In 1982, aged 17, Mark Cerny quit university in his native California to work as a designer and programmer for the era's most important games company, Atari. By 1984, he had created his first hit game, Marble Madness. By 1985, he had moved to Japan to work with gaming's rising giant, Sega, where he worked on both games and the cutting edge of console design – a combination that saw him leave in the 1990s to develop for one of the world's first CD-based consoles, the 3DO Interactive Multiplayer.
The 3DO failed to take off – but by 1994 Cerny had become one of the first non-Japanese developers to work on Sony's new PlayStation, and a major player in Sony's success. His games Crash Bandicoot (1996), Spyro the Dragon (1998) and their sequels sold over 30 million copies. Cerny founded his own consultancy in 1998, and has since helped produce, programme and design a gamut of key titles for three generations of PlayStations.
Perhaps his most important work of all, though, is only just coming to fruition: the PlayStation 4, the hardware on which many of Sony's hopes for this decade rest. Since 2008, Cerny has worked as the machine's lead system architect – a job he himself pitched to Sony Computer Entertainment's senior management – as well as directing the development of one of its key launch titles, Knack.
Due for release later this year, the PlayStation 4 is the latest contender in a three-way war between Sony, Nintendo (whose Wii U appeared late last year, to mixed reviews) and Microsoft, whose Xbox One – due in November – is the new PlayStation's most direct competition.
Where once raw graphical and processing power were the staples of console wars, however, 2013 is an age of software ecosystems and social networks; of machines that must woo developers as well as players, and compete with smartphones and tablets. As Cerny put it to me when I interviewed him in July at Sony Entertainment's London headquarters, his task has been to build something potent yet accessible – "where developers can quickly get going on their games, and really can focus more on the vision of the game than the minutiae of the hardware".
This is markedly different from the console's predecessor, the PlayStation 3, renowned as a tricky machine to programme. The PlayStation 4 boasts what Cerny calls a "supercharged PC architecture": a powerful but fundamentally familiar set-up that will provide a "stable target" for developers to explore in coming years.
It's a design that is of a piece with Cerny's larger hopes for the console. "Today," he noted, "there are very many places that people can play games. Historically, that hasn't been true. If you go back to the early 1990s, the killer app for [Nintendo's] Game Boy was Tetris. Thirty million Tetris cartridges were sold. That is a testament to how few options you had in those days if you wanted to play a game. Well, today you can play a game just about anywhere: your PC, your tablet, your phone, your console."
In 2006, when the PlayStation 3 appeared, there was no such thing as an iPhone. Today, there are more smartphones in the world than games consoles have ever been sold – while personal, portable devices are overtaking desktops and televisions as the primary screens in many lives. For some, this makes consoles themselves seem distinctly old-fashioned.
For Cerny, though, it's an opportunity to engage millions of people who enjoy digital play yet don't see themselves as gamers. "A billion or two billion people are playing games… The key to selling [millions of consoles] will be bringing the larger game-playing audience into the console world."
This means doing more in every sense – while maintaining a delicate balance between pleasing established users and wooing new ones. Microsoft's unveiling of the Xbox One was slated by some for overemphasising the console's television and multimedia capabilities, while Sony has won plaudits for its emphasis on games coming first. The question, though, is whether either can claim to be indispensable at a time when so much else is so accessibly on offer.
One bridge between old and new approaches is what Cerny calls "companion applications", which will ensure that "playing the game isn't strictly restricted to your time in front of the TV set. We have a companion application that lets you stay in touch with the world of PlayStation no matter where you are, and then a lot of the developers are creating very specific companion applications that can act as a second screen."
Then there's the business of winning new users. "I started playing games in the era of the Atari 2600, which had one button. I had 30 years to get used to the increase in complexity of games as they evolved. But now it's much more about somebody playing on their iPhone or tablet… there is a gap between that skillset and that skillset that is required for a triple-A [big-budget] game, where the controller has 16 or so buttons on it, and the game uses almost all of them."
During Cerny's development of his own launch title for the PS4, Knack, "one thing we looked at was children and their ability to play. Part of the issue is not the control scheme, it's simply the size of the controller. So we ultimately ended up making a giant controller [for testing]" – a double-sized hunk of clear plastic he promptly produces for me to handle.
In all this, Cerny remains inspired by gaming's roots in small teams working to realise original ideas. "As an industry, we got off track in the 1990s… we had this belief that making a game was about making graphical assets and sounds, and putting them all together, and when they were all together it was done."
Players themselves were neglected. Driven by budgets and milestones, console gaming bogged itself down in sound and fury.
Last week Cerny gave a keynote speech at the Develop conference in Brighton. He closed by calling for a "renaissance of gaming": for a diversity of developers able to create games they believe in, on a platform offering both core gaming and experiences beyond those conventionally defined by consoles. It's a tall order to deliver. But, if Sony can pull it off, it might just make the PlayStation 4 unmissable.
Tom Chatfield is a British writer and commentator. His latest book is 'Netymology: A Linguistic Celebration of the Digital World' (Quercus)
Games boy: Cerny's console history
Cerny grew up playing on the Atari 2600 in the 1970s before joining the company in 1982.
3DO Interactive Multiplayer
Cerny left Sega to work on one of the first CD-based consoles, which went on to sell 2m units.
In 1994 Cerny became one of the first non-Japanese designers to work on the first PlayStation.
After 31 years in the industry, Cerny is the lead system architect on the new PlayStation 4, which is due out later this year.
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