The respected games designer discusses spiralling budgets, the evolution of handheld and iteration of social games
He's perhaps best known for designing arcade classic Marble Madness, but Mark Cerny's console work reads like a Best Of PlayStation list, including stints on Crash Bandicoot, Spyro the Dragon, Uncharted, Resistance, Killzone, Jak & Daxter and God of War to name a few.
Here, in an exclusive interview with GamesIndustry.biz, he discusses the current state of the console market and how best to manage spiralling budget costs, as well as sharing his thoughts on the rapid evolution of the social market and handheld gaming.
Q: Can you just give us a little bit of background - you're known for Marble Madness and working arcade machines, but in the 90's you shifted into home console games development, is that the easiest way to sum it up?
Mark Cerny: In the 90's I was running product development and then later on running the whole company at Universal Interactive Studios, which was Universal Studios' game group. And that's where I met Naughty Dog and Insomniac. Your readers may not know that those projects were funded by Universal Studios and marketed by Sony Computer Entertainment - Crash Bandicoot, Spyro the Dragon - came out of Universal.
It was a very small company with about nine people at Universal Interactive Studios. What happened after those huge successes is both Naughty Dog and Insomniac decided to work directly with Sony and I left Universal Studios to be a freelancer and keep working with my friends, basically. I've been freelancing ever since.
Now, ironically, I don't have any work I'm doing with them these days - the kids have grown up and left home. With Insomniac my last project was Resistance 2 and my last project with Naughty Dog was Uncharted, but I had a small role on that. My last major product with Naughty Dog was Jak & Daxter 2.
Q: And what are you working on at the moment?
Mark Cerny: I've got two large projects that are both unfortunately not announced. I work with these large teams and I do programming or design or production - different roles at any time. The ones which I can talk about - I had a small role on God of War III two years ago and small role on Killzone 3, coming out very soon.
Q: So it sounds like you've always stuck with the Sony crowd and the PlayStation brand?
Mark Cerny: Well, I am independent, but I've only once ever worked with a non-Sony client.
Q: How did that go?
Mark Cerny: The project didn't come out. But my work with Insomniac isn't for Sony. It's an independent studio but it was at the time part of the Sony universe.
Q: One of the most interesting points from your session at DICE this year was that it's now the right time to bring down spiralling development costs. Do you think it's honestly possible to reign in those budgets for triple-A console games that increase year-on-year?
Mark Cerny: Realistically speaking, it's going to be very hard. My thesis is that we have a chance, because right now for once, thank goodness, we are not in a period of rapid technology change. I've been in games for 30 years and we had a period where things were pretty calm in the late 80's after the 8-bit systems came out. You could make 10, 20 games for one console and really learn your craft.
Look at someone like Yuji Naka, he had an opportunity to do that and was banging out a game every three months over a console lifecycle. And then most recently now is the same sort of thing. Unless a new set of consoles comes out and unless they're based on real-time ray-tracing or something we're kind of done with the rapid technological change, which is great.
Q: Where do you think costs need to be stemmed?
Mark Cerny: I was talking about the actual product cost. There has been a number of highly-publicised titles that have cost $70-80 million. It is rather hard to spend that money in an efficient fashion. What typically happens when you're up in that budget range is that you are not quite sure what sort of game you're making. And so you have a seven year development period, and it changes, and your burn rate is very high because you have a large team. Those budgets can come down much more easily because there's a high degree of inefficiency built into them.
Something like God of War III is a bit trickier because that has been revealed to have cost in the neighbourhood of $40 million by the director of the studio, and to try and take something like that and reduce it is very, very tricky. It's an epic experience, it's already only a single player experience. Presumably, we see how everything is growing, these experiences grow broader in the future.
It could also be that for the top couple of games you don't have the same imperative as you do for other games. If you came out of your big budget game with $100 million profit you're probably fine in a softening market. The question is a bit more critical if you've just broken even with your costly title.
Q: Isn't there an opportunity to make sequels less expensive because there're opportunities to re-use assets, a lot of the ground work is done...?
Mark Cerny: Bad sequels should be cheaper. Good sequels require trying something new. You have the foundation, it's the springboard for something that people have never seen before. Uncharted 2 was game of the year because it added the multiplayer. It felt very fresh. If it had been the same single-player experience again it may have not seen it's Metacritic go up, it would have gone down. In my opinion it wouldn't have been game of the year.
If you look at the game it is more finely created because they understood the ruleset better. The set pieces are a lot bigger - that train scene is incredible. But also you need to do something very fresh if you want to sell a sequel and that's where the unpredictability comes in. It's not trivial to reduce you budget by any means when making a sequel.
Q: You're saying that technology has stalled in terms of consoles - how long do you think that's going to last for, how much breathing space do teams have to learn their craft further?
Mark Cerny: Well, I don't think technology has stopped, it's progressing. But it's not disruptive technology, that's my point. So PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 came out in the era of the DX9 PC. DX11, which is the standard that came out a little over a year ago on the PC side, that introduces tessellation, so you can do smooth, rounded characters and they'll stay rounded as they get closer - that's not a fundamentally disruptive technology.
We don't need to throw out all of our tool chain and rebuild it. But we did have to throw out that tool chain in the transition from the PlayStation 2 era to the PlayStation 3 because we went from vertex-based graphics to pixel-based graphics and shaders. And that transition was very, very difficult to get though.
Q: When you see technology like home 3D, the new wave of motion control, cloud services - do you think these are significant changes to the console business and console cycle?
Mark Cerny: I'm not a business man. Cloud services like OnLive and Gaikai are pure technology and pure business plays and I don't think too much about them. I'm sure I ought to.
Q: But they're new distribution methods that could allow you to reach new audiences, isn't that what you want to do as a game creator?
Mark Cerny: They reduce friction, certainly. You can be up in your game quickly. There's not a whole lot of friction in my world either. You go to Best Buy and you get Killzone 3. That seems to work rather well.
In terms of Move and Kinect and all those things, it's been an exciting year, it really has. I am so proud to be in the same room as Alex from Harmonix last night [at the AIAS Awards]. To have Dance Central ready for launch - how did they do that? I was in awe.
Q: You say console has stalled - PS4 isn't coming out next year - it seems like the growth in hardware is in mobile and tablets. Are they more important hardware shifts than what is happening now with consoles?
Mark Cerny: Well, the base hardware for consoles hasn't changed for a couple of years now, that's certainly true. iPhone and iPad are very interesting, there's an incredible variety to the games on those. But there's less depth as part of the overall economics. It's a very crowded marketplace too, it's somewhat scary.
I used to work in the arcade business where you would make your game up until the point it was indistinguishable at the start of the game to the game which was completed. You'd put it in an arcade and you'd see how many quarters it earned. You needed to make about 80 per cent of the game in order to do a playtest.
At that point at Atari we cancelled two out of three games. We're talking ten month projects, so eight months of work is gone, plus the run where you would do design and talk to hardware engineers about that you wanted to do. So you were throwing out the best part of a year on average, even the great game creators like Ed Log, who did Asteroids.
Q: That must have been heart-breaking.
Mark Cerny: That's yet another reason why I don't regret not being in the coin operated games business anymore. If you look at the iPhone and iPad experience you are taking that and raising it to the nth power. You can be a big famous game creator, and the big studios are dabbling in this too with original titles, and it just gets lost, it just gets buried under the avalanche of 10,000 other things that are coming out.
But from a businessman perspective, you can say, "I own a studio, where do I want to go with this studio?" and look at the market sectors and the opportunities and all that. But as a creator, it's a tough environment to be in to the extent that I could do a title with a reasonably nice console budget and understand we'll have traditional marketing and a traditional release - yes, I'll go for that.
Q: Do you think there're still realistic opportunities for a start-up development team to break into the console space, because even XBLA and PSN budgets have risen and the markets have become crowded?
Mark Cerny: Yes, yes there is. Because five years ago the route was this - you did portable then you did home. Portable was so small it was just you and three of your buddies making a game and if that went well you grow to do home console. Today you've got one more rung in that ladder because you can do your own iPad or iPhone game and if you want to go up from there you can go to the modern portables, which still take a significant team size.
I'm sure you saw Uncharted for NGP - that team size is analogous to a PlayStation 2 team size. You really can work your way up to the very large teams through successive successes. Those titles are smaller and you won't get funding for a large title.
Q: What's your impression of the NGP, have you had a lot of hands-on time with it? The handheld space is dominated by mobiles and tablets - is there still room for a hardcore games machine?
Mark Cerny: I think it's very exciting. I think it's great to have joysticks, that's very important. Virtual controls are harder to use than physical controls. The NGP is a combination of both and it's very, very specifically designed for the gaming experience. It should do very well on that basis. It doesn't necessarily mean hardcore, it means even a lighter game experience is going to benefit with that array of controls on it.
Q: There's also that shift in the creation of the hardware, making it a software-friendly device with developers in mind, which isn't something Sony has done before with its hardware.
Mark Cerny: Wasn't it interesting how the event in Tokyo was all about the games and not about the underlying technology? I don't think they said what was in that chassis. That would not have been the case five years ago.
Q: Do you think the console space is still an aspirational place for budding game designers? Those that have grown up with digital services and formats and aren't as enamoured with physical media as the older designer is?
Mark Cerny: You're not going to get a 50GB download, and that's what these games are. A dual-layer Blu-ray disc - you're not getting that through a thin internet connection. Physical media exists for a reason.
As far as the new creators go, there's a lot of pride there and it's justified too. It's a completely different paradigm. These guys are not trying to make, bad, cheap console games, they are trying to make a very different kind of product. It's going to be interesting. Luckily I don't have to worry about too much of any of this, so long as I have enough gigs to fill 2000 hours a year, that's good.
Q: You briefly mentioned the pressure to monetise social games and compared it to an arcade machine, where the unit sits in the corner and makes its money back in 25 cent increments.
Mark Cerny: Emotionally I've been to the ninth circle of monetisation hell. I've had such a great time in consumer games because the products stay sold. We didn't have marketing back then. Now once the game is sold my responsibility is done. The economic picture might change enough that I can't quite live in this happy world 100 per cent of the time anymore. I'm a little bit afraid for David Cage and Quantic Dream. If in-game currency becomes a must - I don't think it will - I just don't see how it works with a neo-noir immersive world. I think physical media is a must. I'm suspicious of episodic content. Somehow it's difficult to get people into that mode.
What I see with the socialisation and Facebook games is the pace of evolution is so rapid in those games I would hesitate to draw any conclusions about what they are. You can see the transitions from FarmVille to CityVille to FrontierVille in no time at all. You extrapolate that out to three years from now, what's it going to be? Probably a darn site more interesting than our world was. There's another component to it as well - currently the technology that's driving these games is quite primitive. On the one side you have consoles which are engineered for smooth interactivity, high refresh rates, with dedicated optimised hardware. And then the Facebook games are of course running in an environment that was originally designed to send photos and messages. I have to believe that evolution of theses games at some point brings in significant action components as the technology improves. That is when it starts to get really interesting because that's when the two sides can come together.
Q: I wonder if by going technology heavy or too console-y you put off the original social consumer...
Mark Cerny: Well, let's talk about videogames. Videogames didn't start out as very complex devices. The Atari 2600 had a joystick and one button. Year-on-year that's increased for a pretty-much unbroken 35 years now, and currently, if you look at consoles these big games are 16 button games and certainly that creates a barrier to entry for a broader consumer. I believe people love action. The difficulty comes when you aren't a core gamer and you pick up a controller with 16 buttons and have to do actions with it.
Mark Cerny is CEO of Cerny Games. Interview by Matt Martin.