Published here online for the first time, this interview with Sony’s then-communications director Phil Harrison took place at Sony PlayStation’s UK launch, in late 1995. It was published in Edge issue 26, and throws up some fascinating insights into what Sony wanted to achieve with the PlayStation project – and, prior to PS4′s European launch later this week, there are some surprising parallels between the game market of 1995 and today.
Phil Harrison has witnessed the PlayStation’s evolution since the very beginning. Having joined Sony in 1993 as product development director, he immediately went underground to start the console’s European development and support group, working closely with the Tokyo R&D team, which was completing the hardware and OS design. One of his key objectives was to spread the PlayStation message to the development community in Europe, as well as to hire talented technical support staff and software engineers (to whom Harrison refers as the ‘unsung heroes’ of the European division). Now, as communications director, he is heavily involved with the European marketing strategy for the machine. Edge spoke to him at SCEE’s London HQ.In personal terms, what has been the most rewarding part of the PlayStation’s journey to market?Simply that the reality of the finished machine exceeded my expectations in every way. In fact, as the development process went on, the games were getting better and the hardware and OS were getting stronger. Normally in this business it’s the other way around, with the end result being somewhat underwhelming. On the whole, it’s been a tremendous challenge and experience to follow the project from the very early days of hushed tech specs and a shroud of secrecy to the massmarket launch. I don’t think there will ever be another opportunity like this one, and I sometimes feel like I’ve got the front seat on the most amazing rollercoaster ride you can imagine.Given the PlayStation is a small grey box attached to a SNES-style joypad, do you believe that it is as innovative as that seminal Sony product, the Walkman?Well, the Walkman revolutionised the way people listen to music – taking it outside the confines of their home or car for the first time. It made people think differently about the part music played in their lives and became a cultural icon. The PlayStation is certainly a dramatic innovation but not an invention like the Walkman was in the 1970s.When you look at the PlayStation as a complete system, what aspect of the design appeals to you most?Every part of the machine – from the sleek outer case design, the ingenious memory cards and the ergonomic controllers through to the chipset – has been so well designed. It feels like a complete product – no element has been rushed or compromised. It also feels like a Sony product – you know you’re holding 40 years of innovation and quality. Then when you look at the price we’ve achieved, it becomes even more remarkable.Was the machine’s development a long and labourious process?Yes but it was also a very interesting process. The very firt thing I had was some written specifications which were, at the time, half-reality, half-blue sky. I just remember the first time I read through those specs and I thought, hang on, this must be a misprint – this can’t be real! Then the next thing I saw was a videotape and that was about two years ago. That videotape was just a first inkling of what PlayStation was all about. It had some demonstrations actually coming off the chipset in prototype. This chipset was running about 30 per cent thrughput and it was staggering. Unike anything I’d seen before. And then we had this first 30 per cent hardware prototype in at the end of 1993 – a great big box about the size of a desktop photocopier – and it was all grey metal and very, very ugly. And it had two huge fans inside it to keep it cool – it sounded like the thing would take off when you turned it on!That must have been around the time that developers got to see it…We showed it to about 100 developers in December 1993. I remember reading the article in Edge and smiling at your frustration because no-one would tell you anything about the machine. We had everyone sign a non-disclosure agreement before we let them see the presentation. I invited the cream of the European developers to our office where we’d taken over an empty floor in the building and gave this presentation about the technology and the objectives we had for the business. It was great to see the best programmers and designers in the country with open mouths thinking exactly the same as I had when I’d first seen the technology – excitement mixed with a big dose of disbelief. We had to prove to one well-known developer that the demos ran off a real prototype and an SGI.