A brief history of Mark Cerny: from Atari to becoming one of PlayStation’s ‘three musketeers’

Mark Cerny 2

Mark Cerny took to the stage at Barcelona Gamelab event today to tell the story of his career to date, revealing the lessons learned from working on PS3 hardware and why he, Shuhei Yoshida and Andrew House aspire to be more like Nintendo.

Cerny’s interest in games began with paper RPGs – most notably Dungeons and Dragons – and led to an obsession with early arcade games like Space Invaders, Asteroids and Tempest. While studying maths and physics at Berkeley University, Cerny decided to turn his hobby into a career, and landed a job making arcade games at Atari’s coin-op division in 1982. There was no specialisation in those days, Cerny said – “you had to be a jack of all trades.” He also emphasised how brutal the market was back then – if an arcade game wasn’t fun instantly, it didn’t make any money. “When your game failed, there were no excuses,” he said.

He moved to Sega in 1985, and worked on titles for the Master System. The Sega president of the time believed it was better to compete with Nintendo on the number of titles available for the console rather than quality, said Cerny. After a difficult start for the Master System, a reversal of those priorities led to Sega investing far more in the development of its games, and the creation of the Master System’s first million seller, Sonic The Hedgehog.

Later, Cerny became the first member of the games team at Crystal Dynamics developing games for the 3DO, but admitted he had picked up some bad habits at Sega – “We just weren’t that good at making games,” he said. Cerny soon realised that the 3DO wasn’t powerful enough to provide a satisfying gaming experience in 2D or 3D, and started to look elsewhere. It led him to attaining a PlayStation Japanese devkit, personally signed off by one Shuhei Yoshida. Cerny was one of very few US developers to work with the tech before the console’s launch.

In 1994, Cerny moved to Universal Interactive Studios, serving as vice president, then president. “The best part of this was that Universal didn’t understand the games business,” said Cerny, describing his role at the time as having “a big bag of money and no supervision.” During his four year stint at Universal, he signed up fledgling studios Naughty Dog and Insomniac, which led to the creation of the Crash Bandicoot and Spyro games.

Shuhei Yoshida, one of Sony’s ‘three musketeers’ with Mark Cerny and Andrew House.

It was around this time that Shuhei Yoshida, Mark Cerny and Andrew House began working together more closely, and began to describe themselves as PlayStation’s ‘three musketeers’ – they were the same age, and became close friends.

When Naughty Dog and Insomniac’s contracts with Universal expired, they moved to work with PlayStation more directly, and Cerny left Universal to set up his consultancy, Cerny Games, mostly to work with the PlayStation team.

In early 1999, the first working PS2 prototypes arrived, and Shuhei Yoshida had heard internally that the hardware was much more powerful, but many developers were struggling with its complexity. Yoshida asked Cerny to make tools in order to help developers with the high volume of low-level coding required to get the best from the hardware; around the same time, Cerny also helped create the game engine for Jak and Daxter, and contributed to the design on Ratchet and Clank.

As PS2 matured, Shuhei Yoshida was becoming increasingly concerned over the rising cost of game development. He saw that Sony’s studios were all working separately, and wanted greater collaboration between them all. With PS3 on the horizon, Cerny was asked to form a specialised group to ease the transition – the ICE team, a moniker derived from the ‘initiative for a common engine’ project.

Yoshida later got approval to embed the ICE team within the group working on the PS3, and in the summer of 2003, Cerny moved to Tokyo to work with the new console in earnest. The console’s Cell processor was already completed by then – it was essentially “a supercomputer on a chip,” said Cerny – but getting a strong performance out of it was like “kind of like solving a rubik’s cube.”

PS3’s puzzling architecture led to a weak launch lineup and a change in attitude at the platform holder. When the postmortems began for PS3 soon after its launch, Cerny wanted to be a central cog in the next console’s development, and pitched the idea to Shuhei Yoshida, who agreed, and sought the approval of the head of worldwide Studios and Sony’s CTO.

Cerny was officially appointed PS4 lead system architect, and work began in 2008 with a series of “frank and open discussions” around how to approach the new hardware. In contrast to PS3, work on tools and engines began around the same time, and questionnaires were sent out to key thirdparties to gain an understanding of what they wanted from PS4, under the pretence that Sony was seeking to encourage greater dialogue around general technical issues. “We got great feedback, but they weren’t fooled for a minute about the nature of these questions,” said Cerny.

Around 30 teams contributed globally, and Cerny said that the most common request was one pool of unified memory. Thirdparties also advised Sony to invest in a very powerful GPU, and to keep PS4’s systems familiar – “they didn’t want exotica” in the next console, Cerny put it.

Cerny described the broader philosophy behind PS4 as a variation on Nolan Bushnell’s ‘easy to learn, difficult to master’ game design ethos – immediately familiar, but inclusive of “a rich featureset which will grow over the years.” Unlike PS3, “we didn’t want the hardware to be a puzzle,” said Cerny.

He took this idea out to key partners in a tour of firstparty and thirdparty developers, to gauge their reactions and seek further suggestions. It was gruelling – he described one particular eight hour presentation in a hot Tokyo meeting room, and recalled that one developer told him: “if PS4 doesn’t have 8GB of memory then Sony is dead.” At another presentation, Cerny said he was literally booed by his audience. It was tough, added Cerny, but “the payoff was huge.”

Cerny concluded with a tribute to his friend Shuhei Yoshida – “If you want to know what I’m doing in five years, ask Shu Yoshida” – and by stating that ‘the three musketeers’ were back. With Cerny in charge of PS4, Yoshida head of Worldwide Studios and Andrew House as Sony Computer Entertainment boss, Cerny hopes that the three will continue to define the PlayStation business for years to come.

He added that a friend of his in Kyoto, who has worked with both Sony and Nintendo over the years, has always admired the consistency of Nintendo’s hardware and software teams, and the respect and authority that commanded. Cerny hopes that one day, Sony’s own three musketeers can do the same for PlayStation.