SHANNON STUDSTILL ON ‘GOD OF WAR’, STADIA CLOSURES AND WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS FOR THE VETERAN STUDIO HEAD
With a career that spans nearly 25 years, Shannon Studstill’s impact on the video game industry has been profound.
From early days working with Black Ops Entertainment to being instrumental in the formation of Sony’s Santa Monica Studio to eventually becoming studio head and launching her own development studios, Studstill’s imprint can be seen across a number of the biggest games of the past two decades.
Most recently, Studstill served as studio director at Google Stadia. A key figure in the development of the God of War franchise and PlayStation All-Stars, Studstill made headlines when she was tapped by the tech giant to run its new Playa Vista-based game studio last March. Unfortunately, on Feb. 1, Google announced it was shuttering its Stadia Games and Entertainment division, leaving Studstill’s path forward unclear.
Below, the veteran exec sits down with VENN’s editorial director Patrick Shanley to give the story of her career, from its humble beginnings to its anticipated future.
Patrick Shanley: You have been in gaming for almost 25 years, an industry that has changed quite a bit in that timeframe. Can you tell me about how you first got into the industry?
Shannon Studstill: I was at the American Film Institute and I was taking all the different cinematography courses there. Alan Lasky, still a good friend of mine, was an instructor that came in and did some work with green screen. He said to me, “Hey, I’m going to be part of a video game startup called Black Ops [Entertainment]. We’re going to go and take some photos of a bunch of airplanes at Edwards Air Force Base, if you want to tag along for that.” It was just sort of an intro into getting to know what startups are all about and I was pretty young at the time. I decided that I would continue to volunteer or intern in helping to scan in these photos. Back then you had to scan it and then download it, the whole nine yards, to set up all those photos. Ultimately, they offered me an opportunity to start doing some texture mapping that eventually rolled quickly into modeling lighting. The team started getting a little bit bigger on the art side and I started tracking who’s working on what, when they’re going to be done and when do they need their next texture. So, I ended up becoming sort of a lead of that small team, slowly growing into an art director for [1997’s] Treasures of the Deep, which was the second title that I worked on, and eventually sort of director of art where I was responsible for managing and hiring the artist in the way that the company was growing at the time.
Shortly after my fifth year there, Sony PlayStation [game designer] Dave Jaffe came in and tapped me on the shoulder asking me if I want to move from L.A. to San Francisco and help them out with the game that they were working on. A larger corporation like PlayStation was pretty exciting and I didn’t have many strings and decided to go ahead and take the plunge there.
We were very rogue at that point in our video game; in a lot of ways it was very startup. It was all new, very exciting stuff, so we stumbled through trying to figure out ways to make the product that Dave was bringing to life a reality. But what ended up happening was an opportunity to open up a studio. [Former Sony Online Entertainment president] Kelly Flock, who’s no longer with us, started many people’s careers and I was one of those people with the Santa Monica studio. He gave the reins to Allan Becker. Flock, Allan and Dave spoke a lot about what the location of this studio was going to be and, ultimately, when I was asked if I’d like to be involved I basically noted that I was going to move back to L.A., San Francisco wasn’t my gig. And that’s when they decided maybe Santa Monica would be a good place. There weren’t any video game developers in that area, it was Naughty Dog and that was it.
It was a really exciting time — again, very startup very finger in the air, let’s go with got a lot of that type of mentality across team building hiring and the types of games that we were going to do. It was a lot of things could be passion projects at that point.
Shanley: What were the types of games they were interested in making in those early stages?
Studstill: Well, the beauty of PlayStation, I think still today, is that they really rely on coming from the developers. It’s not something that’s marketing driven or exec driven and Kelly Flock was sort of the father of that endeavor for PlayStation and for Santa Monica. What he wanted us to do at the time was create new IP, so basically a handful of designers like Dave would come together and come up with the different types of games that he wanted to make. Make one game with that vision and build basically the pillar of that IP, and then pass that IP off to a sort of “B team.” About three years into building God of War we realized we were struggling to be a B team ourselves doing everything we could to become an A team. It just wasn’t as easy as I think all of us sort of hoped to build IP and today that remains true.
So, we kept God of War internal. We ship that game, as the world knows, and continued on to God of War II with a different visionary. Every God of War has been made with a different designer leading that vision.
‘God of War’ is a Hit! Now What?
Shanley: At what point during production did you know that you had a hit on your hands? Were you surprised by the success of the first God of War game when it launched?
Studstill: We took a Thanksgiving break and we had a disc. I guess it had to have been 2004. We had asked the team to take it home and play and come back with feedback. I did that, but I wasn’t into action adventure games and I couldn’t go to Dave and ask him. He’s typically a very honest person, he’ll tell you how it is. I went to Tim Moss, who was the creative director and a hardcore gamer and very much mired in what good action adventure looks like, and he said it was good. Tim had, and has, a very high bar, so I remember that moment, specifically. It was a big exhale for me because it meant that four years of all this hard work and something was there and you had Tim sort of giving it his blessing.
I think it was at the  AIAS Award ceremony (now the D.I.C.E. Awards) that it hit me, when we won game of the year. Up onstage is kind of the moment where you go, wow, this is all really happening and it’s happening to us. There’s where a number of uphill battles involved in getting that title up into the hands of gamers across the world and it was certainly a moment of realizing it all came together and it was, in many ways, magic.
Shanley: How did you make the jump from your role in the early days at Sony Santa Monica to eventually becoming the head of this new studio that is now operating one of the largest video game IPs in the world?
Studstill: You’re skipping ahead maybe 10 to 12 years. I had my first baby during God of War and my second baby during God of War II. I decided after I became a mom that I was going to be more of an executive producer for the studio. Allan Becker was still head of all of Sony Santa Monica, but we did have an arm to internal [Sony PlayStation] through Scott Campbell out in Salt Lake City who had done some previous work with Allan with Dave. The goal was to basically partner with Scott, be an external producer to the product lineup that he had going on in Salt Lake and then Allan and team would be running the external team, which was anywhere between five to 16 titles at any given time going on at that side studio. So, moving into an executive producer role was quite a different undertaking. You’re not directly managing or supporting the team on a one-on-one basis. It allowed me to learn a different skill set to support a team, giving them everything that you can to be successful in whatever challenges they might be having.
I played that role in God War II and midway through I had my second child and decided that, for a number of different reasons, I needed to see a different perspective. I had come up inside of PlayStation, not really having a sense of what was grounded, what was real. A lot of this I was making up on-the-fly. I felt like I needed to take a break and be a mom for a bit. That allowed me the opportunity to sort of look around and find that place to give me a really good perspective, which ended up being EA. While at EA I was able to see that publisher from the floor which was really interesting. I was leaning into picking up a game franchise at EA L.A. and then the economic crisis hit us in 2008 or 2009 and everything changed. It gave me an opportunity to sit back and think about what is a good next step for me that I want to do.
I started my own company Broodworks [in 2009] that was an arm of Santa Monica Studio with Allan Becker still the head. We were looking at ways that Broodworks could become an extension of Santa Monica. At the time we were exploring everything from mobile to console, and ultimately it ended up where it just made sense for Broodworks to become console-centric because that’s where a lot of focus was out of PlayStation and the network that I had was a bit more of fighting action, so PlayStation All-Stars made sense.
I was asked by Allan multiple times, he said, “Hey, I’m really serious about moving to Japan and taking this job opportunity.” At that point I realized, wow, okay, I didn’t realize you were that serious. He started talking about potentially taking over his role in the studio which would mean that I would have to give up Broodworks, which was a very difficult decision for me. A lot of people took some risks to come into a startup and work with me and, within a year and a half, we had gotten the green light for All-Stars. Ultimately, that was the point where I needed to move out and go. 2011 is when I took over Allan’s position and it was like coming home.
The beauty of me stepping away, and I think it’s an important point, from God of War, after 10 years of being in one place was very comfortable for me. I knew the studio, PlayStation, marketing, PR, but I didn’t feel like I knew enough to be in to grow the way I needed to grow as an executive producer or studio head. Stepping out was really risky for me at the time, but ultimately what I ended up gaining was a perspective of what another publisher was like, with EA. I also was able to discover what it took to run your own company, through Broodworks, and in the “fight or flight” sort of mentality you live in when all bucks stopped with me. I came into that studio head role with a completely different mentality than I would have if I hadn’t left Sony, if I had stayed in that God of War internal studio job. I value those years that I did take a step away and I feel like I learned a lot from it and I was a better studio head because I did take that risk of leaving the very place that you know was great to work for.
Returning to Santa Monica
Shanley: You came back to Santa Monica Studio at an interesting time, as they had already wrapped up the original God of War trilogy. When you come back, what were they looking to do at that point? What were you looking to do?
Studstill: Many people wanted God of War to rest. [Santa Monica Studio] was busy building a new franchise that they were really looking to break out in the world and be an immediate sort of IP killer, just really dominate. I also needed to own that external development company so they’re not the company, but the division. There were two different aspects of running that studio that I needed to sort of make sure stayed on rails as we were making the transition. I think that the dialogue that started to happen was [the 2013 God of War prequel] Ascension was not as well received as most of the earlier games have been. I think it’s important to come in and just sort of watch things and take things in before you start to dictate what the future is going to look like. I had no real strategy stepping into the job and I felt like I needed to respect the people who had been there, who had stayed there, who had carried God of War to the final ship of Ascension and sort of taken the beat of the new rhythm of the studio. In doing that, within, maybe four months or so, I started to go into sort of discovery mode around the studio. What were the decisions that brought us to this point because something wasn’t working as well as it needed to in my mind. So I started that inquiry across the team and talking to [PlayStation head of internal production] Scott Rohde a lot about what they needed. Oftentimes, it’s very difficult to see the game when it’s in the development stage. I needed to really be careful not to come to too many quick conclusions.
Shanley: When was the decision made to return to the God of War franchise and was it always with the vision of kind of rebooting the franchise?
Studstill: Reboot was used a lot. It was one of the things that sat on all my slides as I was talking to a variety of different people and it was what [game director] Cory [Barlog] used as well. I can’t really put my finger on exactly the moment in time where I was speaking to X person and said ,”Hey, you know, we have to do this.” I think it’s a lot of really understanding where the team is and what they believe in and the deeper I did that, the clearer it became that when you lift the hood, there are some pieces of that engine that just aren’t functioning as well as they should. I needed to make sure people understood what this means. This would likely mean a layoff and that would have been one of the very first layoffs of the studio, a pretty tragic scenario for us. But, I think it’s very easy just to let something move forward when it’s not as united around a team vision as it could be. I felt a pretty strong obligation to make sure that what we were showing was a revenue stream to this organization. I also felt in my heart that Kratos wasn’t done. This world had many new chapters to it. Through the years with Dave [Jaffe, God of War I director], he would talk about the different mythologies that could be visited, so I had an instinct that, with the right person, we could reboot. Kratos needed something that could lift him. So I started talking to a variety of people about what that could look like and, ultimately, I knew in my gut that there were really a couple of people that could have done the job as well as we needed it to be done. I had lunch with Cory and we sat down and specifically talked about God of War I. That lunch was a moment for me where I went, he knows in his gut where he would take this and it’s not a small pivot. It’s really founded on the idea that Kratos needs a really solid reason to change.
Shanley: Did he have ideas for God of War before that lunch? I spoke to Cory back in 2017 and he said the reason he came back to the franchise was because you made him interested in working with this character again. So I’m wondering about in those early stages, was it something that was already in his head or did you kind of spark an idea with him?
Studstill: I don’t like to guide a lot. I really feel like the visionary has to drive that. The beauty of what I was hearing was he was going through personally. In a sense, [Cory and I] grew up together, but he had just had a child and was talking about how much that child changed him. I think Cory certainly had many different avenues that this franchise could go on and probably some really fun adventures. But I do think him being a father about the same time and me tapping him and saying, “Hey, how would you see this franchise shift or move?” really helped to inform the way that he was seeing the world of Kratos.
Saying Goodbye to Santa Monica Again
Shanley: I apologize because we’re gonna jump in the future quite a bit again here. God of War launches in 2018 to major success and goes on to win numerous game of the year awards and then, shortly thereafter, you make the decision to leave Sony Santa Monica again. What was it like after God of War shipped and when did you decide that, hey, I want to I want to try something new?
Studstill: I think what was happening to me was I was coming into work not feeling like I used to. God of War 2018 was, as you said, a tremendous amount of magic coming together. It was a pretty amazing two years with that team. We were in the throes of standing up what the next thing needed to be out of the studio. Through [then-Santa Monica Studio producer] Yumi Yang we had honed up the process of the team and it was really moving quite well. There wasn’t a lot to worry about or any fires happening. So, I shifted my focus into leadership training and doing what we could to really give people a little more foundation for their skill set. I like that I was doing that for a nice chunk of time and coming up with a program that worked culturally for the studio and working with the leadership was great fun but that wasn’t going to be able to maintain itself. Those very people need to go off and make a game. The higher you go, the less you have that direct influence and the less time I have with the talent. I also had a lot of personal things going on and then my dad was diagnosed with cancer and he was having a real tough time. He had a really poignant moment with me where I told him you’ve got to fight this cancer thing, you taught me how to fight, and he said, “I taught you how to have fun.” It really woke me up in a sense of looking at my life back home. I had a blast, it was an amazing run, but it wasn’t what it was anymore and it wasn’t going to be that ever again. I also felt like the baton had been passed and Kratos was in the right hands.
Shanley: You called it your passion to cultivate and help talent rise and grow. When you left Santa Monica Studio and Yumi Yang took over as studio head, did you specifically tap her to be your replacement? As a female studio head — which there are others in the industry, but there’s not an enormous amount — I feel like you were really instrumental in pushing this forward. I’m wondering if that was really important for you to have someone like Yumi take over your role?
Studstill: There was no doubt. Yumi was in the background behind God of War and there was no doubt in my mind that that game would not have shipped without her expertise, diligence and passion or the time she tremendously dedicated to it. And over the course of many years Yumi became a sounding board for me, somebody that could sit and have a really good time jamming on ideas and different things that we could introduce to culture or the game. So we had a very tight relationship. I still, today, remember that one headline that has both our names in the headline. That was a really nice moment for me, where it’s like, wow, gosh, this is actually happening.
Stadia Comes Knocking
Shanley: When the Google Stadia opportunity came around, how was it pitched to you?
Studstill: Google had been attracted to me and many people throughout my career would bring me articles about Google [and its work culture] so I always had a fascination of what goes on inside of Google, and Stadia had been talking to me, I think, a year prior to 2020, so probably throughout 2019. I just kept coming back with, I don’t have any inclination to start another big, massive IP. That’s just not what I’m feeling like I want to do so I was saying no and they would continue to [pitch me]. “What about a, you know, an independent startup?” They were throwing all these ideas and I was just like, I’m not interested. But what I was interested about as I kind of alluded to earlier was getting a little bit closer to development and the people who make these things happen. I was really missing that. Ultimately, [Google] came back when they heard the news that I was leaving Sony. They came back with the last hurrah of, “Hey, how about an L.A. studio?” I’d start very small with Google technology, which was one of the things I was really excited about. We’d stay that size, we’re not talking about growing into AAA, and you utilize that Google technology to come up with bite-size experiences that can land on Stadia. It happened very quickly. In retrospect, I’m not too sure I was all the way ready, just with everything that was going on with me personally and the exit from Sony was obviously a big, big change for me and so I think I was sort of enamored by this, by Google. I was also able to work with [former head of Stadia Games and Entertainment] Jade Raymond, which ultimately ended up being an amazing experience. I just have so much respect for her. I also got to see a little bit about this Google technology that was very cool like even just with three different projects. I really loved the people, the talent. They look at the world differently than maybe a traditional game developer would and that’s not good or bad, it’s just different, and being exposed to that at Google was quite amazing and I learned a lot. Just the business, I guess, was not as solidified as they had hoped it would be.
Shanley: And that happened quite quickly. Did you catch wind of this before they shut down Stadia Games and Entertainment? Were you aware of that happening or did it come as a surprise to you?
Studstill: Coming from that executive studio head role and dealing with corporate quite a lot you start to get a sense of things. Your Spidey Sense starts to go, “Oh, that was interesting, why did that happen?” So, there’s a few of those types of things that started to creep up on me. But it’s so difficult to work out of the screen and I was very much focused around a studio for Google. I didn’t know them. I don’t know the sort of inner workings. I’m not connected per se. And Jade was in there doing all that she knew how to look at different ways to move things forward and I trusted that. So, I just did what I was meant to do and kept the train on rails at Playa [Vista game studio] and I think we all did that to keep things as sound as possible. We were hanging in there and just hoping that it would take time that would work to our benefit and we can show the world what we have built. It was a really great, knowledgeable talent pool that came together, so it’s sad to see that being pulled apart again.
Shanley: Is there anything you can say about the projects that you were working on or maybe the status of them? Will they ever see the light of day?
Studstill: Yeah, I can’t say much, but I do think that there’s no doubt in my mind that the teams working on these projects discovered things that could be applicable in games and certainly for Google, so there wasn’t a lot of waste going on. I think there was a lot of discovery, a lot of learning. Google’s a very collaborative company across the various different business units and we were doing a lot of that out of the studio just connecting in with different units and working in collaboration with those units, so I believe there’s a list there no matter how you slice it. It wasn’t a big waste of time by any means.
Looking to the Future
Shanley: I think the obvious question for you is what are you interested in doing next? I don’t really know what you can speak on, but just in a broad sense, what are your what are the things you’re looking at?
Studstill: It’s actually a very difficult thing to do but it’s easy to say: I’m taking the break that I probably should have taken right after Sony. I’m trying not to take calls — and I don’t mean to make this sound like, “Oh gosh, you know I’ve got this plethora of calls.” I did it a couple of times and I could feel myself just getting pulled in. I think I’m at a point in my career where I need to be a little more careful about this next step and really make sure that I can find a place to bring my passion to and be creative. I think I’m really looking to be given opportunities to not necessarily bring a character arc and story and all that, but be a lot more involved in the [development] of an IP. It’s like God of War I, Dave made all the decisions creatively, but I knew what was going on with the blades or various other ideas that they had for mechanics and stuff was just ground level. I think that’s what I was trying to capture in going to Google. Another thing is working inside of a 2D screen. We’re all doing it, we’re putting up with it and doing what we do to be as valuable as possible. That’s what humans do. But it’s so hard to build a team in this type of scenario. I met, maybe, 10 people at Google. So, I also think taking a little bit of time for the pandemic to roll out and get vaccines and so forth so that we can do more face-to-face is also something that I would very much appreciate and finding my new gig. That’s the long story fairly short and fairly easy because, man, it’s hard.
Shanley: Given how long you’ve been in the industry and how much you’ve seen it change — and been instrumental in its change — what do you see as the driving trend in gaming moving forward? Where do you see the industry going from where it stands right now?
Studstill: I guess immersion. We’re looking at these screens right now, but we’re nowhere near done with the AR or VR story. How can we bring players deeper into the experience and completely infuse them into a world that they want to be in? I think we’re still in that controller, 2D sort of screen. I’d love to see and watch the ways that these people can bring out how much deeper we can get into this escape opportunity and be a part of a world with your community where your friends are also playing that game. So, I think that community immersion experience. That’s a bit more captivating than what we’re seeing right now on the television or in a computer screen. It’s a longtail future, we’re not talking the next couple of years, but certainly something that, foundationally, we’re building today and I think we’ll get there.
Watch the full conversation here:
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Photo courtesy of Shannon Studstill