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Shawn Layden stresses importance of diverse teams

PlayStation boss says teams need to represent a global fanbase, warns that "sameness is the death of innovation and creativity"

In a Centre Stage address at the Collision conference in Toronto yesterday, Sony Interactive Entertainment chairman Shawn Layden delivered advice on fostering creativity from a games industry perspective to a more generalist tech and start-up audience.

"The video game industry straddles creativity, innovation, entertainment, and technology in ways unlike any other industry," Layden explained. "Our fans are boisterous, passionate, vocal, and extremely unforgiving. The lessons learned since the birth of PlayStation back in 1994 can serve many of you well, whether you're a founder, entrepreneur, growing a start-up, [or] starting a business through this next wave of innovation."

Layden talked about Sony's task managing 13 game development studios across three continents, stressing that the company focuses on creativity and quality in its products, because it's no use trying to have one if you lack the other.

"As we broaden the tent for our games... it's important our development teams look like our fans"

"We empower our development studios to constantly push the boundaries of gaming and give them opportunities to experiment and explore," Layden said. "We encourage them to take risks. We enable a culture that learns from mistakes and failures. As leaders, we encourage developers to act fearlessly and share new ideas. We try to be approachable, available, and responsive. "

As an example, he pointed to Sucker Punch, developer of the Sly Cooper and Infamous series of games. When the studio sat down to create a game that would take advantage of the PlayStation 4 Pro hardware, Layden said the natural option was to build a new Infamous game. But the studio instead suggested Ghost of Tsushima, a samurai action game. Layden was particularly impressed that the Seattle-area studio successfully pitched a historical project set in Japan to Japanese executives at a Japanese parent company.

"We're very proud of the fact that this was a 100% American development team researching and honoring another culture, and its history and its beauty," he said.

Of course, there's more to fostering creativity than just telling people to take risks. Development teams can be set up in such a way that lends itself to creativity, from the physical space where they work to the composition of the team itself.

"As we broaden the tent for our games and we welcome those from every part of the world and every background, it's important our development teams look like our fans," Layden said. "It's important that we have a wide range of voices if we are to exceed the expectations of our audience.

"The Media Molecule team is now roughly one-third female, but this has required a conscious effort and greater outreach"

"People with different backgrounds bring new perspectives. They help ignite the creative spark by thinking differently. If your teams all look the same and act the same, if they all share the same history and the same point of view, your products will not evolve and will eventually become lackluster and unimaginative. Sameness is the death of innovation and creativity."

He also pointed to Dreams developer Media Molecule as an example of that mindset proven out.

"The Media Molecule team is now roughly one-third female, but this has required a conscious effort and greater outreach, from being more experimental with recruitment and welcoming more interns and even young school groups," Layden said, noting that the studio partnered with Girls Make Games to have a Dreams game development workshop recently.

Layden wrapped up his brief speech by emphasizing for the audience that while it's often tempting to worry about the immediate challenges, it's important even for start-ups to keep a long-term view because the decisions they make now will define their company culture for the future.

"You cannot control how, when, or where truly creative ideas can happen," Layden concluded. "You can nurture them. Give your team space to ideate. Share their feedback. Share their feedback with you. And let them take risks. Grow your company with an eye towards fostering creativity and inclusivity. These things are inextricably linked.

"Build space for creativity, and for people with new and unique viewpoints, and your future will be brighter. You will innovate more. You will impact more people. And you will be here on this stage one day, advising future generations."

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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