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Celebrating an Old Grey Box: PlayStation Is 20 Years Old

In 1994, Sony came up with a system that managed to create its own market and wipe out all competitors.

by Mike Diver
25 November 2014, 11:23am

All illustrations by Stephen Maurice Graham

In November of 1994, console gaming was in a safe, comfortable space. There were two market leaders, Nintendo and Sega, selling vast quantities of their respective 16bit systems: the Super Nintendo/Famicom and the Mega Drive/Genesis. But the world was just weeks away from a revolution.

Launched in Japan on the 3rd of December, 1994 – and in Europe and the US in September of 1995 – Sony's PlayStation changed everything. No longer was the console war a two-company contest. The introduction of a new, 32bit machine to the market shook things up like never before, the PlayStation becoming a presence that the established twin pillars of home gaming greatness couldn't shut down, as they had Atari's Jaguar, or the 3DO, or Philips' CD-i.

But the PlayStation wasn't guaranteed success. Its hardware was remarkably powerful for the time, initially developed alongside Nintendo for a joint-venture project before the Mario-makers burned their bridges with Sony to side with Philips on an aborted SNES CD add-on. But the "Father of the PlayStation", Ken Kutaragi, had learned from the mistakes of rivals.

As the man who'd encouraged Sony to take its first steps into gaming with the Nintendo deal that never was, Kutaragi understood that the CD-i and 3DO's mistake was not backing impressive technology with games taking advantage of the increased processing power and three-dimensional possibilities. As soon as it was clear that the PlayStation could represent the company's own exclusive debut in the gaming market, Sony Computer Entertainment (only founded in 1993) began reaching out to developers well in advance of making any hardware properly public.

Sony ultimately succeeded in bringing on board over 250 development companies in Japan alone, enough to populate the PlayStation with cutting-edge titles that Sega and Nintendo would struggle to secure in quite the same way. The former's emphasis on conversions of its arcade hits continued into its own 32bit era with the release of the Saturn; the latter maintained a firm focus on in-house franchises across the N64, launching their SNES successor with new entries in the Mario and Pilotwings series. Seeds were being sown: the PlayStation would not go the way of the 3DO. It would have the muscle and the imagination, the grunt and the games – which would come on CD rather than cartridge, allowing developers more storage space for housing their wildest creations.

"It felt like something new and exciting after years of watching Sega and Nintendo dominate everything," remembers Guardian games editor Keith Stuart of the PlayStation's launch. At the time he was working on PC games at Big Red Software, just prior to joining the writing team at Edge, the magazine that first introduced him to Sony's new system. "Sega and Nintendo were slow to react to the CD-ROM era. I don't think they appreciated the huge impact 3D visuals would have. Their businesses were based on cartridge games and legacy console brands. Sony had no legacy to worry about."

(Left to right) The original PlayStation, the PS2 and the original redesigned, the smaller PSone

Ben Andac works for Sony's Strategic Content division today, bringing games from the indie sector to the company's current platforms: the PS3, PS4 and Vita. "I don't think anyone [saw the PlayStation succeeding as it did], myself included," he tells me. "As a player of games, I was immediately interested, but in terms of appeal and having that feeling of 'I must own this', that didn't happen until I saw the original Wipeout from Psygnosis."

Jaz Rignall launched the British games magazine Mean Machines in 1990, worked in games development at Virgin Interactive Entertainment at the time of the PlayStation's launch and, today, is editor-at-large at US Gamer. He echoes Andac's sentiments regarding the PlayStation game that really turned him onto Sony's new baby. "Wipeout turned my anticipation nuclear," he says. "At that point, I didn't give a toss about Nintendo or Sega. I wanted a PlayStation."

"I hadn't seen anything this good before," Rignall continues, remembering his first experience with a PlayStation at a behind-closed-doors demo. "It blew away everything 16bit, and everything even a [Sega Mega Drive add-on] 32X console could do. This was clearly the next generation: a machine with a CD-ROM designed from the ground up to do 3D. I had no idea how successful it was going to be – all I knew is that I wanted one."

In Japan, the PlayStation launched with Ridge Racer, its most immediately recognisable title. Namco's great arcade conversion would also feature in the British launch's line-up, but as the above accounts suggest it was a very different racing game that captured the imagination of early adopters: the sci-fi hyper-speed of Wipeout.

Developed and published by Psygnosis, a Liverpool-based studio at the time best known for Lemmings and Shadow of the Beast, Wipeout would be the PlayStation's signature slice of desirable software for its first few months on market. Its makers were approached by Sony long before the PlayStation first became publicly known – with the Japanese giants buying the studio and changing its name, come 2001, to SCE Studio Liverpool – so they had plenty of time to get the most from the new hardware before them.

The CGRundertow review of Wipeout

Richard Browne, now at Evergreen Studios in the US, was at Psygnosis as the Sony discussions were gathering a head of steam. "We were the first development team outside of Japan to get the PSX [the initial name for the PlayStation]," he recalls, "and the first thing we did was plonk it in the Advanced Technology Group to figure out what it was. The ATG was where all our CD development was going on. We literally received a box, minimal documentation and instructions on how to hook it up to a NeXT workstation. We got a working prototype done in a number of weeks and Ken Kutaragi took a look at it. He blessed it, and the PSX subsequently had a PC-based development system ready to roll out to Western developers not long after."

This PC foundation allowed developers easy access to the potential of the PlayStation. "That was probably the most important part of the Sony/Psygnosis tie up," says Browne, "as [without the PC development system] the PlayStation would never have amounted to anything. Wipeout was a close second."

" Wipeout is the coolest racer ever," says Rignall.

The game's lead designer, Nick Burcombe – now at Playrise Digital working on Table Top Racing, now in development for PS4 – remembers that how the game made the player feel was just as important as how it looked, or sounded. His own inspiration wasn't entirely grounded in games he'd played previously, but a rush from real life.

"One sensation I remember influencing me was being in a car with my mates, going to one of the Blackburn raves somewhere over the hills of the Pennines, and hurtling down the motorway at night," he tells me. "We were riding up and down the hills, seeing the angles of the embankments, which were very much like the Wipeout tracks, with those little dotted white lines and the cats eyes rushing past us, with the music cranked up... It's all very visceral, and I think in some ways I subconsciously tried to bring those sensations into the track design and to the speed of the ships."

As for Wipeout being "the one" for British gamers – the title that truly made the PlayStation a must-have system – Burcombe was never sure of how it would go down when released. "Up until launch day, we weren't aware of being 'the one'," he says. "In fact, I'd argue Ridge Racer was a stronger draw initially, but we knew, with the limited amount of games in the launch line-up, that we'd have a great opportunity to successfully introduce something completely new. And when we went to the PlayStation launch in Manchester, it hit us. Seeing people queuing at midnight to buy a PlayStation, and many of them a copy of Wipeout, was very exciting and something I'll never forget."

The marketing for Wipeout was in keeping with the times: a Britpop and big-beat bubble of cheap, accessible narcotics and all-night parties informed a poster campaign featuring Sara Cox and a gamer pal sat (presumably) before their screen, the action out of the frame, their noses bleeding. "A dangerous game," declares the tagline, the design courtesy of Warp Records collaborators The Designers Republic. Naturally, some connected the image and its text to drug culture – these slumped figures had been caning it, and perhaps not virtually.

"I think it was a fairly risqué image, wasn't it?" says Burcombe. "Looking at it again, it's memorable only in its shock value – I don't think anyone would attempt that these days. I suppose it was an attempt to convey the coolness and underground, club vibe of the game. It doesn't do much else, does it? Not even a screenshot! Much of game advertising these days is about in-game visuals rather than conveying the sensation of playing."

The ad was indicative of the PlayStation's intention to tempt a more mature audience its way. Games could be seen as kids' toys in the 1990s, with cute characters like Mario, Sonic, Kirby and Alex Kidd among Sega and Nintendo's most popular mascots. Sony wanted to change that, and it didn't take long before titles appealing to older players were appearing, from Resident Evil and Tomb Raider to Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy VII.

"The early PlayStation coin-op conversions helped to cement this concept that this machine was more mature and sophisticated, and wouldn't be relying on kid-friendly cartoon characters," says Stuart. " Tomb Raider and Resident Evil set the tone for proper home console action adventures, and then Final Fantasy VII revolutionised the RPG."

For British kids following the scene through magazines and their televisions, the most prominent adult in 1990s gaming was acerbic Scotsman Dominik Diamond, then-host of Channel 4's innuendo-fuelled GamesMaster. When I ask him for his memories of the PlayStation's early days, his answer is wonderfully resonant of that Wipeout ad.

"We made GamesMaster in a haze of fun, frivolics and a variety of substances," he emails me from his current home in Toronto, Canada. "Much of the decade is a bit hazy for me. I love playing games, and I played a ton of them back then – but I was more interested in turning them into nob gags on the show."

GamesMaster 's 1994 feature on the PlayStation's Japanese launch

Rignall acknowledges that the PlayStation – via entirely fair means, or somewhat nefarious ones – did move gaming's age range upward, and conversations about the latest releases from the playground to the cigarette break.

"PlayStation matured the market," he says. "Whether Sega or Nintendo would have been able to do that, we'll never know. To me, PlayStation sits on the watershed between old-school gaming and the modern era. Anything before it is very 'retro', whereas everything after it, while it might be crude, is more of an approximation of where gaming is today."

"It gets said a lot, but Sony's below-the-line marketing was brilliant," says Stuart. "They just took out the demographic that Sega and Nintendo were fighting over – the teenagers – and aimed straight at the 20-somethings. They effectively created their own market."

By 1997, the PlayStation had stolen 47 percent of the console market. Its success was evident, and the foundations were laid for further years of gaming dominance – first with the PlayStation 2, then the initially tricky PS3, and today with the market-leading PS4. But it could have all gone differently – it could have all gone wrong.

"I think Sony would have tried again, and again, and again," says Andac, when I ask if the company would have stuck it out had their debut console flopped. "That's in the culture of any organisation that wants to succeed, and it's definitely a part of Sony's DNA to take failures and learn from them."

With the PS3 giving developers new to the console all kinds of teething problems, things could have easily come unstuck then. But, today, with the PS3 ultimately selling about the same number of units worldwide as the Xbox 360 – above 80 million – it's clear that learning the hard way paid off for Sony.

"It's critical that you build a machine that developers can get invested in and work with easily," continues Andac, expressing an attitude ingrained into the architecture of the PS4. But what if Sony had stuck by its Nintendo deal – or, rather, Nintendo hadn't forced Sony to build its own system after flipping them the bird to pal up with Philips?

"I don't think a SNES-CD would have worked," says Stuart, "and then we may have seen another manufacturer coming in and cleaning up. Nintendo was committed to its old business of making money from cartridge sales and maintaining tight controls over games publishers and their output. It just didn't have the right approach to CD technology, or to 3D visuals. Sony would have found itself locked into that mode and unable to effect a lot of the changes it brought to the industry with PlayStation – cool marketing, edgy games and a focus on state-of-the-art tech."

Amazingly, both Nintendo and Sega played a part in the PlayStation's emergence, as the latter company had discussions with Sony on a new console. "Sega Japan wasn't interested," Stuart notes, referring to the time when Sony, just rebuffed by Nintendo, went to that company's biggest rivals with a proposal.

Sega of America's ex-CEO Tom Kalinske spoke to MVC about the failed deal. "Sony had technology they'd wanted Nintendo to use, and Nintendo instead chose to work with Philips. That really annoyed Sony. [They] came to me and said: 'We don't like Nintendo. You don't like Nintendo. We have this studio working on video games, we don't know what to do with it [and] we'd like Sega's help.'" But Sega's board of directors vetoed any hardware liaison. Says Kalinske: "They said, 'That's a stupid idea. Sony doesn't know how to make hardware. They don't know how to make software either. Why would we want to do that?' That caused Sony to become our competitor and launch its own hardware platform."

"All the companies effectively worked together to create the correct climate for PlayStation," says Stuart. Which is an amazing part of the console's history: if it wasn't for the rivals that Sony has ultimately outsold with its PlayStation range saying no to their early advances, this wonderful little grey box of magic might never have been born. The PlayStation has transcended gaming circles to become culturally iconic, and today is as much a part of the mainstream household as the telly it sits beneath, whatever model you're still sticking by. To "PlayStation" in some households simply means to game, like "to Hoover" or "to Google" do their respective tasks.

The PlayStation's successor, the PS2, would go on to become the biggest-selling games console of all time, its figure of 155 million units shipped dwarfing those of Sega's doomed – but glorious – Dreamcast (10.6 million) and Microsoft's same-gen contender, the Xbox (24 million). The performance of the PS4 after only a year on sale, with 13.5 million sold compared to the Xbox One's 5.1 million and Nintendo's Wii U's 7.29 million, goes to show that Sony's machine is still the one to match, whatever the generation. And all from narrow-mindedness among warring manufacturers unable to see what the future would hold.

The classic PlayStation control pad, seen here in its PSone guise

"At PlayStation, the work is the most challenging, scary and exciting stuff I've been involved in, and it's incredibly rewarding," says Andac, who used to work for Sega "during the transitional period, after it went from being a hardware company to purely third-party development and publishing".

"When I mention I work for PlayStation to people who have no connection to games, I get lots of 'ooohs', excited questions and am regaled with tales of late-night gaming sessions. That's the kind of feeling that the brand engenders, and the impact it's had on gaming as a lifestyle and culture in general.

"There's definitely something there, and I'd be lying if I didn't get a kick out of it. I'm surrounded by extremely talented people who are restless, always looking for a new challenge to take on – and whenever my boss [Shahid Ahmad] and I hear that something is 'impossible', we look at each other with a glint in our eyes and get super excited."

Something that Andac adds feels like a nice way to finish any celebration of a single console, or console range: "While there's room for friendly competition, the success of one does benefit everyone."

So while the PS4 is outselling its competitors, that it's the dominant platform for so many great games is encouraging others to rise to the occasion with their own exclusives – the Wii U is significantly stepping up its game, and the Xbox One has had a strong end to 2014, sales buoyed by Sunset Overdrive and Halo: The Master Chief Collection.

The PlayStation might have killed off a lot of its competition years ago, but in the modern console climate its top-table position isn't enjoyed without constantly looking down on what's happening just beneath it, in a strange way ensuring that the entire games industry stays happy and healthy. Comfortable, sure, but not so much that the market leader won't ever slip the same way as Sega and all those other companies filling plots in the video games graveyard.

@MikeDiver / Stephen Maurice Graham

Previously:

Why Don't We Finish Our Favourite Video Games?

'Elite: Dangerous' Is the Hans Solo Simulator You've Always Dreamed of

How to Avoid Being Shit at 'Super Smash Bros'