with the company, Lehto was tempted to jump ship on multiple occasions, but it’s not easy to leave behind the security of a large, stable company and the friends he’d made there.
“It wasn’t until after shipping Halo: Reach, then moving our large team over to the Destiny project, that I started a real plan to part ways," he says. "I spent about a year helping develop Destiny, but most of the leadership team had already been established while myself and the rest of Bungie we’re building Reach. So, for me, it was a great time to part ways amicably and start something new.”
Lehto was creative director on Halo: Reach before leaving Bungie to start his own studio
"Moving from a huge behemoth like Bungie to being completely independent was simultaneously refreshing and absolutely terrifying."
The period after he left was a transitional one for Lehto, and included a brief return to Bungie that finally cemented in his mind that it was time to fully part ways. While he says he always intended to start something new, he admits there were offers on the table that were extremely difficult to resist.
“Headhunters from other major studios with very large franchises were calling to set up interviews,” Lehto says. “I was lured into a very lucrative deal with a studio down in LA to drive their top action FPS - and I accepted.”
But packing up his life and moving to LA to fall back into the same position he’d just left at Bungie put a huge amount of stress on both Lehto and his family. “It was clear to me that it would be a huge mistake, so I rescinded the offer and doubled down on making V1 a reality.”
Launching a studio is a massive undertaking, though, and one Lehto admits he wasn’t fully prepared for. “It was much harder than I thought it would be. I didn’t foresee is just how much time was needed or how tenuous some things could be, like contract negotiations. On paper I was planning on this taking a couple months -- it took half a year and cost me far more than I anticipated. Thankfully, it all worked out and we quickly started building our new studio.”
Lehto was at Bungie for two decades, working on things like
the 1997 real-time tactics title Myth: The Fallen Lords
While paperwork and legal considerations were a grind, Lehto celebrated the opportunity to hire a team of talented developers and build a new, healthy culture.
“One thing I knew I wanted was a small studio,” he says. “At Bungie, our most successful and satisfying times where when we were smaller, agile, and capable of moving swiftly from concept to implementation. So getting back to a small team of capable developers was a dream I couldn't wait to make reality.”
"Launching a studio was much harder than I thought it would be. I didn’t foresee is just how much time was needed or how tenuous some things could be, like contract negotiations. On paper I was planning on this taking a couple months -- it took half a year and cost me far more than I anticipated."
It was a process of unlearning some of the habits he’d picked up at a massive studio like Bungie and brushing off some of the skills he’d need to lead an intimate creative team.
“Seriously, it’s one of the things about V1 I love the most,” Lehto told me. “Getting the ball rolling wasn’t easy, but once we had a solid core team, a magnetism formed bringing more excellent talent to the studio.”
It started with Lehto and a pair of contract engineers, who now work for V1 full time. “We built a small but playable demo of a game concept we could use for publisher pitches. I expected that particular road to be tough, and it certainly was at times. We encountered rejection of the game concept or the inability to fund the size of the project we wanted to build.”
But Lehto soldiered on and eventually his persistence was rewarded. “Luckily, we caught the eye of the right publisher and came to terms that made us very happy.”
From there, growing the studio was a matter of maintaining the kind of culture Lehto wanted, and hiring talented and inventive people. He talks about the importance of diversity and inclusiveness, of making sure everyone is involved in the design process and never feels like a cog manufacturing someone else’s vision.
“Design never comes from one person or a document on which we execute, it comes from the whole team as we build features, play test, iterate, and innovate together," he says. "My goal with the studio is to maintain a good balance of experienced devs with younger new devs, self-capable, self-driven talented people that work well in our small team environment. My job in driving the studio and project is not to dictate anything, but to guide the many amazing creative and technical ideas and help form them into a cohesive experience.”
V1 Interactive's small team includes CTO/VP Mike Guttman,
who was previously a software director on several entries in the SOCOM series
"One thing I knew I wanted was a small studio. At Bungie, our most successful and satisfying times where when we were smaller, agile, and capable of moving swiftly from concept to implementation."
Lehto benefited from a glut of quality developers (“The amount of talent in Seattle is staggering.”), both recent grads from the nearby DigiPen tech institute and former colleagues at Bungie.
“Some of them I had the honor of hiring years ago and got to hire on again at V1. But we’re always looking for the right people to bring their talents and personality to the team. We hope someone who might be looking for a new game industry opportunity sees this and reaches out to us.”
While Lehto is tight-lipped about V1’s first big project, his passion and enthusiasm are obvious.
“Everyone on the team wants to be able to talk externally about what we’re making,” he says, “but anyone who has been down this road before knows timing is crucial. Here’s what I can say -- it’s a sci-fi action FPS being built in the Unreal 4 engine. It’s an exciting new universe and game that captures our collective experience and reflects the passion we have for developing a game we all want to play.”
Leaving Bungie to start his own company on his own dime (and eschewing the lucrative offers designed to entice him away) was a risky move, but it seems to have energized Lehto. So what advice would he offer other devs contemplating their own leap of faith?
“Embrace taking risks. If you aren’t willing to make that leap into the unknown, where the comfort of your current job, paycheck, benefits and security are all at risk, then maybe reconsider," he says.
"You have to be patient, level headed, able to listen and observe dynamics of any situation. You need to have vision, not just for projects, but for how people can work together. You have to love learning new skills, embracing change, and tackling a different challenge every single day.”