Many would have never imagined to see an American like Mark Cerny as the Lead Architect of a Japanese platform like the PS4, but his presence at the helm of the team determined a radical change in direction from the previous console generations.
While speaking at a conference during GameLab 2013 in Barcelona, Cerny explained how he spent his November Holiday in 2007 researching the history of the x86 architecture after Sony started to think about the PS4. When he determined that the evolution of the technology got to a point that allowed it to be used in a console, he started realizing that he could be the right man for the job:
I started thinking: I just sacrificed my holiday to investigate some philosophical points for a console that I’m not really assigned to be working on, and that won’t be released for five years. That’s passion…That’s enthusiasm. Maybe I should consider working on this project more deeply.
Then he considered his skill set: He had been a designer and a general programmer at Atari, he had learned Japanese “In order to survive” (as he himself said) when he was working at Sega, he then became engine programmer at Crystal Dynamics and producer and executive producer at Universal Interactive Studios. He was also willing and able to travel. He suddenly began to believe that he had the experience and expertise to make a larger contribution to the PS4. He knew that whoever left the next generation at Sony had to possess most if not all of those skills and experiences.
He knew that pitching himself for the position of lead architect for the PS4 was audacious, but he decided to try anyway:
I went to Shuhei Yoshida and I pitched him on the idea that I would be Lead Architect on PlayStation 4, and I asked him if he thought this would be possible. To my amazement Shu said “Yes”. So I went to the Worldwide Studios head at that time, who also agreed. So I went to Masa Chitani who was the CTO of Sony Computer Entertainment at the time, and to my amazement Masa agreed. He said “Yes” but, I would have to leave The Worldwide Studios and work through Sony Computer Entertainment Headquarters instead, because that’s of course where the hardware project would be located.
He continued specifying that he wasn’t really leaving the Worldwide Studios, as he really had never been a member. He always had been a consultant through his own company Cerny Games, and it was the same when he started working at SCE’s headquarters.
I had no formal responsibility whatsoever, because I was not part of company management, I was not even a company employee. If you contrast my position with that of Ken Kutaragi who was both chairman of Sony Computer Entertainment and the hardware visionary, he had complete responsibility, not just for the hardware, but for all aspects of the company.
But I think, in the long run, my lack of formal status had great benefits both to me and to SCE. As a consultant I manage no employees, I’m not responsible for budgets, I don’t give presentations to other divisions of Sony, I don’t track progress versus milestones, I don’t negotiate contracts, I’m free to think about where we need to be in five years, and work with the appropriate groups inside and outside of the company to make that happen.
In some ways, it’s a bit like being a director on a game title. And certainly there are many programmers and artists and designers on the title. But they report to managers, not to the director. And there’s also a budget that it has to be tracked when you make a game, but that’s managed by the producer, not by the director. The director’s role is to shape the shared vision and communicate it to the team.
It turned out that Cerny’s presence dictated some radical new principles that became the foundation of the upcoming console, kicking out of the door traditions made of Japanese monopoly, locked and bolted rooms, predominance of hardware over software, and complete alienation of third parties.
At any rate at the beginning of 2008 the development of PlayStation 4 began in earnest and we followed the new principles: the chief architect was an American…that’s pretty international, we immediately began frank and open conversations with some of the game teams, and we kicked off the software and the tools effort pretty much simultaneously with the hardware.
Cerny’s team even managed to involve the third parties, even if it was tricky, as involving other companies several years before the release of the hardware felt like a tremendous distraction. Sony created a questionnaire presented to the third parties, asking for what they’d like to see in a next generation console, receiving answers that would help shaping the future PlayStation 4 further towards what it is now. Cerny talked with more than thirty teams in the US, Europe and Japan that gave him further pointers that were not what he thought they would have been.
The number one piece of feedback was that they wanted a system with unified memory. That means just one pool of high speed memory, not the two that are found on PC or on PS3. We also learned that the proper CPU count was four or eight, and if we had the money to spend, we should have invested in a very powerful GPU.
The final piece of feedback we received was that they didn’t want exotica. If there was for example out there a GPU that could do real time Ray Tracing, they did not want it in PlayStation 4. Certainly that would be fascinating technology, but it would require game teams to take several years and throw out all their existing graphics technology and rebuild it from scratch to use that exotic GPU.
With such a radical change in philosophy between the creation of the PS4 and the engineering of its three predecessors, we’ll have wait and see if Mark Cerny’s bet will prove a winning one, but he sure can make a strong case for the decision he took. He managed to persuade a monolithic corporation like Sony. Will he manage to persuade the customers with the results of his work?