A fireside chat with master game makers | Tech Industry
Amy Hennig and Mark Cerny are both 53 years old, and they attended the University of California at Berkeley at the same time. And while they both have achieved great things during their careers in video games, they haven’t crossed paths that often.
Hennig received the Honor Award at the Gamelab event in recognition of her 30-year career, which has included stints at Crystal Dynamics, Naughty Dog, and Electronic Arts. She worked on Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain and Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver at Crystal Dynamics, among other titles. She jointed Naughty Dog and contributed to Jak & Daxter. But her lasting legacy has been her work on the Uncharted series, which she guided as creative director until 2014.
After leaving, she joined Electronic Arts to work on a single-player Star Wars game, but EA canceled the title last fall. EA closed Visceral studio and rebooted the game in its Vancouver, Canada studio. Hennig told Eurogamer last week that she left EA in January, and she has now started an independent studio.
Cerny dropped out of college to work on video games. At 17, he contributed to games at Atari, and he created Atari’s Marble Madness at the age of 18. He worked on games at Sega, including Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Starting in 1996, he started working closely with Sony, Naughty Dog, and Insomniac Games. He has worked on dozens of games and was the architect of the PlayStation Vita.
Most recently, he was the architect of the PlayStation 4 and created the Knack series. During most of his career, he has been independent as a consultant at Cerny Games.
Hennig and Cerny did a fireside chat with Geoff Keighley at the Gamelab event in Barcelona last week. They covered how they crossed paths during their careers, and it was a rare moment with two masters of the craft of game development. Here’s an edited transcript of their fireside chat.
Geoff Keighley: I wanted to kick this off by hearing about the backstory for both of you guys. How did you fall in love with video games? Both of you have been doing this a long time. When did you start playing games? How did you find your way to the game industry?
Amy Hennig: Like most people at the time, I stumbled into it. There was no path I was following. I always loved games. I was one of the kids — this is in the ‘70s — and it was pretty sad, but I would spend all my money at the arcade. There wasn’t much to play back then. There was Pong, Night Driver, and my favorite game, Sea Wolf, because there was a periscope you could look through. Like a lot of people my age, I also discovered the Atari 2600, Dungeons and Dragons, Star Wars. These things all collided to shape the kind of person that I am.
But I never considered it a career. I studied English literature, and then I was working on my master’s in film theory and production. The way I stumbled into it is I was taking any job I could to pay for school. I was doing textbook illustrations, page layout, all kinds of things. I ran into a friend from high school at a garage sale who said, “Hey, I’m supposed to do the art and animation for this Atari game with an old buddy of mine from the scouts, but I can’t do it. Can you take my place?” Of course I just saw dollar signs, so I said sure.
I worked on this Atari game with one other guy, just me and this programmer, for a year while I was still going to film school. By the time we finished it, it never got published. But I thought, “Oh, a new frontier.” I’d never considered that I could take what I’d learned and apply it here. At the same time, I was getting the message in film school that I should dream smaller. I wanted to make movies like Indiana Jones and Star Wars, but that was never gonna happen for me, especially as a woman. I saw a blue ocean. Not that I was that discouraged, because I’m stubborn, but I saw a new frontier in games. I just went that way. Quit film school and got a job at EA as a junior artist.
Keighley: You were in school at Berkeley?
Hennig: Yes, this is part of the connection with me and Mark. We’re exactly the same age. I’m five days older. It’s funny, because we’ve known each other for more than 20 years. Our paths kept just missing each other.
Here’s the funny story. We’re both 53. We were comparing notes, talking about how we’d missed each other. He grew up on the east bay and we both went to UC Berkeley. I thought we must have seen each other over there, but he’d graduated before I got there, even though I’m five days older. So he’s a genius. I’m not a genius. You graduated in what year?
Mark Cerny: Well, I dropped out.
Hennig: I graduated from high school in 1982, and if I’m honest, I should have graduated in 1986, but I took a while on my honors thesis and I graduated in 1987. You were long gone before I got there. You were at Atari by then.
Keighley: Mark’s had an incredible career, more than 35 years. Let’s pick it up. Your career people have heard bits and pieces about, but when did you first start playing games, fall in love with games?
Cerny: I started before the words “video games” were a noun. The local computer science museum had a DEC PDP-11. You’d type in “go north.” That was Lawrence Hall of Science, up on the hill in Berkeley.
Hennig: I think I went there too.
Cerny: It was great. Playing games and writing games were so close. You could bang out sentences in BASIC and do you own little stuff. Based on that, in the ‘70s, when the Apollo came out eventually — we even got games in color at some point. I kept looking at this. Hey, this is something I can do. I don’t have to play their experiences. I can create my own experiences.
My brother was hugely influential for me. He had exactly the same feeling. He was doing electronics back then. He would put pieces of tape on motherboards and etch them. You’d pull off the tape and you had copper to connect the circuits. He was building stuff. We started trying to make our own games together. I do have to say, after that we took very different paths. He now runs the opera in Calgary. But a lot of this was really the two Cerny boys just being fascinate by the idea that we could make games, back in the ‘70s.
Keighley: I didn’t know there was another Cerny. So the two Cernys loving the idea of interactive technology — you mentioned you both went to Berkeley, but you were a bit earlier. Everyone knows that in the formative years of Atari, you were there, building content and games. How did you find your way from experimenting with your brother to getting a job in the industry?
Cerny: Today there are all these amazing tools. If you want to make games you can pretty much make games. I mean, you still might want PR and publishing and all of that, but actually making the game is not too distant. If you go back to our era, you needed to be associated with some large corporation to do anything.
Amy’s breakthrough, she went to the right garage sale. In my case, I was interviewed for a book on video game strategies. There were no game magazines, so if you wanted to get better at playing an arcade game, you’d buy a book and the book would tell you the strategies. I was a very good player. At Defender I might have been the best player in the states. I was definitely the best player in the San Francisco bay area. I got interviewed for this book.
And then, just a coincidence, a couple of months later I was really getting tired of college. I was looking at maybe moving into games somehow, but I didn’t have a way in. On a random weekday night, mom didn’t want to cook, so we were down in the flats in Berkeley going to get a Chinese dinner. This reporter’s walking down the street and I asked him if I could get an interview at one of these places, because he’d also interviewed the creators. The times were so different. He said yes. He was a starving writer, and it was going to cost money to call from San Francisco to San Jose. Real money. But he said that if he could have $20 to make that hour-long phone call and explain the whole situation to the vice president at Atari, he’d be happy to do it. That’s the cost of the phone call. Add inflation, it’s $70 today.
Just a chance meeting, but it all turned out great. Atari, for some reason — I was 17 years and four months old. They thought, why not take a chance on this kid?
Keighley: And you never looked back.
Cerny: I’m glad he gave me the chance. I’m very grateful.
Keighley: You, Amy, as you mentioned, were going to film school. You were interested in telling stories. Early games, there was a bit of narrative there, but it was about the mechanical experience.
Hennig: These cartridges couldn’t do dialogue, so game stories were, you know, the President has been kidnapped.
Cerny: Our stories were the art on the side of the arcade cabinet.
Hennig: But stories in general, there was text on the screen if you had that.
Keighley: Were you drawn to the idea of doing more with story in these games, when you were first getting a job? What was driving you?
Hennig: I don’t think I was that forward-thinking. In hindsight maybe I was, or maybe I was guided by some premonition of where the industry would go. But I think it was just clear—I could see the labyrinth I was going to have to work my way through in the film industry. It’s not that I wasn’t willing to do that, but I saw this other industry where it seemed like the rules hadn’t been written yet. Even just working on that small Atari game, I felt myself sparked in ways I hadn’t felt even in school.
While it’s cool to learn all this stuff, I was learning about things that other people had already figured out. Whereas trying to make a game, we had to figure it out. There were no tools. We were just an artist and an animator. It was a side-scrolling Atari game. I thought the Atari 7800 could do better than what I’d seen, so I ruthlessly copied from the Nintendo Power magazines. Also, I’d kind of lied about my ability to do this job, because I needed the money.
Cerny: My first job interview, they were talking about programming experience. I talked about my largest assembly program I’d created. I neglected to mention it was the only assembly program I’d created.
Hennig: So I cribbed, shamelessly. I literally had a magnifying glass and I looked at the Nintendo Power magazines to figure out how they were using those few pixels we had. Which is crazy now, thinking about how you have access to all this software and all these tools. There was nothing. Every piece of software I had, most of it was pirated. I didn’t have any money.
I had to figure out clever ways — I used a French program called Graphist Paint, which was a precursor to Photoshop that people have forgotten about. That was bootleg. I used MacroMind Director, was that it? To do animations. I had a Mac for the other work I did to make money. I would port everything over to the Atari ST. But to lay out the levels, we had no tile editor or anything like that. I drew them on paper, and then I took the cheat sheet — this is probably too elaborate. I drew out every tile, like the corner of a platform, and I had to give every single one a hex ID.
To lay out the levels I would go to the programmer’s house and we would sit in his kitchen at the table. I would read the first column in hex of every tile I was using. Then I would give the hex number for the next column and read down the hex IDs of the tiles in my little drawn-out map. It would take us forever. Then we’d have to go back and fix anything if I’d read it wrong or it was flipped. That’s what it took. But it was inspiring.
In film school we were learning about the Lumiere brothers and Edward Porter and Sergei Eisenstein, people who had to figure out what film was. But then we were just following their lead. In games, we got to be those people. We got to figure out how we were going to make this stuff, what the mechanics and the language of these games would be. That’s what inspired me. I wasn’t thinking so far ahead like, “Someday, we’ll have photorealistic characters.” I was just intrigued by the fact that we had to solve such bizarre technical problems. I kind of got off on it. It was fun.