Building the PS4 – Mark Cerny Interview
games™ sits down with the mind behind the PlayStation 4, Mark Cerny, and discusses how the new hardware came to be
PlayStation 4 lead architect Mark Cerny took to the stage at Develop in Brighton to deliver a keynote speech, revealing the genesis of Sony’s next-gen system and the way in which he shaped the console. Cerny sat down with games™ following the keynote and revealed what we can expect from the future of interactive entertainment. His most important work to date might still on the horizon – Cerny has worked as the PlayStation 4’s lead system architect since 2008, guiding the hardware that Sony is placing so much hope and stock into as we approach the next decade of gaming.
Cerny’s road to the appointment is important, as it reveals the intent behind the PlayStation 4’s design. Quitting university in 1982 aged 17, Cerny took a position as designer and programmer at Atari, creating the successful Marble Madness in 1984. He would later move East to work with Sega, producing Sonic The Hedgehog 2 and became fluent in Japanese, before he was invited to work on one of the industry’s most ambitious failures – the 3DO Interactive Multiplayer. While the 3DO failed to gain any traction, his move back to California facilitated his appointment as vice president of Universal Interactive Studios in 1994 – where he also became one of the first non-Japanese developers to work on the original PlayStation.
The time at Universal saw Cerny oversee development on two of Sony’s most important brands, Crash Bandicoot and Spyro The Dragon. Those games, and their sequels, sold over 30 million copies and allowed Cerny to found his own consultancy, where he has since worked tirelessly producing and designing videogames for Sony in an advisory position. Cerny’s three decades in the industry led him to a position where he felt comfortable approaching president of Sony Worldwide Studios Shuhei Yoshida for the position of lead architect, “I knew it was a bit audacious, but I went to Shuhei Yoshida and I pitched him on the idea that I would be lead architect for the PS4, and I asked him if he thought it was possible. To my amazement, Shu said yes, it’s a good idea.”
“I did feel very strongly that a game developer should lead hardware development at Sony Computer Entertainment. I didn’t feel that needed to be me as much as I felt that it was important that somebody who understood the various aspects of game development set the direction for the hardware,” says Cerny. “The way I look at it, it’s very important to have a very focused technical view on what the details on the hardware are, and how as a programmer you can utilise them to make the games more cinematic, or more realistic. It’s also very useful to have the global perspective of how that hardware is going to fit into the process of game development and result in a game coming out in its intended timeframe at its intended budget. So my strong belief is somebody who had been a programmer and a producer should be leading the charge on the next-generation.”
The PlayStation 4 is being touted as a console “by game creators for game creators” and nothing affirms that ethic more than having Cerny on board from the beginning. “We say that we are developer inspired and consumer focused,” says Cerny speaking with games™ following his Develop keynote. “That’s really a statement of we pay all of this attention to developers because they create the content that gamers want to play. So our focus was to create a console that could legitimately be called ‘by game creators for game creators’ with the ultimate intent of having that rich line-up of games available on the platform. And I think that’s been a tremendous success,” he says, noting, “We have the strongest launch line-up of any console we’ve ever created and we have 140 games in development.”
Due for release this November, the PlayStation 4 is leading the reignited console war between Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo. Where that war was once fought on a battleground of graphical and processing power, 2013 has shown that social networks and emergent game design is just as, if not more important, than raw graphical fidelity – not that Sony is dropping the ball in that area of design mind. “I believe the performance is very important. We had a very specific performance target. We worked quite hard for over five years now to achieve that target. The question you asked though is what the benefit is of being the most powerful console on the market?” considers Cerny, adding, “We set the target at ten times the previous generation because we believed that was where we needed to be to meet the expectations of the playing public. And I’m very glad we set [it] that high.”
One of Cerny’s key roles during the development was to ensure that the hardware and software divisions within Sony were united in an attempt to avoid the early problems that plagued the PlayStation 3 launch – widely renowned as a difficult machine to develop for. During his Develop keynote Cerny noted how Sony faced internal struggles to unite the disparate divisions, which led to a snub of third-party developers, hence the “weak lineup” over the PS3 launch window. “Our feeling was that EA and Rockstar better watch out. This was, of course, completely the wrong attitude. We were thinking abut about our games and not the platform,” said Cerny, explaining that by the time the company realised it should share its “proprietary first-party tools” with third-party developers, it was simply too late for them to get to grips with the consoles “puzzling” Cell processor.
There is a notable shift from this attitude now, with Cerny later telling games™ that the shift is already bearing positive results as Sony adopt “supercharged PC architecture” that developers will find easy to learn, but difficult to master. “We’d seen on PlayStation 3 that if the hardware is tricky to use, there’s quite a learning curve and that the initial games is not what one would hope they might be. So we came out of that with a hardcore commitment that with PlayStation 4 we would make hardware that would be much more familiar and much more accessible.”
“I think we are already seeing the benefits from that strategy. Our strategy was the Nolan Bushnell quote – easy to learn, difficult to master. So the idea was very familiar and accessible architecture for year one but then a very rich feature-set that the programmers can learn and explore for year three or year four. What we’re seeing now is the benefit of that accessible architecture. We have games that are coming over to the platform that otherwise would have stayed on PC,” he says, adding, “Now the flipside of that coin is that you must then have something for programmers to dig into in the later years of the console because you need the console to grow along with the evolution of games. And that’s where all of the customisation we did to the GPU, for the sake of asynchronous fine-grade compute comes in.”
In bridging the hardware and software teams, Cerny explains to us that this will have repercussions across the entire system. He noted how the DualShock 4 controller was a response to the criticism levelled at its predecessor, and that developers were consulted to ensure it provided gamers with a comfortable experience. “The controller was a very, very broad collaboration that went out to the game teams and even some of the third-party teams. We looked at everything we could put into the controller and solicited feedback from the teams on what we should include,” says Cerny. “And then because first-person shooters are very important to us, we went to key teams who make the best of the best and we got their specific feedback on trigger springiness, concavity or convexity of joysticks and deadzones, and tuned the controller through a succession of prototypes to what it is today.”
Mark Cerny’s influence doesn’t end with hardware; in fact it’s his voice that we can see pushing the independent games to the forefront of the PlayStation experience. Where Sony used to be represented by platformers, banner mascots and unique experiences – that ideal seems to have fallen by the wayside as gamers hunger for photorealistic entertainment. Cerny recognises the worth in both however, and hopes to bring about a renaissance of sorts through indie developers.
“PlayStation 1 and PlayStation 2 definitely lead with character action games. PlayStation 3, there was a shift towards more realistic entertainment. I’m hoping, yes, we can get back a bit closer to where we were in those earlier days. And it isn’t that heavy content like Skyrim or Assassin’s Creed isn’t great stuff, [but] I also feel that there’s a place for smaller, lighter experiences. So Knack is a part of that and I think with all of these small teams working on PlayStation 4, we’re going to see a number of games that show that kind of old school fun,” says Cerny, noting, “I think part of the key appeal of PlayStation is the variety of experiences on the platform. That means that the larger titles will be there but it also means that to the extent that we can bring those smaller but equally compelling experiences to the platforms will see the whole console experience become richer.”
“One of the things I like about indie is it presents more options for the development community. You could be somebody who had been working on PC, a small team, and now you have the option of bringing those titles to PlayStation 4. But you could also be somebody who is on these 100-person teams doing some specialised work, maybe it’s lighting design or some details of the motion-capture process and now you can be on a smaller team and contribute much more broadly and deeply to that title. You can have that same experience as a developer that most of us had in 1994 or 1996 in the early days of PlayStation.”
At its core, that’s the leading ideal behind Sony’s next-gen system – to return to the glory days of the PlayStation brand. The PlayStation 4 is boasting more powerful architecture and stronger triple-A and independent line-ups than either of its competitors, and it’s certainly Cerny’s influence that is leading Sony into a very favourable position for when the PS4 and Xbox One launch later in the year.