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Former PlayStation exec says AAA next-gen games may have to be shorter or cost more

Shawn Layden calls current triple-A development “just not sustainable”

PlayStation’s former America boss has called current AAA development “just not sustainable” and suggested that game length and pricing may have to be adjusted in the next console generation.

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Speaking during a wide-ranging panel at Gamelab Live on Tuesday, transcribed by GamesIndustry.biz, Shawn Layden referenced PlayStation’s The Last of Us 2 – a game he oversaw – which is roughly double the length and took double the development time of its predecessor.

While the former PlayStation exec did not comment on the Naughty Dog game’s budget, he referred to a common theory that development costs had doubled with every new console generation, and claimed that current-gen games had reached between $80m and $150m for most AAA games.

PlayStation’s former America boss has called current AAA development “just not sustainable.”

“The problem with that model is it’s just not sustainable,” he said. “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.”

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He added: “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?’”

The former PlayStation exec, who left Sony in 2019 after a three-decade career, suggested that shorter games could help control development costs on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X.

“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.

“4K, HDR art and creating worlds don’t come cheap. 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?”

“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.”

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Layden added: “4K, HDR art and creating worlds don’t come cheap. 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?”

He added: “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.”

However, Layden added that he believes that the single most important reason why the AAA model is unsustainable is not escalating development costs, but game prices remaining relatively unchanged since the 80s.

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“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.”

Both PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X are due to launch in Holiday 2020.