10 Things You Never Knew About PlayStation, Part One

The most baffling thing about the recent, rampant fanboy wars just now is that most ‘diehard’ PlayStation 3 fans have no concept of the roots of the console, yet are quite prepared to spent most of their day squabbling on forums and blogs about how amazing the PlayStation is compared with the competition. Of course, we’re big fans here, but we have reason to be: we’ve been here since the very beginning. That man on the left? He’s not Ken Kutaragi. He’s my Dad.

When the Spectrum was filed away and the Amiga was running low on games, it was Big Ken that provided the next logical step and he’s kept this writer going since that very first Ridge Racer demo. Whilst the PS3 has certainly struggled the most out of all three of Sony’s consoles and it’s clear Sony have lost a bit of the verve that made them such a dominant force over the last two generations, a lot of the key titles hark right back to the ones released in those ground breaking formulative years of 1994-1996 and beyond.

So, with today and a follow-up next Friday, let’s look at ten things you didn’t know about the PlayStation and how those initial steps changed the course of gaming forever.

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1. Sony was about to jump into bed with Nintendo.

Yes, we know you know about this one, but it’s the start of the story, and “9 things” doesn’t sound nearly as exciting.  It’s also worth mentioning that this was Sony’s first disaster: in 1991, at the Consumer Electronics Show, Nintendo revealed to the world it’s new SNES which came with a CD-ROM drive built by Sony.  The project, formed by Kutaragi, would show the world just how important this brand new “multi-media” would be to gaming, allowing masses of storage, video and redbook music.  The whole industry stood up to watch, and Sony was on top of the world. 

For one day.

The following day Nintendo decided to change their mind, and partnered with Philips instead.  Sony, then run by Norio Ohga, would take this major embarassment and turn it to their favour.  “We will never withdraw from this business,” he said, “Keep going.”  Not everyone agreed.

2. Kutaragi fought alone.

At a last chance board meeting in June 1992, when everyone else at Sony had decided that this whole videogame industry was a waste a time, Ken revealed that he’d been working on a CD-ROM system based on ideas from the super powerful System-G special effects computer.  The new system was capable of 3D graphics, based on a chip that would need “one million gate arrays”, a figure 10 times that which Sony could currently produce, and a notion that made Ohga laugh.

However, Kutaragi would not let Nintendo off lightly, and since the relationship had completely dissolved the only course was to take this new CD-ROM system and forge it into Sony’s own console.  Kutaragi was moved to Sony Music, out of the way of Sony’s mainline research and development and to avoid further embarassment, but there he met Sigeo Maruyama (who would become vice president of SCEI) and Akira Sato.  From there, thankfully, the PlayStation was born.

3. Sony employed their own sales people.

Launching a new console is hard, especially when it’s your first.  The 16-bit sales model involved the manufacturer doing all the selling, but Sony wanted to go one step ahead when courting third party publishers.  In 1994, gathering together all the developers and publishers in Tokyo, Sony demonstrated this foresight by introducing 40 decidated sales people it had employed.  These people would be the sales force used to push the publishers’ games, and thus signing up to work with Sony on the PlayStation was suddenly a no-brainer.  Confidence was high, and the number of games that would release on the platform would be even higher.

4. The PlayStation was designed by Teiyu Goto.

The whole CD-ROM issue was a clear identity marque for Sony, who had employed Goto specifically for this task.  He was previously the art director at Sony Design Center, and his iconic, groundbreaking design for the PlayStation would see it remain absolutely central to the marketing and ethos for the next six years.  The large central motif is a clear reflection of the circular CD and Goto’s intention was that the design would remain as long as the CD was the main focus of the PlayStation.  Even through the re-design that led to the PS One, this was still the case.

The first mockups of the machine still float around the internet if you look hard enough, alongside 3D rendered and detailed plans.  Some even have concept names, too, like the “Power Station” which resembles a PC Engine more than anything. The actual PlayStation machine still holds much aesthetic value today, even if most of the machines in early circulation have long since died.  The original design had neither the appearance of a pure games console nor that of a high end piece of home entertainment system, but sat easily somewhere between the two.

5. The PlayStation logo and controller went through many iterations.

This shouldn’t come as any surprise to anyone remotely interested in design, but what isn’t immediately obvious is the fact that the green was a last minute addition.  For most of the concepts available during our research, the only colours used where red, blue and yellow, with the constant PlayStation logo underneath always in black.  The logo was designed by Ryan Harrington, who was also responsible for the Vaio brand.

Teiyu Goto, the man that designed the actual console designed the  controller too, although it wasn’t without conflict.  Goto had aimed for something ergonomic, under instruction from Ohga, who was at that time in his 60s.  Between them they had opted for the pronged concept we all know and love, but Kutaragi wanted something that more closely resembled the traditional flat pads as seen on the likes of the SNES.  Naturally, with Ohga being the boss there was little Kutaragi could do.  It’s also worth noting that the original PlayStation controllers were about 15% smaller than the ones we got in Europe at launch.  In fact, it wasn’t until the Dual Shock appeared in 1997 that the worldwide controllers were standardised in terms of size.

The thing that trips up most importers of PlayStation consoles is the ‘0’ and ‘X’ issue.  In Japan, the circle is widely used as an icon for ‘yes’ and thus rather than backing out of menus or cancelling actually does the opposite.  And, thus, naturally, the cross ‘X’ button is used as cancel in Eastern territories whilst we Westerners were used to ‘triangle’, which meant ‘up’.  The first time I came across this was with the PSP, and it makes so much more sense that it’s frustrating the PS3 doesn’t let you at least choose for yourself.  The ‘X’ for ‘yes’ and ‘0’ for no is now globally accepted, however, and as an added extra bit of trivia, count the number of ‘sides’ each symbol has:  circle: 1, cross: 2, triangle: 3 and square: 4.  Cool, eh?

In part two next Friday: what happened post-launch.

Thanks to Edge Magazine, Wikipedia and Sony for confirmation on certain points in this article.

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