From the Edge archives, October 1995: Phil Harrison on launching Sony’s PlayStation

Published here online for the first time, this interview with Sony’s then-communications director Phil Harrison took place at Sony PlayStation’s UK launch, in late 1995. It was published in Edge issue 26, and throws up some fascinating insights into what Sony wanted to achieve with the PlayStation project – and, prior to PS4′s European launch later this week, there are some surprising parallels between the game market of 1995 and today.   

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Phil Harrison has witnessed the PlayStation’s evolution since the very beginning. Having joined Sony in 1993 as product development director, he immediately went underground to start the console’s European development and support group, working closely with the Tokyo R&D team, which was completing the hardware and OS design. One of his key objectives was to spread the PlayStation message to the development community in Europe, as well as to hire talented technical support staff and software engineers (to whom Harrison refers as the ‘unsung heroes’ of the European division). Now, as communications director, he is heavily involved with the European marketing strategy for the machine. Edge spoke to him at SCEE’s London HQ.

In personal terms, what has been the most rewarding part of the PlayStation’s journey to market?

Simply that the reality of the finished machine exceeded my expectations in every way. In fact, as the development process went on, the games were getting better and the hardware and OS were getting stronger. Normally in this business it’s the other way around, with the end result being somewhat underwhelming. On the whole, it’s been a tremendous challenge and experience to follow the project from the very early days of hushed tech specs and a shroud of secrecy to the massmarket launch. I don’t think there will ever be another opportunity like this one, and I sometimes feel like I’ve got the front seat on the most amazing rollercoaster ride you can imagine.

Given the PlayStation is a small grey box attached to a SNES-style joypad, do you believe that it is as innovative as that seminal Sony product, the Walkman?

Well, the Walkman revolutionised the way people listen to music – taking it outside the confines of their home or car for the first time. It made people think differently about the part music played in their lives and became a cultural icon. The PlayStation is certainly a dramatic innovation but not an invention like the Walkman was in the 1970s.

When you look at the PlayStation as a complete system, what aspect of the design appeals to you most?

Every part of the machine – from the sleek outer case design, the ingenious memory cards and the ergonomic controllers through to the chipset – has been so well designed. It feels like a complete product – no element has been rushed or compromised. It also feels like a Sony product – you know you’re holding 40 years of innovation and quality. Then when you look at the price we’ve achieved, it becomes even more remarkable.

Was the machine’s development a long and labourious process?

Yes but it was also a very interesting process. The very firt thing I had was some written specifications which were, at the time, half-reality, half-blue sky. I just remember the first time I read through those specs and I thought, hang on, this must be a misprint – this can’t be real! Then the next thing I saw was a videotape and that was about two years ago. That videotape was just a first inkling of what PlayStation was all about. It had some demonstrations actually coming off the chipset in prototype. This chipset was running about 30 per cent thrughput and it was staggering. Unike anything I’d seen before. And then we had this first 30 per cent hardware prototype in at the end of 1993 – a great big box about the size of a desktop photocopier – and it was all grey metal and very, very ugly. And it had two huge fans inside it to keep it cool – it sounded like the thing would take off when you turned it on!

That must have been around the time that developers got to see it…

We showed it to about 100 developers in December 1993. I remember reading the article in Edge and smiling at your frustration because no-one would tell you anything about the machine. We had everyone sign a non-disclosure agreement before we let them see the presentation. I invited the cream of the European developers to our office where we’d taken over an empty floor in the building and gave this presentation about the technology and the objectives we had for the business. It was great to see the best programmers and designers in the country with open mouths thinking exactly the same as I had when I’d first seen the technology – excitement mixed with a big dose of disbelief. We had to prove to one well-known developer that the demos ran off a real prototype and an SGI.

Now it’s on the high street, is its superiority over the competition quite as pronounced as when it was still a secret?

Yes, completely. While PlayStation is clearly the most powerful technology, the real supremacy is the fact that the games are the best and that there are some really amazing games starting to appear over the horizon. I’m even more confident now because the reality of games like Wipeout, Tekken and Total NBA proves it’s not hype. And it’s not just me saying this any more – the whole industry is saying it for us now.

So what in your opinion is the most impressive example of the PlayStation’s abilities so far?

There are two. Total NBA is the first game nearing completion from within our in-house development studio in London and is a real tour de force when you consider the sheer volume of polygons that are being drawn and the speed and smoothness of the motion-captured animations for the players. I also can’t resist a smile whenever I see the dinosaur demo. I know we’ve been showing it for ages but it still stops people in their tracks.

Has any game on the PlayStation truly lived up to your expectations?

I suppose Ridge Racer – mainly because the arcade game set such an obvious benchmark for everyone to use as a comparison. Although the polygon count is slightly lower on the PlayStation version, the gameplay is actually better than the arcade, and that’s what counts – Namco did a fantastic job with the conversion in a very short period of time.

Do you think that Japanese companies have irreversibly taken over as the world leaders of videogame design?

No I don’t. At Sony we’ve taken a global view of the software development investment in PlayStation and are working hard on three continents. I think the UK has the finest design talent in the world. Peter Molyneux is the best example, but Geoff Crammond, David Braben and Dave Perry are all British and can comfortably sit alongside the best in the world. There’s also a host of unsung talent in this country who will find themselves added to the list.

Has the PlayStation seen a game yet that defines what the machine is about?

Yes and no. Yes because the machine’s all about delivering a fantastic gameplay experience that is challenging and sophisticated, looks amazing and sounds great – there are many games that fit that description that I’ve already mentioned. But by its very nature that’s a moving target. There are so many talented people working on the machine now, doing things that we’ve not dreamed about and in ways that we’ve not seen before, that the definition of quality is almost impossible to define in terms of time. In the future we’ll look back at some of the launch games and snigger, whereas we hail them now as paradigm shifts in interactive entertainment – that’s what makes this business so exciting. The increase in the technology of game development yields a bigger and better result all the time.

Compare our business to the movie business – did awesome computer graphics make Jurassic Park a better story than King Kong? I suggest not. Some of the best movies ever made are now approaching 40 or 50 years old. While we may have a nostalgic fondness for the 8bit heroes of yesteryear, they don’t compare to the new games of today. Try comparing Tekken to Karate Champ on the Atari VCS or Ridge Racer to Pitstop on the C64.

What kind of software would you personally like to see on the console?

Well, I enjoy the adrenaline rush of a fast 3D game but I crave for something more substantial, more cerebral – a game I can relate to on more than a reactive level. I want characters I can relate to, argue with, be scared by, be attracted to and that have an appeal beyond the quality of the graphics. To use the movie analogy again, I think we can do the plots, the sets, the special effects and the camerawork incredibly well. We just need to work on the stories and the actors. This will add real emotional levels to gameplay that we’re only just beginning to experiment with as an industry.

If anything negative could be levelled at Sony so far, it’s that it still hasn’t proved it can develop a world-class videogame. What is SCE doing to rectify this problem?

Firstly, I don’t think that’s strictly true. I would consider Wipeout and Destruction Derby world-class products and they were created by Sony Interactive Entertainment. Certainly, the review scores would back that statement up. If you mean why haven’t we created a Sonic or Zelda yet, then I’d say Rome wasn’t built in a day. Sony has built a world-class hardware system and we are now investing millions of dollars, pounds and yen to grow our software development resources to create games to match. This level of investment means that Sony is backing the system 100 per cent. Having said that, we do not seek to have a dominant position in the supply of software for the PlayStation. That would restrict the investment and creativity of our thirdparties, who are vital to our success – as a platform and as a business.

It’s been said that future PlayStation development could yield less spectacular technical advances than we might see on the Saturn. Is this a realistic viewpoint?

The thirdparties all say that PlayStation is easier to program than the Saturn because of our libraries and powerful operating system. We are constantly upgrading and improving the libraries we supply to developers so that game development is easier and quicker. This means programmers can harness more of the power of the machine. – this delivering greater value to the player. Sega do not take the same approach so I can’t comment on how their games might improve.

Do you think that CD-ROM has helped or hindered the videogame in the case of the PlayStation?

It has helped at every single level. Technically it has allowed us to desin a system around the benefits of CD – with CD digital audio, full-motion video and massive data storage for graphics and texture maps – something you can never do with a cartridge. From a creative software development standpoint, CD is the format of choice for the world’s leading developers. They enjoy the freedom it gives them in terms of design, and it inspires innovation. When a designer can call upon CD audio and video to augment an interactive experience, the possibilities are endless. Cartridge development is a process of overcoming technical and commercial hurdles that get ever more difficult to cross. From a business point of view, CD allows publishers to innovate and take risks with games. Cartridges take months to make, cost so much money and have so many restrictions that publishers can’t afford to experiment. They have to go for the proven gamestyles to make money – hence the fact that most Nintendo cartridge games looked the same and played the same. Thirdparties can’t take creative risks when so much money is at stake. The CD model is much more conducive to creative innovation, because they cost less, hold more information and take days to manufacture.

Sony has deliberately targeted the non-videogame punter for the first part of its PlayStation advertising campaign. Is everyone really convinced that the massmarket consumer will be prepared to shell out £300 for a games machine?

We’ve been spreading the massage to a very wide audience – including all the games magazine. Bit it was a deliberate part of the strategy to reinvigorate the consumers who had moved away from games through boredom with the Sega and Nintendo market, and so we reached them through the style press. The main thrust of the advertising campaign will be truly massmarket. For the first time the technology can deliver an experience that will convert people who have previously resisted gaming  as a leisure activity. Gaming is no longer a hobby or niche pursuit buy a legitimate entertainment sector – alongside movies and music. The visual and audio quality of a PlayStation attracts so many more people to the concept of owning one. We have a PlayStation sitting in the reception of our office and its amazing how many people who have clearly never picked up a joystick in their lives are grinning insanely as they spin the car in Ridge Racer.

Many people who played games in the early 1980s who have either got bored or ‘grown out’ of their 16bit machines are tempted back by PlayStation. I test games on friends of mine who haven’t been into games for a few years who are staggered by the quality of what they see. They are immediately interested – particularly when they find out it’s 300 quid. They’d actually be prepared to pay more. I agree they are in jobs and have disposable income, but I’m also staggered by the amount of money who are still at school will spend on a new pair of Nikes – over £100! Makes me sound sold!

What is the PlayStation’s most dangerous rival – wither now or in the foreseeable future?

Our biggest rival is apathy in the market, not a single company or product. What’s important is that we’re not just trying to beat one company or another for short-term gain but the fact that we are seeking to reinvigorate the market. In terms of consumer spend we are fighting for the same £300 that could be spent on a mountain bike, a stereo or a couple of pairs of designer trainers. That’s where the real battle is – ensuring that PlayStation is seen as a quality product with longterm benefits by a massmarket.

What solid reasons are there now for buying a PlayStation? What’s to stop people waiting for the Ultra 64?

Tekken, Wipeout, Destruction Derby, Ridge Racer, Battle Arena Toh Shin Den, Mortal Kombat 3, Total NBA… there are seven good reasons between now and the end of 1995. And that’s a pretty impressive start by any standards. Obviously I’m biased, but Nintendo haven’t got proven technology to work yet and there are no games visible – there’s nothing to wait for!

This interview appeared in E26, published in October 1995.

And 3DO? Do you think it can fight back with M2?

No, not really. I don’t think the development community will listen the second time around. Without a pricing, software or marketing strategy, how can they compete? 3DO was launched in a tough market dominated by Sega and Nintendo. They showed that in order to be successful you need strength in many different areas: brand, marketing, software catalogue, technology, consumer price, manufacturing supply and retail trade support. If you lack one or more of these you seriously effect your chances.

What kind of lifespan can PlayStation owners expect from their machine?

A long and happy one! We designed the machine to last – we are not intent on the obsolescence and self-destruction of something we’ve worked so hard to get right. The strength of the software in development will take us comfortably into the future.

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