Shawn Layden: 9 takeaways from Sony’s worldwide game studios chief

Shawn Layden and Mark Cerny talk about Sony's game business at Gamelab.

Shawn Layden is the guy at Sony who goes on stage at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) or the PlayStation Experience event, wearing a T-shirt. That T-shirt communicates something to fans, like when Layden triggered a revival of Crash Bandicoot by wearing that T-shirt at an event, leading fans to speculate and then forcing Activision to remake the game.

But Layden never gets much time on stage, and we rarely get to see him answer questions. This week, it was interesting to see him answer some key questions from game developer and PlayStation 4 architect Mark Cerny at the Gamelab event in Barcelona. Layden, who has worked at Sony for more than 30 years, answered questions from Cerny for an hour and entertained audience questions. In the wake of E3, he was able to answer more questions than usual, and the result was a fascinating discussion of Sony’s game business.

I’ll run a story on his full remarks later. But here are 10 of the quotes that stood out from the talk.

Above: Shawn Layden is chairman of Sony Worldwide Studios.

Image Credit: Gamelab

Getting appointed to run Sony Computer Entertainment in Japan.

I was still in London at the time. In 2007, that’s when I got the phone call from the CEO at SCEI. I’m standing on the train platform in Liverpool when my cell phone goes off. “Please hold for the CEO.” Yeah, sure, who says no to that? Then there was Kaz Hirai asking me, “Shawn, how are you?” “Great, thanks, good to hear from you Kaz, how’ve you been?” “How long have you been in England, anyway?”

When you’re CEO you never ask a question unless you already know the answer. When he asked me that, I’m sure he had my file right in front of him. I said, “Eight years, nine months, about 46 days.” “Yeah, that’s accurate. Time for you to come back to Japan.” “Well, I think there’s a lot of good work for me to do here in the U.K. I think it’s important.” “No, I think it’s time for you to come back to Japan.” “But Kaz, what am I going to do?” I didn’t know what kind of job he wanted me to do. “Shawn, I want you to come back to Japan and be president of SCE in Japan, the business unit.”

I had been in game production up until this time. I just started laughing on the train platform, with the CEO on my phone. He says, “What are you laughing about?” “Kaz, you have to tell me. How bad is the situation if you think bringing a game producer from London back to Japan to run domestic sales and marketing sounds like a good idea to you?” Kaz was very honest. He said, “You can’t make it any worse.”

We had just launched PlayStation 3. Every territory was struggling to sell it, especially Japan, getting support for the platform and getting retailers behind it. We’d had a shakeup in culture at the SCE Japan offices. So in October of 2007, I sadly left jolly olde England and moved back to Japan for my first job in sales and marketing, in my entire life.

On getting promoted to run Sony’s game business in North America.

Yeah, it’s not Kaz. It was Andrew House. It was a pitch. “Shawn, great work with the network stuff. We’ve got a new job for you.” “Okay, what is it now?” “We want you to move over and be president at SCEA.” Jack Tretton was stepping down. That’s what got me on the stage at E3 in 2014.

On Sony’s Icarus moment, when it flew too close to the sun with the PlayStation 3. The arrogance nearly brought down the company.

In some ways you can look at the rise of the PlayStation — sometimes it reads like a Greek drama. PlayStation comes out of nowhere, a little kid from the forest who comes to the big city. There’s these two titans, Sega and Nintendo, running everything. PlayStation finds a way to be successful. It finds a way to get a lot of partners on the platform and bring out great games and really disrupt the gaming market.

Then we launch into PlayStation 2, where we come in as leaders. We continue as leaders. Some players drop out of the marketplace and some try to get in and don’t succeed. The PlayStation 2 sales just rocket. Still the biggest-selling platform of all time. And then PlayStation 3, sometimes you can go back and look at it and say that was our Icarus moment. We flew too close to the sun. We took a bit of a dip in the business, to say the least, during the PlayStation 3 era. Only finally fighting it out to parity with Xbox 360 by the end of the life cycle.

PlayStation 4 is a story of redemption. I think we came back. We had the right hardware specs, thank you very much. And we had good support from our partners. I think we got back to our basis of PlayStation being a people’s platform. It’s there to provide something for our third-party partners to succeed with and reach out to their fans. We just try to keep an understanding, keep an appreciation of — we get here with our fans, at the same time. We succeed in our business with our partners, at the same time.

Above: “Look, Atreus. Everything the light touches is our kingdom.”

Image Credit: GamesBeat

Does Sony have the right number of first-party developers and studios for the console war?

For Worldwide Studios now, our output, the number of teams we have, I think it’s about the right size for what we need to do. We’re never going to be like Nintendo, holding the lion’s share of the Nintendo platform game business, because that’s not the way we work. We want to make the PlayStation platform available to all of our third-partners. I think we build success for PlayStation by getting as many people inside the tent as possible that aren’t necessarily controlled by Worldwide Studios.

For Worldwide Studios, our road to success is not necessarily measured by how many studios or how many people I have. It’s if we’re creating significant, impactful, important content that’s either first, best, or must-have products. I don’t really think it’s a numbers game like that.

On highlighting more developers at E3.

In the states, I think, we do this thing in December called PlayStation Experience. PSX is more of a — we have some presentations, and then we have a lot of panels where developers can come out and speak about their products and their games in more depth and detail. There’s more of this kind of activity happening as PSX. We were there last December, and it was amazing to see what was on stage. We had Cory Barlog from God of War. We had Hermen Hulst from Horizon. We had Guillaume from Quantic Dream, and Shivam from Media Molecule. We had five, six, seven creators all there on stage, all coming from Worldwide Studios to talk about the triple-A games that they’re working on in more detail, more in this format.

I still think E3 is by and large a trade show. It’s there for the big sales and marketing push around your titles going into the holiday period. I agree with you, that we need to find more places. I think Gamelab is now one of the places where we can have these more human conversations.

On which games Sony’s first-party studios will do.

First, best, or must. The game you’re working on has to fulfill at least one of the criteria, preferably too. First means creating a first of its kind game — a genre that doesn’t exist, a market that hasn’t been actualized yet. Will your game do that?

That’s an obligation for us as first-party development. We’re not here to create games that steal market share from other publishers. Because we manage the platform, it’s not to steal pieces of the pie. It’s to grow the entire pie. If you create a new genre like Parappa the Rapper did — rhythm action gaming, who know that would be a genre? Or SingStar, bringing in a microphone to your living room? And soon coming out of our studios, a game called Concrete Genie, a new form of entertainment we haven’t seen before. If you can fulfill that, at a Worldwide Studios studios level we’re interested in that project.

Best is probably the easiest one to explain. If you’re best, it means if you’re making an action-adventure, you’re making Uncharted or God of War. If you’re making a racing game, you’re making Gran Turismo. Or a golf game, Everybody’s Golf, my favorite golf game. You must be the best in class. If someone came up with a plan, did all the spreadsheets, and said, “Shawn, this is going to make money for us and it’s going to be the fourth-best racing game ever,” I’m not interested in doing the fourth-best anything. That wouldn’t be something we’d get behind.

Must is probably the other thing that reflects our position as first-party development attached to the platform. There are some games we must do, even if initially the profitability might be hard to make. For example, an easy one for that is PSVR games. When you’re trying to grow the PSVR installed base, how many units are in homes, it’s difficult for some third parties to look at that addressable market and get the business to work for them. But we need games to move the platform. It’s a chicken and egg thing. So at Worldwide Studios we took on a number of PSVR projects in order to support the launch of that platform and getting it off the ground.

So first, best, and must. We look at all of our games through that lens. It helps us make the right decisions, most of the time.

Above: Let’s do that Fortnite.

Image Credit: Epic Games

What is Sony doing about the crossplay problem related to Fortnite?

I’ve got one short statement on that. We’re hearing it. We’re looking at a lot of the possibilities. You can imagine that the circumstances around that affect a lot more than just one game. I’m confident that we’ll get to a solution which will be understood and accepted by our gaming community, and at the same time supporting our business.

On the death of the PlayStation Vita?

The Vita business was very successful in Japan. Vita capitalized on that. The gaming culture in Japan is much more strongly focused around the handheld dedicated gaming machine than perhaps in the west…. And everyone just wants to play games in their room when they get home. That dynamic, and the Japanese developers, put a lot of energy into the Vita platform, which is why it continued to be successful in Japan. We just didn’t have that kind of support here in the west.

Above: The new Spider-Man game coming from Marvel, Insomniac Games, and Sony.

Image Credit: Sony

On storytelling in games.

Another thing that makes Worldwide Studios special is we put a lot of energy and time and dedication into storytelling. We like the big story. We like the narrative. We want to make people think and laugh and cry and get to know the characters and worlds we create. Hopefully you want to live in those worlds for a long time and listen to the stories the characters have to tell.

For us, our entertainment medium is really about, can we move you? Can we get you to have a new thought, to see a new thing? I think that if you look at all of our games, that’s the one thing that knits it all together.

Disclosure: The organizers of Gamelab paid my way to Barcelona. Our coverage remains objective.

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