It’s always been hard to make a video game we want to buy. The internet’s making it even harder.
Titles like Bethesda’s post-apocalyptic adventure game Fallout 76 and the wartime simulator Battlefield 5 from Electronic Arts became punching bags of prominent gamers on YouTube and Twitter when they launched last year.
Some critics, meanwhile, were upset with EA for featuring a woman in its marketing of Battlefield 5, a shooting game set during World War II. To make matters worse, the game was incomplete when released, missing a promised battle royale mode to compete with Fortnite.
Shawn Layden has a plan to avoid those mistakes. As Sony’s former PlayStation chief in the US and now head of its 13 development studios making games like the highly anticipated zombie game The Last of Us Part 2, Layden said he’s more willing to delay games to ensure they meet an ever higher quality bar.
‘As the exclusive developer for PlayStation, we always have to set the high-water mark, to push the technology further than anyone else,’ he said.
Upset fans aren’t the only obstacle Layden and his team have to avoid. Gaming may be bigger than ever before, but these controversies have become much more than internet drama. In EA’s case, the company’s missteps translated to disappointing sales for Battlefield.
Other game makers have been hit too. Even Sony’s PlayStation 4, considered the leader of the console world at more than 94 million units sold in the past six years, struggled to turn strong profits over the holidays.
It’s all led one analyst to predict that this year the games industry will face its first sales decline in more than two decades.
Part of Layden’s job is to make sure the game studios Sony owns attract fans to the PlayStation with key exclusive games.
Last year, those were titles like Marvel’s Spider-Man, which wowed fans with its dramatic story and detailed re-creation of New York, winning a place on many game-of-the-year lists. Another of Sony’s big releases last year, a new installment in the popular God of War series, similarly did well.
The company’s upcoming exclusive games, like The Last of Us Part 2, an ancient-Japan inspired action game called Ghost of Tsushima, the post-apocalyptic biker game Days Gone, and a world-building game called Dreams, are expected to be key releases both on the PS4 and, if rumors are true, a potential PlayStation 5 when it’s launched in the next couple years.
Speaking from his office in San Mateo, California, just up the road from other massive game makers like Nintendo and Electronic Arts, Layden didn’t discuss the new device. But he did say new technologies that could replace home consoles, like game streaming technology similar to Netflix, are still years away from mass adoption.
He also hinted that Sony’s ready to buy up other game makers as it looks to expand the types of games it makes. He isn’t alone, either. Microsoft’s Xbox team has announced several game studio acquisitions in the past year as gaming takes on more prominence at that company.
Below are edited excerpts from our conversation with Layden, shortly before his keynote address at the DICE video game summit in Las Vegas on Tuesday.
With games like Fortnite: Battle Royale becoming so popular, how do you decide what types of games to make? Whether it’s creating a direct competitor me-too type game or something different?
I don’t want to get into me-too. I think the world’s got all the battle royale it needs right now.
I think we’ve done a lot over the last three or four years to get us to a place right now where we’re building fewer games per year than ever before, but we’re spending more time, more energy, certainly more money, on making them.
So we’re striking on all the beats that we want to, and we’re getting both critical and commercial acclaim. Let’s see now what we might add to our arsenal. I’ve looked at some opportunities in the past, it’s an opportunity to look for the ones that are the best cultural fit.
How do you decide what game makers you’ll buy?
We’re always exploring opportunities. If we found a partner or a team or a game that we felt was particularly meaningful and interesting in a service area, we will look to bring that in. We’re always open to that kind of experience.
We try to make it really easy for our teams to focus on what our vision is for the future. And we have simplified it to ‘first, best or must.’
If your title is going to be ‘first’ and creating a genre, or ‘first’ and creating a new game activity, let’s look at that. If you’re going to make an action adventure game, It better be ‘best’ in class. And we have the third category called ‘must,’ which is we must support the platform, we must be present when new technology comes out.
Like VR or motion controllers or something like that?
Yeah. We have to lead.
There’s a lot of talk about how Apple is rumored to be creating a game service, and Google partnered with Ubisoft last year to test a possible streaming service, not to mention EA’s announcement of one as well. And Amazon bought a game studio a while back too. How do you see all this changing your world? Suddenly, it’s not just Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo anymore.
It’s an affirmation that gaming’s here to stay. It’s growing dramatically, and it’s growing into a much broader entertainment landscape. With big players coming in like you mentioned, they’ll bring in new energy and stimulus and agitation.
With all this streaming talk, is it worth it yet? You have PlayStation Now, and I’ve used it, but I wouldn’t play a shooting game on it. It doesn’t feel ready to replace my console.
It’s definitely a thing. The challenge around streaming is that while it may get to a place reasonably quickly that folks who live on top of a good node in SOMA or Seoul or Stockholm can get a good streaming life, if you’re PlayStation and you’re available in 168 countries around the world, streaming will be a thing which will have interest to certain people in certain places.
But still, for the vast majority of the gaming community, our 94 million PlayStation 4s out there, I think there’s much life left in a local console.
And delivered over not-the-internet still as well? The first thing I think about when people talk about even downloadable games is the military — there isn’t always good internet to download games in war zones. They need something you can bring to them in a postage box. But that’s challenging. When you were developing the PS4, there was talk about making it downloadable only, but you decided to stick to the disk partially because of these reasons.
I don’t know what the timeline is. If the PlayStation continues to grow at this rate, we can leave no gamer behind. But streaming is something that PlayStation is active in and we want to make sure we keep current in that technology.
You’re not the first big company to bow out of the big E3 video game show in June, but I’m curious why you chose this year to drop out?
Retailers would come in — you’d see a guy come in, and he’d say, ‘I’m from Sears, and I handle Hot Wheels, Barbie, VHS and video games. So what are you about?’ There was a huge educational component.
Then you had journalists who had magazines and lead time and jockeying for position on the cover. And there was no internet to speak of. So a trade show at that time of year for this nascent industry was exactly what we needed to do.
Now we have an event in February called Destination PlayStation, where we bring all retailers and third-party partners to come hear the story for the year. They’re making purchasing discussions in February. June, now, is just too late to have a Christmas holiday discussion with retailers.
So retail has really dropped off. And journalists now, with the internet and the fact that 24/7 there is game news, it’s lost its impact around that.
So the trade show became a trade show without a lot of trade activity. The world has changed, but E3 hasn’t necessarily changed with it.
And with our decision to do fewer games — bigger games — over longer periods of time, we got to a point where June of 2019 was not a time for us to have a new thing to say. And we feel like if we ring the bell and people show up here in force, people have expectation ‘Oh, they’re going to tell us something.’
We are progressing the conversation about, how do we transform E3 to be more relevant? Can E3 transition more into a fan festival of gaming, where we don’t gather there to drop the new bomb? Can’t it just be a celebration of games and have panels where we bring game developers closer to fans?
Almost like Comic-Con?
Yes, that’s probably the trajectory it needs to go to maintain relevance.
So what happens to big announcements? Do they just happen on YouTube? What does this perfect Shawn Layden future look like?
In a perfect Shawn Layden future, I’m living in Tahiti.