The Power of the Playstation

What makes the Playstation an interesting console to study is that it exists almost by accident. It was born out of a failed collaboration project between Nintendo and Sony, which itself was born out of an accidental collaboration between Nintendo and one of Sony’s engineers, unbeknownst to his superiors.

Ken Kutaragi first developed an interest in video games after seeing his daughter lay the Nintendo Famicom. So when Nintendo began soliciting engineers for a new sound chip for the Super Famicom, Ken began work immediately. Without telling his bosses at Sony, Ken developed the SPC700 chip for Nintendo’s new console. When Ken’s work was discovered, he was almost fired on the spot. The only reason he kept his job was because Sony president Norio Ohga supported him.

The partnership that was never meant to be was born from that sound chip Ken designed. Nintendo was so pleased with the results that they immediately commissioned Sony for a new peripheral for the console, this time a disk reader. In addition to the disk add-on, Sony would be allowed to design their own Nintendo console and develop first party software for it with full licensing rights. This deal heavily favored Sony as it allowed them to break into the gaming industry by riding Nintendo’s back.

Naturally, Nintendo feared empowering Sony in such a way, and instead opted to break their contract with them in favor of their biggest competitor, Philips, who offered Nintendo a better deal. Here’s the kicker though, Nintendo only announced that their contract was canceled the day after Sony debuted their Nintendo console. President Ohga was furious.

It was right about here that the entire executive team at Sony decided that video games weren’t their thing and that the company should move in a different direction. It was here that the Playstation could have died, if not for our boy Ken Kutaragi. Ken convinced Ohga that the console project could be salvaged to make a profit. Ohga believed in Ken, and despised Nintendo for what they did, so he was all for making it happen. Thus, the Playstation was born.

Utilizing 650MB disks (I know, right?) as opposed to the traditional 12MB cartridges, the Playstation offered unprecedented power, leading to the rather hilarious “It’s more powerful than God” ad campaign. But a newcomer to the console game can’t just drop new hardware into the market and expect it to sell. Turns out the Playstation’s good luck streak was still far from over.

The Playstation, for being a brand new console, broke into the industry to immense success. But why? What was it that drew people’s attention? It is incredibly difficult for a contender on the console market to enter the scene period, let alone out of nowhere with no prior experience. For decades now, we’ve only had three major console manufacturers. And before the “big three” we know now (Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft), there were only three major competitors (Nintendo, Atari, and Sega) with a smattering of a few smaller companies outputting consoles that didn’t catch on quite as largely. So needless to say, the market isn’t really welcoming to newcomers; it’s extremely selective. And given that two of the previously mentioned six competitors aren’t in the console market anymore, it’s fair to say it’s pretty cruel too.

So how did Sony carve out a spot?

By happy accident, mostly. The “big three” of the time that Sony would have to compete with were Nintendo, Atari, and Sega. Atari was pretty much out of the game by the time the Playstation dropped in 1994. The failure of the Atari Lynx to beat the Nintendo Gameboy in the handhelds market combined with the overall poor sales of the Atari Jaguar spelled doom for the company by the time Sony arrived on the scene.

As for Nintendo, they were giants of the industry that easily crushed the competition at every turn. To compete with them would have been suicide for the Playstation and Sony wouldn’t have quickly gone the way of Atari. So it is quite fortunate for Sony that they didn’t have to compete with Nintendo at all. Nintendo’s newest console, the Nintendo 64, was delayed multiple times, and didn’t come out until a year after the Playstation, giving Sony a comfortable head start at being a reliable competitor.

This leaves Sega. Unfortunately for Sega, they were on their way out too, they just didn’t know it yet. They released the Sega Saturn that year, and it was the Playstation’s only real competitor on the market until the eventual release of the Nintendo 64. Like the Playstation, the Saturn also used 3D graphics for its games, but it lacked the power the Playstation had to make it look good. Additionally, the Playstation’s retail price was $100 cheaper than the Saturn, making the Saturn the overall inferior choice.

But video games were hitting it just as big in the United States as in in Japan. If a Japanese company was going to succeed, it would need the support of consumers in the west as well (and vice-versa obviously.) At E3 1995, the president of Sony Computer Entertainment of America, Steve Race, took to the stage for a keynote address. He was introduced with a long speech specifically designed to build anticipation for what was called a “brief presentation.” Steve sauntered casually over to the podium, cleared his throat, and said one word. The price heard round the world. $299. At this price, the Playstation was not only powerful but easily accessible as well. Ultimately, it wasn’t even a real choice for consumers. The Playstation was the best available option.

And it wasn’t like they were going in with nothing either. Sony designed the Playstation specifically for ease of development. With a cheap and fair licensing system and a built-in marketing budget, it was a no-brainer for developers to sign on. Sony had nearly 100 development contracts before the console even launched. Developer support coupled with the Playstation’s power allowed Sony to woo high-end industry veterans to develop games for their console, immensely improving its value to consumers. RPG powerhouse Squaresoft even broke their contract with Nintendo to develop the Final Fantasy series for the Playstation.

By happy accident, or dumb luck, the Playstation broke into the console market with only one real competitor that they grossly outclassed. It just happened to come at a time when consumers in the east and west had nothing better to buy, at a price that was practically a steal for a home console. Combine that with their extensive library of games, and Nintendo’s sluggish start during that console generation, and Sony was able to put out a hit. A hit that reached its fourth iteration in 2013 and is still going strong.

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