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Shawn Layden
Brian Crecente/Polygon

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PlayStation US boss reflects on birth and rebirth of PlayStation

Soylent Green, ghostwriting and the Buddha Lounge

In 2014, riding high on the successful launch of PlayStation 4 and a surprisingly positive, surprisingly unanimous reaction to its E3 showcase the year before, Sony made an unexpected announcement.

Jack Tretton, the president and CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment of America and in many ways the face of that success, was stepping down.

After weathering years of second place to Microsoft’s Xbox 360, Tretton was going to miss out on what looked to be the rise of the PlayStation 4. And in his place?

Shawn Layden, former head of Sony Network Entertainment International, rarely seen or heard from in public venues and even, he said recently, referred to internally as the “international man of mystery.”

Layden’s tenure as the new head of Sony Interactive Entertainment America aligns neatly with the PlayStation 4’s successes and an overhaul of how the company presents itself both at E3 and its relatively new PlayStation Experience.

In a recent visit to New York, Layden met with press to discuss the facts and figures Sony hopes will never bog down a public conference keynote again.

While those conversations are embargoed until early next month, I did have a chance to speak with Layden about, well, Layden. How he went from Notre Dame grad and Tekken enthusiast to become the head of Sony Interactive Entertainment America. And how most recently he took on a second title (and business card) as chairman of SIE Worldwide Studios.

That offer to serve as chairman caps what he calls his “10-year walk through the wilderness of sales and marketing” to return once more to his spiritual home of product development.

In this abbreviated interview I attempted to seek a bit more sense of exactly who Shawn Layden is and how he got where he is today.

The pinball generation

Computer Space as seen in Soylent Green

At 56, Shawn Layden is just inside the periphery of the generation of people who grew up with readily available video games in arcades or their homes. He is, he told me, of the pinball generation, but he still remembers fondly his first video game experience.

I remember the first time in the arcade, which of course was attached to the bowling alley as they always were, they had Computer Space.

Do you remember that game? Did you ever see the movie Soylent Green? That's what they had in one of those high rise apartments; was that fiberglass, kind of psychedelic fiberglass housing.

They had that Computer Space console that was supposed to show: “This is the future.” They had one at the bowling alley when I was a kid. I came in and I saw that and I thought, “Oh, my god. This is remarkable.”

I was smitten by that.

At the same time, growing up, we had an Atari that we bought so my dad could do financial household accounting. So dad could do the bookkeeping, which he never did. But it came with Space Wars and Centipede.

Ghostwriting for one of Japan’s greats

Sony Radio

While Layden would go on to hold a number of important executive jobs at PlayStation in Europe, Japan and the U.S., that wasn’t really on his mind when he landed his first job with Sony. After a year abroad in Japan at the University of Tokyo, graduating from Notre Dame and then a fellowship with the Japanese Ministry of Education, Layden took his first Sony job in 1987 as a PR person dealing with the foreign press. It was just two years before he made his first big step toward gaming.

I got plucked out of the PR department and was made secretary to the chairman, who was Akio Morita, the founder of Sony. He took me in as his speechwriter and ghostwriter.

Akio Morita was, probably still is, the most famous Japanese businessman of all time. When he was chairman of Sony, I remember the Prime Minister's office had floated the idea to him that they wanted him to join the cabinet as foreign minister and he thought about it, and he came to the conclusion that “I probably have more influence as the chairman of Sony than as a Japanese foreign minister.”

He was part of The Trilateral Commission. That's how he knew Kissinger and Pete Peterson and David Rockefeller. These were all people who would come to the office at some time. I was his secretary for five years.

From there, the PlayStation.

We were hearing about it occurring. There was PlayStation with Nintendo happening, and then it wasn't happening.

But then it kind of spun up and became a thing and I happened to be close to the president of the PlayStation group at that time. One night at dinner, he asked me: “Do you want to come work for the game business?” By this time, Morita-san had a stroke so he was no longer coming to the office and I said, “But Tokanaka-san [then Sony director Teruhisa Tokanaka], I've never worked in the game business before.” He looked at me and said, “None of us have.”

Music and technology makes for good gaming

the PlayStation button icons flying across a blue background
PlayStation logo buttons photo
Photo: Samit Sarkar/Polygon

As Layden explained it, there were several different paths up through the internal machinations of Sony and Sony Computer Entertainment. One route was through the brand, hardware and platform side, an approach that was shepherded by Ken Kutaragi. Another, which Layden followed, was through the content side. He said that Akira Sato, who was the head of all software and game development, was his mentor.

He came from Sony Music.

One of the greatest things about PlayStation, when the company started in 1993 was that they created it as a joint venture between Sony Corp. and Sony Music because they had the engineering, we had the hardware prowess.

We knew how that worked, but they had no idea how you get a publisher or a developer to sign up. So they brought all of that in from Sony Music. Sales, marketing, third-party relations.

The game industry changed dramatically because of that. Until then it was just a Nintendo and Sega world. And they were kind of stodgy in their practices.

It was innovative for us that we started to put developers' names on the case. Which Nintendo and Sega never wanted to do.

We put them, bang, right there on the box. And we went at it knowing that our first-party studios could not be the leader. We couldn't have 60 percent market share. We knew that only third-parties were going to make it viable. PlayStation is the third-party platform, so everyone can come in.

Selling Japan on American games

Tekken Tag Tournament 2 screenshot 1280
Tekken Tag Tournament 2
Bandai Namco

The original PlayStation came out in 1994 and within two years, Layden was at the newly minted Sony Computer Entertainment as a producer for the international software division. He said that first job was probably his hardest.

We were bringing western games to Japan. Trying to convince the Japanese gamer that they wanted to play Jet Moto or Destruction Derby.

Talk about coals to Newcastle, right? It was really hard.

I was playing games all the time. I had a real hardcore Tekken addiction during [the PlayStation 1 days]. We played in arcades where I was living in Tokyo. But I think the real watershed game, for me anyway, was probably Tomb Raider.

I remember going to Core Design in Derby and meeting with the brothers Smith and meeting Toby Gard and trying to get them to get a license for the title, because they couldn't publish in Japan on their own. So I was out, you know, going around, trying to collect content and I just wanted that Tomb Raider title so badly and they ended up going with Sega.

Getting an offer he can’t refuse

A Final Fantasy 10 remaster screenshot shows main character Tidus looking off into the distance
Final Fantasy 10/10-2 HD Remaster
Image: Square Enix

In 1999, Layden was transferred to London where he was essentially doing the same job, but in reverse: trying to bring American and Japanese games to Europe. Struggling with localization and wondering over the need to translate the 1.5 million words found in Final Fantasy 10.

I went over there to help manage that integration of the Psygnosis operations into the SCE operations. But at some point, Tokyo calls and calls you home.

I got that fateful call in 2007. I remember standing on the train platform and Kaz Hirai on my cell phone saying, “So, Shawn, how long have you been in London again?”

Oh, you know what that call is.

“Well, we think it's time for you to come back to Japan. We want you to come back and be the president of SCE Japan.”

You can't say no to that, right?

By that time, I'd be come vice president of international software development in London and my team was still bringing a lot of content. We also had a lot of partnerships back then. We were the publisher of record for Namco. We were the publisher of record for Disney and Square. So we had a lot of, not just our internal stuff but, you know, second party stuff we were doing. So it was pretty, a pretty good business.

Sony gets an intervention

Kaz Hirai PS Vita Sony CES 2013 keynote 1280 watermarked
Kaz Hirai PS Vita Sony CES 2013 keynote

Layden’s surprise call from Kaz Hirai in 2007 with an offer he couldn’t refuse came in part, Layden said, because Sony Computer Entertainment Japan was in need of an intervention of sorts.

It needed to be, let's say, redeveloped. And, so I came into [a] shrinking company with shrinking market share and they're having trouble making PS3 successful in the marketplace.

I think they brought me in because they felt that they needed a completely new pair of eyes to look at this challenge, that anyone they had in the stack vertically was just going to perpetuate what the last guy was doing before.

That was tough.

They just couldn't get out of their own way to find success and how to get there. So we did a lot of restructuring which is not easy to do in Japan. But [we] had to move away a layer of executives in order to let the younger ones come up. We opened up some opportunity there and then in about 18 months we were back in a profitable position and doing reasonably well.

Shortening his life

PlayStation Network
PlayStation Network

After spending three years as president of Sony Computer Entertainment Japan, Layden was moved to Silicon Valley to establish Sony Network Entertainment, which was designed to “capture” all of Sony’s network activities and ambitions. Layden was still there in 2011 as chief operating officer when the PlayStation Network was hacked, becoming one of the largest data security breaches in history at the time.

It took years off my life. I remember the day.

If it had to happen to us, I'm glad it happened then. We've learned so much from that experience.

We were in as good a position as we could be at the time with what was, at the time, state of the art. But we did get hit and we have taken our capabilities in that area to the highest degree possible. So no one is complacent or, or ignorant about the dangers and the challenges that are out there but I think we are in a much better place today.

We have had our baptism by fire.

Piss, vomit and fame

playstation e3 2015
PlayStation E3 2015

In 2014, Kaz Hirai asked Layden to become the president of Sony Computer Entertainment America, taking over for Jack Tretton. The new role brought with it a degree of fame, powered by annual E3 press conferences viewed by tens of thousands of fans.

It's not something I enjoy particularly.

About four months ago, I was coming out of the Buddha Lounge up in Chinatown and some guy looks at me and goes, “You're Shawn Layden.”

Even in my own city, you know? Thank god I wasn't throwing up coming out of the Buddha Lounge, pissing on my shoes or something like that.

I don't try to think about it. But, the fame. I don't know what that means. I think there's a certain responsibility that goes with it and I'm very judicious about what I write on my Twitter feed.

I think there's a certain expectation that I should be fair-minded and open and try to be as accessible as I can to the fans who come to Playstation for a host of their own reasons.

We want the company to look like our fan base and so we want to open up that diversity which is so important in gaming to get more people involved with gaming, get more people to enjoy it, and if, because I can be recognized coming out of the Buddha Lounge, I can have some credibility in speaking to those sorts of issues, I'm happy for that.