PlayStation: The Unlikely Creation of a Revolution

September 9th, 2015 marks the 20th anniversary of the PlayStation’s North American Launch. You’re getting older every day. The march towards death continues. But not for the PlayStation. No, the PlayStation is just as young as the day it was born. Heck, the PlayStation doesn’t even need to worry about a retirement fund. It sold over 100 million units, making it the best selling console of its generation with nearly 3 times the sales of its closest competitor.



But there was a time when the PlayStation didn’t even exist. Hard to believe, I know, but it’s true. The most powerful people in history like Genghis Khan, William Randolph Hearst, and Joseph Stalin never had the chance to play the PlayStation. If they did, who knows, maybe Crash Bandicoot would be on a flag? But he isn’t. That’s a shame. So where did this charming 32-bit console come from? Well I’ll tell you.


Founded shortly after World War 2, Sony (then known as Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo) quickly caught the attention of Japanese consumers with their uniquely compact brand of audio recorders and transistor radios. During the 1960’s, the company would increase its output with their first television, the portable TV-8-301.  In 1979, Sony would release the Walkman, and affordable and portable stereo cassette player that transformed the premium product manufacturer into a global corporation. That same year, Sony would team up with Phillips to begin development on the Compact Disc, a format that would prove crucial to Sony’s video game future.


By the 1980’s, Sony had become a household name thanks to their popular brand of camcorders, televisions and audio devices. Towards the latter half of the decade, they would expand into entertainment with the acquisition of Columbia Pictures and CBS Records as well as their own video game publishing division, Sony ImageSoft. While Sony was comfortable profiting off of the American video game craze, the company had little to no desire in actually producing them in-house. It was this philosophy that made them such a desirable partner to the industry’s leader, Nintendo. During the development of the Super Nintendo, Nintendo approached Sony to manufacture a sound chip for their upcoming console. Before the deal had even been finalized, an ambitious engineer named Ken Kutaragi privately began work on the S-SMP sound chip.


From a young age, Kutaragi was obsessed with electronics, often taking apart and rebuilding many of his family’s household appliances. Fueled by curiosity, Kutaragi would breeze through high school before receiving a college degree in electronics and joining Sony. He began working on the experimental field of digital images. While digital cameras can be found in nearly every cellphone today, his monochrome pictures were considered impressive for the time. His work quickly became respected by his fellow employees, most notably the soon to be Sony CEO, Norio Ohga.


But it was while he observed his daughter playing the Famicom (or NES in America) that his passion shifted to video games. Kutaragi campaigned Sony to enter the field full force but was quickly dismissed by the board of directors. When Kutaragi revealed his prototype Super Nintendo sound chip his superiors were furious, at no point was he ever given permission begin development. Had it not been for his close relationship with Norio Ohga, he might have been reprimanded. But the quality of the S-SMP was undeniable and Sony agreed to Nintendo’s proposition. The S-SMP sound chip would later be recognized as one of the Super Nintendo’s finest features and a vast improvement over its competitors.


Nintendo was equally impressed and would yet again turn to Sony. In 1988, Sony would begin development on the Super Disc, a cd add on for the Super Nintendo to compete with the still in development Sega CD. The board was reluctant to be associated with what they considered to be toys, but Ohga’s faith in Kutaragi to shepherd the project won out. In the agreement, Sony would produce two models, the Super Disc would attach onto the Super Nintendo and the Play Station would be a stand alone model. After 3 years, Kutaragi would finally unveil the Play Station to the public at the 1991 Consumer Electronic Show. Little did Sony know Nintendo had already abandoned the partnership.


In 1991, the President and CEO of Nintendo, Hiroshi Yamauchi, informed his employees that all development of the Super Disc was to be ended. Howard Lincoln, the President of Nintendo of America, personally met with Philips to create a new agreement for a Super Nintendo CD accessory. The exact reason for Nintendo’s decision are unknown, but many have cited the unfavorable profit margins the Super Disc would create. Sony would own and profit from every game release on the accessory while receiving an even larger share from the sales of the stand alone Play Station. Unfortunately for Kutaragi, Nintendo intentionally left Sony uninformed, perhaps to embarrass or discourage the corporation from ever entering the market again.


Ken Kutaragi excitedly took the stage at Sony’s CES press conference, showing off the newly named Super CD and Play Station to an excited audience. Magazine writers quickly jotted down details and sent them off to their editors just in time for that month’s issue, unaware the news would take a drastic direction in only 24 hours. During the Nintendo press conference, Howard Lincoln announced Nintendo would exclusively partner with Philips and stressed they would not have any involvement in the Sony accessory. Kutaragi was dumbfounded and quickly called Ohga to inform him of the news. While the enraged CEO conceived a legal plan, Kutaragi passionately argued that they could continue their work. If they could not be a partner, they would become competitor, and they would win. Ohga agreed, simply telling Kutaragi “Do It”


After winning a lawsuit against Nintendo, Sony planned to release the Play Station (complete with a built in Super Nintendo) before scrapping the project. Sony would continue their CD game efforts on the Sega CD with titles such as 3 Ninja’s Kick Back and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, further cementing their relationships with developers. In 1993, Sony would form Sony Computer Entertainment with Ken Kutaragi, Shuhei Yoshida, and Teiyu Goto heading the development of the recently announced PlayStation X.


But the press was skeptical of consumer electronic companies entering the video game space. That same year Panisonic, Sanyo, and GoldStar had each launched their own skew of the 3D0 to a lukewarm reception and staggering $399-$699 price tag. Could Sony really compete against giants like Sega and Nintendo?


Recognizing the lack of compelling software as a deciding factor in the 3D0’s lackluster sales, recent hire Bernie Stolar reached out to developers. Impressed by the beefy 32 bit 3D system, a wide range of developers agreed to release titles on the PlayStation. But Sony needed a sure thing, purchasing Psygnosis (Twisted Metal, WarHawk, JetMoto) and funding development on Crash Bandicoot, a character based platformer from Naughty Dog. Before long, Namco, Electronic Arts, Capcom, and Core Design all signed on with original 3D games. After years of Nintendo’s overcontrol and Sega’s lack of hardware direction, developers were ready to take a chance on Sony’s still unproven PlayStation.


But what would it look like? Teiyu Goto was tasked with both the design of the system and its controller. Goto wanted to take a fresh approach with the PlayStation, ignoring many of the toy-like visuals while retaining the feel of Sony’s high end electronics brand. The end result was a simple square with a pop open cd case and large Open and Power circle buttons. While the board was impressed by Goto’s system design, they were less favorable towards his radical controller. It had all the recognizable components of standard controller but with the addition of two protruding handles. Goto was sent back to the drawing board to create a flat controller. When Ohga saw the redesign he insisted the original controller return and for his peers not to interfere with Goto’s work.


Also key to the controller were the 4 face buttons. Instead of using the letters, Goto decided a series of shapes would better communicate to the player. X represented no, O represented yes, Square represented a piece of paper for institutions, and Triangle as a character’s head for perspective. Though X and O have retained their intended function to this day, the use of instructions and perspective was quickly moved to one of the 4 shoulder buttons or the select and start button. 20 years later, Goto’s original design still influences every PlayStation system controller.


On December 3rd, 1994 Sony released the PlayStation in Japan. Games such as Ridge Racer and King’s Field displaced the systems robust 3D capabilities, a feature the Sega Saturn did not share. Despite Japan’s leading game magazine, Famitsu, scoring the PlayStation a 19 out of 40, the system reached over a million in sales by March of 1995.


Sony had a hit in Japan, but dominating the video game industry would mean a successful American launch. During the first Electronic Entertainment Expo in 1995, Sega shocked the game’s press when they announced their upcoming 32-bit Sega Saturn console would be released later that afternoon for $399 dollars. The confused attendees then went to the Sony press conference where it was announced that the PlayStation would undercut the Saturn with an attractive $299 price tag. With Nintendo’s announcement of the Nintendo 64 still months away and a competitive price, Sony’s September release would go unchallenged.


On September 9th, 1995, the Sony PlayStation was released in North America. By the end of 1996, over 7 million PlayStations would be sold worldwide before capping off at 102.5 million units in 2007. It’s last title, Schnappi: 3 Fun-Games, would be released in March of 2005, over a decade after the system's original release. From an unlikely partnership to industry leader, the PlayStation succeeded thanks to series such as Resident Evil, Final Fantasy, Spyro The Dragon, Parappa The Rapper, Gran Turismo and many more. The PlayStation was the first popular 3D console, creating a distinct generational border from the systems that came before. Now 20 years later, it’s fascinating development and passionate creators have become as legendary as the PlayStation itself.