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Can’t wait for the PlayStation 5? You can thank this ‘Space Invaders’ guru

Mark Cerny, the key architect of the new PlayStation 5.
(Sony Interactive)

We talk with PlayStation 5 architect Mark Cerny about how a game console can forge emotional bonds with players and all about that controller rumble.

A connection could be made from Sony’s new PlayStation 5 to “Space Invaders.”

After all, it was the late-1970s arcade classic, rudimentary by today’s standards, that was the first game a young Mark Cerny fell in love with. Cerny today is best known as the lead architect of the new PlayStation 5, which will be released Thursday, and the PlayStation 4 before that. He’s also a noted game designer, having released his first, “Marble Madness,” for Atari in 1984, a project he led when he was just 19. Its byzantine M.C. Escher-inspired tone made it a stand-out at the local arcade, a game whose look could also make a dazzling art print.

However, the game Cerny initially envisioned was something more akin to the expansive role-playing “Final Fantasy VII,” a work that technologically was still more than 20 years away from being a possibility. But then the worlds that games inspired Cerny to imagine have long outpaced the technology necessary to build them.

“I hadn’t gotten very much into ‘Pong’ or some of the other arcade games,” Cerny says. “They weren’t sufficiently representational of anything. A friend of mine said, ‘You have to come to the arcade. There’s this new game. You shoot enemy invaders and you’re hiding behind bunkers.’ I don’t know, I thought it would be a ‘Call of Duty’ sort of thing. But that sort of marked my start as a serious game player.”

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How serious? “For ‘Defender,’ it is possible that I was the first player in the United States to wrap the game, if you know what I mean by that,” says Cerny, who was spending hours playing at an arcade near UC Berkeley. “That means that when you get over 1 million points — there’s only six digits in the score — it goes from 999,999 to being something like 10. That’s a milestone. You wrap the game when your score is so high it can’t be displayed properly.”

Sony releases PlayStation 5, its next-gen game console, next week. I’ve spent a week playing games on the PS5. Here’s what I learned.

Today, Cerny is still most comfortable in interviews when discussing figures, including how many virtual platinum trophies his recent game playing has netted him (it’s 34). But he’s just as likely to talk about the computing power of the PlayStation 5. The successor to the PlayStation 4, a console that‘s sold more than 100 million units worldwide, promises multiple improvements in velocity as well as in graphics, which will be most beneficial to those who own top-of-the-line 4K television sets.

But Cerny’s ambitions for the PlayStation 5 — his official title is “lead system architect” — and the game medium as a whole go beyond pure technological prowess. If the long-term pitch for the console is realized, the PlayStation 5 will alter the feel of our games — not just in tone but in how they actually feel in our hands, with Cerny placing a higher-than-ever prominence on audio development for the console and a revamped controller that boasts some pretty impressive movement. It doesn’t just rumble, it can mimic the bounce of a subway train or the stuttering vibrations of a zipper, and the console’s shoulder buttons can be adjusted by developers so our fingers feel resistance when pressing them.

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How many game studios will lean into such features? That’s not clear yet, but the new attributes are designed to make us feel more connected with our virtual worlds, which increasingly are places we don’t just play but socialize. And when it comes to game design, Cerny has always been a proponent of the little details as much as the big picture. He once told The Times, for instance, that in 1997’s PlayStation game “Crash Bandicoot 2" he obsessed over the placement of the game’s destructible objects.

“It’s all about the detail,” he said in 2001. “In ‘Crash 2,’ I put 90% of the crates you smash and apples you pick up in the game myself. They’re important because they affect the flow.”

Flow affects our attachment to interactive entertainment, and Cerny’s thinking on how games can forge an emotional bond with players continues to evolve — so much so that not all of his ideas, especially as they relate to our ears, will be ready for the system’s launch. Cerny talks dreamingly of head-related transfer functions (HRTFs), which is a “mapping of your head and your ear into a couple megabytes of data,” he says. “We don’t have the data from you, so you’ll choose from a library,” he adds, alluding to a future update when we’ll pick from visual images to find our personal HRTF.

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For the PlayStation 4, which was released in 2013, Cerny says the focus was heavily on laying the groundwork for an internal infrastructure that would make the PlayStation easier to use and less complicated for game designers — as well as creating a backbone for social features. That allowed for more ambitious, blue-sky thinking when it came to the PS5, especially as it related to creating a full sensory experience without a virtual reality headset.

“Audio is very complex,” says Cerny. “So we started with headphone audio because it’s the easiest environment to control, so that’s first. I won’t say we won’t improve upon it. But we have virtual surround sound, which is to say TV speakers giving you a broader sense. You don’t need headphones, but it will feel as if the sound is coming from an area larger than your TV. We are putting the final touches on that. On audio we’re in this for the long haul.”

Video game consoles are living works of technology, and the PS5 and Microsoft’s Xbox units, also out this week, will continue to receive updates and enhancements. The games that begin to take full advantage of the consoles’ capabilities likely won’t begin to hit the market for a few months, or maybe even a year or more.

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In the “coming-soon category,” Cerny says, will be realistic lighting effects that will be rendered in real-time. While non-tech enthusiasts may tune out on a term such as “ray tracing,” it’s these sorts of improvements, Cerny believes, that will cement games as a dominant medium.

“One of the issues with game shadows is that they’re so sharp that you can cut your hand on them,” he says. “That’s not real. Outdoor environments you expect a little bit of gradation and shadows. Indoor environments you expect a lot — indoor light sources and indirect lighting change the way things look.”

If it all works as hoped, “All of a sudden, you really feel like you’re there.” Adds Cerny, “Lighting is the final frontier.”

That’s when Cerny drops his argument, more or less, for the PS5 existing and the need for companies to keep pushing on console and hardware development. “There should be a strong sense of presence in this environment, a strong sense of locality in the sound sources you’re listening to,” Cerny says. “You should feel, in the controller, the world around you.”

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In what would have been big news at the coronavirus-postponed Game Developer’s Conference, Sony’s streamed event, along with Microsoft’s announcement, heats up the video game wars.

But don’t make the mistake of thinking that Cerny is primarily interested in games as technical showcases. His credits are vast, and recently stretch from “The Last Guardian,” a patient and emotional game in which you bond with a mystical creature, to “Death Stranding,” last year’s experimental game in which a mailman, essentially, reconnects America. Cerny also continues to collaborate regularly with the game developers at Insomniac, who are releasing “Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales” with the PS5.

When he rattles off games that he finished and enjoyed, he cites 2016’s “Virginia,” a stylized and narrative thriller that strays from visual realism in telling its story about the disappearance of a young boy, as well as the vibrant “Concrete Genie,” a game released last year about the power of imagination. Also on his recommended list is “Telling Lies,” a game that uses full-motion video to have the player reconstruct a story, which recently found its way to the PS4.

When Cerny first began discussing the PS5 in earnest at an online presentation in March timed to the yearly Game Developers Conference, he spoke of concessions developers have long had to make, such as building winding corridors or elevators into a game to mask the fact that content was loading in the background.

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Those are examples, perhaps, of developers using tech constraints in creative ways, but when he talks about the games he loved, or Hideo Kojima’s “Death Stranding,” he’s not mentioning the most powerful games on the market. He’s citing games that redefine how we play, and what can happen when tech limitations no longer stand in the way of creativity.

“Kojima-san was making a new genre,” says Cerny, when asked, in particular, why he feels so passionate about “Death Stranding.”

And that’s when he also reveals his final thesis for what happens when games not only get more powerful but when game development becomes more accessible: “All of the rules that tell you what is gameplay, and what is not gameplay, they can no longer apply.”

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