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Shigeo Maruyama (left) and Tetsuya Mizuguchi (right)
Irwin Wong

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The original PlayStation boss

We look back on the early PlayStation days with former SCE chairman Shigeo Maruyama

When discussing PlayStation history, many rightly point to figures like Ken Kutaragi, who led the creation of the first three PlayStation consoles, as well as Andrew House and Kaz Hirai, who have overseen the PlayStation business in recent years — amongst others.

But with a company as large as Sony, there have been many key figures who have never become public names, even at the highest levels of the company.

One name you don’t hear as much is Shigeo Maruyama, the former chairman of Sony Computer Entertainment and, before that, the CEO of Sony Music Entertainment. Maruyama played a key role in getting the original PlayStation off the ground, and generally did so behind the scenes, nurturing talent and setting up Sony Computer Entertainment in the first place.

Now 76 years-old, having been retired for the past 10, Maruyama recently sat down for a chat with Polygon, alongside my former boss, Tetsuya Mizuguchi, a friend and fan of Maruyama’s dating back to the PlayStation 2 days when Mizuguchi’s game Rez appeared at a Sony event in Tokyo.

James Mielke [to Maruyama]: Can you tell us about the days leading up to the original PlayStation, back when Sony and Nintendo were in talks about building a game system together? The story itself is fairly well documented, but what are your personal memories of that time?

Shigeo Maruyama
Irwin Wong

Shigeo Maruyama: When we started talking with Nintendo about collaborating, the original Famicom was already on the market. We were shown an early version of the Super Famicom … but the Super Famicom was nothing more than a toy. There was tremendous potential in the product, obviously, but it was just a toy. As a major electronics company, Sony’s standpoint was, “Why would we be making a toy?”

When Nintendo was working on the Super Famicom, Kutaragi went to Nintendo asking if Sony could collaborate with Nintendo. Kutaragi’s proposal was that Nintendo shift from making games on cartridges to making them on CD-ROMs. Nintendo’s response was that it was faster for cartridges to start the game. With CD-ROMs, when it was demonstrated to Nintendo at the time, I don’t know specifically, but it took around 20 to 30 seconds for the game to load. But with cartridges there’s almost no delay to start a game. Nintendo said that kids can’t wait that long for a game to start.

So, Kutaragi countered with a proposal of a system that took both the cartridge on top with a CD-ROM drive on the bottom. Nintendo agreed to this and at one point they decided to move forward with this idea.

Tetsuya Mizuguchi: So, like a hybrid?

SM: Yes, a hybrid that took both a cartridge and the CD-ROM. … [That didn’t end up happening.] If they had gone ahead with that hybrid system, it would have been a lot easier for me. I could have continued to focus more of my career on music instead of spending 10 years developing the gaming division of the company.

TM: If you didn’t feel that way or have that commitment at that time, it would have affected the millions of units of Sony’s lifetime PlayStation sales, and not just the countless lives of gamers around the world, but also the creators supporting the business, the entire billion dollar gaming industry that we have today. All of that wouldn’t have existed.

SM: Hmm … maybe.

TM: No, not maybe. It definitely would have.

SM: But the biggest force behind the PlayStation was Kutaragi. … Before I decided to support his project, he’s the one who had the vision and determination to make it happen.

JM: In a way it seems like you’re the Sony equivalent of Nintendo’s Hiroshi Yamauchi, although you might not breathe as much fire as him — because he was very vocal and happy to share critical opinions about the industry. ... Now, Kutaragi gets most of the credit for the PlayStation, but I’ve heard from others that it was you and [ex-Sony CEO Norio] Ohga who were really responsible for driving the project forward.

SM: No, that’s not a fair comparison. Let me clarify that in this interview. Yamauchi-san was the head and driving force of the entire Nintendo brand. It wouldn’t be fair to compare myself to him. The driving force behind the PlayStation was Kutaragi. You see, Kutaragi was still in mid-management when he envisioned the PlayStation. As a result, he had a lot of people above him in the hierarchy of the company that he needed to convince and move forward with the development of the game system. …

I myself didn’t understand the technology. I’m not a game-creator like Mizuguchi-san here. The only thing I could do was to create a comfortable working environment. I think that’s a very important part and I think that I’m the only one who could have built that environment for Kutaragi. But, Kutaragi deserves the credit for PlayStation.

TM: But it it wasn’t for you, Kutaragi-san’s vision might not have seen the light of day.

SM: Maybe not. But, it’s not a “chicken or the egg” scenario. There’s no question that Kutaragi’s idea came first.

JM [to Mizuguchi]: You’ve mentioned that Maruyama-san is your mentor. Could you explain why and give an example?

TM: I’ve heard Maruyama-san talk about the early PlayStation days before, and I don’t say this to fawn over him just because he’s here, but listening to him reminisce, I’m reminded how important he was to the creation of the PlayStation. There’s something that changed from that moment in gaming history. The PlayStation was a cultural phenomenon. It had an impact our culture and the music industry. Simply releasing a good gaming system, that in itself does not mean that it’s going to become a cultural phenomenon. The PlayStation shifted the image and quality of games.

Maruyama-san’s contribution to the industry … was that he gave more value to games and gaming as a medium. And that was a phenomenal shift for the entire industry and the history of games. If compared to evolution, the PlayStation was like a mutant in the course of the development of gaming systems. The more I learn about the history behind the PlayStation from Maruyama-san, the more I feel like it’s not something that came from a technical advancement.

Maruyama-san just told us that it cost him 10 years of his career in the music industry. But, from my standpoint, the PlayStation gave developers like myself a platform and quality to gaming that did not exist prior. When Rez was first released, it wasn’t a game that was well-received or critically acclaimed by the gaming community. But Maruyama-san and people at Sony saw value in my game and allowed me to continue to make games.

Kutaragi-san was the creator of the PlayStation, but Maruyama-san’s presence was much more than just a producer on the project. He mentioned that he built the working environment for Kutaragi-san and the team, but a lot went into that. The chemistry between the developers and the rest of the company has to sync up in order to work, and it’s practically a miracle that it happened for PlayStation. … In hindsight, this wouldn’t have happened if Maruyama-san didn’t bring his experience working in the music industry to the table. In a way, Maruyama-san saw in Kutaragi-san something similar to the potential of a young musician and nurtured him into a professional artist.

SM: That’s a keen observation. The history of the gaming industry wasn’t very long at that point. It all started with the Atari. We’re talking about a point when Atari started losing popularity and Nintendo was taking its place. That’s as far as [game history] had come at that point, right? At that point, game creators hadn’t become celebrities yet.

I had come from working in the music industry which has a long history of curating celebrities. So, I was working in two industries. One with very few celebrities, and the other overflowing with celebrities. I wondered why there were so few celebrities in the gaming industry. I figured that it was because there weren’t many in the industry that thought to nurture a celebrity video game creator.

So, out of habit from working in the music business, I believed that it was really important to protect celebrities. That belief may be the underlying reason why Mizuguchi and others were protected [in their creative freedom].

TM: That’s for sure.

JM [to Maruyama]: I think that you must have an eye for talent because you’re the one that discovered Tetsuya Komuro [the most successful producer in the Japanese music industry] of Avex Trax, among others. What is it that you look for in talent?

SM: Stars are not followers. They are not people who do things because other people are doing them. People who become stars are those who see an opportunity and are the first to jump into that space. The people who jump in first need to be brave, and people who are brave have a distinctly … what is it … a strong heart. They usually don’t have a lot of allies and because of that they’re alone, but they’re not afraid of being alone.

When I find people like that, I tell them that they’re not alone. I say “It’s the two of us.” Their presence makes me stronger [because I feel responsible and protective.] They’re not afraid to stand alone and jump into an opportunity where nobody else has ventured.

JM [to Mizuguchi]: As someone who began his career at Sega, how did it feel to see the level of success Sony experienced with PlayStation while Sega was struggling to compete with its hardware? Did you ever wish Sega would have that kind of success, too?

TM: As Maruyama-san mentioned earlier, our greatest wish as game makers is to have as many people play our games as possible. So, as the head of UGA [United Game Artists] and being partly responsible for making sure Sega was successful, I couldn’t outright be excited by Sega’s hardware struggles and Sony’s success. But as a game creator for Rez and Space Channel 5, I was very excited [for Sony and the opportunity to create games for more players].

Reflecting on the early PlayStation days today, I remember the hype around PlayStation and all the excitement. Honestly speaking, I wanted to be a part of it, too, you know? This was before I could even imagine that I’d eventually be a part of it, but coincidentally, at the PlayStation party right after Sega made the announcement that we would quit the hardware business and become a third-party developer, I was given an opportunity to announce Rez as a third-party title. I remember feeling like I had no choice but to bet on [the success of PlayStation]. The future was uncertain but I felt I’d give it everything I’ve got.

At the time, I didn’t know anything about Shigeo Maruyama. I didn’t read magazines like Famitsu. It sounds selfish but, you know, I’d read articles about my own games but nothing else, so I had never heard of Maruyama-san. So, the night before this party, I bleached my hair platinum silver, and I decided I wouldn’t say a single word on stage, and would just play the preview trailer for Rez on full blast and walk off stage without saying anything. That’s what I decided to do the day before and had a “come what may” kind of attitude towards it.

The next day, after doing it exactly as planned, I returned to the changing room backstage, wondering where life was going to take me. There was a monitor in the room that showed what was going on onstage. And, from the monitor I heard my name and saw Maruyama-san talking on the stage. He said something along the lines of “Wow. Mizuguchi-san’s Rez looks fascinating. I feel like I just saw the future of music and gaming and entertainment.” That comment really surprised me.

Game development after the arrival of the PlayStation changed. It was influenced by a variety of mediums and more effectively interpreted the dreams and ambitions that the game creators were hoping to create. Game creators like myself were attracted to the PlayStation like a sponge soaks up water. The consumers were also pulled in, like a river [that flows towards the path of least resistance]. I feel blessed that I was part of this great shift in the industry.

Listening to Maruyama-san talking today, I realized there were two or three times in my life where Maruyama-san saved my life. I don’t know where I would be in life if it wasn’t for him.

JM: Space Channel 5 and Rez were two of Sega’s first wave of games to be released as third-party titles on the PlayStation 2. Did that give you a new feeling of creative freedom?

TM: It’s hard to remember how it felt back in the day, but it was a gradual progression to creative freedom. Back in the day, there was hardly any creative freedom. For example, it was unheard of for developers to put their names as credits in the game in the early ‘90s, just four or five years before the PlayStation. You tend to forget these things, but this interview has made me reflect on those days.

JM: [To Maruyama:] One last question for you that came to mind, and maybe Mizuguchi-san can help me. Regarding our mutual friend, [Warp founder] Kenji Eno, there was a famous incident in the mid-‘90s where Eno went onstage for a PlayStation festival in Japan where he was going to announce his new game. So he went to this event and all the Sony executives assumed he was going to announce his new game. Instead he played this CG video where the PlayStation logo transformed into the Sega Saturn logo. And that’s where he announced that he was developing all of his future games for the Sega Saturn.

Obviously this was a controversial event and many of these execs were looking at Eno with daggers in their eyes after this event. But Eno told me there was one senior executive at Sony — I’m assuming at PlayStation specifically — who told the other executives to “leave Eno alone.” He had protected Eno from any collateral damage as a result of his stunt. I am wondering if that executive was you, or if you have any recollection of that event.

SM: Yeah, that was me.

JM: That’s a beautiful thing. Obviously, Eno’s not around to ask anymore [Editor’s note: Eno passed away in February 2013], and that’s always something I’ve wondered about, because when he told me that I thought it was a beautiful gesture. … Can you offer some insight into the initial shock of what Eno did and why you chose to shield him from the fallout afterwards?

SM: I don’t know how things are done in America, but in professional wrestling in Japan there’s always someone that comes running into the ring and makes a lot of noise. Eno was the guy that stormed into the PlayStation ring. That guy’s purpose is to create excitement, to make things interesting. I was grateful for him to stir things up and make things exciting for us. [Laughs]

TM: I just remembered Eno’s words about Maruyama-san. I was pretty close to him, as well, and, towards the end of his life, when we would go drinking and reminiscing about that event, he’d say something like, “Yeah, I probably went too far. I don’t regret what I did but I feel sorry for what I put Maruyama-san through.” That’s what he’d say. “Maru-san is really something.” I just remembered that he’d say that a lot. He felt really bad for the trouble he caused you.

SM: Not at all. I welcomed it. [Laughs] But Kutaragi was pissed.

Interpreter: Kyoko Higo