Shawn Layden was once so influential that his choice of a T-shirt alone once determined the fate of a franchise. Back in 2015, at 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 like 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.
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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 still 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 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 2. 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 2 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 percent, 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 2 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.