The Making Of: PlayStation
Namco’s Ridge Racer.
It was Namco’s Ridge Racer that stood out by far among the Japanese launch games. Visiting Namco’s Yokohama tech centre, Harrison saw the finished game a few weeks before the December 3 release. “I’d seen an earlier workin- progress build a couple of months before, but they’d done the port from the coin-op remarkably quickly. I remember realising that was going to be pivotal piece of software for the west in particular.” But then he saw one of the pieces of software that would help define the console’s later success. “It was almost an afterthought. One of the men demonstrating it 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’.”
The rest of the launch games were rather less memorable. “With the notable exception of Ridge Racer, there is no way you’d extrapolate the global success that happened from that first lineup,” concedes Harrison. And that’s including Kazanori Yamauchi’s Motor Toon Grand Prix, a title he made before forming Polyphony to create Gran Turismo. But the 100,000 units Sony made for Japanese launch day sold out all the same. “It was an incredible undertaking from all manner of perspectives,” says Harrison. “Manufacturing, financial, buying the components, getting the distribution infrastructure in place to ship them – we started manufacturing probably around October to hit the launch date.”
Another 200,000 sold in the console’s first 30 days on sale. This was at a price of ¥39,800 – which at the time translated to $390, or £245 – compared to Sega’s Saturn launch price of ¥44,800 the month before. Though instrumental to PlayStation’s success, price was a contentious issue at Sony, because, against all corporate tradition, PlayStation would be sold at a loss. While Kutaragi had initially forecast that memory prices would go down, the truth was that, ten months before launch, they were going up – and they’d stay high all the way up until late 1995. The trend was principally due to booming PC sales, but, ever resolute, Kutaragi stuck to his guns, declaring that they would certainly come down over time, and that every competitor was in the same position. And besides, the PlayStation business was to be quite different from Sony’s conventional appliance business, which depended on direct profits from hardware sales, because in games, profits could instead be gained from software sales. The policy was still hard to reconcile with Sony’s old guard until Kutaragi dropped certain hardware features, such as the original model’s S-Video port.
This pricing policy allowed SCEI to severely dent the fortunes of Sega’s Saturn in the US. Famously, Saturn was surprise-launched in the US at $399 during E3 on May 11, 1995, but the timing allowed Sony to immediately get the upper hand. Harrison was at Sony’s E3 press conference shortly afterwards: “Olaf Olafsson was doing the spiel about growth in the industry and droning on – it was deliberately staged that way. I can’t remember a single thing about his presentation, but he did say that he’d like to bring on stage the president of Sony Computer Entertainment America to share with you an important piece of information. Steve Race went up to the microphone, just said ‘299’, and sat back down again. The room erupted.” But staff at Sony’s corporate headquarters weren’t amused. “It was properly agreed, but word had not made its way back to Japan and there were parts of Sony scratching their heads in shock,” says Deering. “I think Tokunaka got in trouble. It was a scary thing for them.”
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Shortly after the Japanese launch, plans started for the European and US launches. Deering was initially asked to head up US operations, but turned down the role in favour of the opportunity to direct the more challenging but more interesting cultural patchwork of Europe. “They thought I was pretty crazy, actually,” he remembers. “The European market is only 60 per cent the size of the US, they said, but I said, ‘Right now it is, but that’s only because it’s handled in a dilettante fashion’. Europe was almost exploited by Japanese console makers in demanding high minimum orders from distributors.” After all, the usual focus for a Japanese console maker was always the US after the home territory. “Sony Japan really didn’t understand Europe at the time, or pay much attention to it. Which is why we got to manage in an unencumbered style.”
Steve Race, a long-time executive for such companies as Sega, Nintendo and Atari, hired many ex-Sega employees for SCEA. “They went by the handbook of the old Sega business,” says Deering. “They limited the number of thirdparty releases, drove hard bargains – there were a lot of rough edges in treatment of thirdparties and had even been rough in approving products by Konami and Namco.” Race also played rough, as Harrison recollects: “At the Alexis Park Hotel in January 1995, where Sega held their CES party, Steve Race organised for every napkin to be printed with ‘PSX welcomes Sega to CES’! That was a fun moment, because these napkins were everywhere. [Sega Of America head] Tom Kalinske went totally nuts and demanded that all the napkins were purged from the hotel, quite reasonably so, but legend has it that later on in the party he was handed a beer with one of these napkins around it, and he exploded.”