Shawn Layden Wants to See a Return of Smaller AAA Games
It's been quite a while since we've heard from ex-PlayStation boss Shawn Layden. Formerly the chairman of SIE Worldwide Studios, the world was surprised to learn of his departure in September of 2019. The whole situation was pretty understated (bizarre for someone of Layden's repertoire), though reports suggested that the departure was a result of a power struggle with the current SIE chairman Jim Ryan. While all of that is neither here nor there, Layden's kept his own eyes on the industry since leaving, prominently posting on Twitter day in and day out. Just the other day, Layden got into a discussion about AAA game development at Gamelab Live. He revealed that at the rate the industry is heading right now, he believes the future of AAA game development won't be able to keep up the way it's been.
The discussion began when the topic turned to the recently released Last of Us Part 2, one of the most noteworthy AAA games available and a game that was developed mostly under the watch of Layden throughout its six-year development cycle. Layden is extremely proud of the game, and of Naughty Dog for exploring the topics that it does (which shows in the divisive backlash the game has received). Even so, it was easy for Layden to notice the stark contrast between the first Last of Us and its sequel: The first game took only 15 hours to complete, while Part 2 takes around 25. This matches up with the development cycles for both, with the first game only taking a mere three-and-a-half years to make. The time to make games has ballooned in size, and so too has the budget to develop them. Layden was quick to note why this could present a problem going forward.
"The problem with that model is it's just not sustainable," Layden stated. "I don't think that, in the next generation, you can take those numbers and multiply them by two and think that you can grow. I think the industry as a whole needs to sit back and go, 'Alright, what are we building? What's the audience expectation? What is the best way to get our story across, and say what we need to say?'" Layden goes on to reveal that most AAA games nowadays enter budgets between $80 million to $150 million, yet despite this, the asking price has remained at a steady $59.99. "It's been $59.99 since I started in this business, but the cost of games have gone up ten times. If you don't have elasticity on the price-point, but you have huge volatility on the cost line, the model becomes more difficult. I think this generation is going to see those two imperatives collide." This can be seen in various series that have made their way from the previous generations to now. Most AAA games releasing nowadays take the form of a gigantic open-world with dozens of side activities, pushing further and further away from the more linear-based narratives of the PS2-era.
"Personally, as an older gamer... I would welcome a return to the 12 to 15 hour [AAA] game," Layden concluded. "I would finish more games, first of all, and just like a well edited piece of literature or a movie, looking at the discipline around that could give us tighter, more compelling content." I think it's safe to say that I'm not the only one who has a massive backlog of games I have yet to get to or finish, simply because it's hard to find the time when a lot of games present themselves as 25+ hour epics. Layden makes a lot of strong points, and it's hard to say if any of the necessary changes will come about in the upcoming next generation. The popular running theory is that something will have to give if the industry wants to continue without collapsing in on itself.