Shawn Layden was once so influential that his choice of a T-shirt determined the fate of a franchise. Back in 2015 during Sony’s PlayStation Experience event, Layden took the stage wearing a Crash Bandicoot shirt. Before thousands of fans, he talked about a long list of Sony games, but he didn’t say anything about a Crash Bandicoot game.
Fans were disappointed. Soon enough, Activision realized that there was pent-up demand for the little mascot, and it launched the Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy remake in 2017. It followed that up with another remake, Crash Team Racing: Nitro-Fueled, in 2019, and this week it unveiled Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time. Millions of games were sold, all because of that T-shirt.
Over a career that spanned more than three decades, Layden rose through the ranks at Sony to become chairman of Sony Interactive Entertainment Worldwide Studios, an organization with more than 2,600 game developers across 13 studios that made blockbuster games like Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part II. He had to make decisions on games with budgets ranging from $80 million to $150 million. And he had a hand in bringing out games like Horizon: Zero Dawn, MLB: The Show, The Last Guardian, Uncharted, Farpoint, GT Sport, and God of War.
Some games were spectacular hits, such as Horizon: Zero Dawn or Marvel’s Spider-Man, and games like those helped determine who won the console war. During Layden’s tenure, Sony launched the PlayStation 4, selling 110 million units to 48 million for Microsoft’s Xbox One.
But in September 2019, Layden stepped down and left Sony. He has been on an extended sabbatical, figuring out what he wants to do after the extended lockdown. But he would love to make sure that outstanding narrative games still get made. I spoke with him as part of a fireside chat for the digital version of Spain’s Gamelab event, and Layden had a lot on his mind.
“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,” he told me.
Here’s an edited transcript of our exit interview.
GamesBeat: It’s my honor to speak with Shawn about what’s been happening in the game industry. Shawn, I’d like to have you say a bit more about your career and some of the things you witnessed at Sony later. It’s a difficult time now, though. Do you find it hard to think about games when there are so many other things going on in the world?
Shawn Layden: Gaming is now proving to be more important than ever. Certainly in large parts of the world, where folks are either sheltering in place or under quarantine or lockdown or whatever the phrase is of the moment, we’re finding that gaming is becoming a lifeline for a lot of folks to get through these times trapped at home. It’s interesting that even the WHO, who I think last year put out some directive around the dangers of gaming, is encouraging gaming as a good way to keep occupied during these times of quarantine. Talk about coming a full 180 on the subject.
I’ve been playing a lot of games myself. Many of them I didn’t have time to get around to when I was working in the business. It’s an important time for gaming, number one, and number two, gaming needs to come out of this, as an industry, in a different way.
GamesBeat: We’re going to be talking about narrative gaming. I happen to have just finished playing The Last of Us Part II. You’ve heard of this?
Layden: Oh, yeah. I’m extremely proud and happy for the team.
GamesBeat: It’s strange that I played it during a pandemic, and it’s a game about a pandemic and the aftermath. You have a strong point of view about games like this. Can you talk about that, about your feelings around narrative gaming?
Layden: The huge narrative experience through gaming is what the whole gaming industry has progressed to. This is how it’s evolved over time. I was lucky enough to be involved with the console business from the first generation of PlayStation. Moving from there to PS3, PS4, and now the precipice of PS5, we’ve seen the greatest amount of advancement and growth in gaming in the narrative space.
The whole idea about the PlayStation was to bring the arcade into the home. You could have Ridge Racer and Tekken at home, 3D gaming experiences in your home. That’s what it was built around what drove the initial success. A lot of the great developers came out of the arcade tradition — Taito, Namco, Sega, or Midway in the American arcades. But as the technology advanced, as people’s ambitions grew, and as folks who got into gaming wanted more than just the three-minute coin-drop experience in the home, narrative gaming began to evolve.
Now, with the next generation of gaming coming from the big hitters like Microsoft and Sony, we’re seeing another advance across that spine. Sony recently had their PS5 reveal event, and I was heartened to see, in that show, how many great stories are coming to PS5. It’s not just about free-to-play or subscriptions or massively multiplayer gaming, but giving something to the single-player fans, if you will, the people who come to gaming because they want to immerse themselves in a story and be a part of someone’s vision of the future. I don’t have to build it all myself, but be in there, experience it, and learn about their point of view. The Last of Us II is the ultimate example of where this can go. Hopefully we’ll see more of that.
GamesBeat: Do you feel like it’s the highest form of the art, that it’s the thing that makes games better than other media?
Layden: I don’t really accept the competitive aspect of the question — this is better than that for these reasons. I do think that gaming has come into its own as a full-blown artistic endeavor, alongside music and movies and television. Books are the great precursor for all of us. With the new technologies and the new people coming into the industry, we’re seeing a continued evolution of what can be expressed through gaming, what kind of feelings we can make you feel. We can make you scream and yell and be horrified. Those are the easy ones to get. But if we can make you contemplative and sad, that’s really hitting the full gamut of emotional response to a gaming experience.
GamesBeat: For you personally, while you were at Sony, was there a point where you started seeing this more, that this was the kind of thing you wanted to make happen?
Layden: My first real close-up experience with that — we had some in Japan. But they always ended up in the RPG aisle, whether it was Arc the Lad or Legend of Dragoon, which everyone keeps asking for again. That’s where we saw the story developing, the Final Fantasy series and how that made you feel.
My personal experience with how that jumped the species barrier, if you will, was when we were working in London, and our London studio came up with The Getaway. The Getaway was trying to be a London gangster action movie in a game setting. When I say “tried to be,” I think it achieved it 100%, but we were getting real scriptwriters, real actors to do the mocap and performance capture. All of these things were bleeding-edge at the time, in the early 2000s. That’s when we began to see the potential of bringing a story into a gaming experience and having the player be part of that cast. We never looked back.
GamesBeat: There’s been this progression, a cultural shift since the PlayStation 2. People are taking this kind of entertainment more seriously. A change in culture is happening at the same time the artform is advancing.
Layden: And it’s not just a change in culture. It’s the size of the model. The demographics during the PlayStation 2 began to broaden. We saw a greater diversity of players coming into gaming. Not just more women, but a broader age demographic. The average age of gamers started inching up into the mid-20s and late 20s in the PS2 era. The more people you get in — what did PS2 end up selling in the end, 150 million units or something crazy like that? It became a phenomenon. It took gaming out of the basement, if you will, and brought more people into it.
With a wider audience to appeal to and a wider spectrum of interests to align against, gaming really blew itself up. We’re not just about racing and fighting and RPGs. That whole action-adventure genre really started to explode. Now it’s probably the biggest genre out there, alongside first-person shooters.
GamesBeat: Games are also huge now. You had some concerns about how much these games are costing and how risky they are to undertake.
Layden: I still remember when games would cost $1 million to make. Those days are long gone. The cost of creating games has increased. Some studies show that’s gone up 2X every time a console generation advances. The problem with that model is it’s just not sustainable. Major triple-A games in the current generation go anywhere from $80 million to $150 million or more to build, and that’s before marketing. It’s a huge up-front cost. Extended over time, it takes three or four or five years to build a game while you’re not getting any return on the investment. You just continue to pay into it looking for the big payoff at the end.
I don’t think, in the next generation, you can take those numbers and multiply them by two and expect the industry to continue to grow. The industry as a whole needs to sit back and think, “What are we building? What’s the audience expectation? What is the best way to get our stories across, to say what we need to say?” That’s going to cause the industry to look at the kind of games we’re doing, where we go from there, and what we’re putting into them. It’s hard for every adventure game to shoot for 50 or 60 hours of gameplay. That’s going to be so much more expensive to achieve.
In the end you may close some interesting creators and their stories out of the market if that’s a threshold you have to meet. If you don’t have 50 hours of gameplay, you don’t have a game? We need to reevaluate that shibboleth, I think.
GamesBeat: It feels like gamers want more, but they may not realize where we are and how much it takes to deliver these things. My own observations about some of the big games, like Red Dead Redemption 2 — it was seven years in the making. It had as many as 2,000 people working on it. God of War was at least five years and hundreds of people at Sony Santa Monica. Naughty Dog worked on The Last of Us Part II for well over five years. These are gigantic teams. Can you talk about what your position becomes like when you’re the one overseeing some of these things and making decisions about them?
Layden: I had the privilege of standing as chairman of Worldwide Studios for four years. At the time, with 13 studios, and then just late last year adding Insomniac to the mix — they were 13 very different studios. They all have different cultures in them. They’re seeking to achieve different things inside gaming. Where you have some teams that need a little more time to get their games done, and still do, there was a crack team in San Diego cranking out MLB: The Show every 10 months just like clockwork. You can’t miss opening day for baseball, except maybe this year. That team optimized around delivering their creation in that time frame.
Working with the teams, looking at their ambitions and their outlook, we wanted to create a clean runway. I always expressed it that way. My job as chairman was not to make creative decisions, but to clear the path, get the boulders out of the road, and give the team a clean runway to exercise their dream and get their thing off the ground. Going into this next generation, not only is that an important role for management in gaming and interactive entertainment, but it’s also about evaluating what we can continue to put into games. At what cost can you continue to create these games?
We’re also limited by one of these weird freaks of nature. In my experience in 25 years of video gaming, the price of a game has never changed. It’s been $59.99 since I started in this business. But the cost of games has gone up 10X, building them. If you don’t have elasticity on the price point, but you have huge volatility on the cost line, the model becomes more difficult. This generation is going to see those two imperatives collide.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.