"Three weeks after they bought my company, Sony introduced me to a busted photocopier with chips hanging out of it, and said: ‘This is the PlayStation’”
Ian Hetherington was the boss of Psygnosis – the developer/publisher that Sony acquired in 1993. And his first impression of Sony’s new console was not good.
Quite frankly, it was not fit for purpose when we got involved with it,” he tells MCV.
The Japanese view of it was you put the CD in, you load the software, you take the CD out. They still thought of it as a cartridge. We looked at the specs andupgraded the CD drive and the memory so that we had enough memory to stream.”
Sony did not have a good reputation in the games business before the launch of PlayStation. It operated a publishing and distribution division under the name of Sony Electronic Publishing, and its games were hardly setting the industry alight.
We were almost a laughing stock,” recalls Alan Welsman, who began at Sony Electronic Publishing before leading the PR for PlayStation’s UK launch.
We were distributing Sega and Nintendo products for a few years, and I was going out and seeing all the journalists across Europe with all these games. One game was Last Action Hero, and that got reviewed as a minus-six by one French journalist who said its only use was as a doorstop.
Everyone said we’d be like Philips [which launched the failed CDi console] and that we would turn and run, because we were a hardware company, not a games company. But the purchase of Psygnosis meant that we were able to cement the software side with the hardware side, which shouldn’t be underestimated.”
"Quite frankly, the PlayStation was not fit for
purpose when we got involved with it."
– Ian Hetherington, Psygnosis founder
The Japanese launch of PlayStation had gone down a storm in December 1994, buoyed by support from leading Japanese developers such as Namco.
Yet the US and Europe needed an entirely different line-up. To begin with, the man tasked with finding those games was a young Phil Harrison (pictured left) – who joined Sony Electronic Publishing back in September 1992.
I was the first employee in Europe at the office, which was a spare room in my house in Sussex for quite a few months,” says Harrison. And then we acquired Psygnosis in early 1993 and we just went from there.
By December 1993, we did our first European developer event. That’s when we really started, showing these studios what was coming, what the specs were and what our plan was. What we were proposing technologically was such a leap forward that people were convinced that we were delusional. I remember [Argonaut Software founder] Jez San in particular challenging us and wanting to see the dev kits, because he was convinced they were running on a $100,000 Silicon Graphics workstation.”
Hetherington adds: I did the keynote at that event, and we internally built the launch catalogue effectively. That involved recruiting people like DMA Design who did Lemmings, recruiting the Reflections boys who did Shadow of the Beast and then Destruction Derby, there was Martin Chudley at Bizarre Creations who did an F1 game, Traveller’s Tales who did a Pixar product. It was a purple period. These were all home-grown Psygnosis developers. And I think at the first Christmas we had 80 per cent market share in software sales.”
Of course, the game that would go on to define the launch of PlayStation was a certain futuristic racer.
The thing that made PlayStation cool, beyond any shadow of a doubt, was Wipeout,” continues Hetherington.
The music we put in was Chemical Brothers and Leftfield. It was a statement piece, it said this console is cool, it’s 3D and for the 18 to 25 age group.”
Ray Maguire, who was leading PlayStation UK at the time, remembers: We weren’t producing the same kind of games as Sega and Nintendo. Our titles were just awesome and absolutely showed off the power of the PlayStation. Psygnosis and Phil were fundamental to that. CD music sales were roaring at the time, and having the ability to use the likes of The Chemical Brothers as part of the music allowed us to go to a 20-something audience.”
What’s more, the European team wanted as many games as possible on the format. And, despite objections from the US, made it easy for developers to build and release games for the system.
We simplified the approval process to a one-step system,” says Chris Deering, the first European president of PlayStation.
We had disagreements with the US. They thought we were too loose, they thought we should be more guarded with our approval process. But the Japanese were more on our side about this one. They were saying: ‘Why not let the consumer decide what games to buy?’”
"The path was strewn with the carcasses
of those that attempted to go after Nintendo
and Sega and failed. It was not a pleasant sight.
We were scared to go to battle with these guys."
– Chris Deering, former PlayStation Europe President
Sony’s famous 1990s tagline was Do Not Underestimate The Power Of The PlayStation, and that was probably because at the beginning, pretty much everyone did. Including Sony.
I remember the very first business plan for PlayStation that we did in June 1995,” says Deering.
We said that over the course of the first four years, the whole of PlayStation Europe would do 4m consoles and 13m game discs [laughs]. Do you believe that? By the fourth year, we probably did 8m in just that year. We had no idea that it was going to be this successful. We were up against these mighty, mighty end-of-level bosses in the form of Sega and Nintendo. You had 3DO and CDi and things like that go nowhere. The path was strewn with the carcasses of those that attempted to go after Nintendo and Sega and failed. It was not a pleasant sight. We were scared to go to battle with these guys.”
The existence of Sony Electronic Publishing in the years before PlayStation’s launch proved crucial. By distributing and publishing games on Nintendo and Sega consoles, Sony was building a relationship with the market, and learning a thing or two about the power of independent retailers.
We learnt a lot about pricing, distribution, forecasting and basically creating the trade contacts that we would inevitably work with,” says Doug Goodwin, who was commercial director for PlayStation UK back in 1995.
That work was done 18 months before the PlayStation launched, and it taught us how important the independent retail sector was.
While it was important for us to secure listings with the more dominant High Street brands, such as Comet and Argos, the opinion formers were – without doubt – the independent trade. Gamers went into that environment and engaged with the store owners. They sparred with them in terms of gaming knowledge. And in that environment the endorsement, or a recommendation for our platform, was gold dust.”
Goodwin went out of his way to win over the indies. He treated them all like a multiple High Street chain. He took PlayStation on a regional tour to do product demonstrations, and even launched an intranet system where indies could plug in their data, and in return would receive point-of-sale materials – the sort of posters and standees usually reserved for the likes of Dixons.
We were looking to engender heart