For most mortals, designing a brand new cutting edge gaming system from the ground up would be a full time job, and then some. However, for none-more-diligent PS4 system architect Mark Cerny, that wasn’t quite enough responsibility, so he set about crafting a launch title for the new platform at the same time.
Said title, Knack, is a lovely counterpoint to the bulging biceps of Killzone: Shadow Fall and the steely realism of #DRIVECLUB. Harking back to classic action platformers of yore, such as Spyro the Dragon, Crash Bandicoot, Jak & Daxter and so on, it’s a bold, bright and hugely enjoyable romp that injects the PS4 launch line-up with a pleasing splash of colour.
The day after the physical form of PS4 was finally unveiled at E3 earlier this month, I sat down with the hardest-working man in the business to find out more about his twin endeavours
So, Mark, we didn’t see you on stage this time…
Mark Cerny: I was on stage talking about the system architecture back in New York in February, but this time the focus was on the games.
Were you happy to sit this one out?
Mark Cerny: I was in the nosebleed seats with the rest of the audience! It was a lot of fun. To be honest, it was the first time I saw the console. They offered to show it to me but I wanted to see it at the same time as the rest of the world. I had intentionally not seen it until the big reveal.
I thought you personally crafted it with your own hands!
Mark Cerny: I could tell you how big it was because I know what the power consumption is – but my responsibility was the inside of the system. We have a great design centre to create the look for it.
And what’s your verdict?
Mark Cerny: I think it’s beautiful.
As well as serving as system architect you’re also creating Knack. PlayStation consoles have a long heritage of launching with a colourful character-based action/platformer. How important do you think it is to have such a title ready at release?
Mark Cerny: As system architect I knew there would be quality core games for launch for the core gamer. I just wanted to make sure there was something for the rest of the family to enjoy as well.
What was the original seed of the idea for Knack?
Mark Cerny: The seed of the idea was that we have a character who could pick up items from the environment and incorporate them into his body, but that turns out to be very hard to make a game around! Our initial concept was that Knack would maybe break down a building or a wall, and he’d incorporate the resulting bricks into his body, but when we prototyped this we ended up with a giant amorphous blob of a character.
It took a year and a half to figure out that the secret was to design the character more intensively. The character is made from ‘relics’ – these are left over from some long lost civilisation, if you dig down deep into the earth you find them. They’re a power source, and the doctor has managed to imbue them with consciousness. With that storyline we were able to then design relics in specific shapes and build various versions of Knack out of them.
What does the PS4 hardware allow you to do in this game that hasn’t been possible in similar action titles up until now?
Mark Cerny: The big thing for us on PS4 is that development has been faster. It’s saved us a year. Implementing an idea like “hey, let’s have a character that has 5,000 objects driven by a custom physics simulation” has just been a heck of a lot easier than it was on prior platforms. I think we’re going to see much richer titles as a result of that.
What element of Knack do you think players will be most surprised by?
Mark Cerny: Each level is a different variation on the theme of “Here’s this character who has this ‘knack’ that lets him grow and transform.” In some levels he’ll slowly grow, and in other levels he get big really fast – by picking up icicles for example — but then if he goes out into the sun he’ll melt down quickly.
The way I look at it – there’s a bit of Crash Bandicoot in there, a bit of Katamari Damacy, which is a game I love and must have bought three or four times over the years. And there’s a bit of God of War too. You can see that game’s influence on Knack – especially in the control set, where the right stick is the dodge. Actually God of War 3 was one of my consulting projects!
How hard has it been juggling your role as PS4 system architect with that of game designer?
Mark Cerny: I have to be in Tokyo every month anyway for the hardware work, so spending time with the Knack team is not that difficult. It’s just across the street.
It’s a very talented studio. For example, the lead background artist from Shadow of the Colossus is on Knack, he designed the very soft look of our world. There are also quite a few members of the team that made Ape Escape – that was my game director and producer’s first project. In fact they were both artists on the game – it’s a very talented artistic team.
So we’ve got a team who’s worked on Shadow of the Colossus, Ape Escape, God of War 3 – that’s quite a disparate set of influences…
Mark Cerny: Well, I worked on Killzone 3 as well, but I wouldn’t say that had an influence on this title! That’s just our past history.
Knack is being made at Japan Studio, but it doesn’t have a particularly Japanese feel. At the same time it doesn’t feel ‘Western’ either. Was a universal approach intentional?
Mark Cerny: It’s intentional. The original concept was “let’s make an international title”. The problem is that if you have a mascot, that mascot is going to be immediately identifiable as a Japanese mascot, or a US mascot, or whatever. Our way to get around that was to make the character an effect, so the first question was ‘what sort of effect should he be?’ We came up with the idea that he would pick up things in the environment and get bigger, and a year or so later Knack was born.
What’s the scope of Knack? Exactly how big is it?
Mark Cerny: It’s not apparent from the E3 demo, but it is a very story driven adventure. The first time through should take about ten hours, and then we have included a lot of features that make it interesting to play again.
For example, there are hundreds of secret rooms and many contain treasure chests. Some of those are part of gadgets that will help Knack in his quest – you need to collect all the parts before you can build the gadget. Others are crystal relics where if you collect enough of them you can unlock a variation on the Knack character you can use in a subsequent play-through. There are also a couple of additional features that we’re not talking about at this point.
Clearly Knack is aimed at a younger crowd, but will there be something in there for my generation of gamers, who grew up on Crash, Spyro et al?
Mark Cerny: Oh, we are definitely speaking to the nostalgia that people feel for the play experiences of the past. Play this game on the hard difficulty setting and it will definitely challenge you. And the control scheme is on the simpler side but you’ll really need to think about how best to use it. So, yes, I think many people will go to the store and get, say, Watch Dogs, or Killzone or the like, for themselves and they’ll get Knack for another member of the family. But I also think a lot of core gamers will end up getting Knack for that old school – with a twist – feel.