Keighley: Mark, that’s a lot of what you were doing, right? You were small teams of a couple of people.
Cerny: I was working with one person. It was a luxury when an artist was brought in. They were good times. I got to meet a lot of people before they were the people that you know of today. I got to work with Ed Logg and share an office with Dave Theurer. Between those guys that’s Asteroids, Centipede, Missile Command, a few other extraordinarily famous titles. When I went over to Japan, Yu Suzuki and Yuji Naka, before anybody knew who these guys were.
Hennig: I worked with Ed Logg, Dave Ralston, John Salwitz. This was at EA, because they briefly considered doing location-based entertainment, arcade games, and then they wised up and said no and killed the whole department. But it was funny, because that’s another near miss. I think you were also considering joining that group.
Cerny: At some point, yes?
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Hennig: We worked with a lot of the same people.
Cerny: The tools were just terrible. If you wanted to change one keystroke in your program, it would be 15 minutes before you could see the effect. The process for getting artwork into an arcade game, my God. It involved eight-inch floppies and burning ROMs. You’d pry out the old ones from the motherboard and put in the new ones. That was just your art. When you could do RAM, when you could just think it up and put it in there — it was close to half a day if you wanted to get the numbers zero through nine in your game. That’s how crazy it was.
Over the past couple days, what’s gotten so much better is, we have the chance to iterate so much more than we could in the ‘80s. God help you in the ‘70s. There weren’t even programs. You were a hardware engineer. You built it out of resistors and one-shots and that was your game. It worked or it didn’t work.
Keighley: What kept you going back then, when it was so challenging?
Cerny: Coffee, mostly.
Keighley: Did you imagine a day when it was going to be easier? Were there breakthroughs?
Cerny: If I could go back I would have done the tools. Because that would have changed the ‘80s.
Hennig: Who did Pinball Construction Set?
Cerny: That was somebody who was thinking much, much further ahead of the time. We have to create the tools so we can make the games. That’s what Media Molecule is doing today.
Hennig: It’s interesting, though. Could we have foreseen? One thing that was starting to edge me away from film, when I was in school, was I took classes in animation. I also was part of a little pilot program to learn Wavefront on a Silicon Graphics. I think five or six of us were allowed in the program. I think PDI was sponsoring it back then, when they were doing the Pillsbury Doughboy a long time ago, those old commercials.
These machines — the software cost thousands of dollars and the machines cost tens of thousands. There was one. It was such a weird little program. It was in a closet in the film department with all the cycloramas, all the stuff in storage. We had to cram ourselves in there and work at midnight and not let the janitors know we were there. But you could do some really cool stuff. That was the precursor to Alias and Maya and all this stuff.
At the same time I was doing pixel art on this Atari game, and then I got the job at EA doing the same thing on Bard’s Tale IV, which also didn’t get published. It was a great humbling lesson to work on two games that didn’t get published right out of the gate. But I could see that there was more. I could connect the dots. We were going to be doing more complex stuff.
Keighley: Initially it was all through art, though. Do you remember when you wrote your first line of dialogue?
Hennig: Technically there was text in the Michael Jordan game, but I wouldn’t call it a story. That would be generous.
Keighley: What games did you work on at EA? It was a couple.
Hennig: There was Bard’s Tale IV for a year, doing little pixel animations and stuff. Then I did a bit of art for Desert Strike. That was my first published game, on the Genesis. Then I was the lead designer on the Michael Jordan: Chaos in the Windy City SNES game. Infamous. I still stand by the quality of its execution, but the idea was not mine. Somebody else can take credit for that. Cocaine can maybe take credit for that. That was the ‘90s.
The first thing I wrote and recorded was for Soul Reaver. That was probably starting in about 1997, I think.
Keighley: That’s another interesting connection point between Mark and you. Mark was at Crystal Dynamics in the early days, when it was just starting off with 3DO titles. Crash and Burn came out at the 3DO launch. Fast forward a bit, you got to work with all these great people making all these great games. How did your path lead you to Crystal?
Cerny: A number of Sega people on the marketing and business side had broken off to start Crystal Dynamics. I was the first game guy through the door. I stayed there almost two years. Helped get Crash and Burn out the door. Somebody yesterday was saying, if it’s bad, it’s bad forever. Certainly Crash and Burn wasn’t our finest effort, but it was nice. I got to work with the 3DO technology. It wasn’t quite ready for prime time if you wanted to do 3D, but at least you were using the math and getting experience there, which paid off on PlayStation.
Keighley: And you called your game Crash and Burn, which turned out to be fairly accurate. Crash and Burn crashed and burned.
Cerny: Basically, the day I left, Amy came in.
Hennig: Pretty much. He was infamous by this point. His name was whispered in hushed tones in the hallways at Crystal Dynamics by the time I got there.
Cerny: What did they say about Mark Cerny?
Hennig: “Watch out for that guy!” No. You were a canny negotiator, I think. Anyway. Nobody said anything negative.
Cerny: It was all good stuff about how infamous I was.
Hennig: [laughs] Well, you were larger than life.
Cerny: Then I went to Universal to do Crash and Spyro, and you were doing Gex?
Hennig: When they interviewed me, it was either to be the lead designer on Gex 2, or to be the design manager of the studio. Just because of the way things sorted out, I got the design manager job. You were the programming manager before you left. And infamous in that role, apparently. [laughs] I said I would do that for a year, but I really wanted to make a game, not just manage other people.
The first thing I got handed to me was a design document this thick for Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain, which was supposed to be alpha. They said, “We think this is in trouble. Could you look at it?” That became my job for the next year.
Keighley: Someone else had written it already?
Hennig: Right. Silicon Knights had been working on the game for a while.
Cerny: Yeah, I’d read that design doc. We’d had conversations. It looked great. But it was like, “Guys, is this scoping? You have one boss fight with 15 stages in a design doc. Do you think you’ll really ship on such and such a date?”
Hennig: They’d done a lot of the story work and a lot of the cinematics. They’d made a lot of the tileset for the world and the characters and things like that. The assets were there. But I think they had only one designer on staff, one dedicated designer. There was Denis Dyack and Ken McCulloch, but they had only one designer who was just a game designer.
Ultimately we ended up putting 10 people on that project and spent a long time working on the game. We helped them take what they had and really crafted it into this dark Zelda. There were great ideas, but there wasn’t a lot of structured design there. We collaborated with them on it for the rest of the year. That was my first game at Crystal, and then once I completed my first year, I said, “Okay, we talked about how I wanted to have my own game and be a director.”
That’s where Soul Reaver came about. But it wasn’t originally Soul Reaver. It was supposed to be an original game. The codename was “Shifter.” It was supposed to be about this sort of fallen angel. It was a lot of the same themes, but it was not a Kain sequel. We worked on that for a while and pitched it. People were interested in what we were doing, but they said, “Can it be a Kain sequel?” Uh, okay? Then we figured it out, like you do.
Keighley: That was an interesting time. Crystal and 3DO — full-motion video was coming in. Story and dialogue were a bigger part of games. Mark, you had come out of a time period where it was all about gameplay, because that was all you could do. Tell me, how did your role on games began to change when there were bigger things like design documents? There was a team aspect, an interplay between building characters and worlds and then the gameplay and systems.
Cerny: I declared my war on design documents, because I just — when the team is seven people and one person is just writing things for the publisher to review, that’s not a good model for game development. You also get fooled. You fool yourself. You start thinking that the paper represents the game you’re going to be making. The paper represents the game you’ll be making for the first month, but then you play it and throw it out and start all over again.
Hennig: It was a very silly time, I think. Everyone thought we had to have these giant game design documents, and it never made any sense. I felt terrible as a design manager, being responsible for enforcing this stupid idea, that we had to have these design documents. It’s wrong the second it comes out of the printer. Things change that fast, if you’re doing your job right.
Cerny: I think it’s wrong as soon as you’ve built a little slice.
Hennig: No, I think literally — you print it and you’ve already changed your mind about something. It’s an iterative, collaborative process, even in pre-production.
Cerny: But you can’t prove it’s wrong until you can play it.
Hennig: For sure, yeah.
Keighley: It’s a living document.
Hennig: Which is why we tend to do things that are more succinct. They tend to be online, like conference papers and things like that now. It’s not that there’s no documentation. But it’s more a living document.
Keighley: You were always a big believer, Mark, in just playing the game, iterating on the experience.
Cerny: That’s what you did in arcade games. There was this big philosophy — I think it was centered at EA, probably — that you needed to be doing careful planning and have charts and all of that. It didn’t make sense to me. I left Crystal because I got lured down to Los Angeles by a friend. “Come to Universal Studios and we’ll give you a big bag of money and total freedom.” Which is a good pitch. Big bag of money was $5 million in those days.
Keighley: For you personally?
Cerny: No. To make games. And no rules meant I could say to the teams, “Let’s do a one-pager. That’s all we need. Maybe four pieces of art. And let’s just start building it and see where this goes.” I worked with Naughty Dog, which was three people, and Insomniac, which was two people. That’s how those projects got off. That was Crash Bandicoot and Disruptor. It certainly didn’t hurt that we didn’t have those design docs. As Amy was saying, they’re wrong almost the instant you write them.
Keighley: Working with Naughty Dog, you did Way of the Warrior for 3DO, and then moving on to Crash, a legendary franchise. Mark, you were there at Universal, and this is another example of you guys finally coming together. A lot of folks from Crystal Dynamics ended up at Naughty Dog, right?
Hennig: Definitely. That was the seed studio. A lot of people made that transition. We had met. I don’t remember exactly where. Probably at GDC or something like that. But then we didn’t get to sit down and consider working together until I got to Naughty Dog in late 2003. We were around.
Cerny: Right. Uncharted. Or you were there for Jak?
Hennig: Jak III, for a year.
Keighley: Mark, you had left Universal at some point, and then become more of a design consultant working with Naughty Dog and Insomniac. You continued with those studios.
Cerny: Absolutely. My 20-year anniversary is coming up. I left Universal on October 1, 1998 and went freelance as a consultant. This October 1 is the 20-year anniversary of Cerny Games, which is basically me.
Keighley: I remember I would go to Naughty Dog or Insomniac — at Insomniac there was one little office, a Cerny Games office, right off the elevator.
Cerny: It was Cerny Games renting space. Insomniac was my landlord.