Picking the brains behind PlayStation’s game development platform, SN Systems

We chat to CTO Tom Charlesworth along with Bernard James VP Development on what it means to be part of one of the world's biggest platforms for game developers
15th August 2017

SN Systems logoSN Systems, the company behind Sony PlayStation’s game development platform, landed its headquarters in Bristol over a decade ago and has since more than doubled in size.

The company has been behind some of the most exciting game development tools in the world, often providing a firm base for some of the most highly knowledgeable and experienced in the game development tool space.

“Our goal is to help PlayStation developers make great PlayStation games”

 

Keen to find out more, we chatted to SN System’s CTO Tom Charlesworth along with Bernard James, VP Development, about going from an independent startup to supporting some of the world’s most successful video games, to being bought by gaming powerhouse Sony in 2005. Plus why it chose to set up and expand its development team in Bristol and what it means to be part of the South West tech community.

TechSPARK: What is SN Systems and what do you do?

Tom Charlesworth: (pictured left) SN Systems is a wholly owned subsidiary of Sony Interactive Entertainment (SIE) and responsible for creating development tools for PlayStation platforms currently including PlayStation4 (PS4), PlayStation4 Pro (PS4 Pro), PlayStation VR (PS VR) and PlayStation Vita (PS Vita).

In addition to our HQ in Bristol, we also have satellite offices in Dublin, Ireland and San Jose in California. In total, we employ around 85 people, most of whom are software engineers working predominantly in R&D and testing. We also have a dedicated developer services team in Bristol and San Jose who support PlayStation developers across the globe including Japan. Our core products many of which are integrated into Visual Studio include an LLVM-based CPU toolchain, debugger, CPU profiler, distributed build system and a range of target management tools.

TS: How did the company get started?

Bernard James: (pictured right) SN Systems was formed in 1990 by co-founders Andy Beveridge and Martin Day who at the time were developing their own games. As part of the process they also started creating their own development tools which they began sharing freely with friends in the industry.

Feedback was positive and requests for support grew to the point where charging became the only option. Using Psygnosis (which later became Studio Liverpool) as a publisher to sell their tools further afield, it allowed them to focus on further development of the products. It was around this time that SIE (then Sony Computer Entertainment) was planning to launch its first PlayStation and Psygnosis were sent a prototype.

“Many of the world’s largest video game studios had been using our tools for their biggest titles for many years”

 

Psygnosis approached Andy and Martin asking if they could create a development kit and that’s what they went away and did. Within 3 weeks, they were in Las Vegas showing off their work to SIE, and the end result was that their tools became the default development tools on PlayStation. This formed the basis of the company and SN continued to support further PlayStation platforms as well as several Nintendo and Sega platforms until in 2005 when SN was acquired by SIE and our development focus switched exclusively to PlayStation platforms.

TS: What have been your biggest successes to date?

BJ: To have started over 25 years ago and to still be here today, thriving in what is a highly dynamic and fast-paced industry. It hasn’t always been easy and while we’d never rest on our laurels, we are probably in the best state we’ve ever been in.

Our goal is to help PlayStation developers make great PlayStation games and the best way we can do that is to ensure our development tools are stable, mature and feature-rich. Luckily, we have many highly talented, expert software engineers, some of whom have been part of SN for well over 15 years or longer and have the required skills to deliver what PlayStation developers need.

They have extensive experience in their field and have built close relationships with many of the key developers around the world so there’s a constant desire to keep pushing boundaries and improve, just as each new PlayStation platform does for gamers. We are in regular contact with PlayStation developers and have received lots of great praise for our tools which is highly motivating for everyone here and we’d like to keep it that way.

TS: Which consoles that our readers may have played have games that were created with your tech?

BJ: Any PS4, PS4 Pro, PS VR or PS Vita game will have been developed using the SN suite of tools, so all of them!

TS: You deal with SIE’s Tokyo office on a daily basis – why do you think they purchased a Bristol based firm?

TC: At the time, we were arguably market leaders in Europe and North America and had recently opened an office in Tokyo to build further market share.

Additionally, many of the world’s largest video game studios had been using our tools for their biggest titles for many years already so we were well-known globally. Our skill set is highly specialised with very few people elsewhere in the world possessing such extensive experience, it’s not something you can find easily.

TS: You are involved with Bristol University giving out awards for programming tools projects – how did that come about and what’s involved?

BJ: It all started during the PlayStation2 days when we were an independent company. We approached several universities who were just setting up game development courses and offered them an academic discount on our tools.

“We’re passionate about helping the local development scene”

 

We wanted students to have hands-on experience so they were more employable when looking for their first job. This led to more dialogue and the offer of student internships which have been great for recruiting new talent. The student awards were a natural progression of this relationship and something we wanted to be a part of.

TS: Are you involved with the local tech community in any other way? How else can people get involved with you?

BJ: We are regular speakers and attendees at the ACCU conference and are fortunate that one of the most relevant conferences is held here in Bristol.

We’ve also provided speakers to the Bristol Games Hub, taken part in Digimakers and held the first LLVM social in Bristol. We’d like to do more in the future where we can, as we’re passionate about helping the local development scene.

TS: What’s your best advice for someone wanting to do what SN Systems does?

TC: SN Systems is successful in a niche area of the software industry. If you want to do the same in our niche or any other, aim to become an expert programmer. Writing solid, maintainable code is all well and good, but also rigorous design and testing are important too. You also need to keep pace with new language specifications and related technologies.

Learn from others via the internet, using StackOverflow and code reviews for example. Good collaboration with other team members and across divisions is also critical, including having an understanding of cultures and working practices in other countries.

Learn how your code executes on the operating system and hardware. This will help you improve code performance and find bugs.

“We’re currently recruiting in a number of areas across all our offices”

 

You also need to talk to the users of your software and try to understand what they are trying to achieve.

Finally, know that company growth needs to be sustainable. The impact of trying to do too much too soon can lower the quality of the product and cause staffing issues. So take the time to invest in the right people and then support them appropriately.

TS: What’s next for SN Systems?

TC: While we’re really pleased with where we are today there’s always room to improve. We are constantly striving to have the best suite of development tools in the industry so we need to be continually evolving our products which means not only understanding the needs of game developers but also using our experience to innovate and further develop our products.

We have to be up to date with the latest technologies and methods so games developers can take advantage of new hardware or techniques as early as possible. For example, a major bottleneck for all programmers working with a very large code base is the compile, link, debug cycle.

We already have one of the fastest linkers, efficient ‘edit and continue’ and our distributed build system (SN-DBS) is a critical part of AAA game studios build infrastructure, but we are always looking to further reduce this cycle time.

One area of research is described in a video of a talk we gave at the LLVM conference in San Jose in October 2016. You can watch it below:

 

Additionally, to meet our future goals, we’re currently recruiting in a number of areas across all our offices. The extra resources are centred around development and testing and are required to help keep us a step ahead as our business continues to grow.

Thanks to Tony for taking the time to chat to us about SN Systems. To find out more check out the SN Systems website or follow the company on Twitter here: @SNSystemsEU.