Mark Cerny's nearly 30-year career in video games has covered everything from Marble Madness and Crash Bandicoot to Killzone 2 and God of War III. But one of the biggest changes Cerny has seen in all that time hasn't been in the games themselves, but in the size of the teams making them.
In an interview with Gamasutra earlier this year, Cerny recalled that the arcade games he was designing almost entirely on his own had to live and die 25 cents a go, without help from today's huge marketing budgets or press coverage, which didn't exist at the time.
"Consequently that meant you made a game and you were 100 percent responsible for its success," he recalled. "You couldn't blame upper management who didn't understand you, you couldn't blame the marketing guys who didn't put together the proper marketing campaign; you put your game directly in front of the consumers at a play test and if it earned enough money that game would sell and if it didn't earn enough money that game wouldn't."
Now, that kind of direct connection with consumers is blocked by layers of marketing, and also by a whole team of people working on the game. Cerny said the increasing size of these teams has made it increasingly difficult for him to make his mark on a project.
"The difficulty now is that the team size has grown so far it's just hard for me to make a significant contribution as a part-timer on a hundred-person project," he said. "Now when it was 20 people, that was just fine. For Crash Bandicoot 2, I believe the staff was about 15 people, and half of my time was enough to do essentially all of the level design for that project, so that worked brilliantly."
Even the sub-teams have gotten to be major organizations in today's development world, Cerny pointed out. "I mean, today, you've got a design team of five or 10 or 15 people. My half-time really barely keeps me up with what everybody else is doing. Consequently I focused on things which are a bit easier, like usability," he said.
While Cerny said he enjoys working on such big budget, massively staffed projects, he has great respect for the work of Thatgamecompany's Kellee Santiago and Jenova Chen, and said such personal projects just can't work in a team of even 50 people.
"Because you're taking such a curved path on the way to making the final product," he explained, "you don't want the art staff of 20 just waiting, just building the models, when Jenova is going to have some idea that goes in a completely different direction. And they know that of course, they're experts at this, and I think that I know their current team size is carefully tuned to the style of game that they want to make."
While a big team couldn't make a game like Flower, Cerny imagined that such a focused, core creative team could theoretically design a world like Uncharted or Killzone, relying heavily on outsourcing when it's time to actually create the bits. The question, then, becomes whether they would want to.
"And that's what I really love about Thatgamecompany, they know what they want to do and they know what they don't want to do and they've known that since they were students and that kind of clarity is so astonishingly rare in the games business."
A $30 million budget would be wasted on that kind of company, Cerny said, because "with $30 million now you're expected to create $30 million worth of assets. You've got to get those pixels on the screen and I think technology has benefited us in so many ways but asset-heavy games are definitely more cumbersome to create.
While some see the mid-sized teams being squeezed out between small indie teams of a couple of people and hundred-person AAA mega-hits, Cerny said hardware like the PlayStation Vita will probably require teams in the 20 to 40 person range. But that's not the kind of project he'd be interested in.
"I love being on the big budget end of the business," he said. "That's where I've always been and so I just need to find a way that's going to make that work, somehow."