‘First, best, and must’: PlayStation boss Shawn Layden shares the secret recipe behind Sony’s global gaming empire
- The Sony PlayStation 4 has been a monumental success over the last five years, selling more than 91 million consoles.
- The biggest driver of the PlayStation 4’s boom has been the steady cadence of exclusive games, many of which have been released to positive reviews and massive sales.
- Shawn Layden is the chairman of Sony Interactive Entertainment (SIE) Worldwide Studios, which oversees the 16 global studios that produce exclusive PlayStation 4 games, including Naughty Dog (“Uncharted,” “The Last of Us”), Guerrilla Games (“Horizon Zero Dawn”), and Santa Monica Studio (“God of War”).
- In an interview with Business Insider, Layden shared the secret sauce behind the PlayStation 4, and how he and his team navigate the ever-changing world of video game development to achieve critical and financial success.
The PlayStation 4 has dominated the current video game cycle over the past five years — and exclusive games like “Marvel’s Spider-Man,” “Uncharted 4,” and “God of War” are a big reason for that.
The numbers highlight the importance of exclusives: Five of the top 10 best-selling PlayStation 4 games of all-time can’t be played on any other console, and 13 of the 28 PlayStation 4 games that made more than $1 million in sales — about half — are also PS4 exclusives.
It’s not just sales. On Metacritic, which aggregates reviews from different publications, six of the top 10 best-reviewed PS4 games are exclusives, and roughly one-third of the PS4 games with a Metacritic score of at least 90 are exclusives as well.
Not every exclusive PS4 title has been a mega-smash hit, and some releases feel directed towards different audiences. But there’s an underlying quality where each production, while extremely different in tone and style, has a consistent level of polish.
“We have to lead from the front,” said Shawn Layden, chairman of SIE Worldwide Studios.
Layden, 57, has been with Sony PlayStation for more than 30 years. He understands Sony’s global footprint better than anyone.
The Notre Dame grad started working for Sony in Tokyo, not the US, in its corporate communications department under the the late Sony cofounder Akio Morita. He eventually moved to the UK to manage software development at the company’s London Studio, and shortly afterwards he became VP of Sony Computer Entertainment’s (SCE) Europe division.
After nine years in Europe, Layden returned to Tokyo to serve as president of SCE Japan, and in 2010, he was named chief operating officer and executive vice president at Sony Network Entertainment International (SNEI).
In 2014, Layden’s international work paid off back in the states: He was named president and CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment America, succeeding veteran Jack Tretton and becoming the official face of PlayStation at all of the company’s big press events, including E3, the annual gaming expo in Los Angeles. Then last year, in a corporate reorganization, Layden was named chairman of Sony Interactive Entertainment (SIE) Worldwide Studios.
Now, Layden is charged with managing the dozen-plus studios around the world that develop exclusive games for PlayStation consoles. Layden is routinely emailing, calling, and visiting these studios in person to talk with employees, check in on the status of upcoming games, and ensure the companies are reaching their goals, which Layden calls “milestones” or “check-in points.”
Layden says managing the 13 game studios around the world under the SIE umbrella — seven in the United States, three in Europe, and two in Japan — is like managing different personalities.
“We are an entertainment business, which means the folks involved in creating the content are artists,” Layden told Business Insider. “I believe that to be true.”
On a recent phone call, Layden offered insight into his work schedule, how he copes with so much travel, and how Sony’s global approach, and focus on quality, has been key to the PlayStation 4’s success.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Dave Smith: How important is it for you to have studios all around the world, instead of just focusing on one region like the US?
Shawn Layden: We have a pretty broad tent with studios throughout the US, and Europe, and Asia. I think one of the interesting, unique features that we can claim from Worldwide Studios here at PlayStation is that we have the ability to create — and have shown the ability to create — triple-A content in three different regions.
PlayStation was always intended to be a global platform. When we brought out the PlayStation back in 1994, we came out of Japan, but quickly moved to establish businesses in Europe and America.
So together with that, the role of Worldwide Studios has been to not dominate the gaming market, not take the largest market share or dominant share of that, but to bring content to the platform, which really makes the hardware sing.
To be truly a good platform, we have to be able to deliver, at that quality bar, content that appeals to our European fans, our Japanese fans, and our American fans.
Smith: I’d love to know about how you control the quality and consistency across so many games that are exclusive to the console. SIE Worldwide must be a huge part of that.
Layden: It’s our mandate. You know, we talk about this inside the studios: the rubric of ‘first,’ ‘best’ and ‘must;’ The content we make has to fulfill one of those three rubrics.
When we come out with a racing game, we’re gonna come out with the best racing game in the world — “Gran Turismo.” When we lean into action adventure, we’re gonna give you “Uncharted,” or “God of War,” or “Horizon [Zero Dawn]” — games like that.
Since we only code to one platform, we really want to be the leader in showing everything that platform can deliver. We don’t have to make choices to create technologies which will run across many different target technologies. We just lean into the PlayStation thing solely. And it allows us to focus our attentions there.
The working week
Smith: What is a typical day like for you?
Layden: I think my typical day, typically involves the airport. (laughs) Let’s just do this from the assumption that I’m in California, which is not a bad assumption, but it’s certainly not the majority [of my time].
Like most people, the first thing you do when you get up in the morning is you reach for your phone and, you know, see what has blown up somewhere. In the morning, I can talk to Europe. Quite often I’m touching base with a studio or leadership in our European studios.
Throughout the day it’s, like so many business, really email driven. I spend a lot of time on the phone. And then in the evening, that’s the time when I can get in touch with our Japanese studios, and Japanese leadership. So it goes from early in the morning to late in the evening kind of cycle. I don’t think that’s any different from anybody else in this business.
Smith: What are the biggest challenges you face at work on a day-to-day basis?
Layden: I find the biggest challenge of my job is that we’re such a distributed entity, as far as Worldwide Studios go.
We have studios scattered across the Pacific Northwest and California spine of the country. And our studios in Japan and Europe.
So, what I really try to do is to get around the world as much as I can. Because everything you can get from a WebEx [teleconference], or an email, but at its heart, game production is a creative activity. And as a creative activity, it really comes down to the people behind the project.
To really understand what their challenges are, or what their ambitions are and hopes are, you’re going to have to get there in person and, and speak to them about it.
Smith: It seems like you’re on the road a lot. How do you cope with so much travel? Any good tips?
Layden: I was very, very late to the party. But one of the greatest things about traveling is I finally bought a Kindle. The Paperwhite. It’s awesome. I don’t know how they managed to get a battery that lasts four weeks, but it’s a great piece of technology, and it has helped my carry-on luggage slim down, from carrying hard books.
I still carry a Vita from time to time, but my Vita is a dedicated “Everybody’s Golf” machine. That remains my favorite pick-up-and-play game. I think it’s just the nature of it, you know. You can play a hole, and pause, and come back to it later. It’s very dip in, dip out.
But traveling is all about reducing your carry weight. And so Kindle was a great move for me.
Why Sony is skipping E3
Smith: It sounds like you’re spending a lot of time with each studio. But when you talk to them, what are the sorts of things you discuss?
Layden: Well, I have a powerful partner in managing the studios — you know, the man, the myth, the legend, Shuhei Yoshida, who is president of our Worldwide Studios. And with him in the president’s seat, and me in the chairman seat, that gives us really good management coverage and visibility on the studio activities.
Shu is as much or even more peripatetic than I am; that guy’s on the road all the time. He also believes the only way to really understand the day-to-day of the game development process is to really be there, be in the studios, be with the teams, and speak with them.
So Shu and I have very close contact on a weekly basis to discuss what’s up with him, what’s up with me, and where we’re going with the teams. And then we have regular cadence amongst the leadership of Worldwide Studios that fits on a monthly basis. And then we try to get them out in the world.
I try to see every studio at least quarterly. But things like GDC, or D.I.C.E., or GamesCom, those kind of events, actually brings us all together in the same space, and we always take advantage of those opportunities to huddle up and talk about the future.
Smith: Speaking of those opportunities, you guys are not doing E3 this year, for the first time. Is this the future of Sony, to hold your own events and invite your developers into the fold that way? How do you plan on keeping tabs on everyone without E3?
Layden: I think if you look at the industry over time, with E3, we were an original founder of that event through our association with ESA, and the other industry partners, 25 years ago. But it was a much different world then.
I remember going to the first E3, and the only guests we had there were from retail. You’d come across people who would say things like, “Hi, I’m the Sears buyer, and I’m in charge of Barbie, Hot Wheels, VHS, and video games. Can you tell me about your industry?” So it was a real education process, talking with a guy from Sears, and explain to him what PlayStation 1 was all about.
Fast forward to today, and our buying partners are Best Buy, or Target, or GameStop. I mean, they are as up to speed, or in some areas, more up to speed on the entire industry than we are. They’re plugged in 24/7, all year long. So the idea of coming together on a day in June to learn about the industry, that role for a trade show has kind of evaporated.
We took the decision not to attend E3 this year, because we wanna make sure that when we do come together at some point, bring all our fans in under the invitation that PlayStation has something marvelous to share with you, we wanna make sure that we do. And E3 this year just wasn’t the right time for us.
The importance of deadlines
Smith: I want to talk about management style for a bit. Do you feel like your approach with the studios is more hands on or hands off? How important are deadlines to you?
Layden: You know, we’ve been at this for over 25 years now. And I think we are understanding better the power of unleashing the creative — and really being able to speak with individuals, or with teams, that have a vision for a game they wanna bring forward.
Having done it so often over so many years, I think we’re just getting better at it. We’re more experienced at it. We understand what the real cost, time and money, for a great scope is, and prepare ourselves to deliver that.
Deadlines are important, but they’re not an end unto themselves. Deadlines, or milestones, are ways that you measure your progress across a trajectory. They’re check-in points. Are we achieving this level of artistic quality? If the story works, what are the beats? Are the animations executed? And more often than not, if we feel that we need to spend a little more time in any one of those categories, we’ve made provisions, and we’re prepared to move a date if it’s in service of achieving a greater result.
And I know in the game community, people are disappointed to find out that, “Hey! What do you mean you’re moving it up 30 days, or 60 days, or 90 days?” But once we’ve come to market, everyone says, “Oh my God, I’m so glad you did.” (laughs) Because we can only answer that disappointment by delivering an awesome result.
Smith: Do you find that you manage each company a little differently? Do you find that each company has its own kind of personality?
Layden: Oh, absolutely. I mean, we are an entertainment business, which means that the folks involved in creating the content are artists. I believe that to be true. And when you’re working with artists, and the creative process, sure, it’s different every place you go.
We have a team in San Diego that makes the world’s best baseball game, and I would argue the world’s best sports game — “MLB: The Show.” But they have to deliver every year by opening day. If you think about it, that’s an incredible business cycle.
Others in the gaming community deliver sports titles annually as well, so they’ll understand the challenge of that, but to deliver that consistently at a quality bar, which is amazing, and keep your fans happy. They effectively work a 10-month development cycle.
Then you have other teams, like Media Molecule, who have spent the last four or five years working on the Dreams technology, which we’ve just looked at the data a few weeks ago, and people are blown away by the power of that platform — to put games creativity into the hands of fans.
And every other studio is as different as those two examples I’ve just given. So yes: Studios develop very differently, but we’re all committed to one thing, which is we will bring the best experiences on the PlayStation platform, better than anybody else. We have to do that. We have to lead from the front.
What Sony doesn’t do
Smith: The PlayStation 4 has been a huge success, but do you find there’s anything over this past cycle that you think PlayStation whiffed on? Was there anything you thought you guys could have done better, or just didn’t do it at all — and want to do better on the next cycle?
Layden: For all of the advances we’ve made, and the high bar we’ve focused on in storytelling. I mean, I dare anybody to experience something like “The Last of Us” and not feel emotional about it; and with “God of War,” that story of a father and son; and “Horizon [Zero Dawn],” and the power of Aloy, the protagonist.
All of these things, I believe we’ve done quite well. I’m very happy with the “Spider-Man” game that went out last year. And looking forward, “Days Gone” is coming in a couple months. That’s not only compelling and gripping, but it will emotionally try you very hard. I think all those things we do really well.
What we don’t do so much in is multiplayer.
Smith: Do you mean local multiplayer, where two people can play in the same room next to each other, or online multiplayer games?
Layden: Couch co-op — I mean that’s a whole category I think the industry needs to look back at. We have that with sports titles, and some racing titles, but not with much else. And I think that speaks to the power of the internet on the one hand, but otherwise we might wanna revisit that to get more family engagement in the gaming experience.
But, no, I was referencing more with the things like “GTA 5 Online,” or you look at “Call of Duty,” or “Fortnite,” or any of those experiences. Worldwide Studios, like I say, we’ve been going really heavy into story-driven gaming. The power of the narrative. Big, spectacular experiences. But not a whole lot in the multiplayer side of things, I think. That’s an area where you will likely see us start to make more noise in the new term.
Smith: Before we go, I wanted to ask you about the competition. How do you feel about your direct competitors? Is there anything you like about the Nintendo Switch and Xbox One?
Layden: I don’t know if you got a chance to see Geoff Keighley at the Game Awards last December, but it caused a bit of a ruckus when the industry saw [Nintendo of America president] Reggie [Fils-Aimé], [Xbox boss] Phil [Spencer] and myself standing on stage at the introduction of the event.
You know, we all have our Twitter feeds, and we all see the traffic that goes through there, and it seemed to create a bit of commotion. And I was struck by that thinking. People act like it’s the first time the three of us have ever gotten together.
We all serve on the board of the Entertainment Software Association, the ESA. You’ll see us all together at events where we celebrate movements of the gaming industry, and just last year we got to award Laila Shabir, the founder of Girls Make Games, for the wonderful things she’s doing, for bringing young women into the gaming sector and learning about how that works.
Reggie and Phil and I, we all have a lot of time for those outreach activities. And we work pretty well together. So, you know, I’m hoping that we’ve changed the conversation from “competing platforms” or, you know, which console won the holiday, or which platform won E3, and just look at what we’re all bringing to the video game industry from our different perspectives.
I think Nintendo’s doing wonderful things with Switch, and the platform. And it’s sort of blurring the lines between what’s at home gaming, what’s on-the-go gaming.
But also I think Xbox has really raced with us on how we’re pushing the bar out on technology and quality. And what they’ve done recently with their introduction of an adaptive controller, to increase accessibility in gaming, is a wonderful innovation. I hope to see more across the industry in support of that. We’ve been working with accessibility issues quite heavily for quite some time, particularly with Naughty Dog Studios and what they’ve done with giving gamers a variety of settings changes you can put into their games, depending on what your particular abilities are.
So I think as an industry, we all move forward. And, I for one, am gonna stop talking about using phrases like competitive platform, because I think we’re all supporting and leading an entertainment revolution of gaming. You know, all hands to the till. We’re all in this together.