Mark Cerny, architect of Sony’s PlayStation 4, made some interesting and frank observations about the mistakes that Sony made with the launch of the PlayStation 3.
In a speech at the Gamelab game conference in Barcelona, Cerny acknowledged Sony’s mistakes with the PS 3, and he said that explains why Sony is taking a more collaborative and simpler technology approach with the design of the PlayStation 4.
PS 3 game engine design times stretched out.
Sony’s PS 3 foibles are well-known in the video game industry, and they explain why the company fell behind both Microsoft and Nintendo during the last generation, after dominating the preceding generation with the PlayStation 3. But the criticism and details behind those mistakes have been rarely discussed by Sony representatives. While Cerny led the design of the PS 4, which comes out this fall, he is a consultant at Cerny Games and isn’t a full-time Sony lifer. That may explain why he was more frank in describing the PS 3 problems and how it led to an improved design for the PS 4.
Cerny can talk about these problems because they happened a while ago, and, for the most part, they weren’t his fault. The responsibility for the success of the PlayStation business and the weaknesses of the PS 3 can be laid squarely at the feet of Ken Kutaragi, the father of the PlayStation business at Sony.
The project started auspiciously enough in 2001 when, at the peak of Sony’s success with the PlayStation 2, Kutaragi announced that Sony, Toshiba and IBM would collaborate on a Cell microprocessor that would become the heart of the PlayStation 3. That chip was designed by hundreds of engineers over several years, and it represented a radical departure from the typical game console with a single graphics chip and a single processor. The Cell had eight cores, dubbed Special Processing Elements (SPEs). It was powerful, but complicated.
Shuhei Yoshida, then head of Sony’s game studios in the U.S., received approval to embed a team of game programmers — including Cerny — inside the PS 3 hardware team to explore game creation. He became a member of a team dubbed ICE, whose job it was to envision the games of the next generation. Yoshida’s idea was to get games in development as much as a year earlier in order to be ready for the launch. It was a good thought, but, in reality, it wasn’t early enough.
In the summer of 2003, Cerny went to Japan to study the chip. He had expected “something from a James Bond movie,” but found the project was driven by a small number of people. The Cell design was already done. Cerny looked at the documentation behind Kutaragi’s design.
He saw that the chip was powerful, but only if you could really master the SPEs.
Sony focused too much on hardware, not software.
“The [SPEs] had huge potential, but huge effort was required to program them,” he said.
You had to take an operation and break it down into subroutines and then dispatch each to a subprocessor. Once you learned how to do that, it was like solving a very complex puzzle. Cerny admired the technology, but didn’t realize it would lead to a console that would be too expensive.
“I stayed focused on how to best use the chip that had already been designed,” Cerny said.
Cerny said it was exciting to work on the new hardware, but scary because it was hard to figure out how to make the most basic tasks work. For Sony’s first-party team of internal game developers, the early insight was a huge advantage. Thinking only about their own interests, the Sony game teams thought about how they would have a “tremendous lead over third parties” who would not learn about how to program the machine until much later. They didn’t understand at this time that this would become the Achilles Heel of the console.
“We were thinking about our own game titles for SCEA in the U.S., not the platform at all,” he said.
By early 2005, the focus shifted to creating launch titles for the new console, which was slated for a holiday 2006 launch. But there was very little support for the game creators. Sony’s engineers had not yet created a quality debugger for the SPEs. There was no low-level graphics driver (code that helps games talk to the hardware), no graphics chip debugger or performance tools. The first-party game developers were having a hard time, and the third-party teams were even worse off. But Sony eventually realized that third parties were essential to the success of the platform.
Cerny figured out that it took six months a year for game teams to create a game engine that would create the prototype games that were a necessary part of finishing titles. That compared to three to six months for the PS 2 and one to two months for the original PlayStation. Games created with the technology were gorgeous. But the complexity had gone up an order of magnitude.
The result, Cerny admitted, was a “weak launch line-up.”
He said, “Anyone who lived through those times understands the need for international communication, the value of frank and open conversations, software tools, and the role of third parties.”
Cerny didn’t disclose everything that went wrong with the PlayStation 3. One of the biggest crises came as the team tried to figure out how to program the Sony-designed graphics chip. It was complicated and it didn’t take into account a revolution that had happened in PC gaming, where graphics chip maker Nvidia had pioneered a new technique dubbed “programmable shading.” With it, game creators could run a graphics program on every single pixel of a game scene, allowing for much greater complexity in 3D images.
Sony scrapped its in-house graphics chip and, at the last minute, signed a deal with Nvidia to provide its RSX custom graphics chip for the PS 3. Cerny glossed over the big change in plans, but he acknowledged they had to “scrap” a lot of work. This, along with the decision to include a Blu-ray media player in the machine, led to a considerable delay in the launch of the PS 3. Overall, the cost of the Cell and the accompanying technology forced Sony to price the initial machines at $599. It launched in 2006, a full year after Microsoft’s Xbox 360 debuted.
At first, Sony’s game line-up was weak. Microsoft closed the gap in both technology and game quality, but Nintendo threw both for a loop with the launch of the motion-sensing Wii game console. Microsoft made a comeback with the launch of its Kinect motion sensor in 2010, but Sony lagged behind. It went from complete dominance with the PS 2 to third place with the PS 3.
Did Sony learn from the failures of the PS 3? We’ll find out this fall. Here’s Cerny’s full talk.
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