Industry veteran and former Sony executive Richard Browne delves into Sony's video game history and asks, "Can they rise again?"
I have to preface this article by noting that I have long term ties to Sony. I was an employee of Psygnosis when Sony bought the Liverpool company back in the early '90s. Because of this tie I've been a long time supporter of Sony, and some have even deemed me a fanboy, which to some extent I probably am, or was. You'll forgive me if any of that comes out here.
Sony's rise to prominence in the gaming business began in the early '90s when they entered into an agreement with Nintendo to produce a CD-Rom drive for the Super Nintendo. At the time I was working at Psygnosis, and as pioneers in the CD-Rom field we were early into discussions around the format. Psygnosis was working very quietly on a Star Wars CD game with Lucasarts; it was in its formative stages but the work the company had done with CD technology to date put them in good stead (alas, the contract to do the game would never get signed). When the SNES CD drive became a possibility, Psygnosis started working with DMA Design in Dundee (who had been highly successful partners from Menace to Blood Money to the infamous Lemmings) to try and emulate how the system would work.
By CES of January 1992 DMA had an emulated demo of the Star Wars game running on a SNES with a mega-cartridge dropped on top of it to simulate the CD drive and some aspect of its immense capacity. The demo was pretty spectacular, as was the falling out that Sony and Nintendo subsequently had over how their business relationship would work. As history will report, Nintendo ditched the concept of CDs and Sony went to work on building their own games console to take on its formerly proposed partner.
"The real genius of the PlayStation was its marketing. Sony realized that people who played games were growing up; it wasn't just a kids-focused business anymore"
Psygnosis and Sony had started business dealings in other parts of their respective organizations, in Sony's case through Imagesoft. Psygnosis worked on a number of titles through this relationship - Bram Stoker's Dracula, The Last Action Hero (in which Arnold Schwarzenegger was infamously not allowed to be seen holding guns), and Mickey Manic with Traveller's Tales to name just a few - but it was when Sony decided to enter the hardware business that the relationship became more formal.
Sony Computer Entertainment Europe was just one bloke - one Phil Harrison - but clearly Sony understood it would need more than just Phil on the ground to build a console division. With that in mind, and with other potential suitors waiting in the wings, Sony made the decision to purchase Psygnosis and put its joint MDs Jonathan Ellis and Ian Hetherington in charge of the new-found company. Initially, SCEE was set up to be a Publisher; rather smartly Sony realized that to sell hardware it would need a sales and distribution channel and with Psygnosis as a basis they could build and grow just that. For several months Phil would travel up to Liverpool for the week to work at our offices though in time Ian and Jonathan would open Sony's first London base on Golden Square from which the Company would work. SCEE began releasing a slate of cartridge games across Europe and the infrastructure began to grow.
In the meantime Sony Japan had been hard at work creating the PSX as it was well known, and relatively early on in its life a prototype appeared amongst much secrecy in Liverpool. When people refer to that first machine as a photocopier they really aren't exaggerating overly. It was large, noisy and ran very hot. Nothing ever changes with prototype hardware it seems. The Advanced Technology Group at Psygnosis (of which I was part) started to try playing with it immediately before running into what could only be described as a slight problem.
The only way to program the system was through NeXT workstations. We didn't have any. In fact most of us had never even heard of them. Through some pioneering research one of the team found two existed in England, at a Sony dealership in Basingstoke. They were quickly dispatched to the Psygnosis offices so the team could actually start to figure the machine out. What was clear though was this was going to be a problem, there was no way this machine was going to go mainstream if the programming toolset for it was almost impossible to acquire.
Fortune sometimes smiles and fate sometimes pulls through. Not long before the whole Sony Psygnosis marriage occurred we'd been looking to sign up the best and the brightest 3rd party developers in the UK. Andrew Spencer was one such man we signed up, we worked with Archer McLean on Super Dropzone, and I'd been in touch with the guys at the Assembly Line because I had been incredibly impressed with their work on Xenon 2 - and Adrian Stephens was working on this amazing Stunt Island game with Disney.
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