Interview: Mark Cerny

Last week, I profiled the PlayStation 4’s lead system architect, Mark Cerny, for the Independent. The profile is online here, and outlines his background and role. For those interested in a little more detail, this is an edited transcript of some of the key points from our conversation when we met in London in July.

In 1982, aged 17, Mark Cerny quit university in his native California to work as a designer and programmer for the era’s most important games company, Atari. By 1984, he had created his first hit game, Marble Madness. By 1985, he had moved to Japan to work with gaming’s rising giant, Sega, where he worked on both games and the cutting edge of console design – a combination that saw him leave in the 1990s to develop for one of the world’s first CD-based consoles, the 3DO Interactive Multiplayer.

The 3DO failed to take off – but by 1994 Cerny had become one of the first non-Japanese developers to work on Sony’s new PlayStation, and a major player in Sony’s success. His games Crash Bandicoot (1996), Spyro the Dragon (1998) and their sequels sold over 30 million copies. Cerny founded his own consultancy in 1998, and has since helped produce, programme and design a gamut of key titles for three generations of PlayStations.

Perhaps his most important work of all, though, is only just coming to fruition: the PlayStation 4, the hardware on which many of Sony‘s hopes for this decade rest. Since 2008, Cerny has worked as the machine’s lead system architect – a job he himself pitched to Sony Computer Entertainment’s senior management – as well as directing the development of one of its key launch titles, Knack.

Tom Chatfield: Historically, the original PlayStation came out in 1994. What’s your take on how it changed the games industry?

Mark Cerny: Oh, it had a huge effect on the games industry, but not for the reason that is usually voiced. So, historically, Trip Hawkins with the 3DO Multiplayer tried to move us from cartridges to CD-ROMs. Ken Kutaragi [with the PlayStation] succeeded, and I believe that is a tremendous part of his legacy, because back when we were making cartridge games we had to buy these cartridges, they had silicon chips in them, and it was ten or fifteen bucks just for the hardware costs in some of those cartridges.

You’re going out to retail and you have that inventory cost dragging you down: and you also have the time to build a cartridge, which in those days was three months. By moving to optical memory we suddenly had something like five times as much money to spend on the actual product development. Back in the cartridge days, typical spend was about a dollar a copy on the actual software, maybe only fifty cents. We have gone from that to closer to twenty dollars.

TC: That is interesting, because one narrative spun at the time was about CD-quality sound, fast racing games and iconic 3D titles: grown-up gaming for people with more disposable income. But you’re saying that this was really a developer revolution, led by media change?

MC: Yes.

TC: And then, with the PlayStation 2, we have eventually 150 million sales, still the best-selling console in history. Can another living room console sell over 150 million copies today?

MC: If you look at the world at large, a billion or two billion people are playing games. Consoles, a couple of hundred million. The key to selling that number of consoles will be bringing the larger game playing audience into the console world.

TC: Yet in today’s tech landscape, the console feels like something of an anomaly. For most products, upgrade cycles have accelerated to 18 months or less, but you’re building a machine with a 6 or 7 year lifespan. It’s a huge challenge technically, and I know you’ve done a lot to build something that has at least six or seven years of life in it, and that will work for developers.

MC: A lot of the strategy for PlayStation 4 came out of the experiences of the PlayStation 3, which is to say that the PlayStation 3 was challenging in many ways. And part of that was the hardware, and part of that was the development environment around it that the developers used when they created their games.

So with PlayStation 4, we wanted to be sure that we would have something much more accessible, where developers could quickly get going on their games, and really could focus more on the vision of the game than the minutiae of the hardware.

A number of the features we’ve put in the hardware so that developers have something to dig into in later years of the console life cycle: I think that’s probably 2016, 2017 when they’ll really start taking advantage of them, and you’ll see the benefits of that in hardware in the actual games.

TC: In terms of consoles and opportunities, though, we have some people who are saying that the very idea of “owning the living room screen” is an anachronism in the age of the personal screen. What do you feel the console means, in 2013?

MC: I think consoles play a vital role. And part of what they provide is a stable target. A lot of the developers need five years to make a title, and because a console spec does not change, it allows them to engineer to that spec and ultimately bring out games that simply would never come out any other way. Why do you feel it’s an anachronism?

TC: I don’t, personally. But one argument goes that prices are very high, barriers to entry are high, and that owning personal screens simply matters more. It’s almost ideological, I think, in that some people see the living room as a dead tech paradigm: cheap and freemium and handheld and personal and mobile are the way of the present.

MC: I think we need to be very cautious. Today there are very many places that people can play games. Historically that hasn’t been true. If you go back to the early 1990s, the killer app for Game Boy was Tetris. Thirty million Tetris cartridges were sold. That is a testament to how few options you had in those days if you wanted to play a game. Well, today we can play a game just about anywhere, your PC, your tablet, your phone, your console, and all that.

That doesn’t mean that consoles don’t have a role to play, but it does want us to make the console an integrated experience, because we know that people have all of these devices that they own – and we want to make sure that playing the game isn’t strictly restricted to your time in front of the TV set.

So part of our approach is with companion applications. We have a companion application that lets you stay in touch with the world of PlayStation no matter where you are, and then a lot of the developers are creating very specific companion applications that can act as a second screen for the game as it is being played – but also be the game in and of itself. So you are on the road, you can check in on the status of the game world, or you can even interact with the game world via your smartphone or tablet.

TC: You’re involved very passionately in the hardware design and its principles, but you’re also building one of the big launch titles in Knack: could you tell me a little about what it means to you as a game?

MC: The hardware is very developer driven: it’s an extraordinarily broad collaboration. Knack is much more about my personal thoughts about games and consoles in general. The original idea was simply that I knew that there would be quality core games at launch, for the predominantly male core gamer, but I wanted to be sure that there would be something for the rest of the family: sons, daughters, spouses and the like.

Knack is really designed with two audiences in mind. One audience is core gamers: for those people who enjoyed playing Crash Bandicoot or Sonic the Hedgehog back in the day. We are trying to speak to the nostalgia that they have for those experiences in the past, which were actually, something like Crash was a brutally difficult game. So when you play on the hard difficulty setting, even though the control scheme with Knack is pretty simple, it’s quite a challenging game.

The other audience is light or beginner players. There are one or two billion people playing games out there. If you have a smartphone or a tablet, pretty much, you’re playing games. But there is a bit of a gap between a child who plays tablet or smartphone games – or an adult who is just getting into Fruit Ninja or Candy Crush Saga – and the skillset that is required for a AAA console game, where the controller has 16 or so buttons on it and a AAA game uses almost all of them.

I started playing games in the era of the Atari 2600. That had one button. I had 30 years to get used to the increase in complexity of games as they involved. If we look at the 1990s, the pattern was that children would start with handheld games consoles with much simpler control schemes, and then they would move to the home consoles.

But now it’s much more about somebody playing on their iPhone or tablet or the like, and so the idea with Knack was that that could be for this other audience, the on-ramp. It very much is a console game, it is a story-driven action adventure, but on the easy difficulty setting it is a game that pretty much anyone can play, regardless of their game-playing history.

TC: How do you strike this balance between audiences as a developer?

MC: Trying to make a game broadly accessible took us to some interesting places. One thing we looked at was children and their ability to play these AAA games, and part of the issue is not the control scheme, it’s simply the size of the controller. It is, when you look at the size of children’s hands and the size of the controller, it’s hard for them to reach certain buttons.

And so we would have our producers’ children showing us how they were using the controller and the like. But we ultimately ended up making a – this is my prop – a giant controller [Cerny produces his famous giant controller]. Be very careful, if you push the joysticks too far they’ll snap off…

We also did a lot of play-testing with people who don’t regularly play games. We looked for people who don’t play games at all. And we couldn’t find them. That was very interesting for me. If we look for people who have never played games in their lives, which was our initial request for play-testers, they were extraordinarily hard to find. They would maybe have played games during the PlayStation One generation, maybe they played games on smartphones today, but it’s a testament to just how broad the appeal of games is that it’s very hard to find somebody who has never picked up a game.

We found people who claimed never to have played games. They would play a little bit, and they would do surprisingly well. I would say to them, hit the start button and pause the game so we can talk, and they would know where the start button was. That’s a clue that they had played games.

TC: There’s this word “gamers”, which I’m always ambivalent about, because it’s people self-defining and being often very possessive. I feel it’s a kind of immaturity in the industry: that if people were a little bit more relaxed out about the labels, there might more breadth to what’s on offer. But, as you say, some people will claim they don’t play video games, because they feel it’s not for them.

MC: If we look at the top ten sales for console, it is dominated by heavy content: Skyrim and Assassin’s Creed. Console players love this, and that’s why it’s dominating the top ten. But the console audience has also woken up to these smaller but equally compelling experiences. Walking Dead won a tremendous number of awards last year. And Journey, which is a two-and-a-half-hour game, was widely regarded as game of the year.

So it appears that, going forward to PlayStation 4, the ecosystem is a bit different. We are going to have the heavy content, but be balancing it out with these games that challenge your expectation of what a game can be, or provide a break from the larger titles, or simply show variety in how a game can be played.

TC: One bugbear of mine is that I love playing co-op games, but not just FPS ones. There’s a beautiful PS3 co-op tower defence game called PixelJunk Monsters, but for me it’s emblematic that there are so few. There are big gaps in the variety of games out there, where games aren’t being made that ought to be made.

MC: If you can quote yourself on that, that’s your piece!

TC: What for you are the areas where games aren’t being made on consoles; that you would like to see created to provide this variety?

MC: If we look at trends, there are a tremendous number of people working [today] to create games as part of a small team. Many of those have never known any other way of making games. Many of those, though, are also people who worked on AAA titles and had perhaps a very specialized role on a 100-person team, and are looking for a way to contribute more boldly and more deeply.

Due to the very accessible nature of the PS4 and more specifically to its supercharged PC architecture, it’s quite easy to bring those games over to PS4. Anecdotally, I’m hearing four weeks to convert a game from PC over to the PS4. So, what we’re going to see as a result of that is a broader variety of experiences on the platform.

When I look at that historically, if we go back all the way to the PS1, AAA development wasn’t like it is today. Typical game teams were quite small. Crash Bandicoot, which was a larger team, was seven people: so a game that sold six million units was made by seven people. It was very possible in those days to have an idea and go after it, and pursue it more through the idea of what would be fun create than thinking so strongly about what particular part of the playing public you’re going after.

And so there were titles like PaRappa [the Rapper] and Devil Dice and Intelligent Cube, that were created by these small teams, and really found a home: each of those sold over a million units. And that was really part of the joy of PlayStation, that was very much in the PlayStation DNA in the early days.

When I was talking about a Renaissance of Gaming [at the Develop conference in Brighton], that is because I really believe that is where PlayStation 4 will be.

TC: And this can push back against the pressure simply to pour resources into developing visual assets, these polished immensely detailed titles with huge budgets and huge teams?

MC: Of course, those [older] titles were either not really about the assets at all, or they were asset-light. That was a big part of how those titles could be made for just a few hundred thousand dollars.

TC: So what is it about video games, for you, that is most unique and exciting?

MC: The simple answer is that games are interactive. I think the thread is that there are a tremendous number of ways to make a quality game and, just to hold up two, Portal and Braid.

In Braid, the rule set is different as you go through depending on what level you’re playing, and it is not explained, and you have to work it out for yourself. Portal was designed using extensive usability testing, and every one of those 50 or 100 challenges is just another brick or layer on all the previous challenges. And they’re both incredibly good games.

TC: When I think about Portal 2, its co-op mode is one of the supreme collaborative gaming experiences. I enjoy the challenge of talking about how that makes me feel, of what this excellence feels like. You can’t cheat with games. You’re either having fun or or you’re not – fun is a very pure test.

MC: I guess for me, when I’m laying out levels in a game, I’m really as my target trying to create an experience that you can settle into, a groove that you can get into as a player. Many years ago I used to call this meditative. I think it’s the wrong word for it, but it’s a very smooth experience.

TC: I know that in your working method, you like to polish up one level to a high degree of completion before doing the whole thing.

MC: So that’s “Method”. As an industry, we got off track in the 1990s. There are stories, of some of those game cartridges not even being playable to the end, because nobody had cared enough to make sure it was completable – they needed to be shipped on time, that was the most important thing. More commonly, we would sit around and make the games for ourselves, and never actually have a real player play it during the entire product cycle. And we had this belief that making a game was about making graphical assets and sounds, and putting them all together, and when they were all together it was done. Whereas that’s certainly something you need to do, but it also needs to be a game.

And so the two big things we focused on [to make things better] were, first, usability testing, using real players; and the idea was that you just watched them play. You could then chose to make the game Portal-like, and make sure it was this smooth experience; or intentionally make it Braid-like, where you wanted there to be that very specific challenge, with an epiphany.

And the second aspect was trying to make part of the game early on, spending maybe 25% to 30% of the budget making something that looked very polished, that was a small portion of the game, to understand whether or not it would be worthwhile to spend the time to make the whole game. Because if that wasn’t a sufficiently compelling experience, you were better off to just cut that project then and there.

So part of what I believe is that, if you have two games, probably one of them shouldn’t be made. It’s about the right ratio. If you complete every game that you start out to make, you probably aren’t making the best games that you can.