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Shawn Layden: COVID-19 is an opportunity to build a better industry

“If we don't take something positive from this extended period of quarantine, we've really squandered the opportunity”

The professional life of the games industry before COVID-19 is now "frozen in amber," according to former PlayStation Worldwide Studios boss Shawn Layden, and he advised companies to seize the opportunity to create a better environment for work.

Speaking at Gamelab Live last week, Layden discussed the COVID-19 pandemic as an "important and interesting" time for the global games business. In a live interview with veteran journalist Dean Takahashi, he said that the lockdown has "changed the way of life -- it has changed the way of work, certainly."

Layden departed Sony in October last year, several months before the spread of the virus caused massive upheaval for businesses of every kind. PlayStation Worldwide Studios employed around 2,600 people at that point in time, Layden said, and he marvelled at the "huge challenge" transitioning to remote work must have presented.

"Teams that are having Scrum standups three times a week... and looking at deliverables, and then being able to update source at studio from your, let's say, less than robust local telecom internet connection," he added. "There has to be a host of challenges around it. I'm heartened to see that the team has found ways to get through that -- certainly, the delivery of The Last of Us Part 2 has shown that you can finish off a game remotely."

"As if normal is getting back to 2019. That world is gone. That world is now sealed in amber"

There are some aspects of development that Layden indicated would be difficult to replicate with Zoom calls -- specifically the "early ideation phases" of making a game, which benefit from groups of people having regular, extended sessions of collaboration. However, with the industry forced to create answers to the majority of the biggest questions, it will not be in a position to demand a return to its old practices even if it were possible to do so.

"This is an opportunity, as we change our way of life and our way of work, to look at what it is we want to come back to," said Layden, who is currently on a sabbatical from his career. "People use the phrase: When are we going to get back to normal? As if normal is getting back to 2019. That world is gone. That world is now sealed in amber. Everything pre-virus is now a historical artifact that we can explore and look at and still take lessons from, but there's no getting back to that.

"People are beginning to reevaluate their own relationship with work. I think it would be unreasonable to expect that, even if a vaccine was found, that people are going to want to go back to work and do the 80 or 90 hour week at the office. And then come home, and try to recover over the weekend, and then go back into it. The pace of life is slowing down, and I think that's no bad thing.

"If we don't take something positive from this extended period of quarantine, we've really squandered the opportunity."

With The Last of Us Part 2, Sony has showed that a AAA game can be finished and shipped under lockdown, Layden said

With The Last of Us Part 2, Sony has showed that a AAA game can be finished and shipped under lockdown, Layden said

Layden posited that the impact of COVID-19 is likely to be so big, it will be looked back on as the end of 20th century thinking, and the real start of the 21st century. "We have to reexamine our relationship with work, how we get things done, how to work smarter, rather than working longer," he continued. "Those have great implications for every industry, but gaming in particular."

Takahashi mentioned another major event that has swept across the world this year: the apparent demand for an end to institutional racism, as represented by the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement following the death of George Floyd at the hands of the US police in May.

"You don't grow a business by having the same people in a room making the same game"

Layden had already described the insular way that most industries start -- around a "tight group of people" who move between the small number of companies that comprise the business. He recalled the early days of PlayStation feeling like graduate school for "Sega university," but that was true across the games industry.

"There was a point in the industry where everyone worked for Sega at one time, or EA at one time," he said. "And that was fine, because it was sort of a sui generis business. It didn't have any analogue out in the world, certainly from a console perspective. It's still the only business that has the hardware component integrated into software."

However, the industry has not quite moved beyond the legacy of that closed environment, which was largely a white, male space. Even beyond the inherent value of social diversity, Layden said, industries only see greater commercial returns "from bringing new voices in."

"You don't grow a business by having the same people in a room making the same game -- 'Here we go, here's the game plan for Elves in Space 12'," Layden joked. "You won't grow the audience [with] that. We need new and different things."

That has already happened with people from different backgrounds starting to work in games -- writers for film and television, to use Layden's example -- but it must also happen by welcoming people with different stories to tell in general.

"This is another vector of what was the 20th Century and what is the 21st Century," he said. "The uprisings we've seen in the last ew weeks -- not just in America, but around the world -- in support of Black Lives Matter and all of the harm and hurt that's been done from a position of intolerance. We need to break that chain.

"We have to move forward. I don't want to repeat myself, but we can't squander the opportunity to do the right thing, to do a good thing -- not just in gaming, but full stop."

GamesIndustry.biz is a media partner of the Gamelab Live conference.

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