The room was painted black and cut off from the rest of the club down a short, darkened staircase.
Approaching the doorway, you could just make out a row of flickering screens, but as you stepped in it was suddenly clear what was going on. This was the Ministry of Sound, the citadel of the mid-90s clubbing boom – and here was a room full of people playing on Sony PlayStation consoles.
Launched in Japan on 3 December 1994, the PlayStation revolutionalised the video-games industry. At the time, veteran manufacturers like Nintendo and Sega fought over the family and male-teen markets with consoles that looked like consoles had always looked, and games that played like games had always played. With its advanced 32-bit processor and accelerated graphics hardware, the PlayStation was designed specifically to generate real-time 3D visuals, moving away from the painted backgrounds of previous generations. The look and language of game design changed for ever.
But it wasn’t just about better graphics. With the PlayStation, Sony made a range of vital technological and marketing decisions that allowed gaming to mature. And many of them were not so obvious on those pulsating screens.
Early on, for example, Ken Kuturagi, the engineer tasked with overseeing the development of PlayStation, committed to selling games not on cartridges, which were used on older systems like the Mega Drive, but on CDs.
“The whole cartridge model was a nightmare,” says Sony Computer Entertainment Europe president, Jim Ryan. “They cost a lot and you had to order the things before you knew what the finished game would be like, which is not, ordinarily, a very intelligent way to proceed. Compact discs gave people the appetite to take risks.”
The PlayStation era then, saw a boom in experimental titles that appealed to a wider audience. In Japan, Sony Computer Entertainment backed offbeat projects like cartoon rapping game PaRappa the Rappa and musical puzzler Vib Ribbon, while other studios used the improved audio capabilities of the platform to produce inclusive dancing sims like Bust a Groove and Dance Dance Revolution.
In the US, meanwhile, developers were able to explore the emerging extreme-sports scene, with revolutionary titles like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and Matt Hoffman’s Pro BMX. Games were tapping into aspirational lifestyles and activities.
‘I saw how the underground club scene was influencing the youth market’
Britain was a key part of this. In August 1994, Sony Computer Entertainment employed a young marketing manager named Geoff Glendenning. A lifelong gamer, he understood that young adults who’d grown up playing on the Sega Mega Drive and Nintendo SNES were being neglected as they got older; everyone was thinking about kids and teens. He saw a new market: twentysomethings with disposable income and plenty of free time. And he knew how to grab them.
“I had a certain cynicism about the reliance on big TV campaigns – the idea that the more times your consumer saw the product, the more impact it had,” he says.
“Having been part of the late 80s rave and underground-clubbing scene, I recognised how it was influencing the youth market. In the early 90s, club culture started to become more mass market, but the impetus was still coming from the underground, from key individuals and tribes.
“What it showed me was that you had to identify and build relationships with those opinion-formers – the DJs, the music industry, the fashion industry, the underground media.”
‘I’d hide £100,000 of the marketing budget in a slush fund’
So Glendenning and his team started talking to nightclubs and festival promoters, organising dedicated PlayStation areas where clubbers could take a break and play game demos. But it all had to be done way below the radar.
“In those days, you agreed marketing budgets way in advance, but if you want to be associated with youth culture, you can’t plan a year ahead,” he says. “So I used to rough cut the budget; I’d hide at least £100,000 a year in a slush fund, which allowed me to react very quickly. Somebody would phone up on a Thursday, saying ‘We’ve got a little snowboard event on Saturday: can you help?’ So I’d say: ‘Yes, I’ll bung you five hundred quid or a grand, or some prizes.’”
By 1997, there were 52 clubs in the UK alone with dedicated PlayStation rooms. Sony’s other regional offices caught on, and the company was soon sponsoring extreme-sports events and music festivals around the world, including Big Love, Tribal Gathering and later, Lollapalooza.
Famously, the company produced a cardboard flyer for the 1996 Glastonbury festival featuring a PlayStation logo and the words “More powerful than God”. The card was serrated into small sections, ‘coincidentally’ perfect to provide filters – or “roaches” – for joints. It was the phrase that ended up causing more controversy, however.
“It was put on big posters and attached to railings all around Glastonbury town centre,” says Glendenning. “That resulted in a threatened fatwa against Sony hardware.”
Sony recognised it needed to be in the UK
Before PlayStation, Japanese console manufacturers had never been that interested in Europe as a creative centre, but Sony knew it had to be more inclusive and imaginative. Unlike Sega and Nintendo, it lacked a strong internal development studio and didn’t have well-established connections with major domestic studios like Capcom, Konami and Taito.
So in 1993, Sony purchased the successful UK studio Psygnosis, providing it with one of the earliest PlayStation prototypes.
“One day, an office in our building on the Liverpool docks was locked off, and access was strictly limited,” recalls Lee Carus, then an artist at the company.
“We were all dying to see what was behind that door, and the day it finally happened was awesome. There was a massive, shiny metal box at one end of the room – it was about the size of a professional office photocopier. We switched it on, clicked some buttons, browsed some menus and all of a sudden a 3D polygon dinosaur came to life on screen. We were blown away.”
Duly inspired, the studio started work on the crucial UK launch title, Wipeout, a slick spaceship racing game with fast-paced, almost hypnotic 3D visuals. To impress its new audience of twentysomething clubbers, Sony brought in the achingly cool Designers Republic studio to create team icons for the craft, and also raided its music division to assemble a zeitgeist-friendly soundtrack featuring tracks by Chemical Brothers, Leftfield and Orbital.
“This wasn’t diluted pop, it was gritty fringe dance music,” says Carus. “People would go out clubbing, come home and listen to the same tunes whilst playing Wipeout. It was a really brave call for the time.”
During 1994, Sony executives toured Europe and the US, showing off the PlayStation hardware and effectively seducing developers.
While Sega and Nintendo would begrudgingly distribute expensive development kits to a handful of western studios, providing little technical support in the process, Sony wanted to build a global community. It made the PlayStation easy to develop for, using the common programming language C and providing CD-Roms filled with useful routines and graphics libraries. And it made its machine accessible.
‘PlayStation took the average age of the gamer from 14 to 23’
“We were also the first platform-holder to court and embrace the third-party publishing community in a meaningful way,” says Ryan. “Neither Sega nor Nintendo really took Europe all that seriously. For SCE to have three very strong regional pillars – Japan, Europe and the US – it was a first in the industry. It was a big contributory factor to our success.”
In the UK, this meant studios got the hardware early and were keen to experiment beyond the parameters of the traditional arcade-style racers and fighting games that proliferated in Japan. Newcastle-based Reflections Interactive created ground-breaking driving games like Destruction Derby and Driver; the Derby’s Core Design developed its smash hit Tomb Raider, originally for both the PlayStation and Sega Saturn, but later as a Sony exclusive; and, of course, Rockstar brought its anarchic Grand Theft Auto titles to the machine.
In the US, young studios like Naughty Dog and Insomniac were spurred on to innovate in the character-based platformer genre, creating the Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon franchises, and a wealth of intriguing new mechanics.
“PlayStation took the age of the average gamer from about 14 to about 23,” says Glendenning. “It made games cool, it made them part of popular youth culture – people were no longer embarrassed to admit they played them.
‘Games let us conquer the mundanity of real life’
“But the lasting legacy goes beyond the games industry. It allowed us to demonstrate that brands aren’t built by spending millions on television advertising. They are created via word of mouth. At Sony, we designed the merchandising in-house, all the stunts and guerrilla activities were conceived in-house. Television was used to support the brand that had already been created.”
TV still played its part, however, and in 1999 Sony’s approach to the console industry – its state-of-the-art technology, its concentration on lifestyle marketing, its creation of a post-pub gaming audience – was perfectly crystallised into a 60-second TV and film commercial.
Created by famously disruptive agency TBWA, Double Life showed a succession of weird, interesting characters while a voiceover described how games had allowed them to escape the mundanity of their real lives, to command armies, to conquer worlds. It remains one of the greatest video-game ads of all time.
It was Sony Computer Entertainment telling the world: you’re all strange, you all need escapism, and no matter how old you are, how cool or uncool, you are all gamers now.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010