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Midlife Gamer Meets: SN Systems

September 15th, 2010 by

One rainy day in mid-July I visited one of the most important places in the world for PlayStation fans. It wasn’t in Tokyo or Silicon Valley or London, it was right in my back yard, in the beautiful city of Bristol. Walking nervously through the rotating doors of the modest looking Hartwell House – situated just on the outskirts of this incredible city – I immediately began to wonder if I had come to the right place. Surely this can’t be the home of SNSYS, the SCEI owned development tool company responsible, in many ways, for every Blu-Ray you pop into your PS3, for the future of game development on the world’s most powerful home console…?

And yet the unassuming sign on the glass fronted building was not lying and duly I was shown inside. Meeting a rather soaked Xero at the lobby doors was Tony Liviabella, a very soft spoken man, with an infectiously relaxed demeanour. With us making small talk about the day, Tony showed me round the spacious office / IT lab hybrid work environment and, I have to admit, I was initially a little underwhelmed. ? Where was the tedious, boiler plate PR spiel about the company? Where were the rows and rows of bored looking coders looking to the clock at the end of a hard day of software development?

Instead, Tony showed me the smart, sleek, open plan office replete with desks filled with personality and personalities. There were staff hard at work, engaged in thoughtful group conversation or, in the case of the boys-own-paradise that was the staff room, taking a break with an intense game of Foosball.

This is not what I had imagined.

I was then shown into a huge meeting room. “Ah!” I thought, “Here we go. This is more like it.” Seated at the end of the biggest conference table I have ever laid eyes upon, I was told that the Director and Software Development Manager of SN Systems would join us in just a moment. Left to my own devices I began to get myself ready for the interview: pen, paper, questions, Dictaphone.

It was at this point I noticed the bear.

A stuffed bear to be exact. And it’s at this point that Tony returned with Andy and Bernard, coincidentally talking about the very same thing…

From L-R: Andy Beveridge, Tony Liviabella, Bernard James

Andy Beveridge: They have one of these bears in the hotel in Tokyo and the last time we were in there, RJ left early and when he got up he pushed the bear behind us. I was in a fairly technical conversation with some of the guys of the time and I was just ignoring this thing going on to my left. There’s now a photo of me in a fairly serious conversation with the bear in the background. And now everyone at SCE has seen the photograph, ‘you’re the guy with the bear’  they say.

After my last trip to Japan, after I got back, a large box turned up and that bear was inside it, and there was no sign of who’d sent it. It was the Americans.

Tony Liviabella: Now he frequents all our meetings.

A: Well now we’ve got to keep him here so that when the Americans visit we take it and them to British pubs and take photographs of people with it.

What an introduction. The straightforward talking Andy was another eye opener, a man with a big job on his hands, guiding the production of the tools that make the games we know and love on PlayStation products, was cracking jokes and telling stories. A thoughtful, sharp man, he was evidently on the ball, but it was the deep and clear, Welsh accented voice of Bernard James that was first to answer the question we ask everyone we meet. He’d done his homework on Midlife Gamer and given the biscuit and beverage question some serious thought…

Bernard James: Chocolate chip cookie and Rum Punch.

T: Hmmm… Mojito for the drink. For the biscuit… that’s a tough one… I’ll go with shortbread…

A: Anything with chocolate on.

Xero: Is that for both?

A: Oh drink… its usually coffee!

X: So can you introduce yourselves and tell us a bit about SNSYS?

A: I’m Andy Beveridge, I co-founded – as Martin always tells me to say – SN… twenty two years ago…?

T: Well officially it’s twenty years. The SN Systems name became available then. Which is pretty cool , PlayStation itself is celebrating 15 years as well!

A: So twenty… two years ago we were doing games, myself and my colleague Martin Day. We  wrote our own development tools and gained developer friends that we gave the product to for free, and they said “you should sell those” and we said “no… no we don’t want to get involved in all that, there’ll be trouble”. And then they started wanting support, so we were giving them away for free and they wanted support so we had to start charging them and it really took off from there. Originally Martin wrote an assembler and I wrote a debugger. We quickly had to do more platforms, more components, we got more and more involved in that and less involved in the games. And to our surprise, we’d always thought of ourselves as game developers, but its actually not a very easy way to make a living, because most of the games don’t make any money.  Lots of our games got great reviews but didn’t actually sell in huge numbers. So the income was fairly erratic and it quickly became clear that tools was steadier work.

At the time we got involved with SCEI, we were publishing through Psygnosis just as our publisher. We didn’t really want to deal with that customer facing stuff and Psygnosis were happy to do that  for us. We got word from Psygnosis that there was some exciting new technology to play with and we got lots of strong hints for a while but didn’t actually see anything. Then one day, out of the blue, we got a phone call saying, “we’ve got this box, we need a development kit for it, will you do it?”

And we went and collected the box, and it was a PlayStation prototype, a great big metal box with fans on the side. We took it back to the office and took it apart and produced a dev kit for it. That box arrived on December the 12th and on January the 2nd I think it was, we went to Las Vegas to show it to SCEI. And they saw it and made it the development tools for PlayStation.

I remember, when we went to Vegas, we’d been awake, working, for three days solid, so we were in a bit of a state and then we had a six hour stop over at San Francisco. So we arrived at Vegas a bit late and we were staying at the MGM Grand Hotel that had been completed just a few weeks earlier – Shirley Bassey had opened it – and the hotel wasn’t working very well at this point. It had only just opened and it was absolute chaos and we’d turned up late and they’d let all our rooms go.

So we turned up barely able to stay awake in a long queue to get to the front, just to be told our rooms weren’t available and I just wanted to lie on the floor and cry. We haven’t looked back…

B: My name’s Bernard James and I’m VP of development, so whereas Andy and Martin lead the technical direction of the products, I lead the production of them, in that I lead the various teams that make the products to make sure we have the right people in the teams, we have the right resources, we meet the schedules and so on.

T: I’m Tony Liviabella I’m European Developer Relations, so my role is a non-technical role, I look after all of the European game studios. Very much part of the process is the way the tools evolve through feedback with our development studios, so part of that is actually building a relationship with them to find out what they want, and the only way to get that is with adequate communications and good relationships with them.

X: At a basic level, what is it exactly that you guys produce, where are you in the development cycle? Because, obviously you don’t get a huge amount of coverage, it’s not a sexy, big name area of gaming, but you’re crucial to the industry, especially SCE, as a whole…

A: I get horrible looks from my wife when I get asked “and what do you do?” Because there’s various ways that you can answer it, and she always thinks I over do it! If I say I’m in computer software, any mention of PlayStation and people want details of exactly what you do and the more details you tell them, the more they haven’t got a clue. Then my wife gives me this annoyed look, “just say you’re in computers” she tells me.

B: I can have a go because I’m in a similar position. Every programmer who wants to make a game has to use a compiler. You use it day in, day out so that’s one of our core tools and it’s our biggest team, the compiler team. They don’t want to use a debugger, but they can’t write bug free code 1st time, so they have to use a debugger. They probably use it every day, though they may not admit to it. Once the bugs are out then they want to make the game run efficiently, so we have a tool called Tuner and that helps the work.

On PlayStation 3 you’re trying to get your code to run in parallel on up to seven processors at the same time and the Tuner helps you see where you’re not doing that, and from there you can go back and change your code. In the early life of a platform like PlayStation 3 it’s all about  a lot of pressure to give the developers the features they need and the tools to get the best from the platform. But by this stage in the life cycle, we’ve probably got the features in there, what we’re trying to do now is make the features run more efficiently.

A whole game that’s got over 1000 C+ files in it can take over an hour to build so we’ve spent a lot of time to get that build time shorter. By reducing time for the programmer it means that he can spend other time looking at his code and making it more efficient.

A: Along the way we’ve looked at most aspects of what game developers have to do. By game developers we tend to focus on the core programmers, in the past we’ve done hardware products and software products and not just the central technology that Bernard talked about. We’ve done optical disc emulation systems, we began that with the SEGA CD and the SEGA Saturn for example, which is a piece of hardware that behaves like a CD but you can re-write it easily from software. We try and look at the work flow, so we look at what the game developer has to do and try to make it easier for them to do that.

We create the tools to build it, the tools to debug it and the tools to analyse performance.

X: So you’re intrinsic, really, to every section of the building process?

A: Yeah, but we don’t really get involved with the audio pipeline or the graphics pipeline, we leave that to the experts.

I guess there are things that, strictly speaking, they are programmers tools that game developers use that are aside from what we do. The main core tools themselves have increased in complexity so much, that a technical tool suite is made up of many different components and they’re all so much more versatile than they were back then and they have to interoperate with the rest of the SDK.

Even back on the original PlayStation we had to be very involved with the guys from Tokyo and we’d hardly left the country before that, it was a big shock, certainly we were spending weeks out there. Then PlayStation 2 (PS2), more complex again, it had special co-processors to do maths, and no one had seen those before. The PS2 system was like several computers in one box, the PS3 even more so. So it’s now much more complicated and it takes a much larger team to do it, myself and Martin could not put a dev kit together these days!

X: Is it fair to say that you are a part of every title that’s on the PlayStation format?

A: Certainly on PS3 and the original PlayStation, not necessarily on PS2.

X: And why was that?

T: We had a competitor product, studios could choose which one to use. But by the time we got bought out by SCEI I think we had 65% of the market. For the PS2 system they opened up the market. We went from being the official tool set on the original PlayStation, where every developer got the SN Tools, to on the PS2 system where we had to actively go out and court studios.

X: Do you handle PSP (PlayStation Portable) tool development as well?

All: Yep.

X: Do you ever feel as if you are out of the lime light of development? Does that bother you? Or are you happy with the levels of exposure you get?

A: The game developers know who we are. That’s the important thing. Tony mentioned that he handles developer relations, and that important to us because it’s where we came from. Although we’re engineers in the beginning, our reputation was built on developer relations because when a game developer that was using our products had a problem they would phone the company, and the company was just a bunch of programmers, so they found themselves on the phone actually talking to the person who wrote the tool they were using, that’s quite unusual.

Most companies that have products will have several lines of support, you don’t get through to the people who’re making the product. I guess it kind of happened by accident, but people were really appreciative of when they called up with a bug and they were talking to someone who knew exactly what they meant and not only that but could fix it and send something back to them very quickly, and as we’ve scaled it’s been very important to keep that up.

X: What are the benefits of working with the massive and influential company that is SCEI? What are the potential drawbacks?

All: (Laugh)

A: I think for the guys that work here it’s very nice. Because they have an opportunity, pretty much any time, to work here, London, San José, Foster City, Dublin, Japan. We have people transfer between all those.

T: It’s definitely a kudos on the recruitment side, because we’re always looking for people with talent and graduates who are looking for a career path see SCEI and they’re interested.

In terms of access to information when we were an independent company, it wasn’t so easy for us to adapt our tools as we can now, because we get to speak to the actual hardware people back in Tokyo.

A: That’s perhaps a downside too, there’s almost too much information now, because you have to be very good at filtering it.

T: Yeah, but in terms of making changes to products, like the PS3 tools, when they launched, had a few issues but we were able to quickly rectify those, send some guys out to Japan, spend some time with the people we needed to speak to directly.  There is a lot of information but not having enough information is also a bad thing.

A: It’s the scale of the projects as well though, there is so much to know about a PS3, it’s not like the old days, so it’s very hard for one person to know everything and we’ve very much got people who are domain experts now.

B: For me, in getting the products made, it’s an advantage because we’ve got good communications  with other SCE R&D teams in Tokyo, London and California. We share the same servers, so all the technical information is available to us. Before we were bought by SCEI we had very limited access to information.

A: We were very self contained weren’t we?

B: We can make better products now and when we see chances for improvement we can then get other R&D teams to make changes in other areas and that would have never have happened before.

A: It does mean quite often that a solution to a problem involves travel, so a few weeks ago we came to the conclusion that the best way to tackle a certain situation was if five of us travelled to Tokyo.

T: I guess the whole business model of being an independent company was a bit of a roller-coaster, in terms of, when a console would launch we’d sell vast amounts of licenses for our products and get a huge influx of finance, but then after that we’d then have to supplement the income. And with each console you don’t know how much of a business you’re going to get so trying to build a team around that is a huge gamble. Now we don’t sell any of our products, they’re all part of the SDK, so when you become a registered PlayStation developer and buy your hardware, you just download our software from the site. So there isn’t that financial pressure on us any more in that sense. The pressure now is to deliver the best tools we can. In terms of job security its better because you don’t have that added pressure.

X: How early do you get access to newer consoles and newer hardware. How much do the requirements of the developers affect what is contained within the tools? Is it that you create the tools and therefore dictate what they can make or is it a case of they tell you what they want, and you make it?

A: Well we work with different groups from that point of view. [There are] the engineers in R&D in Tokyo who are making things, we work with the first party game developers who will often be working on very early launch titles for the machines and then we work with the third parties. Quite often we’ll have requests for tools that will be internal or just for first party or we produce a piece of technology that the first party guys need for the tools that they’re making, or something that will be released across the board to everyone. So it varies…

T: In terms of the debugger and compiler it’s a pretty standard format for each console so we know what we need to deliver…

A: We know how long it takes…

X: So how much time do you have to work on these new formats?

A: Some things happen very quickly, some things take a long time… things like SDKs take a very long time to put together, on the other hand if someone internally wants a new tool in a few weeks, we usually can do it quickly.

T: We usually get a heads up on things like PSPgo way before it happens.

X: And how do you handle keeping that information within the company? Apple for example is extremely strict with how it handles press, how do you guys handle keeping certain sensitive information under wraps that I’m sure some journalists would knife their grannies for?

A: Well we’re not really public facing, so this isn’t a conversation we usually have with people, so it’s not normally a problem! We’re very… internal… (laughs)

X: How did going back to being very much independent during the PS2 era affect the company?

B: PS2 era, we had to, I think, as a company get more organised, had to create a sales team, had to make sure no one could steal your products, had to develop software to protect the software.

A: PS2 was the biggest shift by far.

T: We had to brand the tools as well.

B: You couldn’t assume people knew you were there in a way, you had to go out there, had to go to GDC and other shows, had to take a big expensive booth on the floor to let people know who you were… and then once you start going you always have to go, because if you’re not there next year they think ‘oh they’ve gone out of business’.

X: We move on then from the original PlayStation, PS2 and now into the PS3 era and there was a lot of criticism of the third PlayStation, especially early on that it was – and to some extent still is – an extremely difficult console to work with. Gabe Newell of Valve for example made his feelings very clear, though admittedly not so much any more…

(the team smile)

What’s your experience of the hardware been? Is it a hard console to create software for, or is it that some developers don’t particularly understand it? Or is there a greater plan in the way the system’s been designed? For example a quote from Kaz Hirai: ‘we don’t provide the easy to program for console that developers want because easy to program for means that anybody will be able to take advantage of pretty much what the hardware can do, so then the questions is, what do you do for the rest of the 9 and half years?’

(the team’s smiles widen)

A: I don’t know if it’s harder in the way that would suggest. I think that the big issue for most developers is that it’s different. So if you just take the hardware and look at what you can do with it, there’s an approach that’s different to how you program other things. If you just program for the PS3 system, you get a lot of fun from it. I’m a geek, an engineer, and its very exciting stuff to work with. When it’s not so exciting is when you’re making a game for three of four platforms and there’s this one over here that’s this crazy architecture and if you wrote it for something else it doesn’t just port easily, it can be quite a lot of work to get the best out of PS3. It’s a lot easier for the guys leading on PS3 or writing just for PS3, the multi platform guys probably have the hardest time with it.

X: Not to look too much ahead, but in a recent quote from Shuhei Yoshida, he said that he wanted to ‘get worldwide studios in on hardware development’. How do you feel about a potential PS4 being based on developers needs?

A: I think it’s a fantastic idea. From our point of view, it’s the game developers that are using the tools, it’s the game developers that define what the tools should be and I see no reason not to extend that to the console itself. The guys making the games know what they need from a games console and a bunch of engineers working in isolation in Tokyo, making fabulous chips and great technology, isn’t necessarily interested in what the game devs need. There’s a lot of first party guys with a lot of experience in game development, we’d be wrong to ignore that.

X: What kind of people do you get working at SNSYS? Is it a lot of stony faced programmers or is it a kind of light hearted and jovial atmosphere?

T: (To Andy) We’ve got all sorts haven’t we?

A: There’s quite a few geeks!

(Room laughs)

T: I think everyone shares that geekness, you know?

A: You’ve got to be driven by the technology haven’t you?

T: Yeah, there’s lots of gamers here too. To speak for myself, I’m the only male non-programmer in the entire company, but I still consider myself a geek in terms of loving video games. Everyone here, everyone shares a common interest but we’ve got all sorts of people. We’ve got guys who play games like World Of Warcraft and Modern Warfare every day and we’ve got guys who run marathons (and some who do both), but there’s a really good community. It’s a very informal office, we run flexitime so we’ve got some guys who turn up at half six every morning and we’ve got some who turn up at eleven. But people know that they have to deliver.

Some people have earned their stripes and have done a lot for the company, they’re well respected by the younger guys. We’ve got a lot of graduates now, so that’s added an extra element that we probably haven’t had in the past.

X: Do you take a lot of graduates from the local area? Is Bristol a good place for programming talent?

B: It is! We’ve probably got half a dozen guys from Bristol University and a couple from The University of Western England. We also take students who have done two years of their course and they come and work here for a year.

X: We’re in a precarious place, economically, and for the first time in its history SCE are in third place in the console race. How has SCE’s position affected you and do sales of consoles affect you?

A: (Laughing) I don’t even look at the market to be honest, I’m so deeply immersed in the technology that I’m not really aware of it at all!

B: Well I get involved in, you know, the budget, which you have to negotiate with SCE in Tokyo and, yeah, it’s probably harder to justify that you need more staff. We’re very lucky that we haven’t laid off any staff during this difficult economic period and we have been able to recruit staff and I think that’s a very good thing about being a part of SCE. It’s that they are forward thinking, in that they see the value of R&D, maybe more than if we were part of a European organisation.

T: There’s definitely an element within the company, just a natural decision to not waste money. I think that it’s an element of respect you know?

X: Is it quite a tight ship?

T: Well no one likes to be wasteful…

A: I think that’s just natural as British people isn’t it?

(Laughs)

When we’re in Tokyo, you’re looking around the hotel and everything’s about ten times more expensive! So we have breakfast at a little café down the road and the guys do their laundry in the bath! Not because SCE won’t pay for their laundry but because they’re just shocked and horrified at what the hotel charges for it!

X: Final question for you guys, you’re all obviously very passionate about what you do and I can see it’s a great environment to work in, but I’d like to ask you all individually what it is that you love about your job? What it is that gets you up in the morning and makes you think ‘I’m going to make these tools for a living’?

B: For me, and I think its the same for a lot of the team, it’s solving problems. Communication between teams, how fast can we recruit someone, team management. That’s what I like doing and it’s then seeing what then happens downstream.

A: Yep, solving problems. I mean programming is all about solving problems. It’s why game developers do game development for the most part, they have unbelievably tricky problems and they get huge pleasure from solving them, and it’s the same for us. Over the last twenty or so years, the times that have been the worst – everyone has bad times occasionally – it’s when you’ve got a load of problems in front of you and you just don’t feel you can make a difference, when you feel that what you’re doing isn’t making a difference. That’s what keeps us going I think, not just that you’re solving problems, but those problems that you’re solving are making a difference.

T: The industry itself is just so unique, I studied biochemistry before this, but I was always a huge gamer and it was always my ambition to get into the industry. And once I did, you know, I’ve met so many nice people, and so many nice people in high places which is the remarkable thing, so many interesting people, so many passionate people.

No matter which studio you go to, no matter if it’s an independent studio of 3 guys or EA, they’re all just as passionate, they’re all really passionate, they’re all really nice guys. When you do get to help them out with a problem and you get a nice little email with a ‘thanks for that’, you know that guy’s been up ’til 3 in the morning pulling his hair out, and it’s just a really nice feeling to do that.

A: The game studios really are amazing places, they’re all so different, it’s very important for the guys out there [in the office] to stay connected with that, you know? We’re not just sat in an office churning out software that you never see the end result of, the guys out there see the games and some of them are nuts about that.

If you’re interested in SN Systems and would like to know even more about the company, check out their official website at snsys.com

3 Responses to “Midlife Gamer Meets: SN Systems”
  1. avatar Hugo Rune says:

    That made for a great read. Considering our daughter is a tools project manager for Intel I have to confess I now understand more about what she does than I did before! Thanks Xero

  2. avatar FrostieD says:

    Fantastic review Xero, really great and interesting stuff… now should really get back to work!

  3. avatar Jurassic Prinny says:

    Nice work.

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