GamesBeat: They’ve delivered so much more value as well. They’ve gone from a few hours of gameplay to 50 hours or more, as you said. That’s helped gaming do so well right now, while other kinds of entertainment are suffering because they’re more expensive for the consumer.
Layden: If you look at film and television — I won’t bring the costs of making music into this, because that’s reasonably contained. It hasn’t changed that much over time. But if you’re going to make a series like The Mandalorian on TV, or make Dunkirk for the screen, some of these huge epic films, the costs associated with that are huge. But at the same time, that kind of linear content does have a number of different opportunities to create revenue. You start at the box office and then you go to this windowed case where you have airplanes, hotels, HBO, Netflix, Hulu. All these different opportunities for that same piece of content to earn revenue, and they don’t exist in gaming.
Gaming has a big release day. If you make some DLC you have that, or a season pass. But that’s about it. We have to look at other models for gaming content to reach the market and allow creators another chance to benefit from that transaction.
GamesBeat: There are all these things that have grown up around the big $60 games now. We have game subscriptions. We have free-to-play. We have all kinds of ideas and experiments around cloud gaming. Mobile games are the biggest part of the industry. How do narrative games survive in this new context? I can see people looking at the situation and concluding that a small mobile game might bring the best financial return you could get from making a game.
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Layden: I haven’t played in the creation of mobile games myself. But I do see that — it seems like a very iceberg kind of business. There’s the tip of the iceberg, a handful of games in the mobile space that make bank, and then there’s the rest of the iceberg underwater, literally, with all the games that don’t. The hit ratio is very tight in the mobile space.
But what does that mean for narrative gaming? That’s the ultimate question right now, going into the next generation. Let’s just put it this way: It won’t be less expensive than the current generation of game development. You have higher specs and greater expectations around that. 4K HDR artwork and creating worlds doesn’t come cheap. All the costs around gaming are labor costs. You don’t have to build a factory to turn sand into glass or anything like that. It’s just creativity and the ability to bring like-minded people together to accomplish something. It’s all based on people, all the costs associated with it.
How can we look at that and say, “Is there another answer?” Instead of spending five years to make an 80-hour game, what does three years and a 15-hour game look like? What are the costs around that? Is that a full experience? Personally, as an older gamer now, I would welcome the return of the 12-15 hour game. I would finish more games, first of all. Just like a well-edited piece of literature or a movie — I’ve been looking at the discipline around that, the containment around that. It could get us tighter, more compelling content. It would be something I’d like to see a return to.
GamesBeat: Do you think a subscription service actually might help make these kinds of games more possible, some of these smaller narrative games we’re talking about? HBO did very well with their subscription service. Nobody is saying that the quality of HBO’s work is declining because it’s limited to subscription revenue.
Layden: It’s interesting. I haven’t explored the models around the HBO experience or the Netflix experience. I do see a lot of new content being keyed off that. There’s a race to the survivor in the streaming video services. Everyone’s spending to grow in order to see who survives to win. I’m not sure that each investment they make pays off on an individual basis. But then again, they also have other revenue streams. You can buy Game of Thrones on Blu-ray. You can pick up other merchandising around that.
GamesBeat: From your experience, what is your job? What is the best way that you can inspire your creative people to be their best?
Layden: Well, my current job is I’m on sabbatical. I don’t have a direct role in anything right now. But it’s a couple of things. I mentioned earlier that management is there to remove obstacles in the path of creativity. But in a more active sense, it’s important for us to — we take a lot of pitches. We listen to a lot of ideas. Nothing is out of place. Nothing is too outrageous or too crazy. You have to listen to creators as they bring their ideas to you and want you to believe in their vision.
At the same time, you have to push them and challenge them. You have to ask the important questions, not just around cost and manpower and market size, but poke them through the journey. Why are we doing this game? What itch are we scratching with this? What problem are we solving? Sometimes it’s just a creator who has a vision that they need to get out of their head. Some of the best games in the world have come that way.
One thing I’ve learned about game development over time is that no great game came from a committee’s decision. All the great games have one or two or sometimes three, but never more than that, visionaries who have a combined thought about what it is they want to deliver, what story they want to tell, what reaction they want to see. There are bad times like the film industry back in the ’80s, where committees would come together and say, “Let’s make a buddy movie! We need the old cop and the younger cop, and the old cop is two days from retirement, and blah blah blah.” You get a bunch of copycat films like that. Gaming needs to stay true to the vision of a creative team. It’s not about the publishing company. It’s not about management types. It’s about who has a burning story that they have to get out of themselves and express through gaming. How can we help them get there?
GamesBeat: How different is life for you now? You’re not at the same company you were at for decades. I remember you seemed to enjoy giving talks about the industry with some kind of goal or message. The DICE Summit talk was one of those examples I remember very well. It must be very different being outside, and not being responsible for carrying a company’s message. Are there some things you feel about the game industry that you can talk about now that you aren’t carrying that message?
Layden: You mean that I have an Xbox in my living room? You can probably see it here. In a whole host of ways this is an important and interesting time, not just for gaming, but for society overall. We’ve had this virus situation for virtually all of 2020, and it continues to impact countries all over the world. It’s changed our way of life, our way of work certainly.
I left the company at the end of last year. I don’t know how they’re managing to do all of these things remotely. Worldwide Studios, when I left, was about 2,600 people. Everyone’s working from home, trying to continue to create their games and bring them to conclusions. That has to be a huge challenge. With teams that are working on having scrum standups three times a week and looking at deliverables and being able to update source at the studio from their, let’s say, less than robust local telecom internet connection. There has to be a host of challenges around that.
I’m heartened to see that the teams have found ways to get through that. The delivery of The Last of Us II has shown that you can finish a game remotely. But it’s going to be a challenge for those early ideation phases in game development. How do you come together and knock together the great idea? I’m not sure how effective that is over Zoom, but I know that teams are working around that.
This is an opportunity, though, as we change our way of life and our way of work, to look at what it is we want to come back to. People use the phrase “We’re going to get back to normal,” as if getting back to normal is getting back to the world of 2019. That world is gone. That world is now sealed in amber. Everything that was pre-virus is now a historical artifact. We can explore it and look at it and take lessons from it, but there’s no getting back to that.
As we go forward, we have to understand what the implications of extended work from home are like. A lot of people have found that in this environment of working from home, people are beginning to reevaluate their own relationship with work. It would be unreasonable to expect that, even if a vaccine is found, people are going to want to go back to work and do the 80- or 90-hour week at the office and come home and try to recover over the weekend to go back into that.
The pace of life is slowing down. That’s not a bad thing. If we don’t take something positive from this extended period of quarantine, we’ve really squandered the opportunity. When we come out of this — the 20th century lasted 20 years longer than it was supposed to. It didn’t end in the year 2000, or 2001 for the purists. I think it ended with the virus. The world that comes out of this is the 21st century. As we step into the 21st century, we have to re-examine our relationship with work, our relationship with how we get things done. How do we work smarter rather than working longer? All of those have great implications for every industry, but gaming in particular.
GamesBeat: It feels like companies have to think about things like crunch, about the mental health of their employees, in a way that they didn’t have to concern themselves with in the past. It feels like something to re-evaluate or kick off in a way that — if you’re starting a new century, you want to start it on something of the right foot.
Layden: Certainly. Referring back to the PlayStation announcement a few days ago, I was heartened to see a lot of strong narrative-based games there. I was also very heartened to see a good display of independent developer power. One publisher in particular, Annapurna, showed really well at that event. Looking at the development of games that aren’t strictly all about a 4K HDR rendering and elaborate cast-of-thousands types of gaming. They’ve found a more modest way to play in the next-generation waters.
I want to encourage those kinds of developments, because we get a greater variety. We get a wider palette of games to choose from. I’m excited for the next generation of gaming if we can have a more varied plate of things. Not everything is going to be seven years in the making and a budget of more than $300 million. There’s space for that. Not a lot of space, but some space. But the more modest range games, I think we’ll see a renaissance around them.