Renaissance man: Mark Cerny and the origin of PS4

Renaissance man: Mark Cerny and the origin of PS4
Michael French

By Michael French

August 9th 2013 at 11:00AM

Coder. Producer. And now console designer. Develop meets the man behind PS4

[This feature was published in the August 2013 edition of Develop magazine, which is available through your browser and on iPad.]

Nothing sums up the bloat of modern video games better than the PS3.

Sony’s high-end console was billed as an all in one media solution; a complicated console that could render incredible graphics and immersive content. Its creator, Ken Kutaragi, talked of it in revolutionary terms.

But all it really did was contribute to an acceleration towards what PS4 lead architect Mark Cerny calls ‘heavy content’: ballooning team sizes, bank-breaking budgets, and a big demand on art assets.

Cerny is these days an iconic figure for the reinvigorated format-holder. But ask him about the PS3, and he’s diplomatic. He describes the PS3’s early problems as ’99 per cent hardware and one per cent software’ – it was a powerful black box which on launch had next to no tools to tap into its resources.

But PS3 is valuable context when talking about Cerny and PS4.

He did not design the previous Sony console; only made software technology for it (producing internal tools which pretty much saved the format, by all accounts).

But it seems that everything he has done in his role as PS4 architect, and everything that has happened in the industry since the start of the last generation, has been a reaction to the foibles of the console market. iOS and its slick straight-to-market distribution was an antidote to retail. The rise of web titles and social games a reaction to unwieldy games platforms and over-eager approval processes. And PS4 a reaction to Sony losing development support.

“2005, 2006, 2007…” he recalls when he meets us after his Develop in Brighton conference keynote. It was this tough time in the business, he admits “that established the culture we have today”.

“Anyone who lived through those years intuitively understands the importance of international collaboration, the value of frank conversation, the importance of software and hardware, the value of third parties, and so on.

“That’s the result of experiences over the PS3 years. So going out and wanting to work with people for PS4 was incredibly natural.”

PAST LIVES

But let’s rewind a bit, to before when Cerny was travelling the globe to covertly talk PS4 with top-flight games studios.

Cerny’s career is packed with notable highlights and interesting twists. He has held a variety of roles in the games business, on a diverse slate of projects, and the cumulative force of all that experience is what is coming to bear on PS4.

He first got into games in the early eighties, ditching his degree to go work for Atari. Cerny’s a bit too modest when he says he joined too late for the arcade revolution, even if the market had reached saturation point by the time he was there: one of his first games was the legendry Marble Madness, and he was even then learning about hardware manufacture, with an eventually-aborted arcade hardware board system design amongst his projects.

“Hardware development in 1985 is very different to that design today,” he remarks, uninterested in talking about how his first work foreshadowed his most recent.

“I did a fairly advanced arcade hardware design as one guy. Back then you could just go out and buy chips, and put them on a board. But today we are talking about huge transistor counts, and the chips are compiled. You aren’t in there positioning each transistor yourself.”

But while the mechanics of the trade have changed over time, there is one important point about the games industry in the 1980s that has only started to ring true again recently, and which Cerny and Sony is tapping into: “In 1985 there was almost no difference between an amateur and a professional.”

Later in the decade, Cerny had left Atari for a job at Sega in Japan, where he worked on a variety of Master System projects – including its active-shutter 3D glasses, an innovation that wowed eight-year-olds but never found a market – and latterly a producer role on Sonic 2.

His seat on the cutting edge of games tech led him to Crystal Dynamics, where he eventually brokered the first deal for a US PlayStation devkit in the early Nineties.

This was a bigger moment that it might seem on paper. Sony had been refusing to send hardware outside of Japan. Cerny didn’t take no for an answer. During a visit to Tokyo, Cerny visited its HQ to request a devkit in person, creating a good enough first impression to eventually secure the hardware.

Even with the PlayStation’s increased power and budgetary demands, Crystal Dynamics was able to “spend two to three million dollars per title” and get incredible results from the Sony hardware, Cerny says – another instance where he saw firsthand how a streamlined approach can create impressive products.

But that meeting at Sony HQ had done more than give Crystal Dynamics an upper hand on the new wave of CD-based consoles – it had locked Cerny on the trajectory towards PlayStation.

After here, there’s a long list of impressive achievements, first as games boss at Universal Pictures and then as contractor for Sony Computer Entertainment, that haven’t just defined his career, but the PS4 too.

He helped create Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon, giving him experience of big franchise development. A few years later, he was the first American to work on PS2, making a graphics engine in Tokyo for three months. After that, he did design and coding for flagship games Jak and Daxter and Ratchet and Clank.

By the time the PS3 rolled around, he was a go-to person for technology at SCE. He sequestered Naughty Dog’s ICE team to Japan to help design PS3 software in 2004 and 2005, their work helping buy a year’s time for developers working on the platform.

This is where most Develop career profiles might end. But Cerny was at the coalface of the exhausting pressure generational hardware was putting on games developers.

Teams were growing in size and roles for individuals were getting overspecialised, says Cerny – it would become impossible for a single person to make any major contribution to a game, he says, pointing to a PS2-era example where good ideas just meant headaches for all: “If a creative director changed a game all the early low level code with have to be scrapped.”

Games consoles’ awkward symbiosis with actual games development was causing a further spiral as the machines got more and more complicated. Cerny says the ‘time to triangle’ – the length of time it takes to to create an engine that can render what the console is close to capable of in terms of triangle count – had increased by a factor of 12 between PSone and PS3.

It was a month on the first PlayStation, and could take a year by its third generation of hardware. The PS3 platform’s many innovations, such as the SPU memory structure, were turning into quirks that developers just didn’t want the hassle of.

On the record, Cerny is polite about that platform, but you only need to look at what he has concocted for the PS4 – an easy to develop for x86 architecture with heaps of memory – to understand the frustrations the entire industry had with the PS3.

HARD WORK PAYS

In fact, Cerny heard all the frustrations first hand. After switching his role to the PS4 preliminary design shortly after the arrival of PS3, he toured the world visiting studios to get their views on what a next-gen console should be – and had to work hard to get a decent response.

“I talked to more than 30 teams, so visited Japan, North America and Europe. The big issue for me was that you are coming forward from SCE and you are asking them about the things that never would have been asked before in the history of the company.

“The first response you get when you ask for feedback is very nice and developers say what they think you want to hear to foster the relationship. [SCEA dev relations chief] Adam Boyes calls that ‘tea and crumpets’. But it if it’s tea and crumpets it doesn’t actually help.

“So I found that the groups I would tend to go visit the most were the groups where I would have a group of people on the other side of the table with very strong opinions. They would say what was right, what was wrong, and what needed doing. I was actively seeking out the groups who would put me through the wringer the most over the design.”

And studios were more than willing after a while – even making it known when new decisions weren’t to their liking.

At one point “we had a tough decision to make on the PS4,” he says (but won’t actually confirm what the decision was about).

“There were pros and cons, we hashed it out. And then it was my job to go and tell everyone. And when it’s the wrong direction, you are going to get a strong response.

“I started in 2008 which was less than two years after the launch of PS3, so people were very much still involved in studying the SPUs and trying to figure out how to best integrate them into the overall technical architectures of their games.

“It’s unusual for them to have that feedback heard to some degree, so they feel they need to give it much stronger than they need to.”

Getting shouted at by some of the smartest developers in the world doesn’t phase Cerny, who is likely to outsmart them anyway – and the resulting new console has been met with near universal applause from games developers.

WIDE OPEN

But PS4 answers a bigger question than simply redressing Sony’s former hardware mistakes.

It’s no coincidence that it also arrives as the format-holder adopts a broader remit for content, has thrown open the doors to indies, ditched archaic concept approval, and is proactively hunting down one-man teams as well as cash-rich publishing partners.

“Heavy content will still thrive,” he says, saying his own favourite genres like JRPGs or games with deep silos of content like Skyrim still have a home on PlayStation.

“But in many ways we will return to the freedom and broad content that made PlayStation unforgettable in the first place.”

Indie games are the obvious first place to start, though. On the whole, Sony has until recently been out of step with this world, where rogue coders, student teams and individuals didn’t have the means or time to become certified PlayStation developers. Now Sony is actively paying for ports of their games – getting an element of exclusivity and a cut of revenue, and not asking for old-fashioned IP ownership – in order to add more colour to its portfolio, and also just prove out how much it has changed.

What constitutes an indie? “We at SCE are calling the smaller, nimbler titles ‘indie’,” explains Cerny. “So if it’s not done with a few hundred people and outsourcing it’s called indie – even if it’s in-house like Journey or some guy at his house.”

There is a hunger for this content both within the industry and outside it, he says: “Developers want a more intimate relationship with the game being created, and gamers want something more unique.”

But Cerny also characterises the efforts to court this blossoming part of the market as Sony paying its dues back into the business.

“It’s healthy to elevate the visibility of the smaller titles. The bigger games have substantial marketing budgets anyway. The middle is not doing so well, but the high end is doing $20m to $50m in advertising.

“If we can help to elevate the smaller titles it creates a healthier environment. For developers, if you have been doing indie development on PC now you can bring those titles to the PlayStation platforms. It also means that if you have been working on triple-A development and have been looking to a way to give a broader or deeper contribution then you can now do that on a small team as well.”

If anything, while the PS4 is a mission statement to harness the technology that has propelled the industry forward, it is also reaching further back to the past – a better time when budgets were smaller, there were more titles out there, and games were simply easier to make and get to market. If the young Mark Cerny was making Atari-style games today, he’d likely find a place for them on PS4.

Maybe he thinks of this when you ask about the potential that PlayStation 4.

He calls it a “Renaissance of gaming” – and says it so matter of fact you can’t help but believe him.