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PlayStation's former U.S. boss reflects on hits, misses and nearly 20 years with Sony

It was a tooth and nail fight from the very beginning.

Or at least that's how Jack Tretton, former president and CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment of America, remembers it.

Tretton joined Sony in March 1995, fresh off tours as sales vice president at Activision and generation manager of JVC's game division. He quickly became a member of the team that worked to bring Sony's first home video game console to North America.

During Tretton's nineteen years with the company he was part of the development and launching of not just the PlayStation as a console and brand, but the PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, PlayStation Portable, PlayStation Vita and the PlayStation 4. We asked Tretton, as Sony Computer Entertainment celebrates 20 years in the game industry, what it was like to see all of these consoles come to life.

The most exciting, and perhaps most difficult, was the original PlayStation in 1995.

"Pre-launch was amazing," he told Polygon in a recent email interview. "Everyone who saw the machine was excited. It was the first time I'd seen arcade graphics in a home console. We explained that the name PlayStation was based on the theory that the machine had the power of a workstation and was built for Play."

Despite the enthusiasm, Sony was entering a market dominated by Nintendo and Sega and getting shelf space at major retailers wasn't easy.

"I ran the sales organization and we had no customers and no shelf space when I started," he said. "Nintendo and Sega owned the market 50-50, and we had to fight our way in the door.

"Everyone was cautiously optimistic."

When the console hit North American stores on Sept. 9, 1995, it turned out they had a reason to be.

Despite the $299 launch price, the PlayStation received a tremendous response. Even Bill Gates, a future rival of the company, praised the system's design. More importantly, the system's use of an optical disc format helped push the game industry and its consoles away from cartridge-based games and their limitations.

The console's widespread success also helped establish Sony as a name in home consoles and prepared the industry and gamers worldwide for the coming of the PlayStation 2 in 2000.

"PlayStation 2 was completely different, Tretton said. "We were no longer the new kid and the outsider to the industry, we were the market leader and everyone was gunning for us."

And Sony Computer Entertainment wasn't just going up against rivals Sega, Nintendo and, soon, Microsoft, they were up against history.

"I was often reminded that no previous company had repeated market leadership two generations in a row," Tretton said.

Fortunately for Sony, the PlayStation 2 had a secret weapon: It could play games and DVD movies.

It was a hardware design that once again seemed to change the way the industry viewed itself. No longer were game consoles meant to be in back bedrooms or basements, they were designed for the living room.

"Things got even better in terms of gamer adoption and market success," Tretton said. "For the first time console was affecting the living room outside of gaming. Every house instantly had a DVD player when they bought a PlayStation 2. PlayStation continued to prosper after the new machine was introduced and for the first time two generations of game machines coexisted."

The PlayStation 2 went on to become the best-selling video game console in history, with more than 155 million PS2s in homes by 2011.

High off the success of the PS2 and the historic two-generation market leadership, Sony stumbled.

The PlayStation 3 was designed, once more, to push the format forward by adopting the use of Blu-ray discs. It also worked to catch up on the Xbox's successes online with it's own online network. Packed with features and technology, the console was announced with a $499 and $599 price tag.

The price quickly became and issue and Sony struggled during the 2006 launch, working quickly to redefine their system and introduce a price cut. It was difficult time for Sony, it was also the year that Tretton took over in North America. He was promoted to president and chief executive officer for Sony Computer Entertainment of America in November of that year.

"PlayStation 3 was the biggest and boldest leap in technology and may have been too aggressive initially," Tretton said. "The production challenges and costs proved to be a major challenge."

On top of that stumble, Microsoft's Xbox 360 managed to start drawing a bigger audience. And then Nintendo rolled out its historic system: The Wii, a console that significantly changed the concept of who played video games.

"Microsoft executed a great generation of hardware," Tretton said. "The Nintendo Wii ushered in millions of new gamers and caught everyone by surprise."

By the end of this generation of console the Wii U owned a different sort of market, but was starting to see a drop in sales. Sony, which trailed Microsoft for much of the generation was starting to catch up.

"Ultimately, all three platforms enjoyed success and gamers had more choice and innovation than any previous generation had offered," Tretton said.

It looked like the next generation, this generation, was anyone's game.

And then Microsoft had its own stumble, a disastrous unveiling of the Xbox One in 2013 that left many gamers confused and some angry.

Sony's PlayStation 4, unveiled months earlier, was welcomed with excitement. It seemed like a system and a company that had learned a lot in the past generation.

"PlayStation 4 was the culmination of many hard lessons learned," Tretton said. "Lots of consumer insights were applied. The software development community was brought in early and the production and distribution strategy was aggressive."

And the strategy seemed to work, Sony led the market against Microsoft's Xbox One and Nintendo's Wii U for nearly a year.

At 2013's E3 in June, Tretton won the show, personally promising the gamers worldwide that there would be no restrictions on the resale or trade of physical copies of PS4 games, something Microsoft still hadn't been clear about.

The following March, Tretton stepped down from his position at Sony Computer Entertainment of America. But he remains a stalwart supporter of both the PlayStation and the gaming industry, he said.

"The thing I'm most proud of is my relationship with the gaming community," he said when asked by Polygon. "I'm proud I was able to contribute to bringing great gaming experiences to them over the last 28 years. I always tried to view any opportunity or challenge from the gamer's perspective, and consider the hard-earned money they were investing in the products. If they were happy, individual and corporate success would come. If they weren't, nothing else was possible without them. I will always cherish my career in the gaming industry and all the great people I've gotten to meet over the years, and I will continue to try to entertain gamers and look out for their best interest in the future

"PlayStation's present and future is something I'll follow from an outsider's perspective but I wish them luck."

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