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Mark Cerny: When making consoles, we're not trying to build low-cost PCs

From arcades to architect, the development legend discusses his 42-year career, PS5 surprises and the job of building games consoles

Mark Cerny has just added something to his growing list of achievements.

I'm not talking about the global success of last year's Spider-Man 2, on which Cerny worked as executive producer. But something, in many ways, just as impressive.

"I just finished playing Animal Well, and before that and I was very heavily into Neon White, which is my first speedrun," he says.

"I actually platinumed that. That was a real challenge. I wasn't sure if I could do it, because reflexes as I head towards 60 are very different from the reflexes I had when I was a teenager and playing in the arcades. But I am glad I went after it. The precision and stamina that you need to get through a game like that is different in the way it feels, compared with these character action games like Spider-Man that I've been working on."

Cerny is explaining to us that despite his current role as the architect behind PlayStation hardware, what he finds interesting about a game isn't necessarily what it's doing technically, but rather what's new about it. In fact, for all the different roles that Cerny has had in his 42-year games industry career, the one he's never stopped doing is that of 'gamer'.

"I continue to be a massive player," he tells us. "I got into this 40-something years ago because I was an arcade addict.

"Back in the day, I was one of the best players in the country at Defender. That's actually how I got my job at Atari. There was a reporter who was writing a book on arcade games strategies. We're talking about an era so distant that there weren't even games magazines. So if you wanted to learn arcade game strategy, you would go to the supermarket and at the checkout there would be a book that you could buy that would tell you how to play whatever game. And he interviewed me for Defender because I was a well-known local player. I bumped into him later, I told him I wanted to get into the business, and he very kindly called Atari Coin-Op and got me an interview, and the rest is history."

Cerny's career has taken him from designing and programming games like Marble Madness and Major Havoc in the 1980s, to producing and developing iconic platform games such as Sonic The Hedgehog 2, Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon in the 1990s, to today, where's he's led the creation of the PlayStation 4 and 5 hardware. There are not a whole lot of game leaders who have been able to stay on top for over four decades, and Cerny believes that variety has been key to this longevity.

"The industry has certainly changed a lot in the last 40-something years, and one thing I've noticed is that the people who are very actively participating after that amount of time tend to have done a lot of things," he says. "[Game developer] Amy Hennig and I talk about this a lot. In her case, she's been a writer, an animator, an artist, a director, and I'm sure a few other things. For me, because I'm much more technical, it’s been programmer, designer, producer, executive producer – which is a bit different – I've run a small publisher, I've been a game director, and then of course there's the hardware work today."

He adds: "One way I look at it, if you want to have an interesting career in games, don't do one thing. You really don't want to be the physics programmer, because then you end up being, after a couple of years, perhaps just the programmer who integrates the physics middleware package. This is nothing against physics programmers, some of whom are incredible. But if you have a very specific niche, my feeling is that, after a few decades, you're probably not doing as interesting a set of things as you would if you had kept evolving your role."

"It's not bittersweet at all to say that instead of creating games, I've chosen to support the creation of the games"

Of course, when Cerny was starting out, games developers didn't really have roles.

"When I joined Atari in 1982 there was one job, and it was a hybrid of programmer, designer and artist," he explains. "You even had to make your own artwork. There were about 15 of us programmer/designer/artists, and so Atari Coin-Op was making 15 games. That was how it was. We didn't see any real specialisation until the 1990s."

Cerny still does multiple things, but to the current generation of gamers, he's probably best known as the lead architect behind PlayStation 4 and 5.

We're roughly at the mid-way point in the PS5's lifecycle, and so we wanted to ask if there's anything developers have been doing with the hardware that has surprised him.

"I have been very surprised by the degree to which developers are using ray-tracing," he begins. "Putting that in, that was a big decision and actually a rather late one. I thought that this is not going to get much use initially, but if we look at generations, and a generation is seven years or so, software is created for ten years, and so later in the lifecycle we will start seeing people using that technology. But instead we had launch titles that were taking advantage of it. I guess, having worked on games for consoles that were a bit difficult to get into, like the PlayStation 3, I can be a little skittish about very deep technology like that. But in this case, my guess as to how things would go was totally wrong. And I am so happy to have seen the early adoption of the technology.

"The other thing that has been surprising is the push to 60 frames per second. Based on previous console lifecycles, I would have expected there to be a lot more games that are 30 frames per second only, just because the artwork can be so much more detailed if you have longer time to render it. Instead, the almost universal rule this time around has been the games run at 60.

"It's great from a play perspective. Gamers overwhelmingly prefer games that are higher frame rates. I just didn't expect such a departure from previous generations."

Cerny was executive producer for Marvel's Spider-Man 2, one of the fastest-selling games in PlayStation history

Cerny says building a console takes about four years, and nowadays that's less time than it takes to make some of the big AAA titles. There is a lot of focus right now on the time it takes to build these games, and Cerny says that, ultimately, it's the developers that have chosen this path.

"With the consoles, one thing I've been trying to do is reduce the amount of time it takes [developers] to get going with their games. I call this 'time to triangle'. All that means is that if I just want to get a triangle up on the screen, how long does it take to build the engine technology that will allow me to do that? That might not sound very difficult. The first PlayStation you could maybe do that in a month, but the consoles got so complex that by PlayStation 3 that was taking probably six months to a year. So I've been working to bring that down. PlayStation 4 and 5 are much quicker. It takes a month or two before you have those fundamental graphics technologies up and running on [those systems].

"I probably shouldn't, but I spend a lot of time on the boards. And I see people asking… if the time to triangle has been greatly reduced, why is it then taking so many years to create a game? And the answer is that is what the teams are choosing to do. They are going after these massive creations that really do need four or six years to put together."

"If you want to have an interesting career in games, don't do one thing... After a few decades, you're probably not doing as interesting a set of things as you would if you had kept evolving your role"

Another shift in the development landscape is around multiplatform games. Developers are increasingly building their projects for as many platforms as possible. Even PlayStation has been bringing its games to PC (albeit a few years after the console version). The issue is that consoles often have bespoke technologies in them, and if developers use these technologies, it might hinder their ability to port the game elsewhere. Cerny admits his team is aware of this challenge, but actually it's an opportunity for them to lead.

“One of the exciting aspects of console hardware design is that we have freedom with regards to what we put in the console," Cerny begins. "Or to put that differently, we’re not trying to build a low-cost PC, and we aren’t bound by any particular standards. So if we have a brainstorm that audio can become much more immersive and dimensional if there’s a dedicated unit that’s capable of complex math, then we can do that. Or if the future feels like high-speed SSDs rather than HDDs, we can put an end-to-end system in the console – everything from the flash dies to the software interfaces that the game creators use – and get 100% adoption.

"I like to think that occasionally we’re even showing the way for the larger industry, and that our efforts end up benefiting those gaming on PC as well. It’s a tech-heavy example, but on PS4 we had very efficient GPU interfaces, and that may well have spurred DirectX to become more efficient in response. Or to look at something more consumer-focused, I believe that releasing PS5 in 2020 with a very high-performance integrated SSD put pressure on the PC world to get their corresponding DirectStorage API into the hands of their gamers.

"There’s a recent development here, which is console exclusives that were created to run on bespoke PlayStation systems are now making their way to PC. That conversion has been simpler than many thought. The main consequence is that the minimum spec for the PC version of the game gets a bit higher, perhaps more CPUs or more RAM, in order to replace the missing systems.”

If you've picked up an apple in Crash Bandicoot 2, chances are Cerny put it there

Not only can gamers now play PlayStation games on PC, but they can also use PlayStation hardware, including the DualSense and PlayStation VR 2. Meanwhile, on the other end, we're increasingly seeing AAA developers getting a version of their games running on mobile. The lines between platforms seem to be blurring, but Cerny feels consoles continue to play a crucial role in the ecosystem.

He points to an amusing video by Linus Tech Tips, which attempted to 'kill' the PlayStation 5 by building a $500 gaming PC that outperformed the console.

"They had to get a used motherboard," he says. "That was the only way that they could build a PlayStation 5 equivalent for a PlayStation 5 price. And if you're using used parts… well you can get a used PlayStation 5 for eBay for $300-something.

"I think as long as we continue to create that very nice package, the future of consoles is pretty bright."

Cerny turns 60 this year, and it's at moments like this when one might look back on where they've been. He says he tries not to get nostalgic, but if there are days he looks back on with fondness, "it's probably back to the days when a single designer could lay out a third of a game, half of a game or even an entire game."

"As long as we continue to create that very nice package, the future of consoles is pretty bright"

He explains: "I am not talking about what we would call today an indie game, but what we would have called a AAA game back in those days. Something like Crash Bandicoot 2, where if you are running down the path and there's an apple that you picked up, odds are I was the one that put it there."

Since the days of Atari, Cerny has been – step-by-step – moving away from pure game creation to more of a support role. And although that might be a shame, it does afford him the ability to work with a variety of developers on all sorts of projects.

"I see incredible games getting made," he says. "It's not bittersweet at all to say that instead of creating games, I've chosen to support the creation of the games. Because there is really good work being done."

With a big birthday on the horizon, the question of retirement inevitably comes up.

"It is something that's a bit on my mind," he admits, "but I do believe I have a bit of time left in this industry."

I suspect a few people reading this would have hoped to have heard a definitive: 'Retire? Never!'.

"Well, Clint Eastwood is a pretty good role model," he concludes.

"At least the part where he's still directing movies at age 90-something, not the part where he started a movie with a chimpanzee."

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Christopher Dring avatar
Christopher Dring: Chris is a 17-year media veteran specialising in the business of video games. And, erm, Doctor Who
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