He built arcade classic Marble Madness. He produced Sonic 2. He brought Crash and Spyro to market. Oh, and his PS4 design reignited passions for Sony. MCV meets Mark Cerny
These days Mark Cerny doesn’t get booed.
Whether he is unveiling Sony’s next-gen console in New York, or recounting his highlight-packed career at a Develop Conference in Brighton keynote, his presence is met with universal applause.
But a few years ago he wasn’t getting cheered. Far from it.
Instead he was facing down angry coders, whom he had visited to get a feel on what they wanted from PS4, listening to very direct feedback. Tensions ran high in the wake of the PS3, so developers wanted their thoughts heard – and they were bellowing them at Cerny.
Meet him in the flesh and you understand that this is a situation Cerny would thrive in, unlike many of us. He has more brainpower than anyone else in the room. If he’s a high-end games console, the rest of us are can openers. He’s not ashamed (or boastful) of that. When he talks of needing to “speak the same language” as the world’s most proficient game engineers, it’s because that is a matter of fact.
He seems less assured when faced with journalists. Before interviewing him MCV had been warned by a peer that his manner was not usual. He’s so contemplative there are big pauses in the conversation. He can be direct and pointed, giving short answers when there’s little to say.
“You’ll know when you’ve asked the wrong question,” I was told.
Some will see this as extreme media weariness. Or worse, arrogance. But the truth is that Cerny is a rare thing: a games industry figure who hasn’t had media training drum the personality out him. Or drum a fake one into him.
Later he explains to us his real concern is being quoted too extensively.
“So how is this going to be presented?” he asks 30 minutes into our chat about his work.
“Will you write a long transcript, or will you curate it with occasional bite-sized quotes from me where I’m just there for high notes?” he asks, hopefully.
It’s not a request. “Because I see those pieces that are blocks of text answers… And I think ‘What?!’ Plus I tend to ramble and repeat myself.”
Turns out the smartest guy in the room is worried about the same thing as the rest of us: looking like an idiot.
THE PS4 EPIPHANY
And Mark Cerny is no idiot. In fact, just glance at his CV (we've a brief version at the bottom of this page) and you see a shrewd polymath.
He’s managed to get very far without becoming an ‘executive’. He manages no employees and reports to no division. “I don’t even work for Sony.” It’s part-joke, but all-truth.
Technically he’s a SCE consultant, on loan from his outfit Cerny Games. But it’s been a long residency. No SCE boss would let him wander off given his canny ability to just make things happen.
Plus he’s irritatingly right about this piece. Why focus on his quotes when his work and actions say it all?
Two key examples highlight this.
The first comes from the mid ‘90s. Early in the life of PlayStation, Sony refused to send devkits to studios outside Japan. Cerny, then working for Crystal Dynamics, wouldn’t take no for an answer and visited its Tokyo HQ in person. It was this that brokered the deal for the first machine in the US.
Fast forward ten years, and Cerny is parachuted in to Tokyo to work on the hard-to-program PS3. He’d go on to build software that would buy a year’s progress for developers struggling with Sony’s awkward console.
This ten-year stretch led to what he calls the PS4 “epiphany”.
Seeing first hand what Sony had done wrong for so long, he had a vision for the new console. He knew what it had to be technically, he convinced SCE execs to give it the thumbs up, and he identified the person to make it: himself.
“They hadn’t put a PS4 team together, so I started thinking what the CV would be like for the project leader… then I looked at my CV.”
The perfect console designer was the unlikely-sounding ‘Bilingual game developer with designer, engine and generalist coding experience plus exec producer credits on multi-million dollar hits. Must be willing to travel.’
Unlikely… unless you are Cerny, who started his career on arcade machines at Atari, and then an engineer at Sega living in Japan before working at Universal Interactive, devising PlayStation icons Crash and Spyro.
Convenient? Without prompting, he says an outsider inventing a role for themselves at a hierarchy-heavy firm “did seem a little aggressive”.
Then there’s one of those pauses.
But that’s the closest he gets to being scandalous. Everything else is benchmark Japanese-style diplomacy. He calls developers’ highly charged PS3 emotions as “involved”, even though he travelled the world inciting such reactions to get to the kernel of what PS4 had to be.
The problem is, Cerny says, people aren’t always honest when you ask for feedback: “You are asking them about the things that never would have been asked before in the history of Sony,” he says.
“The first response you get if you are asked that question is to be very nice. Developers will say what they think you want to hear to foster the Sony relationship, and it doesn’t actually help. So I found that the studios I would visit the most were where I’d have a group of people on the other side of the table with very strong opinions. I was actively seeking out developers who would put me through the wringer.”
A NEW GENERATION
With the PS4 design decided, Cerny’s priority now is to prove out the machine by building one of its launch games, Knack. It’s developed at PlayStation’s Japan Studio, and Cerny is creative director. His big idea for the game is to focus making something that is inclusive to players of all experience levels.
“There is a skill gap between light or beginner players versus those who play triple-A console games,” he says, pointing out how anyone can play Fruit Ninja, but a DualShock controller can alienate. He’d be the first to point out this is hardly an original insight, but he might be the first to solve it.
In the five years since Cerny started on the PS4, the iPhone and App Store has redefined how many people access games. It’s surely no coincidence that his first game addresses that.
“I want to build an on-ramp that looks like a ‘console game’,” he explains. “Knack is a story driven adventure. It has gameplay which, when you turn it up to hard, satisfies hardcore gamers. But at the same time on easy it can be enjoyed by my eight-year-old nephew who doesn’t play console games.”
The game, he reckons, could easily be someone’s very first console game.
Given his track record in eliciting change at even the most dyed-in-the-wool organisation, it’s hard not to believe he will at least build what he says he will.
To many he has rescued PlayStation, but bridging the gap between the vast audience of smartphone gamers that are eroding the console audience would be Mark Cerny’s biggest achievement.
“I look at the world, and I see two billion people enjoying games on a smartphone, and then a few hundred thousand enjoying games on console. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could bring that larger audience into consoles?”
If he fixes that, it’s likely he’ll never get booed again.
BIOGRAPHY: MARK CERNY
Name: Mark Cerny
Lead Architect, PlayStation 4 & Creative Director of Knack, Japan Studio
1982 – 1985: Atari (Programmer, Designer)
1985 – 1992: Sega (Programmer, Designer, Producer)
1993 – 1994: Crystal Dynamics (Programmer, Designer)
1994 – 1998: Universal Interactive (VP, President, Producer)
1998 – Present: Cerny Games (President, consultant to SCE)
Games worked on include:
Marble Madness, Sonic The Hedgehog 2, Crash Bandicoot, Spyro the Dragon, Jak & Daxter, Ratchet & Clank, Uncharted, Knack