Shawn Layden was once so influential that his choice of a t-shirt determined the fate of a franchise company. Layden took the stage in a crash bandicoot shirt back in 2015 during Sony's PlayStation Experience event. In front of thousands of fans, he talked about a long list of Sony games, but said nothing about a crash bandicoot game.
The fans were disappointed. Activision soon realized that there was pent-up demand for the little mascot and started the Remake Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy in 2017. Another remake followed in 2019, Crash Team Racing: Nitro-Fueled. and this week it revealed Crash Bandicoot 4: it's time. Millions of games have been sold, all because of this t-shirt.
In a career spanning more than three decades, Layden rose at Sony and became chairman of Sony Interactive Entertainment Worldwide Studios, an organization with more than 2,600 game developers in 13 studios that developed blockbuster games such as Naughty Dogs The Last of Us Part II. He had to make decisions about games with a budget between $ 80 and $ 150 million. And he was involved in publishing games like Horizon: Zero Dawn, MLB: The Show, The Last Guardian, Uncharted, Farpoint, GT Sport and God of War.
Some games have been spectacular hits like Horizon: Zero Dawn or Marvel's Spider-Man, and games like these have helped determine who won the console war. During Layden's tenure, Sony launched the PlayStation 4 and sold 110 to 48 million units for Microsoft's Xbox One.
Layden resigned in September 2019 and left Sony. He was in an extended Sabbath year and found out what he wanted to do after the extended ban. But he would like to make sure that excellent narrative games are still being made. I spoke to him at a fireside chat for the digital version of Spain Gamelab Event, and Layden had a lot in mind.
"I would like to believe that there are still new things to discover and develop that lead to this interesting interface between technology and entertainment," he told me.
Here is a transcript of our exit interview.
GamesBeat: It is an honor to speak to Shawn about what happened in the gaming industry. Shawn, I want you to say a little more about your career and some of the things you saw at Sony later. However, it is a difficult time now. Do you find it hard to think of games when there are so many other things going on around the world?
Shawn Layden: Playing is now more important than ever. Surely, in much of the world where people are either seeking shelter, are under quarantine or blocked, or whatever the term is, we find that playing becomes a lifeline for many people to survive these times at home. It is interesting that even the WHO, which I think adopted a directive on the dangers of gaming last year, is promoting gaming as a good way to stay busy during these quarantine times. Talk about full 180 on this.
I played a lot of games myself. Many of them had no time to move when I was working in the business. It's an important time for games, number one and number two. As an industry, games have to emerge from it in other ways.
GamesBeat: We'll talk about narrative games. I have just finished The Last of Us Part II. Have you heard about it?
Layden: Oh yeah. I am very 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 its aftermath. You have a strong view of such games. Can you talk about your feelings about narrative gaming?
Layden: The tremendous narrative experience through games is what the entire game industry has achieved. This is how it has developed over time. I was lucky enough to be involved in the console business from the first generation of PlayStation. Moving from there to PS3, PS4, and now to the abyss of PS5, we've seen the greatest progress and growth in narrative gaming.
The whole idea about the PlayStation was to bring the arcade home. You could have Ridge Racer and Tekken at home, 3D gaming experiences in your home. That was what drove the initial success. Many of the great developers came from the arcade tradition – Taito, Namco, Sega or Midway in the American Arcades. But as technology progressed, people's ambitions grew, and people involved in games wanted more than just the three-minute coin drop experience at home, narrative gaming began to develop.
Now that the next generation of games of large sizes like Microsoft and Sony is coming, we see further progress in this area. Sony recently had its PS5 unveiling event and I was encouraged to see how many great stories come out on PS5 on this show. It's not just about free-to-play or subscriptions or massively multiplayer games, it's about giving the single player fans, if you like, the people who come to play because they are immersed in a story and want to be part of it someone's vision of the future. I don't have to build everything myself, but be there, experience it and get to know your point of view. The Last of Us II is the ultimate example of where this can lead. Hopefully we'll see more of it.
GamesBeat: Do you think it's the highest form of art that that's what makes games better than other media?
Layden: I don't really accept the competitive aspect of the question – this is better for these reasons. I think that playing alongside music, films and television has become a full-fledged artistic venture. Books are the great forerunner for all of us. With the new technologies and new people coming into the industry, we see a continuous evolution of what can be expressed through games and what kind of feelings you can feel. We can make you scream and yell and be horrified. They are easy to get. But if we can make you thoughtful and sad, it really affects the full range of emotional responses to a gaming experience.
GamesBeat: Was there a point for you personally when you were at Sony where you saw more about it being the kind of thing you wanted to do?
Layden: My first real close-up with it – we had some in Japan. But they always ended up in RPG gear, no matter whether Arc the Lad or Legend of Dragoon, which everyone keeps asking about. There we saw how the story developed, the Final Fantasy series and how you felt about it.
My personal experience of how it crossed the species barrier was when we were working in London and developing our London studio The Getaway. The Getaway tried to be a London gangster action film in a gaming environment. When I say "tempted," I think it got 100%, but we got real screenwriters, real actors to do the mocap and performance tracking. All of these things were up to date at the time, in the early 2000s. At that point, we realized the potential to bring a story into a gaming experience and to have the player as part of that cast. We never looked back.
GamesBeat: There has been this progress, a cultural change since PlayStation 2. People take this kind of entertainment seriously. A cultural change takes place at the same time that the art form is advancing.
Layden: And it's not just a cultural change. It is the size of the model. Demographics during PlayStation 2 started to expand. We have seen a greater variety of players come to play. Not just more women, but a wider age group. The average age of players rose in the PS2 era in the mid-20s and late 20s. The more people you get in, what did PS2 end up selling, 150 million units or something crazy? It became a phenomenon. If you like, it got the game out of the basement and brought in more people.
With a wider audience to turn to and a wider range of interests to focus on, gaming really blew up. We are not just about races and fights and role-playing games. The whole action adventure genre really started to explode. Now it is probably the largest genre on the market alongside first person shooters.
GamesBeat: Games are huge now. They had some concerns about how much these games cost and how risky they are.
Layden: I still remember when games would cost $ 1 million. These times are long gone. The cost of creating games has increased. Some studies show that it has doubled with each advancement of a console generation. The problem with this model is that it is simply not sustainable. The most important triple-A games of the current generation have to be built between 80 and 150 million US dollars or more, before marketing. There are enormous upfront costs. Over time, it takes three, four, or five years to create a game without paying off the investment. You just keep depositing and looking for the big payout at the end.
I don't think that in the next generation you can take these numbers and multiply them by two and expect the industry to continue to grow. The entire industry has to sit back and think: “What are we building? What is the expectation of the audience? What is the best way to convey our stories and tell what we have to say? “This will prompt the industry to look at the type of games we make, where we go from, and what we put into them. It's hard for any adventure game to have 50 or 60 hours of fun. It will be much more expensive.
In the end, you can close some interesting creators and their stories from the market if this is a threshold that you have to keep. If you don't have 50 hours of game time, don't you have a game? We have to reevaluate this Shibboleth, I think.
GamesBeat: It seems gamers want more, but they may not know where we are and how much it costs to deliver these things. My own observations on some of the great games like Red Dead Redemption 2 – it was seven years in development. Up to 2,000 people worked on it. God of War was at least five years old and hundreds of people at Sony Santa Monica. Naughty Dog has worked on The Last of Us Part II for well over five years. These are huge teams. Can you talk about what your position will be like if you monitor some of these things and make decisions about them?
Layden: I was privileged to chair Worldwide Studios for four years. At that time there were 13 studios and Insomniac only at the end of last year – there were 13 very different studios. They all have different cultures. They try to do different things in gaming. Where there are some teams that take a little more time to get their games done and still do, there was a crack team in San Diego that got MLB: The Show out every 10 months. You can't miss the baseball opening day, except maybe this year. This team has optimized to deliver its creation over this period.
In collaboration with the teams, taking into account their ambitions and prospects, we wanted to create a clean runway. I've always put it that way. My job as chairman was not to make creative decisions, but to clear the way, remove the boulders from the road, and give the team a clean runway to make their dream come true and get their thing started. Entering this next generation is not only an important role for game and interactive entertainment management, it's also about evaluating what we can continue to put into games. At what price can you continue to create these games?
We are also constrained by one of these strange nature freaks. In my experience in 25 years of video game, the price of a game has never changed. Since I started in this business, it's been $ 59.99. But the cost of games has increased 10-fold. If you don't have elasticity in terms of price, but enormous volatility in terms of cost line, the model becomes more difficult. This generation will see how these two imperatives collide.