Ex-PlayStation boss Shawn Layden says huge AAA game development is “not sustainable”

June 24, 2020
Shawn Layden PlayStation

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Ex-PlayStation US boss Shawn Layden has spoken out against the massive cost of sustaining huge AAA releases as development continues to grow generation after generation.

The former PlayStation America executive revealed his thoughts about the current state of game development during a panel on Gamelab Live. (Thanks, GamesIndustry!)

Shawn Layden used PlayStation’s recent exclusive release of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part 2 as his primary example, stating that the game’s longer length took more than double the development time of its predecessor.

The ex-PlayStation boss didn’t reveal the budget of the PlayStation exclusive, but he did state that AAA game development has doubled in cost since the days of PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Layden said that current generation video games have reached a standard of costing between $80m and $150m on average. With The Last of Us 2 being PlayStation’s swansong exclusive, it probably cost quite a bit more.

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“The problem with that model is it’s just not sustainable,” Shawn Layden told the panel. “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.”

Layden revealed that the increasing length and scope of the typical AAA games to create seemingly endless worlds is costing the industry in an attempt to satiate audience expectations. After all, bigger doesn’t always mean better.

“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?’” said Shawn Layden.

“It’s hard for every adventure game to shoot for the 50 to 60-hour gameplay milestone, because that’s gonna be so much more expensive to achieve,” he said.

“And in the end you may close some interesting creators and their stories out of the market if that’s the kind of threshold they have to meet… We have to reevaluate that.”

“4K, HDR art and creating worlds don’t come cheap,” Layden explained. “So how can we look at that and say: Is there another answer? Instead of spending five years making an 80-hour game, what does three years and a 15-hour game look like? What would be the cost around that? Is that a full-throated experience?”

“Personally, as an older gamer… I would welcome a return to the 12 to 15 hour [AAA] game. 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. It’s something I’d like to see a return to in this business.”

With game prices staying firmly at $59.99 since the early days of gaming, Layden explains that the industry isn’t sustainable when games cost ten times the amount to create that they did then. Despite this, gamers want more content, better graphics and no additional purchases outside of the base game.

“It’s been $59.99 since I started in this business, but the cost of games have gone up ten times,” he explained. “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.”

It’s impossible to not see that the price and length of creating games has risen exponentially over the years. Microsoft’s upcoming Xbox exclusive Halo Infinite has been heralded as the most expensive game ever with an estimated budget of $500 million; the game is also 343 Industries’ first game since 2015.

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With Microsoft’s revenue stream from Windows, the company can afford to replace their console exclusivity history to release PC versions of their games, especially with the rise of Game Pass. Other platform holders don’t have that luxury.

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