Get to Know Your Next Gen: The Legacy of Mark Cerny

The daddy of the Playstation 4 has been in the industry since the Atari days.
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On February 20th, 2013 Mark Cerny took the stage at a Sony press event to announce the Playstation 4 to the world. Almost 31 years ago to the day on January 18th, 1982 he joined Atari as employee number 16,000; he was 17 years old at the time.

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The thing you should know about the lead architect of the Playstation 4 is that he’s Doogie Howser, M.D. Cerny was taking college classes by the time he was 13 years old and was skipped ahead several years in school. He started as a play-tester for Atari, but was given the chance to pitch the idea for a game and soon after given a job as a programmer/designer.

Cerny’s first credited game at Atari was Major Havoc in 1983, but that was only in assisting Owen Rubin with the programming. His actual first game was called Qwak! and was based around guiding ducks over a series of panels the player was able to slide.

The amazing thing about Qwak! was that it was a game designed for a touchscreen monitor. Mark Cerny designed a touchscreen game in 1982.

Of course this technology doesn’t resemble the iPad games we know today; the idea was to project a grid of lasers over the screen that could detect where a finger was. The game was never released and Cerny attributes that to the game having “very poor gameplay”. Atari also wasn’t able to get the touchscreen technology to work properly.

Atari then released the first game designed by Cerny, Marble Madness, in 1984. He had actually written the design for the game before working on Major Havoc, but Atari was still working on the hardware needed to run the game. Marble Madness was a truly incredible game, but wasn’t a huge commercial hit at the time due to the video game crash of 1983. Too many games flooded the market and companies like Atari saw their profits plummet.

The next seven years would see Cerny working as a programmer/designer for Sega on various Master System and Genesis games. Dick Tracy and Kid Chameleon were two particularly excellent Genesis titles that I only recently found out Cerny designed. This period would also see him working on games for experimental technology like the SegaScope 3-D Glasses, and several titles for the doomed 3DO during a short stint at Crystal Dynamics.

In 1994 Universal Studios decided to branch out into making multimedia PC titles and hired Cerny to make some new games. This would mark the beginning of his relationship with Sony and their brand new Playstation console. Also on that lot at Universal were two fledgling studios named Naughty Dog and Insomniac Games.

Mark Cerny was the Designer of Insomniac’s first game and the Executive Producer on Naughty Dog’s first Playstation game.

Of course Crash Bandicoot was an incredibly successful game and the character even became the mascot for the Playstation console. This success would lift Cerny to President of Universal Interactive Studios in 1997. During his time as president he would oversee the creation of the Spyro the Dragon series before leaving to start his own consulting company called Cerny Games.

Cerny Games worked exclusively with Sony on the creation of Ratchet and Clank, Jak and Daxter, Uncharted, Resistance, God of War III, and Killzone 3. During the public unveiling of the Playstation 4 it was revealed that Mark Cerny was the lead architect of the system and also subsequently revealed that he was the lead architect of the Playstation Vita. This was clearly part of Sony’s shift in focus to making their systems more developer friendly.

The International Game Developers Association awarded a Lifetime Achievement to Cerny in 2004, revealing that the Crash Bandicoot and Spyro series had sold over 30 million copies. Upon Cerny’s induction into the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame in 2010, the president of the AIAS described him as “the closest we have come to a modern-day Da Vinci”. There’s a fascinating postmortem for Marble Madness he did at the 2011 Game Developers Conference, a video of that can be found here.

Besides building the Vita and PS4, Cerny is the director for the PS4 launch title Knack. Development of the title is being handled by Sony Japan, something that Cerny is no stranger to, being fluent in Japanese after working at Sega in Japan for several years. His wife is also Japanese.

So when you pick up your new Playstation 4 this Friday with a copy of Knack maybe you’ll have a new found respect for the man that has largely been behind its creation. Also hopefully this will bring into prospective why so many developers are being drawn to the Playstation 4 with such an icon leading the way. 

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Ryan Kerns
Lifelong gamer, artist, writer, lurker, occasional troll, and 1994 Blockbuster Game Tournament Store Champion.