The History of the PlayStationThe greatest story ever told
Prologue B.P. (Before PlayStation)Before the release of the PlayStation, Sony had never held a large portion of the videogames market. It had made a few forays into the computer side of things, most notably in its involvement with the failed MSX chip in the early 80's, but it wasn't until the advent of CD-ROM technology that Sony could claim any market share. A joint venture with the Dutch company Philips had yielded the CD-ROM/XA, an extension of the CD-ROM format that combined compressed audio, and visual and computer data and allowed both to be accessed simultaneously with the aid of extra hardware. By the late 80's, CD-ROM technology was being assimilated, albeit slowly, into the home computer market, and Sony was right there along side it. But they wanted a bigger piece of the pie.
1988 Sony Enters The ArenaBy 1988, the gaming world was firmly gripped in Nintendo's 8-bit fist. Sega had yet to make a proper showing, and Sony, although hungry for some action, hadn't made any moves of its own. Yet.
Sony's first foray into the gaming market came in 1988, when it embarked on a deal with Nintendo to develop a CD-ROM drive for the Super NES, not scheduled to be released for another 18 months. This was Sony's chance to finally get involved in the home videogame market. What better way to enter that arena than on the coat-tails of the world's biggest gaming company?
Using the same Super Disc technology as the proposed SNES drive, Sony began development on what was to eventually become the PlayStaion. Initially called the Super Disc, it was supposed to be able to play both SNES cartridges and CD-ROMs, of which Sony was to be the "sole worldwide licenser," as stated in the contract. Nintendo was now to be at the mercy of Sony, who could manufacture their own CDs, play SNES carts, and play Sony CDs. Needless to say, Nintendo began to get worried.
1991 Multimedia Comes Home1991 saw the commercial release of the multimedia machine in the form of Philips' CD-I, which had initially been developed jointly by both Philips and Sony until mounting conflicts resulted in a parting of ways. Multimedia, with the current rise of the CD-ROM, was seen as the next big thing. And although the CD-I was too expensive for the mass market, its arrival cemented the CD-ROM as a medium for entertainment beyond the computer.
June 1991 Treachery At The 11th HourIn June of 1991, at the Chicago CES (Consumer Electronics Show), Sony officially announced the Play Station (space intentional). The Play Station would have a port to play Super Nintendo cartridges, as well as a CD-ROM drive that would play Sony Super Discs. The machine would be able to play videogames as well as other forms of interactive entertainment, as was considered important at the time.
Sony intended to draw on its family of companies, including Sony Music and Columbia Pictures, to develop software. Olaf Olafsson, then chief of Sony Electronic Publishing, was seen on the set of Hook, Steven Spielberg's new Peter Pan movie, presumably deciding how the movie could be worked into a game for the fledgling Play Station. In Fortune magazine, Olafsson was quoted as saying "The video-game business...will be much more interesting (than when it was cartridge based). By owning a studio, we can get involved right from the beginning, during the writing of the movie."
By this point, Nintendo had had just about all it could take. On top of the deal signed in 1988, Sony had also contributed the main audio chip to the cartridge-based Super NES. The Ken Kutaragi-designed chip was a key element to the system, but was designed in such a way as to make effective development possible only with Sony's expensive development tools. Sony had also retained all rights to the chip, which further exaserbated Nintendo.
The day after Sony announced its plans to begin work on the Play Station, Nintendo made an announcement of its own. Instead of confirming its alliance with Sony, as everyone expected, Nintendo announced it was working with Philips, Sony's longtime rivals, on the SNES CD-ROM drive. Sony was understandably furious.
Because of their contract-breaking actions, Nintendo not only faced legal repercussions from Sony, but could also experience a serious backlash from the Japanese business community. Nintendo had broken the unwritten law that a company shouldn't turn against a reigning Japanese company in favor of a foreign one.
However, Nintendo managed to escape without a penalty. Because of their mutual involvement, it would be in the best interests of both companies to maintain friendly relations. Sony, after all, was planning a port for SNES carts, and Nintendo was still using the Sony audio chip.
1992 The Smoke ClearsBy the end of 1992, most of the storm had blown over. Despite a deal penned between Sega, one of Nintendo's biggest competitors, and Sony, whereby Sony would produce software for the proposed Sega Multimedia Entertainment System, negotiations were reached with Nintendo. In October of 1992, it was announced that the two companies' CD-ROM players would be compatible. The software licensing for the proposed 32-bit machines was awarded to Nintendo, with Sony receiving only minimal licensing royalties. Nintendo had won this battle, but hadn't won the war. Not by a long shot.
The first Play Station never made it out of the factories. Apparently, about 200 were produced, and some software even made it to development. For whatever reason, whether it was because of the tough licensing deal with Nintendo, or the predicted passing of masked ROM (cartridge-based) technology, Sony scrapped its prototype. Steve Race, Sony Computer Entertainment Of America's (SCEA) then CEO, stated, "Since the deal with Nintendo didn't come to fruition we decided to put games on a back burner and wait for the next category. Generally, the gaming industry has a seven-year product life-cycle, so we bided our time until we could get in on the next cycle."
1993 The Next CycleAfter returning to the drawing boards, Sony revealed the PS-X, or PlayStation-X. Gone was the original cartridge port, as were the plans for multimedia. Apparently, Sony had visited 3DO when Trip Hawkins was selling his hardware and had come away unimpressed, saying it was "nothing new." The PS-X was to be a dedicated game-machine, pure and simple. Steve Race said in Next Generation magazine, "We designed the PlayStation to be the best game player we could possibly make. Games really are multimedia, no matter what we want to call it. The conclusion is that the PlayStation is a multimedia machine that is positioned as the ultimate game player."
Key to Sony's battle plan was the implementation of 3D into its graphics capabilities, a move that many felt was critical to any kind of future success. At the core of the PlayStation's 3D prowess was the R3000 processor, operating at 33 Mhz and 30 MIPS (millions of instructions per second). While this may seem fairly average for a RISC CPU, it's the PlayStation's supplementary custom hardware, designed by Ken Kutaragi (who had previously designed the key audio chip for the SNES), that provides the real power. The CPU relies heavily on Kutaragi's VLSI (very large scale integration) chip to provide the speed necessary to process complex 3D graphics quickly.
The CPU is backed up by the GPU (Graphics Processing Unit), which takes care of all the data from the CPU and passes the results to the 1024K of dual-ported VRAM, which stores the current frame buffer and allows the picture to be displayed on-screen. Part of this picture involves adding special effects such as transparency and fog, something that the PlayStation excels at. This was to be the most impressive display of hardware the home gaming world had ever seen
1994 Third Party Round UpThere was no doubt that Sony could deliver the hardware. After all, Sony was one of the world's largest manufacturers of electronics. There was no denying though, that Sony was extremely green when it came to videogames. And no one knew it better than Sony.
Not wanting to end up like Atari or 3DO, Sony set about rounding up third party developers, assembling an impressive 250 developing parties in Japan alone. Sony also knew it had to gain the support of the millions of arcade-going gamers if it was to succeed. The involvement of Namco, Konami, and Williams helped ensure Sony would be able to compete with the arcade-savvy Sega on its own turf. Namco's Ridge Racer was the natural choice to be the flagship launch game, and Williams' Mortal Kombat III, previously promised to Nintendo for their Ultra 64, could be tested in the arcades using the new PS-X board.
Perhaps Sony's most controversial acquisition was the purchase of Psygnosis, a relatively unknown European developer, for $48 million. Sony needed a strong in-house development team, and Psygnosis' Lemmings seemed to point at good things. While the purchase confused many at the time, prompting vocal outcries from naysayers and competitors alike, Psygnosis has since proven them all wrong. Sony Interactive Entertainment, as Psygnosis was renamed, has been responsible for some of the PlayStation's best games, including WipeOut and Destruction Derby.
Sony's acquisition of Psygnosis yielded another fruit as well: the development system. SN Systems, co-owned by Andy Beveridge and Martin Day, had been publishing its development software through Psygnosis under the PSY-Q moniker. Sony originally had been planning on using expensive, Japanese MIPS R4000-based machines that would be connected to the prototype PS-X box. Having become accustomed to developing on the PC, Psygnosis gave Beveridge and Day first crack at creating a PlayStation development system that would work with a standard PC.
The two men worked through Christmas and New Year's, around the clock, eventually completing the GNU-C compiler and the source-level debugger. Psygnosis quickly arranged a meeting for SN and Sony at the Winter CES in Las Vegas, 1994. Fortunately, Sony liked the PSY-Q alternative and decided to work with SN Systems on cendensing the software onto two PC-compatible cards. Thus, an afordable and, more importantly, universally compatible PlayStation development station was born.
December 3, 1994 We Have Lift OffOn December 3, 1994, the PlayStation was finally released in Japan, one week after the Sega Saturn. The initial retail cost was 37,000 yen, or about $387. Software available at launch included King's Field, Crime Crackers, and Namco's Ridge Racer, the PlayStation's first certifiable killer app. It was met with long lines across Japan, and was hailed by Sony as their most important product since the WalkMan in the late 1970's.
Also available at launch were a host of peripherals, including: a memory card to save high scores and games; a link cable, whereby you could connect two PlayStations and two TVs and play against a friend; a mouse with pad for PC ports; an RFU Adaptor; an S-Video Adaptor; and a Multitap Unit. Third party peripherals were also available, including Namco's Negcon.
The look of the PlayStation was dramatically different than the Saturn, which was beige (in Japan), bulky, and somewhat clumsy looking. In contrast, the PlayStation was slim, sleek, and gray, with a revolutionary controller that was years ahead of the Saturn's SNES-like pad. The new PSX joypad provided unheardof control by adding two more buttons on the shoulder, making a total of eight buttons. The two extended grips also added a new element of control. Ken Kutaragi realized the importance of control when dealing with 3 Dimensional game worlds. "We probably spent as much time on the joypad's development as the body of the machine. Sony's boss showed special interest in achieving the final version so it has his seal of approval." To Sony's delight, the PlayStation sold more than 300,000 units in the first 30 days. The Saturn claimed to have sold 400,000, but research has shown that number to be misleading. The PSX sold through (to customers) 97% of its stock, while many Saturns were still sitting on the shelves. These misleading numbers were to be quoted by Sega on many occasions, and continued even after the US launch.
1995 Setting Up HouseBy mid-1995, Sony had set its sights firmly on the United States. Sony Computer Entertainment of America was created and housed in Foster City, California, in the heart of Silicon Valley. Steve Race, formerly of Atari, was appointed as president and CEO of the new branch of Sony.
The accumulation of third party developers continued apace, with over 100 licenses in the US and 270 licenses in Japan secured. Steve Race said, "We've allowed people to come in and to play on the PlayStation - and at a much more reasonable cost than has been done in the old days with Nintendo and Sega." Sony's development strategy had paid off, with over 700 development units having been shipped out worldwide.
May 11, 1995 Victory At E3The Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) was held in Los Angeles from May 11 to 13, 1995, and was the United State's first real look at the PlayStation. Sony made a huge impression at the show with their (rumored) $4 million booth and surprise appearance by Michael Jackson. The PSX was definitely the highlight of the show, besting Sega's Saturn and Nintendo's laughable Virtual Boy.
The launch software was also displayed, with WipeOut and Namco's Tekken and Ridge Racer drawing the most praise. Sony also announced the unit would not be bundled with Ridge Racer, as was previously assumed.
Overall, Sony made a very formidable showing at E3. They had already proven themselves in Japan and were close on Sega's heels. Over the course of the next year they would overtake Sega and conquer Japan as their own. Now they were poised to do the same in America.
September 9, 1995 You Are Not ReadyThe PlayStation launched in the United States on September 9, 1995 to instant success. Although it retailed for $299, that was still $100 less than the Sega Saturn. Over 100,000 units were already presold at launch, and 17 games were available. Stores reported sell-outs across the country, and sold out of many games and peripherals as well, including second controllers and memory cards.
Sony's initial marketing strategy seemed to be aimed at an older audience than the traditional 8-16 year old demographic of the past. With the tag line "U R Not E" (the "E" being red) and a rumored $40 million to spend on launch marketing, Sony swiftly positioned itself as the market leader. To further cement their audience demographic, Sony sponsored the 1995 MTV Music Awards.
Epilogue What A YearBy the US launch, Sony had sold over one million PlayStations in Japan alone. Since the US launch, as of late 1996, the PlayStation has sold over 7 million units worldwide, with close to two million of those being in the US alone. In May of 1996, Sony dropped the price of the PlayStation to $199, making it even more attractive to buy.
Like Japan, America and Europe embraced the PlayStation as their next-gen console of choice. The demographic of PlayStation owners has fallen in years steadily from twenty-somethings to the younger age bracket so coveted by Nintendo. In fact, many former Nintendo loyalists, tired of waiting for the Nintendo 64 to be released, bought PlayStations and are now happier for it. With close to 200 games available by Christmas 1996, it's easy to see why. This really is the ultimate gaming console!