Sony’s PlayStation 4 was designed with considerable input from game developers. And it was made to simplify process of designing high-quality games, according to PS 4 architect Mark Cerny. In a speech at the Gamelab game conference in Barcelona, Spain, Cerny said that Sony went out of its way in this generation to win over influential game developers as it pitched them their ultimate game machine.
PS 4 at E3
Sony designed the PlayStation 3 in secrecy without much game developer input. It wound up with a complex and costly machine that proved difficult for developers to master, and Sony paid for that in the last generation. Now it learned from those mistakes and has applied the lessons to the design of the PS 4, Cerny said.
The PS 3 delivered supercomputing power on a chip, but developers didn’t know how to handle the eight subprocessors on them. And Sony didn’t help matters because it didn’t build tools to help them take advantage of them in a timely manner. The result was a weak game line-up at the launch of the PS 3. That caused a leadership change at Sony, all the way to the top. Now former PlayStation chief Kaz Hirai is chief executive of all of Sony. Andrew House, former third-party developer head, runs the PlayStation business. Cerny’s benefactor Shu Yoshida is head of game studios, and Cerny leaned heavily on developer feedback to design the PS 4.
In the past, Sony’s internal developers seized the chance to get early access to prototype hardware as a way to get an advantage on other developers. But this time, third-party developers were viewed as an essential part of the ecosystem.
“We figured out that third parties were essential for the platform’s success,” Cerny said.
That may seem obvious now. But under Ken Kutaragi, the father of the PlayStation, Sony operated in a much different way. Kutaragi was a lot like Apple’s Steve Jobs, focusing on his own intuition rather than developer feedback.
This time, without Kutaragi at the helm, Sony invited collaboration. Cerny sent out a questionnaire asking what developers wanted from more than 30 game development studios. He studied the options and discovered that developers favored x86 architecture, the Intel-based designs that have been at the heart of the PC for more than three decades.
By switching to PC-based designs, Sony made it a lot easier for developers to create game prototypes and move forward with the creation of launch titles. By contrast, it took six months to a year to get working prototypes with the PS 3 at the outset.
And this time, Sony created all of the tools needed for the PS 4 game development much earlier in the process than it did for the PS 3. In fact, since the technology was based on the PC, many of those tools already existed. For Sony, the dark years of 2005 to 2007, when Sony lost its top position in games, were a “unifying experience,” Cerny said.
“Anyone who lived through those times understands the need for international communication,” Cerny said. “The value of frank and open conversation, the importance of software tools, and the vital role of third parties.”
Sony kept in mind the need to keep costs lower this time around. This time, the PS 4 will cost $399 at launch, compared to the $599 PS 3.
Sony also invested heavily in the graphics part of the main processor, which had both a central processing unit (CPU) and graphics processing unit (GPU) on one chip. It customized the graphics so that developers could tap the graphics processors to do non-graphics tasks. Over time, this part of the machine will allow developers to make their games more sophisticated over time. In other words, the developers have a chance to create games quickly and then master the art of making even better games for the machine over time, Cerny said.
Cerny said Sony’s strategy to win over elite game developers was to talk on their level with an extraordinary amount of detail. That’s why he toured the globe to brief game developers on the details, bringing as many as 500 Powerpoint slides with him. He talked to big game studios for eight hours at a time.
Cerny said, “To have sustained conversations with these busy people means you have to be as fluent in the technology as they are.”
They didn’t always like his answers. Once, he flew thousands of miles, only to get booed on stage. At one meeting, one developer told Sony officials that, if the PlayStation 4 didn’t have eight gigabytes of main memory, then “Sony was dead.”
Sony pleased developers by focusing on a unified memory system, with one set of memory for developers to address, rather than two. And it went with a simpler data flow, rather than a faster, more complex solution.
“It’s eye-opening. That is the sort of passion that lets us know if we are on the wrong track and need to come up with a new direction,” he said. “The payoff is huge for this kind of approach.”
He said that the PS 4′s hard drive enables “living software,” where players can return to a game world and find that it has new features. That came about because of developer feedback. Cerny said that he hopes that the policies of engaging with game developers around the world will live onward. Cerny didn’t say it, but there certainly seems like there is a lot of learning from what Microsoft accomplished with Xbox Live, which has been continuously updated every year to offer new services to gamers and game developers.
“We never would have understood where game makers are taking their titles in the next decade,” he said.
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