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Mark Cerny

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.

GamesIndustry.biz 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.

GamesIndustry.biz 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.

GamesIndustry.biz 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.

GamesIndustry.biz 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.

GamesIndustry.biz 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.

GamesIndustry.biz 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.

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Matt Martin

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Matt Martin joined GamesIndustry in 2006 and was made editor of the site in 2008. With over ten years experience in journalism, he has written for multiple trade, consumer, contract and business-to-business publications in the games, retail and technology sectors.

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