Think of the possibilities!

Above: Shawn Layden, former head of Sony’s game studios.

Image Credit: Sony Interactive Entertainment

GamesBeat: What do you think of the impact we’ll see from the bigger tech giants getting involved in this business in a bigger way? We have Google and Amazon. Apple has Apple Arcade. Things that weren’t happening for much of the game industry’s history.

Layden: A lot of folks from the traditional gaming sectors, where I came from — some of them were alarmed to see the big players moving in. Some of us looked at it and said, “See, there you go. We’ve been telling the world this is going to be a thing.” When you see these big companies moving in, it’s definitely a validation.

This is important. It’s a $50 billion business in North America, a $160 billion business worldwide, and that doesn’t include what’s happened in the last few months, with the industry being juiced up by everyone staying at home under quarantine. Those numbers will be bigger this year, probably, than they were last year. It’s here to stay. It’s going to impact every aspect of life. That’s why you see Amazon or Google or Facebook or Apple wanting to get in on this, because this is where a lot of contemporary entertainment occurs in homes across the world.

I’m happy to see them get in. Every chorus is strengthened by more voices. But I also think they have to have an understanding that being a success in gaming isn’t easy. Just because you have deep pockets and huge ambitions — it’s going to take a few swings and misses until you hit something. I hope that these big players have the patience to see it through, and will also use the platforms and power to enable a wider array of creators to come into interactive entertainment and do something fun and important.

GamesBeat: You’ve had your sabbatical. Is there something you’ve figured out about what you want to do and where you might want to make a big swing?

Layden: I was with Sony for 32 years. When I decided to move on and head into my self-imposed sabbatical, to give myself a chance to recharge and get ready, I didn’t know I was also going to be taking a sabbatical into a quarantine. It was a strange extension of my personal plans. What I’m hoping to do in the future has a bit of an extension on it now, because we’re not doing much of anything anywhere.

I’d like to think that there are still new things to discover and develop and engender in that interesting intersection between technology and entertainment. That nexus is growing bigger and stronger. To your point, all these other kinds of gaming experiences — we haven’t even talked about what esports and what that means to gaming. But as well you see players like Netflix coming out with things like Bandersnatch, which is an interesting experiment in how you can create interactive linear entertainment. We’re going to see more in that area continue to grow.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see that, particularly as a result of three or four months of lockdown, the audience for virtual reality is stronger now. People have had time to allow themselves to immerse into that new technology. I’m hoping, with the next generation of hardware coming through, that we’ll also see iteration, evolution, and advancement across the VR platforms, which would be an exciting place where everything is new. It’s only limited by the ability and the imaginations of creators to bring something wonderful into VR.

I’m looking at all the sectors. I’m hopeful that the industry continues to advance across that. There may be one or two things in there that I can help other people with.

God of War team celebrates victory after the Game Awards.

Above: God of War team celebrates victory after the Game Awards.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

GamesBeat: Do you think we’ll get to something like a metaverse sooner rather than later? Perhaps because we’re sheltered right now.

Layden: I probably won’t live that long. But people are spending more of their time in a technology-enhanced format. You could say all these Zoom calls we’re doing across the world are their own metaverse. People are throwing up their virtual backgrounds and looking like cosplay characters when they get on their Zoom calls.

GamesBeat: I’m hoping we can get to something more immersive than Zoom, though.

Layden: It’s fine for what it is. But it’s just the initial stages. The first gaming machine I ever owned was an Atari 800, which was just the Atari 400 with a better keyboard I think. From that experience, playing Centipede and Space War and — I forget what the driving game was. But one could never imagine The Last of Us II. You just couldn’t. You couldn’t look at a Motorola mobile phone back in 1999 and imagine an iPhone. You couldn’t have drawn that line, but that’s where we ended up. I feel the same optimism around VR, and gaming overall. There’s no way anyone can predict what gaming will look like 15 years from now, but I’m sure looking forward to being there to see it.

The Last of Us Part II

Above: Ellie has to examine her choices and pay the consequences in The Last of Us Part II

Image Credit: Naughty Dog/Sony

GamesBeat: We’re on the verge of a new console generation. I wonder whether you have some observations about that, or even some advice for the people working at these companies and getting ready to launch these big new things.

Layden: Launching a console is a particular dance and maneuver that’s unique to the gaming industry. It only happens every five or six or seven years. It’s not easy. Some of the moves you have to make may seem counterintuitive in the moment. But the whole industry has shown that every successive generation, launches are more solid, more transparent. You can see what it is, see what it does. There are relatively no snafus in the launch of hardware these days. I probably jinxed something by saying that.

Once again, just remember what you’re there for. PlayStation had its own experience across delivering PS1, PS2, PS3, PS4. It’s very important to keep the centerpiece in your mind that the gaming console is exactly that. It’s a gaming console. It may do other things. It may do more things over time. But it’s a gaming console. Keep that in mind. That’s the audience that stays with us in gaming. We grow that audience, but they’re a gaming audience. The hardware needs to come out and speak to that constituency. We’ve done our homework. We’ve worked hard. We’ve developed this huge new platform for you to experience your future gaming time. It’s going to be awesome.

If gaming companies stray away from that, that centered focus around the gaming community, I think they’ll lose their way. That’s the only advice, if you will, that I’d give to the next generation of consoles.

GamesBeat: It definitely feels like the companies that have stayed in this business and have done well are the ones that have done it with management teams that have gone the distance. They’re not always bringing in the manager of the moment from another industry to run this business. It seems to be the case that if you’re going to do well in this business, you have to do it with people who’ve done it before.

Layden: That’s largely true, although every small industry begins with a very tight group of people who are involved in it, and they move from one company to the next and to the next. I remember one time in the early days of PlayStation when I looked around and said, “Did you all graduate from Sega University? That’s what it looks like here.” But it was true. There was a time when everyone in the industry either worked for Sega or for EA at one time. That’s fine, because it’s sort of a sui generis business. It doesn’t have any other analog out in the world. Certainly from a console perspective, it’s the only business now that has the hardware component vertically integrated into software.

At the same time, the industry benefits from bringing new voices in. That’s not just a paean to diversity. It’s more a description of how you grow a business. You don’t grow a business by just having the same people in the room making the same game. Here we go, here’s the game plan for Elves in Space XII as we continue the famous Elves in Space franchise over time. You don’t grow the audience that way. We need new and different things.

I’m hoping that, as the industry grows, because it’s now become so huge and so impactful, we’re getting more people involved. We’re getting writers from film and television involved with scoring and scripts for games. We’re getting people from different art backgrounds, people with different stories to tell. Again, things like the independent developer community are so important, because that’s where a lot of those new voices come in. People who aren’t fluent in the lexicon of gaming can get their feet wet, learning the ABCs of getting a game off the ground in a small space and build that over time into something huge and important.

GamesBeat: You brought up diversity. At the moment that’s the second shock we’ve had, beyond the pandemic. The Black Lives Matter movement seems like it’s an opportunity to bring more change and have the game industry learn from that, and also lead its own form of change. I hope that’s what happens.

Layden: Certainly, and that’s another vector of what was 20th century and what is 21st century. The uprisings we’ve seen over the last few weeks, not just in America but around the world, in support of Black Lives Matter and in spite of all the harm and hurt that’s been done from a position of intolerance over time — we need to break that chain. If we don’t come out of this pandemic, if we don’t come out of this time of upheaval around the world, around the question of humanity and who we are as human race, the only race that counts — if we don’t make some progress to advance that, then why all the suffering? We have to move forward. I don’t want to repeat myself, but we can’t squander this opportunity to do the right thing, to do a good thing, to make a better world. Not just in gaming, but full stop.