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Timeline: The PlayStation One Revolution

Born from betrayal and revenge, the PSX became something far more important than a Nintendo rival

EDITOR'S NOTE: To mark the 20th anniversary of the original PlayStation, this article - originally published in 2013 - has been updated from its original form. Happy Birthday, PSOne!


June 1991: Nintendo's Betrayal

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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.


1991-92: Kutaragi's Struggle

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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 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".

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Ken Kutaragi

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 Ohga:

"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."

[Further reading: The making of PlayStation - EDGE]


1993: Revolution From Within

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Phil Harrison, showing off an early PlayStation system in 1995

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.

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Phil Harrison, a young businessman who joined Sony in 1992, head-hunted game studios across the world and promised them a completely new kind of deal. He said that PlayStation's certification process would last no more than two weeks, that the business would offer far more reasonable royalty rates, and that Sony was not going to build its own audience-stealing star games. (The latter was not quite true at the time, as Sony part-acquired Psygnosis in May 1993 - the studio that would dazzle the world two years later with Wipeout).

Among the growing number of PlayStation partners was Namco, a company that had left Harrison dumbfounded during his tour of the studio in 1994. Presenting its demo of Ridge Racer, it was clear that Namco had very quickly got to grips with the PlayStation hardware.

"I remember realising that was going to be pivotal piece of software for the west in particular," Harrison told Edge years later.

But there was something else that was shown, Harrison explained: "It was almost an afterthought. One of the men demonstrating Ridge Racer asked, since I was there, would I like them to show me another game they're working on? 'Yeah sure', I said. 'What's it called?' 'It's called Tekken'."


December 1994: All Systems Go

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On December 3, 1994, Sony issued 100,000 PlayStation systems to retailers across Japan, all of which sold out on day one. With caution, the company issued another 200,000 units across the first month, all of which sold out again. Sony was onto something, but despite the encouraging start, its executive circle still had reservations.

"Clearly, PlayStation launched into a market dominated by not one but two platform holders," PlayStation marketing boss David Wilson tells CVG.

"When PS1 released, Sony sent out notices which insisted we would refer to it as a 'PlayStation' and not a 'Sony PlayStation'. There was a real literal and metaphorical distancing of PlayStation from the Sony brand, just in case the system failed."

Sony knew the acid test was whether PlayStation could create the same sales momentum across Europe and the US - and both these continents wouldn't stock the system until the end of 1995. The western question was one that Sony wouldn't be able to answer for another twelve months - but the company had a plan.


May 1995: The Loss Leader

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E3 1995: The birth of West Hall banners

Steve Race may not be the most legendary games industry executive (he worked at PlayStation for about two years and eventually moved away from the industry) but he nonetheless marked a defining moment in E3 history.

By May 1995, Sega's team had grown fearful of Sony's competitiveness in Japan. It had spurred the company to make sudden and aggressive moves to protect its business in the west, and at E3 the company revealed it had covertly shipped Sega Saturn units across the US and was going to launch it, on that day, for $399.

Sega had seized the moment, and the industry remained unsure whether the PlayStation would be sold at a competitive price point (in Japan, it was priced at roughly $399 - tradition dictating that it was going to cost more in the west).

Sony's press conference, held the next day, began slow and gradually ground its expectant audience into collective boredom. But this was apparently intentional, because Sony wanted to jolt the crowd with a show-stopping announcement. It fell on Steve Race to deliver.

Called on stage by his colleague, Race strolled up to the microphone, paused for a few seconds, said the words "299", and returned to his seat. The crowd burst into applause.

The price point - far lower than expected - was at first resisted by Sony executives in Japan, because it meant the system would be sold at a loss. No major companies in the games business had sold consoles at a loss before, and no products across the entire Sony range had adopted this model. But the PlayStation's attractive RPP instantly dented Sega's fortunes, and the low price helped secure the firm's dominance in the years that followed.


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1996: Undeniably Cool

In 1996, at a time when the creative pinnacle of video game advertising was the depiction of two painfully white boys jumping around a flashing TV, Sony made a risky and expensive decision. It hired the trend-setting ad agency TBWA to promote its new PlayStation console to a new demographic across Europe.

The ultimate result of this not only drove PS1 forwards as the dominant video game platform, but also triggered a cultural shift in how games were perceived by the masses.

Most of the early promotions became folklore themselves; Cards of perforated roach paper depicting a dealer offering a PlayStation pad. A Cool Borders advert that enumerated the joy of cocaine. Prostitution flyers left in phone boxes with the words "Randy Bandicoot, new in town, call me for fun times".

David Wilson, PlayStation's public relations director, has his own theory on why the company was free to make mischief.

"Because the Sony mother-company distanced itself a little bit from PlayStation when it first launched, it meant that we could get away with a lot more things," he says.

Targeting late-teens is so common in today's market that it is difficult to appreciate the breakthrough PlayStation made. It is a console that carried a clubland aesthetic that was both provocative yet sophisticated; a feat that its plastic toy rivals hadn't even attempted.

For all the cherished childhood moments provided by Mario and Sonic, it was PlayStation that made games cool and mass-market.

In 1999 another watershed moment occurred. An advert, called Double Life, signified that the PlayStation brand was no longer an icon for the adolescent, but a product pitched perfectly for people of all ages and tastes.

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[Further reading: The PlayStation Adverts - CVG]


1995-1999: Unparalleled triumph

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In the beginning, the main objectives for the PlayStation business were straightforward yet vital for success, according to Harrison.

"If we can be the creative choice of game developers, and the business choice of publishers, then those two together give us a chance of becoming successful," he told Edge years later.

"In order to be very successful you need both elements; you can't have one and not the other. I think this still holds true today for any company that wants to stay in the hardware platform business."

The first batch of PS1 units sold out on release in the US. By the end of 1995, Sony sold 800,000 systems across North America to Saturn's 400,000 units. Four million consoles sold worldwide in the '95-''96 Financial Year. Twelve months later that number trebled.

It was a surprise and sudden success that never seemed to cease.

Between 1997 and 1999, 60 million consoles were produced to satisfy global demand, at roughly 20 million units each year. Sony finally wound down production on PS1 in March 2006 - a year later, it was confirmed as the first ever home console to surpass 100 million sales.

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As staggering as a commercial triumph it was, the PlayStation also triggered a cultural revolution - some of the best games of its generation belonged on PS1; from Gran Turismo 2 to Tomb Raider to Tekken 3 to Metal Gear Solid to Final Fantasy VII.

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.

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