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Knack: Mark Cerny's Stepping Stone Into the Future

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Sony's secret weapon.

Mark Cerny is a man who understands the inner workings of the gaming industry, perhaps better than any of his peers. After cutting his teeth on a pair of classic Atari arcade games in the '80s, Major Havok and Marble Madness, he joined forces with Sega to focus on home console development for the Master System. By his own admission, a large part of his work at Sega amounted to the creation of "shovelware," a term that conjures images of cheap cash-grabs and rushed development cycles. However, a few years and a couple of 3DO games later, Cerny found himself in the enviable position of working on the hottest property for the PlayStation, Crash Bandicoot. It was one of the strongest character action games of its time, and both Sony's and Cerny's reputations snowballed with its success.

Today, Cerny is best recognized as the man behind the PlayStation 4, having played a key role in the development of the system's architecture. His background in development informed his direction for piecing together Sony's next-gen console: prioritize the needs of developers. It sounds like an obvious path, but Ken Kutaragi, former president of Sony Computer Entertainment, failed to recognize the importance of designing hardware for game creators, rather than spec sheets, when designing the PlayStation 3. Unsurprisingly, Sony learned its lesson and put the future of the PlayStation in the hands of Cerny, an experienced developer with a successful track record.

While Cerny plugged away at defining the future for the PlayStation, a process that has taken no fewer than five years, he quietly contributed on a handful of major first-party games, though to a somewhat unsatisfying end. Recently, Cerny recounted the personal and professional challenge of consulting rather than creating. "While doing the hardware, I had some minor roles on God of War III and Killzone, but it became increasingly hard to contribute on projects of that scale, consulting part time." The PlayStation 4 hardware is his baby, more or less, but there was a latent desire to rejoin the creative ranks of software development in a meaningful way. "I finally came to the conclusion that if I was a director, on a small title, that I could have a larger role and still do everything I needed to do on the hardware."

Mark Cerny is the future of PlayStation
Mark Cerny is the future of PlayStation

He wasn't alone in thinking some of his talent remained untapped. "Originally, I just set out to do the architecture for the hardware, but at some point during that process, Akira Sato, one of the executives who was also the chairman for Sony Computer Entertainment for a while, and a bit of a mentor to me, pointed out that a lot of the value I have for the organization is because I do active work on the game titles, and it was his strong recommendation that I keep doing that work." Thus, Knack was born.

His new charge brought him back to familiar territory: character action games. In spite of his broad range of abilities and interests, he's not put off by the idea of revisiting the iconic game type that has dominated his career. "It's nice to be making a character action game again," Cerny said. "You know, the game is very different every time we make it. Crash was about platforming. I went back and counted and there's one area where there's something like a hundred jumps that had to be made without dying, and 50 enemies that you had to defeat between checkpoints; really difficult. And then, with Ratchet for example, the focus was on the weapons you can pick up. For Knack, the focus has really been on what can we do with this unique character, and also what can we do with non-weapon-based combat."

Beyond the mechanical challenges involved in making Knack fresh, Cerny challenged himself to answer the needs of a younger generation of touch-screen-trained users without alienating grizzled console veterans. "On the easy difficulty [setting], there are just so few components of the move set--left joystick, right joystick, dodge, punch, super move--that it's something that they can really go from never playing a console video game before to pretty much racing through the levels, taking out enemies left and right in about 90 minutes."

Simplicity be damned, Knack's not without depth. "It works well for core gamers who require a control set to be mastered. I briefly mentioned this today, but there's a dodge maneuver on the right stick. You actually need to be doing a dodge in, not away, and punch, because on harder difficulty settings the enemy's attacks are so fast, if you walk in they'll hit you before you can reach them. So that's the kind of depth that we have for the core gaming side. For a core gamer, I think the difficulty is rather important. So long as they understand that there is that depth and challenge to the game, that will be a major source of appeal for them."

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Not blind to criticism, he's aware of the opposition, who decry Knack as little more than a childish, character-driven experience. "I've been looking at the typical conversation on the boards, and the conversation goes something like this: 'Knack sucks, and the frame rate is terrible,' was somebody’s comment. Somebody else says, 'Well you know, I've played it in person, and it's actually very challenging and a lot of fun.'"

He's right. Knack's tough as nails if you want it to be, and while "fun" might be too broad of a term to accurately describe the experience of tackling its biggest challenges, it's not far off the mark. During the demo I played, it took only two hits for the character to die on the normal difficulty setting. Granted, Knack's health fluctuates with the number of items he collects, but I could tell my failure was ultimately the result of my own shortcomings, rather than a lack of resources. Dusting myself off, taking a moment to practice the controls, I discovered that there's indeed an underlying intricacy to the timing of Knack's movements.

The command set is small, but jumping, dodging, and attacking require quick reflexes when you're facing a hulking goblin while also avoiding incoming fire from far-away reinforcements. Cartoonish appearance aside, Knack will test you if you want it to, and on any difficulty setting other than easy, you won't stand a chance of seeing it through to the end until you understand and explore Knack's nuanced mobility.

The leading trio: Professor, Lucas, and Knack
The leading trio: Professor, Lucas, and Knack

Cerny has said in the past that it's likely Knack will be a second purchase for early PlayStation 4 adopters. It's not a stretch to imagine that he assumes most players seeking next-gen hardware want more mature content and games with so-called gritty realism. Knack's success isn't a given, but as evidence of his return to development in the new role of director, Cerny revels in the experience. "Knack's a very interesting character, I'd love to keep working with him, but really we all need to see what the appeal of this first game is. Going forward, I'd love to be creative director again. That was a lot of fun."

What the future holds for Knack and Cerny is anyone's guess, but Cerny's abilities and desires don't end at games like Crash Bandicoot and Knack. "There's always a great variety of games that would be nice to work on. I enjoy games for more adult audiences, and recently there's been this trend towards smaller games, and that seems like it might be a nice break from the larger projects, such as Knack or the hardware itself, where hundreds and hundreds of people were needed to put it together. For me, one of the big appeals of PlayStation is the variety of experiences available to the gamer. These days, they are games done by indies as a labor of love, but they are going to bring that same dimension to PlayStation 4 that we had on the original PlayStation."

The PlayStation 4 hardware is finalized, and with it, Knack will be available in a matter of weeks. Cerny has simultaneously managed two formidable challenges with seeming aplomb, which will surely allow him the professional freedom to chase his own labor of love in the years to come. He's a beacon of practicality and reason, and I have no doubt that the best years are ahead of, rather than behind, one of the hardest working people in gaming.

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    Peter Brown

    Peter is a Senior Editor at GameSpot who's passionate about gaming hardware and game preservation.
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