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Former PlayStation Boss Shawn Layden: Make Games Shorter to Cut Costs and Development Time

Former PlayStation Boss Shawn Layden: Make Games Shorter to Cut Costs and Development Time - News

by William D'Angelo , posted on 01 July 2024 / 4,463 Views

Former PlayStation boss Shawn Layden in an interview with GamesIndustry discussed the issues of rising costs in the video game industry and provided some suggestions on how developers can address these problems.

"The large blockbusters, when people are swinging for the fences, they're coming in at $150 to $250 million bracket, and that is a huge burden on the game development business model, on the publishers for carrying that, and [that's led] to some of the contraction in the marketplace that we've seen," said Layden.

His first suggestion is to make the games shorter as only around a third of gamers end up actually finishing a game. He also feels that game length isn't a deal breaker like it used to be decades ago.

"We live in a world where only 32% of gamers actually finish the game, so we're making a lot of game that 68% of the people aren't seeing," he said. "So should we continue to build games that are unlikely for most of the people to even see the end of it?

"It costs to build to the end. You can tighten that up. If you can make your games on a shorter timeline that will reduce your cost. It'll get you to market faster, you can please your customers sooner rather than always telling them to wait 45 years for your next opus. I think we just have to reexamine how we present ourselves and our games to the gaming public."

He added, "It was such a big deal in the early days of gaming. In the PlayStation 1, 2 and 3 generations, [length] was like your top review point. We kept judging games by you know how much gameplay you get for your dollar. And maybe that was a decent metric back in the times when the average gamer was late teens/early 20s, which means they're time rich and money poor, so having to sit down for that long of a sesh to get through some huge RPG seemed reasonable. I just think now the average age of gamers is approaching early 30s, you got the flip, they're more money rich and time poor. You have to really kind of strap on some free time if you're going to sit down with Red Dead Redemption 2 and get through that.

"We need to understand what our customers are looking for. Do they want a high impact, high enjoyment piece of gaming, which may not include large sections of the game where you're going on a quest to find this blue rock to bring it to the red Troll and he'll open a door for you. It's just kind of like burning time. It's called grinding for a reason."

Layden also suggested that developers should stop trying to have the best graphics on the market and trying to chase photorealism as they ramps up the cost of games.

"We've made a lot about the visual quality of games, the graphic quality, the resolution, the near photorealism that so many games seem to chase," Layden said. "And our fans thought that was a was a was a noble journey, and we saw the difference between graphics on PlayStation 1 where Lara Croft is 800 polygons and, if you squint, kind-of looks like a person. And now we get to the highly realized modelling. But did it improve the gameplay? Did it improve the story?

"I don't believe you can get across the uncanny valley, I think that will always be just five steps ahead. So instead of chasing that, let's go back to exciting game design. I love a good anime. I love highly realized animated characters. They are exciting, because they can tell a different kind of story."

He added, "The console war began as a missile race. With each side trying to push the edge of tech. People talked about teraflops all the time without really understanding what it meant. You had all these different kind of metrics that people were throwing around.

"But we've got to the point now where you have advanced ray-tracing and most of the platforms can do 60 frames per second, some can do 120, which your eye can't register anyway. I think we're at the edge of that universe now, we're in the realm of differences that only dogs can hear. And maybe that's not where the emphasis should be anymore. So let's go back to… what can I do that would be amusing, entertaining and interactive so that someone would want to spend their money and time, and enjoy themselves in a way that means they get value for money, and we can continue to pay at least living wages or better to the people who make them.

"Well you don't say the quiet part out loud [Laughter]. Again, let's stop looking at the game as merely a collection of time-based activities with a certain visual acuity to it. Let's create an activity that would be fun, and these are the rules, these are the characters… and not be begin to deconstruct a game simply based on whether its frame rate held 60 every time. You don't deconstruct movies like that."

Layden's third suggestion is for programmers to build tools that will enable some automation to help save development time.

"The way we make games has essentially remained unchanged in 40 years," he said. "When the game gets more complex, or there's more heavy lifting to be done, or we need more art assets… typically we've just thrown people at it. Or we hire some people in Malaysia or Eastern Europe and throw them at it. Labour has always been the default response for increased workload and scope of game. People in the interactive entertainment business, certainly on the coding and programming side, are some of the smartest minds out there in computer science. And we need to make the machine do more of the work.

"We need to get more heavy lifting out of the technology, build the toolsets and build the engines that can help. I look at what happened with the guys at Hello Games with No Man's Sky. A game with ultimately infinite scope, but it's essentially done by less than 10 people because they spent a lot of time building the pipeline, the toolset, which allowed them to create over and over, making the machine do most of the procedural heavy lifting. We need to get more of that into gaming."

He added, "AI will be an assisting technology. Of course, you've got some large business consulting group claiming that by 2030 50% of games will all be written by AI… that is not going to happen. AI only sees in one direction, which is backwards. It puts stuff together to make you think you're seeing forward, but you're really not, you're just seeing a rehash of backward. AI is kind of like the really eager intern that you can say: 'hey give me nine pages on something' and they're like 'sure boss' and they crank it out. But you do have to fact check. AI hallucinates and goes off the rails.

"It's a great tool for taking a bunch of knowledge into a space and summarizing it in four paragraphs. It's really good at that. I think we'll see it doing more first draft work. Some of the video AI kits that are out there means you can mock up a scene pretty fast to get an idea of whether something looks interesting. So in that ideation phase it can help speed things up. But I don't see it writing games anytime soon."

Layden's fourth and final suggestion is to be strict when it comes to deadlines and to speed up the different stages of development.

"One thing we see in studios is they will hold on to a thought or an idea or a wish, and you have to constantly interrogate what it is you think you're doing," he says. "Speed up proof of concept, speed up proof of tech, so you can make the hard call and say 'that's not working'. The people who continue to try to make the thing work over an extended period of time… they're thinking if we just do a little bit more we can get there, but the rest of your game is sometimes just waiting for that mechanic to be established and it's going to slow you down. You've got to have a disciplined idea of what you want to make and how you going to make it. Hold your deadlines tight. Don't be slippy slippy on your alpha or beta Target.

"Look to teams that do it right. Any team that builds an annual sports game… that's a wonder to behold. They do a new game in nine months every year. At my old shop, where they do MLB: The Show in San Diego… Major League Baseball is not changing opening day. It's April 1st every freaking year. You can say 'well, they know what they're doing. It's the same 32 teams, it's the same stadia, it's the same players where they just have to move them around.' Yeah, because they've identified what their variables are year to year, then they have a list of things they can add. They take care of all the maintenance of moving the players around, updating stadia, getting new face scans… and then here are some new things to add. But there's a date when you go 'that's it, feature locked, we're done'.

"You want to be able to have [time for] people to be inspired and come up with new ideas and really have a flash moment where they've solved the problems of the universe. But you've got to have a strong hand in production management. It's: 'That feature is great, but we've missed the window to put it in. If we do, it'll break all these other things. So hold on to that, we'll come back to it."

He concluded, "If you can turn games around in two to three years rather than five to six years… it's easier to set aside an idea because you go: 'I'll get back to it in two years'. In the current model, if you don't get this idea in now, there may never be a chance to get it in."

A life-long and avid gamer, William D'Angelo was first introduced to VGChartz in 2007. After years of supporting the site, he was brought on in 2010 as a junior analyst, working his way up to lead analyst in 2012 and taking over the hardware estimates in 2017. He has expanded his involvement in the gaming community by producing content on his own YouTube channel and Twitch channel. You can contact the author on Twitter @TrunksWD.

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SanAndreasX (on 19 June 2024)

How about don’t chase high-end graphical fidelity in every title? Do we really need to see every blackhead and pimple of the protagonisrs’s face?

  • +12

No, but as consumers we demand the hardware we buy to be fully used and pushed to the limit.

  • +7

I don't.

  • +2

That's fair, but a lot of people are frustrated this gen because not a lot of games feel "next gen" so they want even better graphics

  • +16

Which is why the industry is in trouble, imo. Back in the PS1 days, tech was leaping itself every other year. Now? It's not even leaping itself every decade. So from a business point of view, what are they suppose to do? Consumers want those old leaps, but they can not provide those leaps so... make shorter games? There really is no answer, other than to abandon the chase for graphics all together and try to make the next Minecraft. But they don't seem to want to do that, so here we are... facing a real crisis.

  • +3
SanAndreasX JackHandy (on 19 June 2024)

The gaming industry is basically collapsing under its own weight. Gtaphical fidelity is only going to continue to get more expensive.

  • +1

That's kind of the thing, isn't it? Most developer won't bother with the highest fidelity available anymore due to costs and development time, and frankly not that many people care about cutting edge graphics anymore. At some point, graphic fidelity is just a diminishing return. There are more areas to explore (personally, adding more actually useful bots/npcs to a game should be the next future goldmine, especially with all the AI advancements as of late).

  • +3
CaptainExplosion Mnementh (on 20 June 2024)

Same. I just want fun games with fun characters.

  • +1
Pemalite SanAndreasX (on 19 June 2024)

Not all graphics effects drive costs and development time.

For example, Ray Traced global illumination pretty much eliminates scene artists needing to go back and "bake" lighting details into textures or make light maps to make a scene look good.

Tessellation removed the need to place individual geometric features in terrain.

And procedural generation has made massive leaps over the years. I.E. Speed Tree.

So yes. Keep pushing graphical fidelity, but do so intelligently, better graphics can reduce costs if done right.

  • +4

You said basically what I was thinking.

  • 0
TheLegendaryBigBoss (on 19 June 2024)

In terms of 1st party, more games like returnal and incoming astro bot are required. Lower budget but great games

  • +9

Add Helldivers and Lego Horizon and we have abundant proof that you can do both big and smaller titles. But as you stated above there is this push to make it seem like Next Gen means bigger and bigger games. So it comes down to managing expectations.

  • +3
pikashoe (on 19 June 2024)

I wouldn't mind shorter more focused games. So many games are bloated and have terrible pacing these days.

  • +7
SecondWar (on 19 June 2024)

I certainly don’t hate this idea. Cut the endless bloat and make shorter (but not short) can that don’t drag on. Seems like a win win.

  • +6
pokoko (on 19 June 2024)

There are tons of games on Steam that sell very well without cutting-edge visuals. They spend their time and budget on content rather than graphics and plenty of people are happy with that strategy.

Let the big studios make a few "console sellers" now and then but I think it would be fine to scale back the amount of resources wasted trying to make everything look as high-spec as possible. It's simply not necessary.

  • +4
trunkswd (on 19 June 2024)

It looks like Ubisoft learned this lesson the hard way. AC Shadows is said to be on the same scale as AC Origins, which is the smallest/shortest of the open-world AC games. It is still a large game, but not nearly as big as Odyssey or Valhalla which were full of bloat.

  • +4
DroidKnight trunkswd (on 19 June 2024)

I'm almost finished with my Odyssey play-through and I have enjoyed every minute of it. I'm already over 320 hours and probably still lack another 20 for a full completion of all DLC's. It never felt like bloat to me, it just felt like a really grand epic adventure, and I'm going to feel a sense of empty sadness when it's over.

  • -1
Zkuq DroidKnight (on 19 June 2024)

I felt like I had eaten way too much of whatever I was eating by the time I was done. It was great, but too much is too much. And Valhalla... Once I felt the game should end soon, it just kept going on and on, until I had doubled my hours... It was a great game too, but if I wasn't so insistent on finishing what I started, I would certainly have stopped way earlier, because the last dozens of hours weren't all that much fun anymore.

Your mileage might vary, but evidently at least some people felt like Odyssey and Valhalla were quite much.

  • +3
ALinkInTime (on 19 June 2024)

The Switch is the ultimate proof that people aren't drawn to high end graphics. HD is enough for most.

  • +3
Hiku ALinkInTime (on 21 June 2024)

That can be hard to gauge without knowing the overlap of people who have both a Switch and a PlayStation/Xbox. Personally I'd be fine with PS4 level graphics for another generation or more.

  • +1
ALinkInTime Hiku (on 21 June 2024)

That is a valid point. I use my Xbox One for games that don't run well on Switch, and I imagine there are holdouts on the One and PS4 who are content with the performance of those systems as long as they consistently still receive cross-gen support.

  • 0
Hiku ALinkInTime (on 22 June 2024)

Yeah. I still play on PS4. I'll probably get the rumored Pro at the end of the year, but so far there was only really 1 or 2 reasons for me to get one. (FF7 Rebirth and Tekken 8) since every other game I wanted still had a PS4 version.

  • 0
NSS7 (on 20 June 2024)

Shorter games is fine if price is lower. But I think better approach is to focus less on graphics and more on gameplay. I dont think graphics is must have features anymore these days.

  • +1
halil23 NSS7 (on 24 June 2024)

Better yet, instead of focusing on graphics they should focus on 60 fps or above, so annoyed at 30fps games

  • 0
Zkuq (on 19 June 2024)

Lots of good points here, aside from the framerate part, where it's just nonsense. 60 Hz vs 144 Hz is a very clear difference, and I imagine 60 Hz vs. 120 Hz is too. Whether you need such high framerates is another discussion of course.

  • +1
rapsuperstar31 (on 19 June 2024)

Get rid of things like ray tracing, and remove some of the fetch quests padding.

  • +1
haxxiy rapsuperstar31 (on 19 June 2024)

Implementing ray tracing is almost free. Baking in lighting and shadows is actually the time-consuming process.

  • +6
rapsuperstar31 haxxiy (on 19 June 2024)

If ray tracing results in a lot more optimization trying to get the games to run with a fluid frame rate, it's not worth it.

  • 0
haxxiy rapsuperstar31 (on 19 June 2024)

Optimizing the game's rasterization won't make it run faster with RT on, though.

Regardless, once everyone has the hardware to run RT at acceptable framerates/resolution it'll help with development times a lot.

  • 0
Kyuu rapsuperstar31 (on 19 June 2024)

Some raytracing applications reduce development costs/time. RT is cheap on development costs but expensive (demanding) on hardware resources.

  • +2
Qwark Kyuu (on 22 June 2024)

Problem is that it will probably take till PS6 and perhaps 7 before consoles and low end pc can run RT at 60fps in 1440p

  • 0
shikamaru317 (on 19 June 2024)

Something has to give for sure. Over the course of gen 8 and this first half of gen 9, AAA development costs have skyrocketed. At the start of gen 8 your average AAA seemed to cost around $60-90m to make and market, with only the upper quarter maybe costing over $120m and only the most expensive like GTA V costing over $200m to make and market. Now, in 2024, it seems like the average AAA costs more like $150-160m, and we've learned that Sony's recent AAA games have budgets over $200m, with their most expensive to date, Spider-Man 2, costing $315m to make and market. Likewise AAA development time has skyrocketed. It used to be the typical AAA could be made in 3-4 years, these days we are seeing AAA devs taking 5 years on many games, with some even higher at 6-8 years. Longer dev times contribute to the higher budgets as that is more total years of developer salaries factored into the development budget figure.

This situation is untenable. The combined size of the console/PC market has barely increased over the years, so game sales aren't really increasing, AAA games are selling the same number of copies or often even less than they used to sale. Game pricing barely went up from $60 to $70 during that timeframe, well below the inflation in pricing for most other products during the same timeframe. The higher graphical fidelity of the new generation drove up development costs by requiring larger dev teams and therefore more salaries to pay, around 2014 the average AAA dev team was maybe 150-200 devs, these days we've commonly heard about AAA dev team sizes over 300 devs, with some well above that like Cyberpunk (about 500 devs) and Starfield (about 500 devs), with Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption 2 leading the pack at a reported 1600 developers and 2000 total personnel working on the game in some capacity.

One or more of several things needs to happen to rectify this situation:

  • AAA graphical fidelity needs to drop back closer to last gen levels, back when AAA games could be made by smaller dev teams in less time on smaller budgets.
  • AAA games need to be shorter like Layden is suggesting here, less total hours of content, no more chasing 30+ hours of content in non-RPG genres when much of that content is filler anyways
  • AAA studios need to move out of the very high cost of living areas where most of them are currently located, areas like Los Angeles, and into lower cost of living states and cities, so that developer salaries can be cut without said developers feeling the pinch in their buying power
  • AAA game pricing raised above the current $70 (though a price increase may not help much as a higher price on launch could result in more gamers waiting on discounts to buy said games)
  • +1

Spiderman 2 isn't even that long of a game, the main storyline + side stuff is probably around 30 hours. I guess part of the budget must have been payments to Disney to use the ip because Insomniac didn't spent 5+ years making the game as far as I know.

  • +1

Yeah, in Spider-Man's case I think alot of the problem was Disney licensing costs. I believe I remember reading that Disney gets 20% of the sale price of a licensed game, so basically Disney would have been getting $14 of each full priced $70 sale of Spider-Man, so maybe Sony factored that into the budget for Spider-Man 2. TLOU 2 and Horizon: Forbidden West are both generally larger and higher graphical fidelity games than Spider-Man 2, and they have development + marketing budgets of $220m and $212m respectively, well below Spider-Man 2's $315m .

  • +2

Even less than that. I was able to Platinum the game in 21 hours. The last thing you would think was that it cost over $300 million to make.

  • +1
Wman1996 shikamaru317 (on 19 June 2024)

Games are indeed taking way too long. If it's to give employees better work-life balance, I'm all for it.
If it's because of mismanagement or too much graphical work, it needs to be addressed.
I miss the days when studios could put out big games every 2-4 years, not every 5-8 years.

  • +7
Kyuu Wman1996 (on 22 June 2024)

FF7 Rebirth (took 3 years to make) is the standard that 90% AAA games should aim for. And that game had an insane amount of varied content, care, mini games, and attention to detail gone into it, and a lot of people complained that it was bloated. So without the "bloating", we're looking at 2.5 years. I don't know what's causing many AAA games to require over 5 years to develop when Rebirth (which was made by a developer people memed for "long development times") only needed 3. Sure, Rebirth had some recycled content, but so do most AAA games.

FromSoftware, Monolith Soft, Ryu Ga Gotoku, Team Ninja, Capcom, and Insomniac also seem pretty efficient in general. Spider-Man's high budget is probably tied to licencing fees and marketing.

  • +2
Wman1996 Kyuu (on 22 June 2024)

Metroid Prime 4 seems like it has taken forever because Nintendo and the devs (which wasn't Retro Studios until it was which caused a restart) have had trouble knowing what the game is. Even with the announcement of the development beginning in Summer 2017, a logical person would've expected a release date between 2019-2021, not 2025.
Often games take forever because of a struggle to find the identity or general mismanagement.
Provided Rebirth didn't have crunch (there's no evidence that I'm aware of that it did), 3 years is impressive.
Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga should've taken 2-3 years but took 5 all the while having crunch and still being glitchy at launch. The bosses were clearly not qualified to manage the game.

  • +1
Kyuu Wman1996 (on 22 June 2024)

FF7 Remake also took too long due in part to development being shifted from CyberConnect2 to an internal studio, which is a somewhat similar story to Prime 4. Hopefully this means the problems are in the past and Prime 5 won't take forever to make.

I'm more puzzled about why Tears of the Kingdom took as long to develop as it did, but I assume the main team was working on other projects.

  • +1
BraLoD (on 19 June 2024)

Not every studio needs to make the best game in every aspect, in the case of large corporations with many studios they need to find some balance.
But some studios definitely should keep trying to push as far as they can get, making prettier and games filled with tons of content.
The industry needs to keep evolving, large scale ambitious games need to exist too.

  • 0
SuntannedDuck2 (on 19 June 2024)

From marketing, to licenses to length/value people want even if it's padding or just elements of next gen like animations, visuals and more yet the IPs or gameplay design is safe. Even some Indies just get whatever they can out because they are heavily inspired. Some have broad excellent ideas, others are too nostaglic and while learn a game inside and out or follow another Indie's trend starter success they follow too closely sometimes and it becomes as surprising as AAA of just more repetitive games.

Too much casual audience sales expectations, media tie ins help but what percentage will jump over? Same with mobile to console? Same with those still happy or can only have 1 device not multiple. Many factors. Us gamers that want more than graphics and support Indies will appealing enough broad ideas or familiar design go for that. Whatever else the market says no to of us hardcore or casuals it's on that of difficulty not just the game prices, it's always broader of factors for sure.

  • 0
Random_Matt (on 19 June 2024)

Length has not much to do with it. Check the steam achievements in games, for example, in POE barely anyone gets past act 1. The same can be said for literally all the games.

  • 0
darthv72 (on 19 June 2024)

I certainly dont mind shorter games. i find I dont really have the time for the big budget AAA fetch quest titles as of late. I start them but end up going back to the pick up and play stylings of arcade classics on my Switch or Evercade.

  • 0
Wman1996 (on 19 June 2024)

How about care less about cinematics and graphics?
Spider-Man 2 is about 30 hours to do everything, that's not a long game.
The Last of Us (all 3 releases) is about 10-15 hours for the main story if you're not a completionist.
Is he pining for The Order: 1886? That game launched at $59.99 USD despite taking about 7 hours to beat the story and only about an extra 3 to get everything. And let's just say it wasn't received as some phenomenal game that happened to be short.
Yes, some games are too padded in either the main quest or side objectives. But that's just one piece of the cost.

  • 0
Dante9 (on 20 June 2024)

So less bang for my buck? No thanks. And which is really more expensive, putting more length to a game that is already underway with assets and systems on hand, or starting a new game from scratch?
They don't really care if people get to see the whole game they've made, they just want to squeeze more money for less time and cost. These shorter games are still going to cost the same for us.
People not finishing games is mostly a matter of time restraints, they will get there at their own pace and who knows what metrics they use to determine the expected time that a particular game should be finished in? Or, the game might turn out to be boring and that's why people won't finish it, in which case what do they care, they already got their money.
If I pay 70-80€ for a piece of entertainment, I expect it to last a good while. Work smarter, pick sensible projects that the market actually wants and build AI tools.

  • -1
DroidKnight (on 19 June 2024)

Those will be the ones I'll stay away from.

  • -1
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