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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.