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Inside the PlayStation 4 with Mark Cerny Exclusive

Inside the PlayStation 4 with Mark Cerny
March 27, 2013 | By Christian Nutt

Mark Cerny originally began to think about designing the PlayStation 4 in 2007. Over Thanksgiving weekend, a mere year after the PlayStation 3 was released, he began to read technical documents about the X86 processor -- the processor that ended up going into the system that was unveiled this past February, by Cerny, in New York City.

The fact that he spent so much of his personal time working on the question of just what hardware should go into the box made Cerny realize something important: "I probably have more passion about the next generation than anybody inside the Sony Computer Entertainment world."

With that in mind, he pitched his bosses on letting him lead the PlayStation 4 development efforts. To his surprise, he earned himself the role of lead system architect.

Though he began with the technology, "wanting to lead the effort wasn't based on any specific beliefs at that time -- other than that clearly we had had some issues with PlayStation 3, in that a very developer-centric approach to the design of the PlayStation 4 would just make things go more smoothly overall."

"The biggest thing was that we didn't want the hardware to be a puzzle that programmers would be needing to solve to make quality titles," says Cerny. He's referring here to the fact that the CELL processor, which powers the PlayStation 3, was extremely powerful by 2006 standards -- but also notoriously difficult to work with.

So in 2008, once he'd gotten the okay, Cerny began to canvass PlayStation 3 developers, asking them what they wanted from a theoretical next generation console -- yes, that early. "It's not like we could come out and say we were developing the next generation of hardware -- we certainly couldn't say that in 2008," Cerny recollects.

"My first tour of the developers, I had a questionnaire where I just asked them their thoughts on what the next generation might bring," he says. "The largest piece of feedback we got was that they wanted unified memory."

The PlayStation 4 will launch with an 8GB bank of GDDR5 RAM, which can be directly addressed by both the CPU and GPU of the system. Cerny is confident that this strategy brings flexibility and power to the console in both the near and long term.

The system also will ship with an eight-core CPU, another decision that came from the developer-questioning phase. "We quickly could tell that we should put either four or eight cores on the hardware," Cerny says. "The consensus was that any more than eight, and special techniques would be needed to use them, to get efficiency."

"It definitely was very helpful to have gone out and have done the outreach before sitting down to design the hardware," he says.

For all of its commercial shortcomings, the PlayStation Vita marks the first time the company put the software developer at the center of its hardware design efforts, something Cerny says paid off both directly on that system, and also in terms of laying the groundwork for the PS4's design.

"We took Vita as an opportunity to rework the tool chain and the development environment, and I think that you saw that the response from the development community [to those changes] was very good," says Cerny. "That meant that with PS4 we already had this philosophy in place -- that we wanted our tools to be much richer and much more accessible to our developers, even in the launch timeframe."

He didn't stop at game developers, either, he tells Gamasutra. "When I started talking to the development community, prominent middleware companies were in the mix at that time. It's very important to us to have those engines on our platform," Cerny says. "I have to say, also, the insights that you can get by talking to their top technology people -- It's quite nice to have those insights when doing the hardware design."

Throughout his conversation with Gamasutra -- which, in the end, lasted well over an hour -- the two threads that came through again and again were that Cerny wanted the console to be familiar enough that the barrier to entry for developers was very low, but at the same time, he wanted to be sure that the technical decisions he and his team made would ensure high performance over its entire lifespan.

In a forthcoming article, Gamasutra will share the many details of the PlayStation 4's architecture and design that came to light during this extensive and highly technical conversation.

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