Intro to Gaming 101: The PlayStation Origin Story
Welcome back class! Last week, we discussed the process for upgrading the hard drive in the PlayStation 4. This week, since we are now less than two weeks from the PS4 launch, I decided we should discuss the history of the PlayStation. Most gamers recognize the PlayStation brand as being almost synonymous with gaming, with Sony as one of the leaders and pioneers of the industry. However, how many of you know that if it had not been for a bad business decision from Nintendo, or a premature announcement from Sega, the landscape of the industry could have been vastly different?
Most know that the PlayStation was the “baby” of Ken Kutaragi, a Sony executive from the hardware engineering division. However, the PlayStation was not originally a Sony console, but a console add-on for Nintendo. Beginning in 1988, Sony and Nintendo worked together towards the development of a Super Nintendo console with a CD-ROM drive. Instead of Solid Snake, Sweet Tooth, and Cloud being among the iconic characters of the first PlayStation; it was originally meant to be Mario, Link, and Samus.
The first iteration of the PlayStation, a Super Famicom (Super NES) with a built-in CD-ROM, was shown at the June 1991 Consumer Electronics Show. The day following the announcement would change the course of the gaming industry forever. On that day, Nintendo announced they would be dropping Sony as a partner on the CD-ROM project. Instead, Nintendo would partner with Phillips, who had offered Nintendo a more favorable revenue share in return for the use of key Nintendo licenses on their own CD-i system. Nintendo offered Sony a “non-gaming role” in the system’s development, but Kutaragi refused, incensed by Nintendo’s “betrayal.” Negotiations between the two companies ended in May 1992, with the future of the PlayStation very much in doubt.
The PlayStation had never been a popular concept among the older members of Sony’s board. After negotiations ceased in May of 1992, many of these same board members were ready to kill Kutaragi’s pet project. A meeting was held between Sony President Norio Ohga, Kutaragi himself, and several senior board members. During the meeting, Kutaragi revealed that he had been developing a stand alone console based on the work the company had been doing for Nintendo. This brand new system would be capable of playing video games that mimicked 3D action and environments, something that had not been done in gaming. President Ohga, himself infuriated by Nintendo’s actions, allowed Kutaragi to continue work on the project. However, disapproval from the majority of the board members present (and much internal conflict within Sony over the project) forced Ohga to re-assign the project to the Sony Music division. The board members felt that this move would keep the PlayStation out of sight and mind, and that the console would never see the light of day again.
The board did not account for how closely Kutaragi would work with the CEO of Sony Music, Shigeo Maruyama. Together, they (along with Akira Sato) formed Sony Computer Entertainment, Inc. SCEI used Sony Music’s clout to attract creative talent to the company. Working in conjunction with Sony Music also made the production, marketing, and manufacturing of game discs much easier, as Sony Music had been performing the same functions with music CDs for years. After the introduction of a few other key executives, particularly Sony Interactive Entertainment (the forerunner company of SCEA) CEO Olaf Olafsson, SCEI was ready to begin its journey.
In 1993, the Sony board begrudgingly made the PlayStation Project SCEI’s first official project, well into the PlayStation’s actual development. To lure developers, SCEI brought in Phil Harrison, formerly of Mindscape Interactive, as their representative. Having worked in the game industry for years, Harrison was able to provide the industry credentials that SCEI so desperately needed.
However, it turned out that publishers and developers didn’t need much convincing. In short order, major publishers like Squaresoft, Namco, and EA began approaching Sony about the PlayStation. The companies were impressed by the move to CD technology and the ability to develop games in a 3D space. The stage was now set: SCEI had corporate approval, the right executives, and the publisher/developer support behind the console. It was time for the show to begin.
In 1995, E3 was not the spectacle it is today. Having just split from CES, the Electronic Entertainment Expo was struggling to gain respect from the media. What Sony did at the 1995 E3 would help give the Expo the exposure it needed and remains one of the most infamous moments in an event whose history has become filled with surprises and blockbuster reveals. Sega briefly became the talk of the show when they revealed the company’s newest system, the Saturn, was available on North American shelves that day, with a $399 price tag. Later that same day, Sony’s Olaf Olafsson took to the lectern and began speaking on technical numbers and figures that no one particularly cared about. It was quickly becoming clear who was going to “win” this E3, especially since Sega was the company with gaming history while Sony was a mere upstart. Then Olafsson called SCE president Steve Race to the podium. Race shifted his notes, leaned into the microphone, and simply said “299.” Race walked off stage to thunderous applause, having killed all of Sega’s momentum in one brief statement.
The rest, as they say, is history. Sony would go on to dominate the fifth generation of gaming with the PlayStation, and would continue this dominance with the PlayStation 2. If not for the folly of Nintendo and Sega, the PlayStation brand may have never become more than a footnote in the history of the gaming industry. This past E3 may have featured Nintendo and Sega competing over the next generation instead of Sony and Microsoft standing at the forefront.
That is all for this week. I hope a few of you learned something that you didn’t know today. It is important to learn about our history so that we are not doomed to repeat it. I mean, do we really need another Superman 64 or Shaq-Fu? Remember to follow me on Twitter (@TravisSBX) and Tweet me any topics you would like to see covered in this feature. Class time is every Saturday, right here on stealthybox.com. Until next week, class dismissed!