78 Interviews

The Architect: Mark Cerny on building PS4

By Rob Crossley on Monday 15th Jul 2013 at 9:44 AM UTC

There was something about Mark Cerny that I couldn't put my finger on.

It wasn't that wild stare of his; that piercing gaze through eyes that have swelled and sagged from three decades of work in games development. It wasn't his voice either; that peculiar flow of forced-relaxed tones, like a polite waiter trying to remain patient with a terrible customer.

These things I was prepared for. And I was told, by Sony developers who have worked with him personally, that this is a man with a towering intellect and indecipherable knowledge of games and games systems - traits that one would expect of someone tasked with creating the brain and nervous system of PlayStation 4.

But there was something else, something that felt out of place when we spoke for our fleeting half-hour. It was only after our meeting, when listening through the recording, that it hit me: Mark Cerny doesn't umm or ahh. Instead he completely shuts down, for several awkward seconds, before returning to life with a perfectly formed answer.


In one hundred years' time, Apple's Siri will sound like Mark Cerny.

Perhaps I should have expected this too. After all, Cerny has meticulously assembled the PlayStation 4 for more than half a decade. His knowledge of Sony's next-generation console is unrivalled; it is an understanding that has come from every decision he's made and every memory of that decision. That's why there are no umms or ahhs; the answers are already inside him. He freezes, he recollects, and he returns to life with the answer.

"There were two goals with PS4. The first is building the most accessible console we can, because the easiest games console to develop for will get you the best games in year one," he says.

"At the moment there are 140 games in development for PS4. We have the strongest line-up of any PlayStation platform, and that's what accessibility will do for you. I've read articles where indie developers say they have been able to port their code to PS4 within four weeks. And I've read articles where major triple-A developers say they've been able to port their games over in two months."

"The user experience is that, when you play a game, you feel like you're on an adventure with your real-world friends"

There's no need to look far for this kind of glowing testimony. In March, games industry publication Develop asked a panel of industry professionals to describe their experiences developing on PS4. Avalanche's chief technical officer Linus Blomberg said "compared to the PS3 it's a walk in the park". Codemasters producer Clive Moody said the console was "workable straight away". Climax Studios chief executive Simon Gardner said "it's much easier to develop for - the tool chain is an advancement over the PS3 and everything about it is slicker, simpler and much more developer friendly".

To describe such an achievement, I prefer the immortal words of Woody Guthrie: "Any fool can make something complicated. It takes a genius to make it simple."

Cerny clearly has the eccentricity of a genius. He is somewhat difficult to talk to, and he has a poor tolerance of the imperfections in what other people are saying. On the other hand, he also discovered that an eight-core PC-CPU with eight gigabytes of unified GDDR5 memory was an exceptionally smart way to simplify games development. If the PS3 was an Escher painting, the PS4 is a diagram of a stairwell.

But, he adds, there was always a second part to his master plan.

"So accessibility is very important, but at the same time the hardware needs to grow over time. Games and teams evolve and so the hardware needs to be there with them. So the second goal was that we need a rich feature set that isn't being used by most of the year-one titles. That is, technology that will be discovered and used in 2016 and 2017.

"With PlayStation 4 we focused on all of the ways that developers could use the GPU for things other than graphics. Now, that doesn't mean worse graphics. What we noticed was, over the course of a single frame, there are many things going on in a GPU but there are some things not being used at all, so that is a wonderful time to use it for other processes."

Sculpting a balance between short-term accessibility and long-term potential was, in part, the result of a painstaking consultation period with the most respected games developers around the world.

"I haven't been this busy in twenty years," Cerny says.

"I've learned patience. When making hardware, there are really important issues that you will need to discuss for two, even three years. So to address these issues you're having a long-term conversation with the development community."

"We are looking for those stars, those brilliant minds of this generation, and we want to bring their games to the front and centre"

There is a rumour about Cerny I was told before meeting him. Apparently he has spent a whole year out of the past five in hotels. For the good of the cause, he has stayed away from home and travelled the world to talk with the people who will ultimately need to use his hardware each time they come into work.

"I spend about half of all my time on the road," Cerny says.

"But I don't think there is any other way to do this. When I speak to the development community about their issues, it's not something they can answer easily.

"The developers who I spent the most time with are the guys who booed me when I gave them a presentation [on PS4]. That is what you want. You want very strong feedback from people who can tell you what they really think. It's very, very difficult to get to those answers."

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