Birthday Memories: Sony PlayStation Turns 15By Christian Nutt
This story, originally written in 2010 for the 15th anniversary of the U.S. launch of the PlayStation, offers a look back at the early days of the console from long-time SCEA executive Peter Dille, who has since departed Sony.
It's hard to overestimate the significance of the PlayStation 1. The console market, in the 16-bit generation, had been split pretty evening between Nintendo and Sega -- but Sega was decimated, and Nintendo began its long pre-Wii downward slide with the Nintendo 64, thanks to a new competitor: Sony.
Today marks the 15th anniversary of the original PlayStation's launch in North America: September 9, 1995. And while some of the biggest franchises that were built on the PlayStation may be in very different places than they once were -- Tomb Raider, Final Fantasy, WipeOut -- we remember them all as titans of the era.
In fact, in a testament to that, Final Fantasy VII has recently been the most-downloaded title on PlayStation Network for many months, beating out original, new games posted to the service.
To get a window to the system's launch, Gamasutra spoke with Peter Dille, Sony Computer Entertainment's senior vice president of marketing. In 1995, Dille moved to California to help bootstrap Sony Computer Entertainment, and worked on the system's launch.
He speaks here about that experience, the company's troubled history with Nintendo over the cratered plan to launch the PlayStation as a peripheral for the Super Nintendo, and much more.
So, Peter, I wanted to talk about your personal history -- when did you join the company, and how involved were you with the original launch?
Peter Dille: I worked at Sony since the early '90s. I think I joined in maybe '90, '91, and I was working at the parent company at Manhattan at that time. This actually predates the formation of Sony Computer Entertainment.
The parent company had recently purchased Columbia Pictures and CBS Records, and it was the early days of multimedia and what they called "synergy". You probably remember Sony Imagesoft, a small, not terribly successful publisher of Nintendo and Sega video game products.
As Sony was preparing to launch the PlayStation, when they had decided to compete with Nintendo instead of purely support Nintendo -- because we had been a chip supplier to Nintendo... And you're probably by this point well aware of the debate about the original PlayStation, which was going to be a peripheral to the Nintendo machine.
At that point in time, I was sort of tasked, or recruited, by some of the folks in New York to help pay attention to the video game space and prepare for the launch of PlayStation. There was a newly-created group called Sony Electronic Publishing that the Sony Imagesoft group reported up into, and I was part of that organization, and we were managing Sony Imagesoft from New York.
Ultimately, the decision was made to combine the Sony Imagesoft operation into the Sony Computer operation, so in February of 1995, I moved out to California and became part of the Sony Computer Entertainment team. I was here for the launch, and it was an exciting time.
So, I'll stop there because that's probably a lot of history. For me, it's a chance to go into the Wayback Machine.
At that point, when you came to California, the PlayStation was actually out in Japan. It came out in December of '94. So how far back did your involvement with the project as in, "We're going to launch this into the U.S. in the fall of '95," take shape?
PD: Well, again, I had a unique opportunity to have a bird's eye view, I think, of actually the moment that decision was made. I was, again, working in Manhattan for the parent company.
And one day, [CEO] Mickey Schulhof, who ran all of Sony's U.S. operations, hardware and software, and was on the board of directors of Sony Corporate in Japan -- which I think was, you know, one of the first non-Japanese, and one of the first Americans to be on the board. He was as big as they come.
He called me into his office -- and I never had got a call to Mickey Schulhof's office -- and he asked for my help to develop a press release announcing this thing called the PlayStation, which was going to be a peripheral to the Nintendo.
And again, this is all out in books now, so I'm not passing secrets along, but what Mickey was doing was in effect, negotiating with Nintendo in the press by saying, "We're prepared to launch this thing on our own if you don't honor the agreement that we had with you." And I thought it was just fascinating to sort of watch this all go down and see how this high stakes game of poker was being played.
And when Nintendo made their decision, they put out an announcement with Philips. This was on the eve of CES, you might remember. At that very moment in time, Mickey and a number of senior executives at Sony, said, "We're going to launch our own product, and we're going to compete to win."
And so it was from that point in the early '90s that I was aware of Sony's interest in launching a product and competing... It was several years in advance of 1994 or 1995.
You're right that we've heard some of this stuff before. But one insight that you hear a lot, but I've never really heard someone really talk about, is how that motivated Sony to really drive forward and show Nintendo who's boss? Do you think that was really what was going on?
PD: Well, Sony was passionate about the category and passionate about the technology. We felt like we had an advancement that would change the industry, the optical disc and CD-ROM expertise that we were bringing to the table.
So, it was a vision as much as anything, but again, initially, I think Sony was planning on partnering with Nintendo. And when Nintendo demonstrated that they weren't terribly interested in that, the senior folks at Sony decided that "We best go alone", and we've done quite well.
Talk about the Wayback Machine, but at the time, Sega was a really, really strong competitor having come off the success of the Genesis. Were you guys concerned with competing with them as well, not knowing how the Saturn was going to ultimately turn out?
PD: I don't think you enter any category cavalierly. You certainly understand who the entrenched players are. But again, I think Sony has always been a very visionary company, and that's something that is still true to this day as I sit here 15 years later.
When Sony announced it was going to go to the games business, I think a lot of people assumed, "Well, they're just going to do what the other guys do", but of course, that's not the way Sony operates; we had a point of difference.
And so, the long answer to your question is Sony doesn't get scared because of their competitors, when we've got unique points of difference and a superior product offering.
I can visibly remember that the media pundits and the analysts and the retailers... To some degree, I think the world was betting against Sony at the time. It's easy to forget that at that time Sony was a huge underdog.
Now, people think of us as a leader in this category, and that's flattering, but at the time, again, we didn't have a pedigree in the games business. It was really the early days of Sony making the hardware parts of the company work together with the software parts of the company.
And I can vividly remember a front-page article in the New York Times business section that predicted that not only we wouldn't be successful, there wouldn't be another console at all that would be successful because PCs were going to be where gaming was going and, you know, console gaming was dead.
So, there was a lot of noise in the pre-PlayStation phase. Conventional wisdom was we weren't going to be successful, and "What does Sony know about competing with the mighty Nintendo and the mighty Sega?" Well, again, 15 years later, Nintendo's still here and Sega's still in business, but of course they got out of the hardware business, and the rest is history.
Like I said, it was an exciting time. I don't want to be too nostalgic about it, but it was a really fun time. It was highly energetic, and I think people had a sense that they were working on something that was going to make history.
You moved to California about seven months before launch. As you drew close to launch, were you confident in the kind of hit system that you would have on your hands, and the strength of the launch you would have?
PD: I think we were confident we had a hit product, but, you know, you hook me up to a lie detector, I think it would be hard to find anyone maybe short of [PlayStation creator Ken] Kutaragi-san who knew the length to which PlayStation would change the business and what type of global iconic brand...
It's not just that we had success launching a product, we created one of the most recognizable brands in the world and created something that is still going strong to this day. Yeah, I think what Sony brought to the table wasn't just technology, but the combination of the Sony brand and the PlayStation approach to the category changed the business model.
We gave people older than 17 years old permission to play video games, and really legitimized this category in a way that I think hadn't been done up until then. Not withstanding the great success that Nintendo and Sega were having -- and I'm not suggesting that people older than 17 didn't play games -- but that Sony brand really took it from being a kids' category.
They were huge players back then, because kids were the dominant part of the demographic that played games. And today's generation, you're just as likely to talk to a kid and ask them what they do for entertainment, and video games are just as much a part of the vernacular as TV or internet or movies.
It's something that people older than 45 might not understand because they didn't grow up with it, and so they think, "Well, eventually they'll grow out of that," but today's gamers don't think that way. It's just a natural part of the entertainment landscape.
And I think Sony largely deserves the credit for that because of the way that S-O-N-Y brand, it just brings something different to the table that gave adults... It made it cool to play games again.
Was that the deliberate focus? Obviously it was the focus of the software, but was that a message that you pushed alongside the system? And how did you do that?
PD: I think it was the side benefit of the message. I don't think you can go out with a message that says, "Play games, you old people because you can be cool," but it was understanding what makes gamers tick. And if you remember, the campaign was "urnote" ["you are not ready".]
There was this fundamental truism that gamers love a challenge, and if you tell them they aren't good enough, they're going to find a way to prove to themselves and to you that yes, they are.
And so we threw down the gauntlet. "You are not ready" became a rallying cry. "You're not ready [for something] that's this sophisticated, that's this challenging, that's this fun," and it struck a nerve.
Again, I think this is something that we were always proud of, but for a group of people who were being sort of painted with "Oh, they don't understand this gaming category," we spent a lot of time understanding gamers and knew that it wasn't just what you said and how you said it. So, we buried codes in our ads...
This was, you know, probably before the internet, and people would talk about them and pass them on to each other. There was the triangle, square, circle, circle. "You know, that might mean something." All these things were in our print ads. If you slowed down the TV ads in slow motion, you could find some of these hidden communications that were going on.
So, we were having a conversation with the masses, but we were also having a sort of private conversation with gamers within our marketing, and it was usually successful. I think again, it led to just people thinking about PlayStation as a brand that was cool and that understood them as gamers, and so we got a lot of street cred for that.
And another big thing about the PlayStation obviously is that it really pushed 3D gaming to the forefront. The reason I ended up buying one -- I actually was a little skeptical because I was a big Sega fan, but I saw Ridge Racer. That sold me really quickly, and I ended up preordering the system. Were you concerned with the risk of moving to 3D or more excited about the opportunity?
PD: Definitely excited about it. And again, 3D was, you know, polygonal gaming, changing the graphical engines that developers can work with. And then of course what goes along with that is having the technology to have more storage capacity, and that's where the CD comes in.
And again, if you fast forward to, you know, 2006, when we launched PS3, even as we sit here today in 2010, we still have a huge competitive advantage with physical media. Now we've got Blu-ray, we've got the ability to put more power into the hands of the developers.
I think that when you do that, it's usually empowering to the development community. Then at the end of the day, those are the guys that are creating those experiences, whether it's Ridge Racer or Gran Turismo 5. You're going to get something that just blows people away because they haven't seen anything that looks or plays like that before.
So, we were not wary about that. We knew that this was going to be game-changing, and we were really excited about that.
Around the time of the launch of the system, Sony was more reliant on third-party. The big games at launch were Ridge Racer and Toshinden, which you guys published but wasn't published by Sony in Japan. Was that a concern? What are you thoughts about how that stuff went at launch?
PD: I actually have a vivid recollection of all that. Yeah, Ridge Racer was a big part of the launch. So was Battle Arena Toshinden. But here's something else that I think was one of the best-kept secrets of the launch.
Again, I mentioned Sony Imagesoft and the fact that they had yet to really distinguish themselves as a maker of terrific software for the Nintendo and the Sega platforms, and I'm really being polite when I say this. They had to distinguish themselves.
I mean, it was kind of the gang that couldn't shoot straight, and yet, like I said, in the early '90s, we really decided that we had to study the category and get better at this, and so we kept getting better and we kept working with those software teams.
A little known fact of the combination in that, you know, winter of '94, spring of '95, when they combined the Sony Imagesoft operation with the Sony Computer Entertainment operation, we actually found ourselves with two development teams. There were the guys from Imagesoft, and then there was the team that had been hired here to make first-party software.
And the team that had been hired here actually didn't distinguish themselves, and we did rely on third-party games like Ridge Racer and Toshinden. But the stuff that was being developed by Imagesoft that came out under the Sony Computer Entertainment label at launch, ESPN Xtreme Games, Twisted Metal, Warhawk, NFL GameDay, NHL FaceOff, all really important games to the launch and games that have gone on to be, you know, big brands in this category. Many of them -- I mean, ESPN, not so much.
I'm very proud of the fact that these guys had a chance to not only participate in a big way in the launch but really distinguish themselves and make a huge contribution.
Warhawk was a launch game and didn't get any sort of revival until the PS3. I think there was a lot of nostalgia for that with some of the people who had PS1s.
PD: Yeah. For sure. I mean, it was a great game on PS1. Again, that 3D experience, I remember shooting those tracer missiles into some of those towers you had to take out, and people were just blown away when we took so much footage and put it into our TV commercials.
On that note, what was your favorite game from the early days of the PlayStation 1?
PD: I think all those games I just mentioned, you know, have a special place in my heart, again partially because I was part of the team that suffered through some of the salad days with those guys. But if I had to pick one, it probably would be NFL GameDay. I was a big GameDay fan. I spent a lot of time playing it, and we had a great rivalry with EA and Madden.
I'm particularly proud of the fact that -- I think it was 1997 -- GameDay actually outsold Madden. And, you know, that's the last time that's ever been done, but, you know, we had a real great product on our hands, and it was a lot of fun working... I'm a big sports fan, and a big NFL fan, so it was a lot of fun to work on, but it's also fun to work on something that you can make into such a big success.
I remember what a stalwart GameDay was at the time. It's another sort of thing that people probably don't think about much anymore, but it was really a big deal.
PD: [Another] Wayback Machine -- the initial GT just blew people away. I think it's still doing that to this day. We'll see it again in just a couple months, but you know, Kazunori [Yamauchi]-san hasn't lost his penchant for being a visionary, a guy who pushes boundaries.
Each successive GT, I think we've had the same reaction. It was like, "Oh my God", and then quickly followed by, "It can't look any better than this." I remember people saying that when the first one came out on PS1.
Every time it's come out, I can remember being at sales meetings or press presentations, and everyone's jaw drops. You know, I think you've probably got a sense of what GT5 looks like, and, you know, here we go again. It's hard to imagine it looking any better, but I wouldn't bet against Kazunori.
I was curious about working with Japan and also with Europe to coordinate with the launches. How did that process go? At that point, it was a new process. I mean, obviously, Sony, is a Japanese company with a long-standing American division, but working with this software side...
PD: Yeah. It went remarkably well, I think. People probably assume that there was all sorts of late night phone calls or the need to get things approved and whatnot. And I'm not saying that they weren't paying careful attention, but I think, again, back to sort of the secrets to the success, what Sony did was really smart...
Let me back up a step. Like I said, we had recently purchased Columbia Pictures and CBS Records, and those were standalone software divisions. And leading up to the launch of PlayStation, again, I think people within the company knew this was an exciting product, and they wanted to be part of it. I mean that in a political sense.
So, you have an existing electronics operation within Sony, and then you had other companies that were making a claim that they could sell a product into our channel of distribution. There was a home video division, and people drew comparisons to the gaming category and the home video category. There was a music company. There was a motion picture company. And, like I said, there was an electronics company.
And rather than just saying, "Well, we're going to have the electronics guys sell the hardware, and you guys over here will do the software..." As you and I well know, that's not the way our business model works.
And rather than do that, Sony for the first time created a standalone division that housed both hardware and software under one roof. So, they knew that was key to success in this category, and had they not done that, if they had just relied on, "Um, those guys will talk to each other; they'll make this work", we probably would have sold hardware at high margins rather than sell it at a loss and make money on software. It never would have worked.
So by creating Sony Computer Entertainment, we had a standalone division, and the guy that created it was a guy named Kutaragi, who I don't need to tell you... was a maverick, and did a very good job keeping Sony Corp. off his back so that he could pursue his vision.
I think, again, had he not done that, who knows what decisions might not have been made or what different decisions would have been made. I think that because of that style, we got to do things differently, and that led to our success.
And if you come forward to today, in a very big way, PlayStation is setting the tone for the organization, particularly with Kaz [Hirai] now over the Network Products and Services division as well, overseeing that end, as well as overseeing SCE.
PD: Yeah, absolutely. I think the spirit is still there, the visionary focus is still there, whether it's, again, launching Blu-ray at a point and time when people were saying, "Blu-ray? I didn't ask for this. What a mistake Sony made. That's going to be their Achilles' heel here." Actually, it's the secret sauce that's making PlayStation so successful.
Sony, again, didn't do things the way people expected them to; they did things in a visionary way. But I think what's changed since 1995 is we are now much more integrated into the rest of Sony Corp. Kaz has a different approach than Kutaragi-san, and by extension, he's now been asked to lead that charge for a bigger part of the company wearing his Network Products and Services hat. He's responsible for a lot more than PlayStation.
But, again, the spirit of PlayStation, creating products that are changing Sony and changing the world, I think still exists today.
What were you most proud of about the original launch and the original system when you look back at it?
PD: I think I answer that question by saying, whether it's 1995 or 2010, the thing I'm most proud of is having a small role in helping establish a brand that's world-famous, being part of the growth of a company that didn't exist. We were probably 40 people here in Foster City, and, you know, several hundred, of course, around the world, but that's now grown to 1800.
And a brand that is... We launched an advertisement today on Kevin Butler's Twitter account, and people look forward to us marketing our product to them. Name a product in the world that you can think of where consumers actually get excited where they market to them. It doesn't happen very often, and we have the privilege of working for one here, and it's a product that people love. That's a great honor to have been part of it.
To take it down a notch, I guess, but is there anything you look back at how things went at the time that you wish you could have done differently?
PD: Boy. Nothing comes to mind. I'm not trying to duck the question, but obviously, things went pretty well. We sold more than 102 million PS1s, went on to sell more than 146 million PS2s, put Sega out of the hardware business, established us as a household brand, [and] created a huge profit center for Sony Corporation.
Were their missteps along the way or things you could do differently? You know, absolutely. But I'd be hard-pressed to look back at 15 years ago and say, "You know that PS1 launch? I think we could have done this and that differently." It all went extremely well, as I sit here 15 years later.
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