With the announcement and reveal of God of War: Ascension, Sony Santa Monica opened its doors, allowing a handful of journalists access to a legacy that's been cemented since the studio's inception in 1999. We spoke to Sony Santa Monica founder Shannon Studstill about that history — the past, present and future of Sony's flagship video game studio.
"Well, it was 1999. We came down from the mother ship up in Foster City and we really..." Shannon Studstill pauses, grasping at the memory. "We chose to move out of that corporate environment and build a creative space, a space where we could work on new IP."
If the Santa Monica Studio is Sony's version of the Wild West, a lawless studio built ground-up from the blood sweat and tears of a small visionary collective, then Shannon Studstill is its Calamity Jane. A game-slinging pioneer, a woman who has helped foster some of the greatest talent to emerge from the games industry in the last decade.
Sony Santa Monica has housed some of the most compelling game developers over the last 13 years, and some of the most influential games. David Jaffe and God of War, Jenova Chen and Journey; the Pixel Junk series, Twisted Metal, Warhawk, Fat Princess — this is where ideas are born, where they are shaped and polished. And Shannon Studstill has seen it all.
"When we first got here," begins Shannon, "I used to joke that we would take over the entire building — which is just this huge brick structure! But that's exactly what we've ended up doing.
"We're busting at the seams. We can't fit anybody else in there. We've massively exceeded our own expectations, and a lot of blood, sweat and tears has gone into that."
Like It's 1999
"When we started in 1999 we were kind of figuring out who we were," says Shannon. "We were trying to bring together the best talent, but when you're creating new IP it's kind of a clumsy process."
"We really had a lot of ups and downs during those early years. These days we're a bit more confident, we know who we are. A lot of hard work has gone into this studio, into the games that have helped us define our own brand, which is unique in our minds.
"We're produced everything from Journey to God of War here. Sometimes I'm like, 'step back! Look at what we've done with this studio'. It's a tremendously powerful thing."
Upon its inception, the Santa Monica Studio was like the expression of a modern day gold rush — a frantic, almost clumsy search for talent; an attempt to refine that talent into something valuable. But when it comes to discussing the early days of the studio, and the first steps towards building Sony Santa Monica's legacy and brand, two names are unavoidable and inseparable — one is God of War, and the other is David Jaffe.
"I have so much respect for Dave," begins Shannon, "creating what we see today with not only one of the pillar franchises of Sony, but the video game world, was an amazing process to watch.
"Dave was very much is about the perfection. And that search for perfection has become part of the fabric of Sony Santa Monica. When you live in that world for however many years it becomes part of the way you think and Dave brought a huge part of who we are today to the studio."
No Room For Nostalgia
Although every member of the team had a part to play in the creation of what was to become the flagship title of Sony Santa Monica, in the beginning at least, God of War was very much David Jaffe's baby.
"Well, David Jaffe was the original person behind God of War," begins Shannon. "In the beginning he and I talked a lot about the direction we wanted the studio to go in. We brought in a couple of the key leads and talked about some of the high concepts that David had spent months working on. We initially thought that the world of Greek mythology seemed to be such a great opportunity for character, storyline — it was so rich.
"When we started going down this path there were so many great ideas, but Dave really focused us down a path that helped gave us not only that overall experience, but helped us develop that character we see today in Kratos."
But, for Shannon at least, time hasn't dulled the memory of how difficult it was to complete and ship the original God of War. There is no room for nostalgia or rose-tinted memories.
"It was extremely stressful," laughs Shannon. "That's one of the reasons why I wasn't a producer on God of War II! Just the level of stress I had experienced with the first game. It's not an easy thing — to try and break out of what's going on in this industry and maintain that pace.
"And low moments? Oh God yeah, there were low moments. It's just so hard to stay on top of your genre. New things are appearing every day in this industry. You wake up one morning and this game has this new feature or all of a sudden another game launches that’s doing something similar to what we’re working on!
"It’s a very stressful process. You’re talking about a lot of money — obviously — and a lot of people. But there’s nothing else that I’d rather be doing and I think I can pretty much say that feeling extends throughout the team. Everybody that’s here — they’re here because they want to be here.
"They get it, and they love what they do."
God of War had David Jaffe, who was replaced by Corey Barlog, who was then replaced by Stig Asmussen, who has — in turn — been replaced by Ascension's Todd Pappy. God of War game directors have a notoriously short lifespan but, according to Shannon, it's not necessarily a direct result of the intense pressure and stress that comes with landing the gig.
"Every one of those guys had different reasons for moving," she says. "It's either been a business decision, or we've wanted to shift things around a bit."
It's part of the fluid, flat structure Sony Santa Monica brings to its development.
"It's always been our view that anybody could be in that role — an artist, an engineer — as long as they could be someone that, from a leadership perspective, from a visionary perspective, could drive that game to the next level," says Shannon. "That's always our process when we looked at who the visionary could be — it could be anyone. As long as that person can handle it and understand the foundation of what God of War is."
We ask Shannon: what does Sony Santa Monica look for specifically when it comes to selecting a Game Director for Sony Santa Monica's most celebrated franchise.
"Well, it's such a multi-tiered role," she explains. "Vision is obviously the biggest piece. You have to be articulate, and you have to have leadership skills. People have to want to get behind the game for this person and perform for this person. That's not something that's spoken, that's just something that's inherent in the way they carry themselves and the way they interact. We're never satisfied with mediocrity, and that's important. We constantly want to one up ourselves and stand out. We look for someone who understands the legacy of where this franchise has been."
Evolving The Franchise
According to Shannon, each Director has the chance to bring a unique skillset to the table, and evolve the God of War series in their own specific way.
"Corey Barlog, for example, he was a tremendous kind of visionary in that he really understood asset creation," says Shannon. "He knew how to bridge asset creation into the legacy of God of War. I think that's where he really stood out. He could speak the language of the team to the team. That really made a difference. In a different way than what Dave did, it really inspired people to go that extra mile.
"Dave was diligent and was pushing all along, but we had to get in and mediate a lot of those relationships because he was so strong. Corey on the other hand had been part of teams for many years so he had that balance of pushing, but still had that camaraderie.
"Stig was the same — very similar to Corey in that sense. He had been part of our development from the start as a level artist. He evolved things from an artistic side, but he was one of those people who could evolve the franchise as a whole and had a vision for it as a whole."
We ask Shannon what Todd Pappy, the new Game Director for Ascension, brings to the series.
"Todd is unique in that he’s been part of the design process and he’s very much a rock for the franchise," she explains. "He was in the trenches with Dave for God of War 1, trying to figure out how they were going to make it work. He understands all of the things that work and don’t work and why they don’t work. He knows what to push and what to explore.
"Todd is also really familiar with the foundational fabric of the feature set. So being in the guts of that for so many years, he can really bring the design of the game to the next level."
Above all Sony Santa Monica is about talent — it's about nurturing talent, and providing avenues for that talent to produce its best work. Shannon recognises that the studio is only as good as the people inside its brick walls.
"Sony Santa Monica is about people," says Shannon. "Giving them people the space to be creative, giving them support and a pat on the back, and sometimes giving some hard feedback. We have to inspire our developers to bring quality to work every day.
"As we grow that’s going to be a major focus for us. How do we infuse that perspective on those who are coming in to help build product for this studio? That’s something that I’m constantly focused on — taking new talent and giving that new talent the support they need to really understand what we do here at Sony Santa Monica."
"It’s in the fabric of who we are. From day one we nurtured our creatives, giving them the space to grow. We do this with our talent all the time — we say ‘show us what you’ve got’. Come back, we’ll give you feedback, but then we’re going to push you back out there again and get you to iterate. That back and forth loop really gets people to a point where they understand what 'good' looks like.
"And once you know what good looks like you can push for what's great."