Knack is the first game that Mark Cerny has ever directed, but his industry resume is intense. In 1984, he developed the Atari classic Marble Madness, and later he went down in platformer history both at Sega, where he worked on Sonic the Hedgehog 2, and Sony, where he worked on Crash Bandicoot.
More recently, Cerny has contributed to franchises like Jak and Daxter, Ratchet & Clank, and God of War, to name a very few, as he has taken on consulting work for Sony-published projects.
For the PlayStation 4's launch, though, Cerny got extremely ambitious. He served as the system's lead architect, as detailed in Gamasutra's extensive technical interview. He also directed Knack at the same time he was overseeing the hardware's development.
The game has released to decidedly mixed reviews, but Cerny truly understands the ins and outs of game development -- and in this interview, he shares his insights into game design and production and creating a game that appeals to multiple audiences, while also discussing the soul of the PlayStation.
You've been creating character action games for a long time. Obviously, technical things have changed a lot, but has your approach to them changed over the years?
Mark Cerny: Well, one thing that's changed a lot is we used to make these games for ourselves, and now we make them for gamers. If you go back to how we made Sonic or the first Crash Bandicoot, we'd just sit in a room and build levels, and basically nobody would play the game until it was out on the market... and then we'd find out, usually, that it was so difficult as to be nearly uncompletable. The original Crash Bandicoot is legendary for that! These days we're a lot more in tune with people's play styles, and whether they enjoy themselves or not.
To be clear, I'm not talking about dumbing down a game via focus tests. I'm just saying that these days we do a lot of playtests, find out how people play these games, and then as a team we're free to use that information however we want to.
We can take the Portal approach, which is to say we make sure every challenge seamlessly leads into the next one, because we learned that's how to get people into a groove... or we can take the Braid approach, where the challenge is different every time and requires the player to be in a different mental space every time. Both approaches are great, it's just that I believe we need to make tuning decisions based on an understanding of the player's experiences.
Have you done a lot of player testing on Knack?
MC: Yes! Because games in general are very easy to make difficult, we started with the game on its easier difficulty settings, and studied how non-gamers did with it. After one or two fairly awful initial tests we managed to get to the point where yes, on an easy setting, the game was something that people with no games background whatsoever could really play and enjoy.
Something unique here is that with the testing I'd done for Crash, Spyro, Jak, Ratchet, Resistance, and the like, we could assume the players had some understanding of what a game was. So at the point in time when we had some part of the game done, we'd have a playtest and watch consumers play it.
Usually, the first levels that we work on are from the middle of the game. We try not to start by creating the very first level of the game, because we want the first level to be one of the very best, and we therefore want to create it towards the end of the project when we've learned a lot about how to make quality gameplay.
What that means is that the first playtest is therefore testing the player's experience with content from the middle of the game. All previous tests -- Crash, Spyro, and so on -- had been with gamers, and they handled that just fine. What I found out on Knack, though, is that non-gamers had great difficulty coping with starting in the middle of the game. We couldn't really understand how they would approach the game until we had our first level in place.