Tuesday 19 february 2013
Born from betrayal and revenge, the PSX became something far more important than a Nintendo rival
As the world awaits the announcement of the PlayStation 4, CVG is running a special three-part article that looks through the defining moments of in
Monday - The PlayStation One Revolution
Tuesday - The Rise and Rise of PS2
Wednesday - The PS3 Catastrophe and Comeback
Timeline: Revolution PS1
June 1991: Nintendo's Betrayal
Fittingly for a company that has been at war with other platform holders for two decades, PlayStation was born from a fractious and highly politicised business
relationship that, inevitably, fell apart.
At the Consumer Electronics Show in June 1991, Sony businessman Ken Kutaragi revealed a new kind of games console that his team had built in partnership with
Nintendo. Conceptually, it was a SNES with a CD drive - a simple idea with staggering potential. But the business agreement itself was far more complex, as both companies were divided on how they
would split the revenue.
Just one day after Sony's announcement, Nintendo publicly declared that it was building its SNES-CD console exclusively with electronics firm Philips. This was the
first time Sony heard it was no longer in business with Nintendo.
Humiliated and outraged, the corporation's executives decided to not back out of games, and immediately it refocused efforts on building its own console - a 32bit
system that would read not cartridges, but Compact Discs.
Fuelled by anger and ambition, Kutaragi immediately brought together a team of Sony engineers who had been working on a special effects engine called System-G (tech
that was used to overlay 3D graphics on Android TV shows). The
theory was that this group could invent a mass-market version of System-G that could be sold at an affordable price.
To his surprise, Kutaragi faced immediate internal resistance. Many Sony execs, grounded as they were in the corporation's traditions, did not endorse investment in
the interactive entertainment sector. Video games were, certainly at that time, perceived by many as a toy business - faddish in concept and only appropriate for children and teens.
Four years later, Kutaragi would have proved these naysayers wrong in the most perfect way imaginable. But in January '92, there was no such means to convince the
business. At an investor meeting that month, Kutaragi publicly confessed: "There is no consensus within Sony about why we are engaged in this business".
The politics and in-fighting culminated in an extraordinary meeting in June '92, led by the then-chairman of Sony, Norio Ohga. The majority of the board opposed the
console project, but Kutaragi revealed that his team was already working on a CD-ROM-based console that was capable of rendering 3D graphics.
And it was perhaps Ohga's brooding anger over Nintendo's betrayal that saved the project. According to an account of the meeting by Edge, Kutaragi asked
"Are you going to sit back and accept what Nintendo did to us?"
The chairman replied. "There's no hope of making further progress with a Nintendo-compatible 16bit machine. Let's chart our own course."
The iPhone is praised for triggering an "indie revolution" by turning bedroom coders into wealthy entrepreneurs. But at its core it is a developer revolution -
because the App Store offers all studios the chance to produce content affordably, and update it regularly, with a handsome and hassle-free 70 per cent royalty rate. Unsurprisingly, a whole army
of creative talent now marches to the beat of iOS.
It's important to understand how this happened when looking back at why, in 1993, Sony was already gaining serious support from the development industry without
even a console to show off.
Nintendo, the biggest player in town, charged infamously high royalty rates, had a certification process that lasted two months, and enjoyed a huge slice of
software sales with its own must-have SNES games that drowned out the competition.
PlayStation was born from betrayal and had grown from gutsy decisions, but the eventual triumph shouldn't be remembered merely as a perfect act of revenge.
PlayStation may have shunted Nintendo from
market-leader to distant-second, but Sony had achieved something far more special than winning a feud - it had built a whole new market, broke new records and upended the system. PlayStation One
changed the game.