[In March 1997, Sony launched the Net Yaroze project, which put the power of the original PlayStation in the hands of amateur developers. For well under $1000, hobbyists could get a special PlayStation unit which hooked to PCs and allowed them to develop their own games. This look back at the system includes interviews with developers who got their start on the system, as well as academics who used it in some of the earliest hands-on game development programs in the world.]
Today, with the ease of online distribution, it's easy to forget what things were like 15 years ago. Now all consoles -- even handhelds -- have download services, and in the case of something like Xbox Live Indie Games, anyone in their pajamas can tinker with the hardware.
In the mid-to-late 1990s, though, console development was tightly controlled, requiring licensing agreements and expensive development kits. While anyone could program for open platforms such as computers, online distribution was still nascent.
Launched in 1997, Sony's Net Yaroze project aimed to allow ordinary consumers to develop games for the biggest selling console of the time: the original PlayStation. There were limitations designed to prevent cannibalization of the more expensive professional kits, but this was a landmark venture.
Later integration with university courses and the opportunity to have projects distributed via the monthly Official UK PlayStation Magazine (OPSM) demo CD made it even more significant.
Net Yaroze was reportedly the idea of PlayStation creator Ken Kutaragi, and while the project may have been Japanese, it came with a distinctly British influence. Paul Holman, current vice president of R&D at Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, was head of the UK Yaroze division.
"Although the idea would have been approved by Ken," says Holman, "I worked directly with my counterparts in Japan to discuss the practical details. The goal we shared was to allow interested consumers to create their own games on PlayStation using something similar to the professional developer environment. I'd grown up in the days of the BBC Micro, so it was for me very much providing this sort of experience to this generation."
The BBC Micro was one of several popular home computers sold in the UK during the 1980s. The open nature of the platforms and ease of development meant it was possible even for school kids to create a game. Have a parent sign a publishing contract, and then an audio cassette carrying the software would be available on store shelves across the country.
Charles Chapman, developer of Total Soccer Yaroze and co-founder of First Touch Games in the UK, also describes how coding in his youth made Net Yaroze the perfect fit: "I had been involved in making games years before on the ZX Spectrum, and Amiga/ST while I was a teenager, so I was always keen on making games. But in the late 1990s there were limited avenues into the industry, so the Yaroze arrived at a great time."
Total Soccer Yaroze
Longtime magazine editor Ryan Butt, who helmed OPSM during its final year and gave the Net Yaroze much support, explains his initial reaction: "I first heard about it when editor on Play magazine, and was intrigued by the prospect of a return to bedroom coding -- although the cost of the machine was high and I was unsure if it offered enough range and freedom for would-be coders to realize their ideas." Once given the reins to OPSM, and able to choose the demo disc content, he was impressed. "We shoehorned as many Net Yaroze games in as we could. Some of them, like TimeSlip, were actually pretty bloody good!"
With Europe, America, and Japan's developers having very different backgrounds, we asked Holman if there had been resistance from within Sony. "I didn't encounter any barriers from other departments, although the project was very much led from my department, which was focused on helping game developers get the best technically out of PlayStation. To become a Net Yaroze member, there was a basic legal agreement under which we provided the SDK, which was a slightly cut down version of the professional one, and under which members could share their work on our server."
Buying into the Net Yaroze club got you a region-free black PlayStation along with serial cable for connection to a computer, two controllers, various discs, dongles, manuals and coding libraries, plus access to Sony's private forum. Although there were price drops it was still a big investment, initially costing £550 / $750.
Amusingly, SCEE were pretty relaxed about depositing checks, as revealed by David Johnston, who developed TimeSlip and went on to form Smudged Cat Games. "I remember it being a big decision buying a Net Yaroze, because I was at school at the time, and they were pretty expensive. I never paid for it, though! Sony just never took the money. I guess it's been long enough now they can't chase me for it!"
The community spirit which formed on the private forums was an important part of the experience, as Holman and other SCEE staff provided technical assistance for the aspiring developers, while they encouraged each other with jovial banter and attempts at one-upmanship.
"Someone made a game called Down, where the character dropped down the screen. I saw it and decided to make a game called Up, for a laugh," says Johnston. "A bit of light-hearted rib jabbing. At first he didn't see it that way though, and posted on the forums how outraged he was, and that he was planning to make a game called Up -- oops! We got in touch and he realized no harm was intended."
Everyone contacted for this article had only fond recollections. James Rutherford, who later worked on Stuntman and developed tools for Driv3r, describes the excitement of visiting the forums. "It wasn't perfect, but Sony provided a great base and the community spirit made up for any shortfalls. Paul Holman (and team) provided some top technical support. There was usually something new every day from the SCEE site, and digging through the FTP there were some excellent games."
"I expect most other students were out being social, while I was spending far too much time in the evenings tinkering."
Robert Swan, developer of Adventure Game, who went on to work for SCEE and later founded indie studio Aah Games, has similar recollections. "It directly related to me failing my degree -- I spent so much time having fun mucking about that [my university] course became mundane and I 'accidentally' missed lectures and exams! I have almost nothing but great memories of the Yaroze -- it gave me a focus for games development and started the career I love."