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Kratos' Boss: The Studio Head of Sony Santa Monica Speaks

In this interview, Shannon Studstill, Sony Santa Monica's senior director of product development, discusses her job: keeping one of Sony's most important development studios in the running, and making sure God of War is all it can be.

As studio head of Sony Santa Monica, Shannon Studstill has a tough job: keeping one of the most important and expansive development studios in the Sony Worldwide Studios profile running, and making sure that its flagship franchise, God of War, comes out on time and broadens its audience with every entry.

While creative director Todd Papy is making the core creative decisions on the 2013 installment of the series, Ascension, it's up to Studstill to make sure things run smoothly at a studio level -- and also balance business side of the organization's creative endeavors.

In this extensive interview, Studstill discusses that careful balance, as well as how her studio operates within the Sony hierarchy, why it's important to incubate studios such as Thatgamecompany and PlayStation All-Stars developer SuperBot Entertainment, and how the studio handles quality of life issues and career development.

You're the senior director of product development. What is your role, exactly?

Shannon Studstill: Supporting the creative talent -- and when I say "creative," I mean everyone in the studio from producers all the way to those creative designers -- and giving them an atmosphere by which they can explore all types of creative solutions to get to quality product.

Is this something that you can do through practices and processes, or is it more cultural?

SS: For me, it's both. I think, most likely, every studio head goes about it in a different fashion, but, for me, you've got to combine the two. We're dealing with so much risk when you're looking at a production like God of War.

We really want to infuse a process that works, again, for that creative group that doesn't really want process; they want to be able to explore a blue sky and do all kinds of crazy things. We allow that -- and we need to allow that -- but we also need to have a process by which they know a rough guideline of the time or the resources that they have to achieve [what they want in] the future.

The culture of this is to maintain an environment that is fun, that people want to come into work every day and be a part of. In some cases, as we know, in this industry, you can spend a lot of time at work! I want to make sure that we're maintaining a space that people want to be in for extended periods of time.

When it comes to quality of life -- and specifically things like crunch, which you're sort of alluding to -- how do you feel about that? How do you control that, and mitigate that kind of stuff?

SS: The process is pretty important to that. How do we organize? How do we communicate? How do we lock, and when do we lock? How do we control feature creep? It's all over the place. We do try to control it, but the reality is you hit a certain point in production where it all becomes very clear; that's unpredictable when that actually happens on the timeline.

There's a lot of things that also come together at the latter stages of the development. When that happens, you tend to need to have overtime or extra people thrown onto the product that can help you to achieve the original goals of what you're out there to see happen.

But do you have a specific goal towards minimizing or mitigating that, and processes around that?

SS: Let me think about that for a minute.

Every product's different. We're always looking out for the gotchas, so I would say that it's somebody with enough experience who's driving the production at the senior level, like [senior producer] Whitney Wade, to be able to watch out for those types of things. We also have people who have been part of a franchise for many years who are driving the schedule forward; they're able to see certain things, as well. We're a highly collaborative environment, so there's not just one person.

We also have people who are at that senior leadership level that oversee multiple projects in the studio, that have been down that road before, and can start to see things happen before people who are maybe not as experienced start to experience that. So we have a lot of things in place that we hope we can get a lead on, and get to see things ahead of time, before other people might get the downside, or the negative effects.

[Creative director] Todd [Papy] was talking about -- and this is obvious for anyone who's ever played a God of War game -- every time, they push really hard to get new, bigger, more complicated things in the game. You were talking earlier about feature creep. As management, how do you control that? Is it a butting heads thing, or is it just trying to illustrate to people that "this is what we can do in the time we have"?

SS: Ultimately, what we're looking at is fan base, and what's the payoff, and what are we going to achieve through this feature -- that balancing act of what good looks like, and is it going to be worth the risk?

I wouldn't really call it a butting of heads; it's just an ongoing analysis. We're always looking at new opportunities for the franchise, and for the various other products that we have in the studio -- products that we want to pick up -- but there's a fine line between spending way too much on a feature and where that's going to pay out in regards to how it's going to drive our fan base, and how it may even bring in new players that we didn't expect.

So we're always constantly studying our franchise and studying the industry as a whole, looking at what our competitors are doing, and really trying to make sure that we stand above and beyond, and stand out from what's going on out there in that big, crazy world of ours.


How do you determine things to double down on, like "Yes; we're going to go multiplayer this time" or "Yes, we're going to double down on graphic violence; these are what we consider the bullet points for this franchise"?

SS: That really needs to be driven by the creative. We are not a studio, nor are we a company, that has the publisher mentality driving the creative decisions within the franchise. That happens at the team level, and we cherish that ability that Sony gives us.

It's certainly something at Sony Santa Monica that we take advantage of. We want the visionary in there making those types of decisions. What does that person believe in as far as what compels the gamer, and what is the new experience that they want to introduce? It's all happening on the ground floor.

There is a point where upper management needs to look at it again as far as expense: How many people are we going to need to throw at that new thing, and what is the future of that new feature? What does that maybe open up down the line that we didn't have before? All of that stuff is highly scrutinized.

You're one of Sony's very major studios. There's Naughty Dog and many other studios in the organization. How independently are they run? When you run the studio, is it run the way you want to run it, or do you pass back and forth with the other studios?

SS: We work within an infrastructure together, but we run our studios pretty independently. Again, I go back to Sony as a whole -- Shuhei Yoshida and Scott Rhode -- who really understand PD enough to understand how tremendously important that aspect is. If you can't build a culture that people want to be a part of and you're just a run-of-the-mill cookie-cutter studio, then you're not going to create greatness. That's hands-down my philosophy. They really get that, and they allow us to live within our own expectations of how to run a team, what crunch looks like, to what is a quality product.

We make all of those decisions at the studio level: what products we want to pick up, why. And we partner with marketing on how it's going to get out there to our ever-growing fan base. So we're really very fortunate in that sense, I think.

I was curious how much these things go up to Shuhei Yoshida or other people at the management level of Worldwide Studios.

SS: He's completely tuned in because he's a gamer, and that's what we love about Shu. You look at him waiting for a meeting to start, and he's typically in a corner playing some game, whether it's on his handheld or the Vita -- more recently it's the Vita -- and really loving every minute of it.

When you're really with someone like that at the top, they get what your day-to-day is; they understand your challenges. He's very aware of what's going on within the organization. He gives enough autonomy, though, to the head of his group, like Scott Rhode, who runs WWSA, which is the America side of the studios, to make the right decisions for the business.

There's a lot of autonomy built into not only the studio level, but also up the chain, which I think, again, is part of the Sony culture that really allows us to explore outside of the confines of what marketing thinks is going to sell.


PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale

Something interesting to me yesterday was when I was talking to Chan Park from [PlayStation All-Stars developer] SuperBot and he said that they started out as an incubated studio within Santa Monica; obviously, we know Thatgamecompany also incubated within. I was wondering if you could talk about this idea of incubating studios, why it's important, and what you contribute as a strong, process-oriented, more powerful, traditional studio to incubate and grow studios within you.

SS: Well, certainly these days it's always hard to find a team and construct a team, but also to get the funding. When you look at an incubation opportunity, what you're looking at -- not only at the studio level but as an independent developer -- is the ability to get in with limited risk. Certainly, there's still risk involved, but you're not looking at the overhead of just the facility alone.

When we were able to carve out space for a company like SuperBot within Sony Santa Monica, it's in the belief of the leadership within that team, or maybe it's a high concept that we really, truly believe in. In the case of SuperBot, obviously All-Stars was something that, as you can imagine, was living within Sony for many years. It just wasn't the right time -- on top of it not being the right team.

SuperBot was crafted from the ground up to build that experience, and that type of experience, when you look at a brawler, is really critical. The type of talent that you're able to bring in around a game like that -- it lives or dies by each individual frame; that's the type of game that is. When we saw that opportunity at Sony Santa Monica and some of the key or creative leadership that SuperBot was able to bring in, we knew that the timing was right; it was a great opportunity to celebrate the IP that has been living within Sony for many decades.


Do you consider this idea of incubating different studios -- and also different kinds of studios -- important? Is it an important thing to Sony, or is it an important thing even to the medium of games?

SS: I guess I'll take a step back and say that it's important to Sony Santa Monica. I believe that more publishers should be doing this because it gives the little guy an opportunity to work within the environment of the big publisher and work very closely with, in this case, The Unfinished Swan, whom I'm sure you've heard about. We're bringing people over from God of War -- talent that's been around our studio for over 10 years -- to work with fledgling creatives and people that have got a lot of opportunity in front of them but just don't know how to direct that. When you look at that opportunity to build creative, I think it's unique.

Sony Santa Monica will continue with that sort of support to the young guns of the industry, but I do think that it would be great if we could see a little more of this infused throughout the various publishers that have the money to set people up for success like that.

You were talking about working with the team behind The Unfinished Swan, and there have been other instances of Santa Monica working with indies to get their stuff onto, specifically, PSN. Do you feel personally strongly that that's good? What do you bring besides security to them? Is it about teaching them process?

SS: Yeah, there's certainly a layer of process -- if they need it. We've worked with teams before that didn't need a whole lot of process support. They maybe needed to be guided a little bit from a creative [standpoint], and thinking a little more commercial in their approach to media, or even to the building of the game. What we tend to do is work with them: see what they're strong at, see what they're weak at, and support them in those areas that show clearly that they need our time and our expertise.

The big games are still the Gods of Wars of the world, and the Unfinished Swans are still the small games of the world. Do you see that there's going to be a blending of some of that creative cross-pollination? Is that something you want to pursue, or do you see it more as there are small projects that are artistically-driven and then there are large blockbusters?

SS: When you say cross-pollination, though, Chris, what do you mean? Creative people that leave the epic and go small?

It's kind of ambiguous, isn't it? Bringing more of an auteur kind of feel to some of the bigger projects.

SS: Mmm. We struggle a lot with that because, at Sony Santa Monica, we've always prided ourselves secretly in being a little bit of an art house. You can oftentimes be so obscure that you're not hitting a market. That's something we're always watching out for, and trying to work around and support in ways -- like we do with the incubation program, where we nudge this title or this team more in this area.

I think that's pretty risky these days. We're looking at upwards of $40 million on some of these big, epic titles, and to take a big leap into being a little more obscure and introduce that art house feel on a product that large is a little scary to me, at least.


God of War III

But you definitely saw that tug with God of War III, towards the end of the game, with trying to bring in a little more than just anger, and a little more character development into the franchise. I think that, sometimes when we see these big franchises, they're built to hit a mark that isn't so nuanced. It can be a little bit stretched. I guess maybe that's what you're talking about; you want to be artistic, but it's hard to fit it into this sort of mold, right?

SS: Yes. Definitely. It's an ongoing, all-the-time, every-conversation struggle, almost.

You've talked about risk and cost; do people make creative decisions based on risk and cost, or do they make them at the studio based on a sense of what the franchise is about and where it needs to go?

SS: Initially, it's a sense. It's a belief in the vision of the product and the people that are out there making the product happen. But we do -- more, these days -- need to step back and really look at what the risk is of that one feature or the new idea that somebody might have to make sure that we're not going down a path that's dry, or that nobody's going to be interested in, or that's too obscure.

But we don't want the business to be driven by money. It's a creative industry to us; that's the way we look at it. When you start consistently infusing bottom line and analysis, you don't know what the consumer's going to do; you don't know what they're going to think; you don't know what's going to happen in those two-year development times, by which 15 competitive products will have released, in that timeline.

How does that affect you? It's such an unknown that we really believe in the visionary philosophy that you get one person in there working very collaboratively across a multidisciplinary-style development cycle that pushes the product where it needs to be.

As that's happening, you look at the finances around it. We're constantly doing that: looking at team size; what are we going to need in regards to team size at certain points during development, and how does that affect the bottom line? The title evolves and changes over the course of the number of years that it's in development. We don't know that day one, so we're constantly checking in with that and looking at how it's going to benefit us, how it's going to affect us, and what are some of the gotchas that we need to watch out for.


At the beginning of the day, you referred to Todd as a "visionary". I guess my question is: How does someone get into a lead position where they can get the creative reins? As you say, there's so many things to juggle; how do you select for that? When you said the word "visionary", you didn't say he's the best person that excelled; you said that he's a visionary. It seems to me that you're selecting for a creative vision, not for the business stuff.

SS: Yes. Todd's been a designer for, as I mentioned earlier, many years in the franchise, so he knows the core of who Kratos is and all of the storylines that have come along and enhanced the last decade of God of War gaming.

He's also somebody who's a great leader; I think that's another important piece. How does that person band the team around them and really inspire people to bring greatness every day? Certainly Todd's the leader and the visionary, but he's not in there drawing every nook and cranny of this game; it's way too large.

But how can he bring out the best in the people he works with and whom he has brought up and inspired for the quality experience that we are known for? A lot of that discussion happens when we look at somebody like Todd or whomever else might want to decide to put their hat in for that game director role.

Do you believe strongly in career development: people staying, getting skills, and moving up? You were talking very early on about making sure it's a place where people want to work. Do you feel strongly about retaining talent, training people, developing careers?

SS: Absolutely. If they want to be there, I want to do everything I can to make them happy and productive. We do what we can within the confines of what the production demands are, but, if somebody who is a great level lead wants to direct the game, we will sit down and talk about that. That'll be a long, ongoing discussion, and what we want to see is not only vision but the leadership skills in that person to make that leap.

And then, of course, how does the team feel about it? Yeah; okay. So-and-so wants to be the next game director. If the team isn't up for that, then it's not going to happen. All of that needs to be taken into consideration, again, because we are such a collaborative style of development.

We are data-driven. The engineers give us the tools as designers and artists to make the game, and it gives us a tremendous amount of control over that experience. Therefore, those people who are on the ground, developing the product, have a big say in where this franchise is going; but someone like Todd needs to be in there going, "I like that, but it's not going to work. This is interesting, but not right now. This is where we need to go."

And those people then need to fall in line behind that. The culture and the atmosphere and the support and kind of the love that we give the team is really critical to that whole working. It's really a piece that we spend a lot of time looking at.

Something that strikes me about Sony is that it has a lot of women in leadership positions compared to some of the other publishers. Is that just a coincidence, or is that because Sony is egalitarian about talent?

SS: Interesting question. I guess I have to say it is something about Sony. They're giving opportunities, and the politicking is maybe a little bit lower than what you would see in other institutions. You come in and work hard at Sony, and you're going to reap the fruits of that. I think we, as women, just probably work hard and are able to show that maybe a little differently than others. I'm really proud of the fact that Sony Santa Monica is 22 percent to 25 percent female. I'd like to see that grow, giving opportunities to see more females in those leadership roles.

It's kind of interesting, in that God of War is one of the most hyper-masculine games that I can think of.

SS: Yeah. But Kratos is hot, so you put a woman in charge of making sure that that maintains itself, like Whitney Wade; that's awesome, right?

I guess so. (laughs)

Do you like it when ideas bubble up from below and surface rather than everything being handed down?

SS: Oh, gosh; we have a ton of bubbling up. It does depend on the director; as you know, we've had a variety of different personalities in that role whom I think we're all very proud of. Some bubbles happen more frequently with some directors than others, but I think, with this team right now, there's a lot coming from those people that are in there, making that minotaur look as good as he does.

Again, I think it's Todd's leadership style: He's going to sit down and take a good, hard look at what that person's suggesting and see how that fits within the experience as a whole. And that's his job! You can't -- these days -- put a $60 million product out there and have a team day-to-day there, lockstep with you as a leader and visionary, and not incorporate them into the process. It's just way too risky.

For our audience, it's always interesting to find out how studios operate because they want to know what other studios are doing -- for a lot of different reasons.

SS: Yeah. I love talking about it, because it's basically an opportunity to drive talent our way, and the more talent we can get the better we're going to be. And I'm proud of it!

We've worked hard to maintain this atmosphere and this creativity that I think is oftentimes shut down by big companies. They want the title on time; they want it with 300 people; and you've got to ship it day-and-date with four other different platforms. It's crazy out there right now, and I'm really happy that Sony gives us the breath to have the control over a lot of decisions and the people. I think we've done well because of it.

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