It’s August 1995, and you’ve just turned on your TV to find a BBC news report discussing Sony’s imminent arrival on the UK gaming scene. People are excited. The Japanese electronics giant was already a leader in many sectors and wanted a piece of an expanding market worth more than $20 billion worldwide.
In just a few weeks’ time, the PlayStation would launch.
Sony’s earlier attempt to collaborate with Nintendo on a SNES add-on tentatively named the “Play Station” or “SNES-CD” didn’t quite go to plan when Nintendo pulled an 11th-hour U-turn and backed out of the deal - a move sometimes referred to as “the industry’s greatest ever betrayal” (if you don’t know the story, you can find all the details about how Nintendo created its own fiercest rival in this excellent Vulture Beat article from 2018
Following brief discussions with Sega that also amounted to nothing, Sony decided to go it alone, drawing upon their vast research and development departments and the talents of “The father of PlayStation” Ken Kutaragi to create a CD-based console. CDs were cheap to produce, and Sony’s music division already had experience and expertise working with them.
This format choice would prove instrumental in the success of the PlayStation not only because the games could be sold at a lower price than Nintendo’s (who would stick with cartridges for their competing console, the N64), but because it was also capable of playing audio CDs - a trick Sony would repeat to even greater success with the DVD-playing PlayStation 2 five years later.
More important than the choice of format, however, was the quality and quantity of games, and perhaps most of all, the genius of Sony’s marketing teams. The PlayStation was pitched directly towards teenagers and young adults via edgy and often controversial TV and print ads, as well as through collaborations with the likes of Ministry of Sound and graphic design house The Designers Republic.
By 1997 there were 52 nightclubs across the UK with dedicated PlayStation rooms, and games like WipEout became a permanent fixture in post-pub routines.
Although many iconic PlayStation games such as Tomb Raider, Resident Evil, and even WipEout itself were also available on Sega’s Saturn, Sony’s marketing gurus created an aura around their console that felt new and exciting, and played a huge role in changing the perception that video games were just for kids.
They were for grown ups now too. They were for cool people.
There’s an alternate timeline where Nintendo didn’t back out of their deal with Sony and the Nintendo Play Station was born. We’ll never know how that one would have turned out. What we do know however, is the fallout from that deal meant Sony entered the market on its own terms with a point to prove and a fire in its belly, and changed gaming forever.
It’s perhaps a bit much to suggest the introduction of the PlayStation is the biggest thing to happen to the games industry. But few events before or since have had such a sudden, sizeable and lasting impact on it as Sony’s little grey CD player.