Studio Spotlight – London Studio
We sat down with Studio Heads Stuart Whyte and Tara Saunders to talk about their creative process, inspirations, and what it’s like making games in the heart of London, including a first glimpse at their next one.
Let’s start with some introductions. Would you both mind introducing yourselves and talking about your day-to-day roles at London Studio?
Stuart: I’m Stuart Whyte, co-studio head at London Studio along with Tara. I’ve been here for five years at PlayStation, and day-to-day we share the studio head position. My background and focus is very much on production and engineering.
Tara: I’m Tara Saunders, and as Stuart said, we’re the co-studio heads. I’ve been at PlayStation for 22 years, believe it or not. It feels like forever… but in a good way! [laughs] I’ve seen a lot of changes through the studio in that time. I came up through the creative development arm—I joined the studio as junior animator, then worked into more cinematic areas and began leading art teams. Now, I’m focused more on creative people and culture: my happy subjects.
Sounds like you two share an equal division of responsibility as studio heads.
S: Yes, we even jokingly refer to ourselves as left brain and right brain. [laughs] Tara’s much more on the creative side. And that makes me more on the—whatever the opposite side of creative is. Practical, I guess?
Stuart, you said you had an engineering background—what brought you to that area of expertise? Was it something that you knew you wanted to do professionally or was this borne out of a personal passion?
S: I’ve been in the industry for over 30 years and, and certainly when I was at school and trying to think about what I wanted to do when I grew up, I didn’t really have any idea other than that I knew that I liked computers. I ended up doing a degree at Leeds University on computational science and management studies.
That’s where I learned to program properly and hone some of my technical skills. But the reality—and the full admission here—is that my entire life in development, which is coming up to 29 years at this point, has been as a producer or project manager. I’ve gone through that background, which is more on the leading and management side of my degree. But the tech side definitely helped!
Tara, in the creative sphere it can feel like you’re doing a lot of different things at once. What brought you to that side of game development, and what strengths of yours did you find were able to blossom in that kind of dynamic?
T: I followed the kinds of subjects I loved as I was growing up. Things like art design, craft technology, that led me to art college. I studied for an industrial design degree, and then went on to do a general design degree, which was, I think, all about problem solving.
I loved the aesthetic side of problem solving—less so the melting points of plastics and stuff like that. But I think it gave me a really good kind of basis for game design and game production, because it’s all about solving problems. Like, here’s a challenge: how do we approach solving that kind of challenge?
I ended up doing a master’s degree in computer animation, and could have gone into film and TV as easily as I got into games. I grew up at a time when the animation industry was changing. You either learned how to use a computer or you didn’t really have a future in the industry, or at least you had a much harder future.
So I went into computer animation and then into a game studio, versus a film studio where everybody always has their headphones on and their heads down. I was drawn to the people side—people gathered around screens, solving problems together. And that was the thing that made me go: oh, I wanna go and work at PlayStation.
You were drawn by the collaborative spirit of game design and development?
T: Yes, and I think that’s the core of our job now, isn’t it Stu? That kind of collaboration and problem solving: supporting the team to make the best creative product that they can.
S: Completely. Teams that make video games now are made up of so many different types of personalities and skill sets. Coordinating with them, solving the issues that come up, and maximizing the outputs of many different people is pretty much our day job. We’re always looking at ways to make London Studio better, to make the team run better, improve communication, and make people feel passionate for their roles and able to maximize that passion.
Let’s talk about the current project that you’re working on. To whatever extent that you’re able, I’d love to hear from both of you about what it is you’re doing right now: what it looks like and what it feels like.
T: It might help to share with you a teaser image that we’re gonna put out.
T: Our next project is an online co-op combat game, which as you can see here, is set in a modern fantasy London. The key thing about this is that it’s a PlayStation 5 title—it’s not a VR game like our last title was. And it’s our most ambitious project to date.
There are some important aspects communicated in this image. It’s a modern fantasy London, it’s cooperative action. And what we really love about this project is that it’s giving us an opportunity to showcase a lot of wonder and magic. So we’re really excited.
You mentioned that this project is a little different from what you’ve previously worked on at London Studios. What led you to move into not just a more magical direction, but also a different direction in terms of gameplay?
S: The original game idea resulted from an ideation process we did within the team. We created a thorough briefing document that gave high-level guidelines on the types of titles that we were looking for, but it was still very loose, and had a lot of room for creativity. Actually, it was akin to the process that Guerrilla used when they created Horizon Zero Dawn, which inspired us to use a very similar process.
So we put this process out there and over a period of months, the team came up with about 60 or so different ideas which we refined, and then refined again. Eventually we were able to finalize the decision, which is exactly what Tara just described.
There was so much variation in the many concepts we discussed, but for us it was about creating something that the team as a whole was really passionate about. We did a lot of surveys with the team about what ideas they were drawn to the most, and also which ideas the wider PlayStation Studios leadership team felt most passionate about.
We reached out to some sister studios for their input, and finally, we actually did some proper market research. We polled hundreds of gamers in the UK and the US for their feedback as well—and all of these different inputs and perspectives all culminated in the project we’re working on now.
T: We love that this one was based in London, as well. It’s our home city, and the idea of bringing fantasy into a believable, modern London world fills us with a lot of excitement.
London as a city is so beautiful, so diverse, with a rich history and culture. You seem very conscious of that influence, given the nature of your current project. Could you elaborate on your relationship to London as a creative studio, and to what degree its influence manifests itself in your work?
T: We came up with lots of ideas that weren’t set in London, but for us there was a connection there that kept leading us back to it. If you look at our history, we’ve made other projects like Blood & Truth and even The Getaway—which was the first project that I worked on—that both had their home and heart in London. It’s an eclectic city, it’s very vibrant, and it’s very inclusive, which is one of our studio values: inclusivity. And we like the richness that it offers us, culturally.
S: I mean, we may be a little bit biased, given the name of the studio and the fact that we’re based in the very heart of Soho… but honestly, I think London is a fantastic backdrop for any video game. And given our history of producing games set here, it’s extremely exciting to do something similar but with a twist: to bring some real magic and wonder to London.
You mentioned that your studio is located in Soho. That’s also the name of the home-built engine that you use, which is a big part of this new project that you’re working on now. Stuart, could elaborate on the Soho engine, and tell us more details about what led to the decision to create something in-house for this next venture?
S: We’ve got a super talented team working on our in-house engine, Soho. And the key thing is that it isn’t an engine that we modified to fit PlayStation 5: it’s an engine that we’ve rebuilt from the ground up for this generation of hardware and the needs of the game we’re creating.
It’s been designed to take full advantage of the PlayStation 5. I remember when we saw the early specs of PlayStation 5—things like ray tracing hardware, the super fast storage—and how that inspired us to set out and build an engine that could push the platform as much as possible.
That started when we got our first PlayStation 5 prototype dev kits, but in fairness, the actual tool set and some of the pipelines predate that, going back to the work we did on VR Worlds and Blood & Truth. Those games required super fast, highly efficient engines and at its heart Soho is still that, but very much tailored for the PlayStation 5.
It’s interesting to consider the leaps and bounds that the technology has made in the twenty years since London Studio has been around. What else might you say has changed the most during that time period, both for yourselves as individuals and the studio as a company, and what has remained the same?
T: The first thing I think of is the people—the really great people at the heart of the team, they’re what remains the same. We’ve done a lot of work as a company to ensure that people enjoy developing and working at London Studio. If you get the people part of the equation right, and people are having fun and enjoying what they’re doing, then I think that ultimately you see that [carry over to] the creative side of things.
I see the fun that the team is having, and how it comes through in the concept that we’ve created and the work we’re doing now. I’m looking forward to seeing them continue to take that fun through to its conclusion: a finished product. I think of people and culture as things that remain essential.
S: I second that completely. When I started in the industry, the very first game I worked on was a Sega Mega Drive/Genesis game which had a four person development team. When you have four people on the team, communication is a lot simpler, and you don’t encounter all the issues and challenges that might come from working with a larger team. You’re all in one room, and you just work stuff out.
But Tara’s right. As projects and games get more ambitious, as you add more people, things like having the right culture, having the right communication, being able to coordinate large, complex teams—it becomes so much more prevalent and important than it ever had been before. And it only continues on that trajectory, so the people side of things is absolutely critical to maximize everything we’re doing.
Speaking of leading people, that ties directly into our next question. Tara, what would you describe as your main principles as a leader, and how do you translate those principles into motivation and encouragement for your team?
T: It’s definitely helped as a studio to have some core values that we all sign up to—both us two as leaders, but also for the whole team. Something for us to hold ourselves and each other accountable to.
We’ve developed six core values, which I think we see even in the concept [for the new project] that we’ve developed. Our concept is very brave, and bravery is one of our values. Our company works in a really team-spirited way, and Stu and I are trying as leaders and as a leadership team to really empower [our employees] to have their own heart and voice in the product.
So we listen to them, through things like pulse surveys, measuring how they feel about what they’re doing and if there’s anything stopping them being efficient or affecting their well-being. We really put a lot of focus on that.
Our studio has a value of inclusivity as well, in terms of how we build the team that makes this game. I think both Stu and I believe that more inclusive teams actually create far better and richer creations, because they bring so many different backgrounds into [the creative process] and can challenge each other’s ideas in a really healthy way.
We also have curiosity as a value, which is at the heart of co-op gameplay: finding out how to play well together as a team. And then we have balance. We both believe that as leaders we have to create a studio that’s supportive to individuals when it comes to work/life balance, but also making sure that the people themselves are balanced. Balancing their own needs versus that of the team and that of the studio.
In total, we’ve got these six really core, strong values that have really helped us lead the studio with integrity. And those values were actually created by the team themselves. It’s not like Stuart and I sat on high and said, “these are the values that you all must live by.” We explored them as a team, together. That’s why I’m glad that team spirit is one of these core values—because the values themselves were generated from a collaborative team spirit.
We ran workshops, and these were the ideas that just kept floating up to the surface. Not just values that we each individually would feel comfortable getting behind, but those that we’d feel comfortable getting behind as a team, and holding each other accountable to.
S: We even have questions in our interview process for new candidates which are connected to each of those six values. The candidate may not realize it half the time, but we’re definitely probing people to see if they’re aligned with the studio values. And the studio values, as Tara said, are very much the team’s values.
It sounds like you’ve put a lot of time and effort into creating those values and the structure they represent. It reminds me of what we discussed earlier, about that collaborative spirit of video game development, right?
T: Yes, I always come back to it. We care about our team, we care about our projects and we care about our culture. And I think we put equal investment into all of those things, to build a healthy environment for the team to make a really great, exciting game within.
S: And we’re finding that we’re having to constantly adapt ourselves around that as well. Tara mentioned the pulse surveys earlier—monthly surveys for the team to give feedback regarding areas we can improve in and areas we’re already doing great in. That’s a relatively new initiative that came up post-Covid, post-hybrid [workplaces.]
It used to be the case that when we were all in one office together, it was a lot easier to get a sense of the temperature of the room and the temperature of the team. But now we’re much more geographically spread. We still need ways to maintain engagement and to hear back from the team on ways that we could do better, and the pulse surveys help with that.
Earlier, we talked about how and when you two first entered the industry. What words of advice would you have liked to receive at the time? Or what lesson do you wish you had learned then, prior to having to learn it the hard way?
T: Follow your passions. That helps even if you don’t quite know what area of games you want to get into—but if you really want to get into games, go and explore as many things as you can, find the things that you enjoy doing and follow those passions.
One thing that I’ve found very beneficial as a leader is to remember that everyone’s different. And I think that’s very, very important in the game development space. Games bring these very different groups of people together that are either highly technical or creative, or great artists, or amazing producers—and we push them all together to make this one thing together.
If you can remember that everyone’s different and adapt your style to make others feel comfortable, that really helps with being approachable as a leader. I always try to get people comfortable, and think about how they need me to talk to them to get the most out of them.
S: Tara’s right: follow your passion. The only other thing I’d say is perseverance. Just generally in life, you’re not gonna go from zero to amazing overnight, right? You’ve got to keep working at it.
There’s a lot of opportunities along the way where you’re gonna fail, but it’s learning from those failures [that aids you]. Just keep at it, keep pushing away. Think of the best game in the world—when it first started, I can guarantee it probably wasn’t that fun and didn’t look that pretty. It’s that iteration, that perseverance, that “just keep going” mentality. You can apply that to game development, but also to how people grow themselves as individuals, as well.
T: I think you’re really open and receptive to feedback in that process, Stu, as well?
Thanks so much to the two of you for sitting down to chat with us today. Is there anything else you’d like to add before we say goodbye?
S: I’m just super, super proud of the team. You know, we’ve celebrated our 20th anniversary as a team this year, which is an amazing achievement for any video game developer. And particularly when looking back over the huge heritage of innovation that comes with our back catalog—it’s great to be able to spend today talking about some of that, as well. I’m proud of the projects and the heritage that we have.
But to be honest, Tara was actually here for that heritage [laughs].
T: There’s a real history of innovation here—a DNA of innovation within the studio that comes from the wide variety of stuff that we’ve made in the past. That puts us in a great place to tackle any new challenge, whether that be new technology, new creative goals, or just new ways of working.
There’ve been a lot of firsts during that journey for the studio, ones we’re proud of. Taking first steps and then things like SingStar, which was the first karaoke game, or our first AR console game, or Blood & Truth becoming the first VR game to hit number one on the UK format charts. I think we can be really proud of our history and heritage, but as proud as we are, we’re also equally as excited—if not more so—about the future that we’ve got ahead of us. We’re looking forward to celebrating in another 20 years’ time for our 40th anniversary! [laughs]