October 4th, 2015, 13:51 Posted By: wraggster
"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 hearts and minds, and we saw the indies as the biggest opinion formers in influencing the consumer,” says Goodwin.
"People don’t realise just how awful
the cartridge business was."
- Phil Harrison, former PlayStation Studios boss
Goodwin did several other different things in trying to support the trade back in 1995, including taking PlayStation games into Blockbuster. But the biggest thing that won over the retailers and the publishers back in the mid-1990s, was the strength of the disc.
“People don’t realise just how awful that cartridge business was,” says Harrison.
“You had to pre-pay for your cartridges and they took about eight weeks to arrive. The amount of cash you had tied up as a publisher was just extraordinary. You had to have all of your inventory locked up ahead of time. You’d either ordered too few because you were being conservative and the market would dry up or, more likely, you’d order too many and you’d have to cut the price to shift them. Just to own it in your warehouse costs as much as $14 a cartridge. It was a horrific business.
“With CDs, we could turn around re-orders within a matter of days.”
Cartridges had a minimum order of around 5,000. It was a very risky model, and the result was that publishers viewed PlayStation and its CD-based system as a more viable platform. Sony also helped publishers in destroying any unsold stock.
“We wanted publishers to want to put their games out on PlayStation first, because it was the more profitable console,” Goodwin adds.
"Sega got panicky when they saw the software
we were going to launch with, so they decided to
get the Saturn out first and they cocked it up."
- Simon Jobling, former PlayStation UK marketing director
The publishers and the retailers were on side ahead of PlayStation’s September 29th, 1995 European launch. But the single most important group to win over were the consumers.
PlayStation was already making a name for itself before its arrival. The Japanese launch had gone down well, while the first ever E3 in May was a huge success. It was here that US chief Steve Race delivered his famous one-word ‘$299’ speech – undercutting the price of Sega Saturn.
“There was a miscommunication the night before and the actual price hadn’t been approved by Japan when Steve Race said: ‘299’,” recalls Deering. “It wasn’t his fault, he was told to go ahead. But there were some really anxious moments after that speech. It turned out to be very fortuitous.”
Sega Saturn was having its own issues. Sega, panicked by the momentum of PlayStation, decided to bring the launch of its console forward by months. A move that backfired.
“The Saturn was supposed to launch after us, and they suddenly got panicky when they saw the software that we were going to launch with, and they decided to get it out first and they cocked it up,” says Simon Jobling, former PlayStation UK marketing director.
“They may have gone first. But they didn’t have the games.”
With Sega floundering and Nintendo's new machine over a year away, Sony had been gifted a golden opportunity to succeed where so many others had failed. And so PlayStation set out its plans to do an altogether different advertising campaign.
“I remember looking out of my offices on Sonic 2sday [launch of Sonic 2 in 1992],” says Goodwin. “They had a launch party at The Ark in Hammersmith. The strength of the brand and its punch capability was very impressive. We had to do something different.”
"We went out to every kind of influential place
that we could get into, we did parties, we went to celebs,
and we just put them in front of the
PlayStation and said ‘have a go on that."
- Ray Maguire, Former PlayStation UK MDThe TV campaign centred around ‘The Society Against PlayStation’, which were a series of ads featuring an activist group warning against the ‘power of the PlayStation’.
“Those were… interesting,” says Harrison. “I look back on it really fondly, and I remember it caused a few people to scratch their heads, but the ad agency had this big idea for what they wanted to create. I did end up having ridiculous arguments with the ad agency about how many frames of gameplay would be in the ad. Because ad agencies don't win awards for showing gameplay, so they wanted to obviously show off the film they had made while we wanted to show off the game that we had made. It was a right royal rumpus for a while then it was pointed that we were paying the f***** bill and that they should do as we told them to.”
This TV ad was used throughout Europe, but all other PR and marketing was handled by the individual territories. And the UK team had some unique ideas on how to sell PlayStation.
“We went out to every kind of influential place that we could get into, we did parties, we went to celebs, and we just put them in front of the PlayStation and said ‘have a go on that’,” says Maguire.
Jobling adds: “We tried to focus on what we saw as the core proposition – which was the power of the machine. We sponsored speed boats and boxer Prince Naseem, it was all to build up in people’s minds that the PlayStation was powerful.
“We had this endorsement campaign where we sent machines to around 100 to 200 people from different walks of life, from fashion, music, sport and entertainment, amongst others.
“When it was announced that Sony was going into video games hardware, the general feeling in the industry wasn’t: ‘This is going to be a slam dunk.’ It was: ‘What the hell does Sony know about games?’ So the early marketing was all about establishing the credibility of Sony. The games helped, but we had to do a serious long-term branding job.”
The campaign would also get a bit edgy in places as it skewed to an older demographic. They gave away ‘postcards’ at Glastonbury, which would inevitably be used for rolling joints. They even installed ‘chill out rooms’ in clubs such as the Ministry of Sound, which were refrigerated rooms that featured some cushions, a TV and a PlayStation so that clubbers could cool down during nights out.
“It wasn’t as in-your-face as the Sega advertising,” says Deering. “This was more music-orientated, more about the druggie scene. It was on the money for the times. It really made a huge difference to the success of the brand, not just in the UK, but across Europe.”
"We received a letter on the second morning
after our graffiti campaign had hit the streets,
it was from the City of Westminster Council
and it said we had four days to get this graffiti off
or all hell would break lose."
- Simon Jobling, Former PlayStation UK marketing directorThis ‘edgy’ marketing activity always flirted with going too far, and one day it actually did.
“We hired a street marketing agency to go around and graffiti lampposts and things like that, all around the City of London,” says Jobling.
“That sparked off one of those establishment issues. We received a letter on the second morning after our graffiti campaign had hit the streets, it was from the City of Westminster Council and it said we had four days to get this graffiti off or all hell would break lose. We got worried that Sony Corporation would hear about this, because this really wasn’t something they would approve of at all. So there was this panic where we were like: ‘Can we get this stuff off?’
"So we had these people scurrying around Westminster trying to clean this up, before Sony Japan could get wind of it.
Goodwin laughs: “We had a clean-up team that removed that graffiti instantly. We stretched the envelope, we stretched the legalities as far as we could, but we had to be very careful. Sony was really worried about PlayStation. It was a big step for them. Sony at the time was something your dad had. He had the Sony sound system. The Walkman had been a success, but consumers didn’t even really relate that with Sony at the time. Sony was not seen as a brand for the youth.
“But we had to be careful, because this was a global brand with significant presence. And even with what we did, we had to keep the integrity of what the Sony brand stood for, so we didn’t make any major mistakes that warranted Japan coming in and giving us a hard time.”
Jobling, Goodwin, Welsman and Maguire may have led PlayStation’s first launch in the UK, but there were other influential members of the team that really made an impact. Including marketing manager Geoff Glendenning.
“He was an unsung hero of the PlayStation launch,” insists Deering. “He was the one that took note of the Triangle, Square, Circle, X buttons, and he started using that as a sort-of underground code for the brand. To this day now those four symbols have become used universally by PlayStation. It became the Nike swoosh of PlayStation. He came up with that.”
"We knew that if we cocked this up, it wasn’t just
a case of moving company, but moving industry.
- Doug Goodwin, former PlayStation UK commercial director
A decent price, strong games, a controversial advertising campaign, support from retail and love from the media – including Edge and The Face – helped PlayStation fly. It reached an older audience than Nintendo or Sega had managed and the machine was almost constantly sold-out in the lead up to Christmas.
That sell-out was partly driven by the fact Sony decided to launch PlayStation in ten European countries – which was more than its rivals ever did. A move that Deering insisted upon.
“The Japanese arm of Sony were looking at Europe through the eyes of their mates at Sega and Nintendo, who said that if you get France, Germany and UK, you basically have Europe and Europe is roughly half the US,” he says.
“Before I joined PlayStation, I had 20 years experience in international markets. I knew that Europe had the same population as the US and the same ?per-capita income as the US.
“I thought Nintendo and Sega were being lazy on producing translated versions. And they were dealing with distributors that were taking the mick with the video games industry. I remember saying to Ken Kutaragi [PlayStation CEO at the time] that Europe can have the same install base as the US. He laughed and said: ‘In your dreams, go for it.’ And it did happen. We localised in multiple languages, we worked hard and made it happen.”
PlayStation rolled into the market in 1995 and transformed the games industry. The business model, the target audience, the advertising – the industry changed overnight. Sony took on Nintendo and Sega’s duopoly and won, and its loyalty and support for Europe continues to pay dividends to this day.
“We knew that if we cocked this up, it wasn’t just a case of moving company, but moving industry,” says Goodwin. “Who is going to take on a failed format employee? We had to make this work. But it wasn’t pressure. This was pride.”
Jobling adds: “We were all committed to it and we all loved it. We worked hard, we went out, we had a good time, and we did a lot in a short amount of time. Yes we were tense about if we would pull it off, but from the day it hit the market it just went. It was the most fun I’ve ever had in a job.”
Hetherington concludes: “I still do a lot in video games today. But the best period of my career, by a country mile, was going from that busted photocopier to the launch of PlayStation.”
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