An Audience With: Mark Cerny – on three decades in the games business and the future of PS4

Mark Cerny

The staff of LinkedIn are fortunate that Mark Cerny hasn’t bothered setting up a profile. The length of his CV would likely crash the site. Cerny entered game development in 1982, just 17 years old at the time, joining Atari’s coin-op division and designed the arcade classic Marble Madness. A job developing titles for Sega’s Master System took him to Tokyo in the mid ‘80s, where he became fluent in Japanese. Upon returning to the U.S., he worked for Crystal Dynamics on 3DO launch titles.

During the PlayStation One era, he led the intiative to program a common graphics engine that could be used by studios developing for the platform and, as head of Universal Interactive Studios, signed now-heavyweight studios such as Naughty Dog and Insomniac. Under the banner of Cerny Games, he’s consulted on a litany of Sony first-party titles ranging from Spyro to God of War to Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, culminating in his most recent position as the lead system architect of the PlayStation 4.

Just to make sure there isn’t a free nanosecond anywhere in his schedule, he’s also elected to simultaneously direct his own PS4 launch title Knack. We were happy to be able to steal multiple nanoseconds with him to discuss what’s kept him committed to the game industry for just over three decades.

When Edge launched in October of 1993, you were at Crystal Dynamics working on games for the soon to be launched 3DO console. What goes through your mind when you reflect on that moment in your career?

Crystal Dynamics was a lot of fun. I think it was probably the most enjoyable place I’ve ever worked. There was this huge energy. We were all so young. And at the same time we weren’t very good at making the games. We had Sega’s very bad habit of valuing quantity of titles over quality of titles. We had EA’s bad habit of believing that very long technical design documents and game design documents were the proper way to create a game. But it was just fun to be there and make those games.

Mark Cerny left a message in one of his 3DO games which read: ‘The OS for 3DO should’ve been called the SOS.’

Can you talk about the experience of developing for 3DO?

It wasn’t high-powered enough to really let you make the games. Total Eclipse ran at between, I think, eight and 14 hertz – 8 hertz when it got busy – not really interactive rates.

We went and filmed real actors for Crash ‘n’ Burn and our cinematics budget was only $10,000. And then we didn’t have a codec we could use to display the movies in so we had to hand-write something because there was no standardised technology for that. So we ended up having a postage stamp-sized area of the screen where we showed those cinematics, which probably is about all they deserved.

[Cerny points at the upper left Crash ‘n’ Burn screenshot on page 55 of Edge issue one] On this track, if you go back and you look, there’s a message from me embedded in the lefthand shoulder of the track. There’s actually text there. The entire track is streamed off the disc so we could’ve put anything in there we wanted to, and in this screen we put a brief paragraph.

Let us guess. ‘Fuck 3DO’?

I can’t remember all of it, but it included the line, ‘The OS for 3DO should’ve been called the SOS.’ This was a console that had 1MB of system memory and then at one point the OS had grown in size to 600K of that 1MB, leaving 400K for games.

Did you feel like you’d been sent out to die?

Well, what they ended up doing was they added another megabyte of memory, brought it up to 2MB, which is one of the reasons why it ended up costing $700 at launch. So it was a struggle, but we had fun.

In terms of the self-publishing spectrum, you have Apple’s philosophy at one end that allows a mass of titles through and lets natural selection weed out the junk, and you have Nintendo at the other end that wants to maintain the strictest possible curation of new content. How did you determine where the PlayStation 4’s approach would fall along that continuum?

Well, technologically speaking the barrier is gone so that was my design side of it. Using the super-charged PC architecture made it much more possible to have titles like Octodad on it, which I just love the concept of. So I think we can have a platform and at the same time we can find these gems and elevate their visibility within the PlayStation universe. This is our consistent philosophy across pretty much everything we do, and Shu Yoshida has been very inspirational here. We do not tend to have a ruleset whenever developers are involved.

We have aspirations, we have ideas that we like to share, and things that we’d like to see, but we put them out there and then we let the developers create whatever they feel like they would like to create. So we make a controller and it has all these inputs on it. We don’t mandate that you use any of them, but we do of course talk to developers and share our vision for how we think all of these could be used. Whatever section [of the business] you look at, it’s the same approach: we put it out there for the development community for them to adopt.

Let’s talk about the postmortems for PlayStation 3. When we spoke to Guerrilla Games about this process, they mentioned faxing detailed design documents back and forth over weekends. How do you maintain this level of intensity seven days a week and how much did you have to vary your method studio by studio?

The difficulty is, you don’t want to have a meeting that – Adam Boyes calls this tea and crumpets – you don’t want to have the kind of meeting where you’re drinking a cup of tea and you’ve got your pinky out and you’re discussing the issues perfectly calmly. You want passion. You want people who care deeply about what’s going on who really show it, and it means that the valuable conversations are the most difficult conversations to have because somebody who’s passionate about the game they want to make is telling you that what you’re doing is hindering that or making it impossible to make it or more expensive to make it or more cumbersome in some way. So it isn’t just the travel. It’s that when you get off that plane and you sit down in that ideal meeting, you’re getting full-force feedback.

You’ve mentioned being jeered by a room full of developers. What got that particular group so riled up?

This is where the developer-driven process saves us. We had had a number of conversations and come to a conclusion that, on the balance, we were best going forward with a certain strategy. And it’s the kind of thing that you can come up with the pros and cons, and there’s really a limit to how far you can take that sort of analysis, and I walked it around with the full knowledge that people might not be in love with it, but what I didn’t realise is that I would get booed in a meeting. And of course we ended up changing things up and heading in a completely different direction as a result.

The most difficult part of this process for me is that certain choices we make will make it a little bit harder to make games. Now when I get pushback for that, is it a real issue or is it just something that makes it slightly more difficult [to ship your game]. To give an example, ‘play as you download’ is something that we believe in, and that requires technology work to be done to support it. Is it acceptable for us to ask the development community to universally support this? And so the issue there is separating the ‘it’s something we can handle but it will take some time on the implementation side’ versus ‘no, this is something that’s in between us and the games we want to create’. Now, ‘play as you download’ is there because it’s not the latter, it’s something where the development community broadly feels that they can support this feature, and it isn’t getting in the way of your favourite game director creating his or her next game.

The budgets of top-tier cinematic games have escalated to previously unthinkable levels. Do you feel the current model is sustainable or will things have to change at some point?

If we grow the console audience with this next generation of consoles then I think a lot becomes possible. What are there in terms of people who like to play games? One billion, two billion out there? If we look at how many people have purchased consoles in this generation – that’s a few hundred million – so the question when we look at consoles within the larger world of gaming becomes, what place do they occupy? And if they are really something where that joy of play that I’m talking about is really recognised by that larger audience that brings people in, then anything becomes possible.

Many have questioned whether the closed console model still makes sense. How would you justify their continued relevance?

Because their spec doesn’t change over the years, consoles are this marvelously stable target that developers can engineer against. Something like a Final Fantasy game takes a certain number of years to make and I believe that it’s because the target is a fixed spec that it becomes possible for them to create such a thing. And then players really respond to where the games are that they want to play.

Setting aside postmortem feedback, what did you personally want out of the PlayStation 4 as a game designer and engine programmer that you were, selfishly, free to champion from your post as system architect?

Well, as a programmer myself, I wanted to be sure that there were lots of fun little features in the hardware that people could really explore in the later years of the console lifecycle. So when it came down to designing the feature set for years three and four of the console, that isn’t something where the development community could contribute as broadly because it had much more to do with personal vision about where GPGPU was going. I definitely did pitch it to a broad variety of teams and get their feedback, but there were many, many small and large decisions that had to be made in terms of actually creating the details of that hardware.

Hardware generation cycles have lengthened considerably. When you were locking in specs for the PlayStation 4, what kind of time horizon were you budgeting for?

There are definitely some features in the PlayStation 4 that start to get used broadly in the third or fourth year of the console lifecycle. It’s all about how the GPU and CPU can work together to do many tasks other than graphics, which is say that photorealism is a great target but that world simulation is also important. This is underappreciated but getting your audio right in a game and making sure that your character’s ears are really hearing what they should within the game universe takes a tremendous amount of processing power. And there’s a lot of features in the GPU to support asynchronous fine-grain computing. ‘Asynchronous’ is just saying it’s not directly related to graphics, ‘fine grain’ is just saying it’s a whole bunch of these running simultaneously on the GPU. So I think we’re going to see the benefits of that architecture around 2016 or so.

Is that as far as you’re able to reasonably forecast?

There are still people who are making Atari 2600 games today so learning, on some level, never stops. With the PlayStation 4, it’s even such things as the share cores have a beautiful instruction set and can’t be programmed in assembly. If you were willing to invest the time to do that, you could do some incredibly efficient processing on the GPU for graphics or for anything else. But the timeframe for that kind of work would not be now. I don’t even think it would be three years from now.

On a different topic, Nintendo probably has the most coherent creative identity of any first-party publisher – confectionary colour palettes, childlike themes, etc. Microsoft, on the other hand, has come to be regarded as the shooter console due in part to the success of Halo and the elegant design of the 360 gamepad’s triggers. In your mind, what is Sony’s gaming identity?

I think it’s about the variety of experiences on the platform. As I said before, I’m very proud of the titles that Sony has published over the years that I don’t think would’ve found a home somewhere else and with the relationships as well with third-party publishers and developers that bring our experiences to the platform. With PlayStation 3, that’s a platform that has both Journey and The Last Of Us on it, and those are very, very different kinds of experiences.

What is next-gen gaming? What features do you think will define this upcoming generation of console hardware?

I think we’re going to see heightened social integration in the games, and that can take a lot of different forms. If you went to Ubisoft’s press conference, there were all these cases where they were sort of blurring the line between what was a singleplayer game and what was a multiplayer game. Knack is a singleplayer game but you also see your other friends in it as you’re playing the game. There are treasure chests with random items that come out of them that let you build gadgets to help you in your quest, and you can either choose the one that came out of the treasure chest or you see a list of all your friends who’ve been to the same secret room and you can choose what they picked up instead. That is a smaller feature but it’s nice because it makes you feel like you’re on an adventure with your real-world friends. So I think broadly across games we’re going to see that heightened level of social interaction.

I think we’ll also see – and this was also possible in the PlayStation 3 generation – but we’ll see living software. Every time you go to play that game, there’s something new – new places to explore in the world, new missions, and so on. That is one of the more exciting things that having a hard drive in every PlayStation 4 supports.

When you reflect on your three decades in the videogame industry, what do you consider your most enduring contribution?

In the 1990s we were really in a bad place in terms of game development. We had somehow come to the conclusion that a game was something that could be planned. So the standard way of making a game was, first, to compile a 200-page document saying what the game would be. Those documents would never last more than a month, but still we thought we needed to do it. And we’d also lost touch with consumers. It was standard in 1992, 1994 or so, not to even have someone play the game prior to launch. You’d just play it in the office and you’d hand it to a professional tester.

So when I look back, I’m very proud of how I and a few others really worked to find a better way to do all of that – a more flexible way of making games that acknowledged that much of what we love to experience as players can’t be planned or structured, and also an understanding that these games ultimately are for gamers to play and so you need to at least have an understanding of what the player’s experience will be like as you’re planning it.

You have freedom, of course. You can be Jonathan Blow with Braid and say, I am making this game where every level is different and you’re going to have to learn or you can be the Portal team, which used substantial usability testing in the process of making the game and made sure that every lesson in there was built up brick by brick from the previous lessons. We pioneered a new style of development, used a new production methodology in titles like Crash Bandicoot and Spyro. You can see how lasting the impact of that has been.

How did you contribute to ushering in that new method?

We built in 1997, for Crash Bandicoot 2, a test room where we could sit down with consumers and not do a focus test but a play test. We quickly realised we needed partitions between people because they tend to look at each other’s monitors. You can see that room at pretty much any publisher and many developers today because we came to the realisation that it’s not about having somebody play the game for an hour and then you ask them some questions about what they’d like to see in the game in terms of different features.

It’s about the full experience. Do people understand it? When are they enjoying themselves with the game? When are they just working their way through the challenges? That is now a standardised way of development. I’ll go for a meeting at one of these publishers today and I’ll be sitting in the lobby and I’ll look around. It’s the middle of the day in the fall and I’ll see a bunch of 20-somethings, and I immediately know that those are people who are going to do a playtest, that is now the standard.

In contrast, Crash ‘n’ Burn was played one time prior to shipping the game. We were launching day and date with the 3DO hardware – actually our deadline was earlier because we had to finish before the operating system was finalised. So we finished our all-nighter, we handed it off to somebody, they played it once, they gave us some feedback, we changed a few numbers and shipped it. So, like I said, we’ve come a long way since then.

Cerny is director of Knack, a Sony Japan Studio production.

You’ve worked extensively in both the US and Japan. With the global reach of the Internet chipping away at regional idiosyncrasies, how distinct are these two development communities today?

Development is very, very different in Japan. Japanese consumers are very analytical and so if you have a genre, there’s going to be sub-genres and sub-sub-genres, and as a development team you run into issues like, oh we can’t do that because that’s not how this is treated with this sub-genre of this genre. Innovating in that environment is very, very tricky. If you see substantial innovation, it’s by Japanese game directors like [Shadow of the Colossus director] Ueda-san who have rejected all of that and decided to make a kind of experience that hasn’t been had before. On the one hand, Japan’s development method can make some of the best fighting games that have ever been made, but in other ways, it really does hinder the evolution of games.

With computer programming being such a portable discipline, what’s kept you working in games all these years?

I took a very different path because I decided I wanted to do a large variety of things and also contribute to many different kinds of projects. The way I work is not the way most people work. I’m usually on tour for games and I’ll do design and production so it’s very fun. One of the big benefits is I get tired of doing programming for game X then I’m probably doing design for game Y. I just go do that for a couple of weeks.