Every generation, the top-tier triple-A games get more expansive, more ostentatious, and more expensive. According to former PlayStation Worldwide Studios boss Shawn Layden, this business model is "not sustainable". Layden talked about some of the issues he saw during a talk at Gamelab Live, a free online conference featuring several games industry luminaries.
Layden had a 32 year career at Sony and was an executive within the PlayStation division for 20 of those years. He recalled the days when games had $1 million production budgets, at they way up to expensive triple-A titles like The Last of Us Part 2, which was in development when Layden left. He pointed to current budgets of $80-150 million, excluding marketing costs.
"The problem with that model is it's just not sustainable," he said, according to GamesIndustry.biz. "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."
He mentioned that a whole host of factors continue to strain under the current development model. Team sizes are getting larger and asset creation isn't getting cheaper, especially with the move to 4K. At the same time, while development costs have risen, the price of games has not. "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," he said.
Layden also pointed towards the trend of making longer games. Publishers and developers want more of their titles to be lifestyle games that you can buy and engage with forever. Layden called for a rethink of that idea, noting that not every game concept can be filled out to that level.
"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 explained. "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."
The former PlayStation exec also a downshifting in development time and game sizes. "Instead of spending five years making an 80 hour game, what does three years and a 15 hour game look like?" he asked. "Personally, as an older gamer... I would welcome a return to the 12 to 15 hour [triple-A] 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."
Layden's comments come around the launch of The Last of Us Part 2, a game he called "the ultimate example" of the PlayStation 4 era. That title was the center of a conversation about crunch culture, with former Naughty Dog staffers talking openly about overwork and high turnover within the company. The game's release has also fuel the discussion around stringent review embargoes and spoiler culture. With the game out, lead developers at Naughty Dog have begun to talk about alternate directions for the story considered during the development process.