President of Cerny Games
Q: You’ve held a number of different positions in the game design industry. Can you tell us about what kind of work you do?
A: I started my career as a programmer at Atari in 1982, during the golden age of the arcades. When the arcade boom ended, I shifted over to the console games, where I’ve been ever since. Games keep evolving, and I find it very enjoyable to take on new challenges; over the last 37 years I’ve done anything from producing games, to designing them, to running a small games publisher. Probably the most exotic work I’ve done is console hardware design; I was responsible for the chips and bytes behind a few of Sony Interactive Entertainment’s consoles, including PlayStation 4.
Q: Is there a particularly exciting project that you’re working on now?
A: For recent work, the most exciting project has been Marvel’s Spider-Man for PS4, which released last year. I hear it is now the best-selling superhero game of all time! I certainly wasn’t the driving force behind the game, that would be the game director and creative director, but I did my best over the four-year development to provide a set of clear eyes on the gameplay and story as they evolved.
Q: What’s the process for creating a complex game like Spider-Man?
A: Creating gameplay is a very iterative process, it’s difficult to tell a priori what’s going to be interesting and what’s not, so essentially you start by getting something running quickly, play it, see if it’s fun, see if it feels like Spider-Man, and build from there. That iteration will go on for years. Later on, there’s extensive playtesting where we bring in consumers and have them play and give feedback. Also, you need a lot of art assets for a game like Spider-Man. For example, the team had to build a digital version of Manhattan suitable for web-slinging. This was quite a task, we actually ended up with more buildings in the digital version of Manhattan than there are in the real Manhattan.
Q: What continues to keep you passionate about the work you do every day?
A: Well, gamers are very passionate people, so it makes it easy for me to be passionate about my work. The intensity and commitment of gamers are visible in many, many places. For example, you can see it in fandom, where millions of fans have fueled the esports boom, or follow professional streamers of games like Fortnite. Or you can see it in creativity such as cosplay, or the fantastic creations that gamers make in Super Mario Maker, Minecraft, or LittleBigPlanet. I’m just thrilled to be an enabler of some of this through my hardware work.
Q: How does console hardware design differ from
A: Everything comes together when you’re trying to design a console; it helps to understand the design process, the production process, the toolchain, and how game developers approach the creation of games. In a sense it’s like reliving my career and all the various jobs I’ve done over the years.
Q: You must get asked to play and review a lot of games for others, but what do you like to play for yourself?
A: I love big, story driven games. Unfortunately, they easily can take 20 or 30 hours to complete, so I’m literally years behind! It’s also nice to play much smaller games as well. I love puzzle titles that really make you think. There’s also a genre that I’m very fond of that’s sometimes semi-jokingly referred to as “walking simulators.” These can be thought of as the distant descendants of the text adventures of the 70s and 80s; they’re narrative driven but much lower key than most titles, some have no action elements whatsoever. At the same time, they commonly have a very strong environmental basis, and I find it easy to become totally absorbed in the world of the game.
Q: Did you have an interest in video games when you were a student at College Prep?
A: When I attended CPS, video games still hadn’t evolved much since Pong, so they really didn’t capture my imagination. I spent a lot of time reading, mostly fantasy and science fiction. I played paper RPGs like the original Dungeons and Dragons. I did a certain amount of hobbyist programming, though at that point in time the Apple II had not yet arrived; it was still the era of bulky and difficult to use computers that ran off of punched cards. By my junior year there were some more sophisticated games such as Space Invaders that did capture my interest. From that point on I was spending time at the arcades whenever possible, and developed some pretty good skills at Asteroids, Missile Command, Tempest, and the like.
Q: What inspired you to try designing a game of your own when you were a student?
A: I’d kept on programming as a hobby, and paper RPGs continued to interest me, so about this time my brother [Keith Cerny ’78] and I embarked on a very ambitious plan to create a 3-D story-driven action RPG on one of the more sophisticated computers at a nearby university. In retrospect, what we were attempting to create was clearly impossible. It wasn’t until two decades later, with Final Fantasy VII, that something like we were envisioning was released. And that game took about 30 full time professionals many years to create, and required much more advanced technologies than were available in the 1970s! Impossible or not, the hobby project was a huge help when I went looking for a job. I think without that I would never have been hired at Atari, and I doubt I’d have a career in video games today.
Q: Looking back on your time at College Prep, what sticks with you today?
A: The most striking thing was the freedom that I had to follow my individual interests, which for me was mathematics and physics. After I finished the CPS math curriculum the faculty were able to clear out two afternoons a week for me, and I continued my studies in these areas at UC Berkeley. The result was that when I graduated CPS and entered UC Berkeley full time, I jumped straight into the third-year college courses. I’m so grateful to have not only been permitted to do this, but encouraged to do it! Thank you, CPS.
Q: Do you have any advice you’d give to students here now at College Prep as they look ahead to their next steps out of high school?
A: While many find their dream jobs or dream field of work later in life, those who know it early have a significant advantage; they can be developing skills from their teenage years if not earlier. A bit of time spent thinking now about what might be interesting to do later in life is well worth it. Also, I feel the world has changed quite a bit in that the barrier to entry to many fields are much lower than they’ve ever been before. To make an arcade game in 1982 required hundreds of thousands of dollars of specialized equipment, but today if you’re interested in making a game for smartphone or PC there are sophisticated toolkits available for free!