This week marked the 25th anniversary of Sony’s original PlayStation, a bet that went on to be an undeniable success for the company, with the PlayStation family of consoles having sold more than 430 million units since then. But back in the 90s, Sony’s venture into the game industry almost went a few different ways.
For the anniversary, we decided to look back at what could have been.
The Nintendo deal
PlayStation was largely the brainchild of Sony Computer Entertainment engineer-turned-CEO and chairman Ken Kutaragi, whose interest in video games can be traced back to watching his daughter play games on the family’s NES in the mid 80s. Seeing her play with the NES, released as the Famicom in Japan, lit a spark in Kutaragi’s brain, and he began to see how popular video games would become in the future.
Kutaragi would later get the chance to collaborate with Nintendo, creating the Super Nintendo’s sound chip. As the story goes, Kutaragi made the deal with Nintendo unbeknownst to his superiors at Sony, a decision that infuriated them, his job only saved by then-CEO of Sony Norio Ohga who allowed the engineer to finish his work on the highly-regarded SPC700 sound chip.
The successful partnership led to another collaboration between Sony and Nintendo — this time on a disc-based add-on for the Super Nintendo. But on either side, Kutaragi wasn’t getting a ton of support. Despite the success of consoles by Nintendo and Sega at the time, many at Sony saw video games as a fad, and not an industry worth pursuing. At Nintendo, the decision to print games on CD-ROMs opposed to the then-traditional cartridge was met with skepticism, despite CD-ROMs being able to hold far more memory than cartridges.
Nevertheless, Kutaragi went to work creating a prototype for the disc-based add-on, at the time called the “Play Station.” And then, in a famous-though-often-misreported story, Nintendo went back on its deal, terminating the partnership with Sony and announcing it had struck a deal Phillips instead.
The Sega talks
Still determined, Kutaragi turned to Nintendo’s then-biggest rival in the video game industry, Sega, entering into talks about a possible collaboration on a disc-based console. Following its massively successful Sega Genesis console, similar to Sony, Sega had been looking into using CD-ROMs for video games, first releasing an accessory for the Genesis called the Sega CD before setting its sights on a disc-only console. The two parties had also worked together in the past, as Sony Imagesoft, a subsidiary of Sony Music, had published eight games for the Sega CD.
For several months, led by Kutaragi and former head of hardware development and later president of Sega Hideki Sato, the two parties explored what a Sega-Sony CD-based console would look like, and whether the two companies would actually enter a partnership. But, even early on, Kutaragi was having cold feet about working with Sega.
“We kept it secret, whereas the Nintendo-Sony fiasco was largely publicized and public knowledge,” Shinobu Toyoda, former COO and executive vice president of Sega of America, told Polygon last year in an interview about the potential collaboration.
Shuji Utsumi, former vice president of product acquisition for SCEA, who worked with Kutaragi on the potential partnership with Sega, said in an interview for a recent Polygon documentary on PlayStation’s 25th anniversary that Sony decided it’d be the one backing out this time — and it did so early in the process. Utsumi said when Kutaragi would come back from meetings with Sato and Sega’s U.S. department, he was already telling coworkers he likely wouldn't take the offer. “He didn’t in the end.”
“From there, we started to look at what we had to do in order to pursue making a system ourselves — what were the challenges, what were the costs, and what we needed to do. We started to plan from there,” said Utsumi.
Sony going it alone
To get what he wanted, Kutaragi just had to do one simple thing: make his boss mad. So, the two had a meeting together, and Kutaragi pitched his plans for a Sony-made video game console. It would end with Ohga enraged and Kutaragi finally getting the greenlight he was after.
Kutaragi had to convince Ohga — the man who’d saved his job years before — that video games was an industry Sony needed to be in. The meeting would become a legendary story. “There was a meeting with only maybe eight people in it. No other executives,” Utsumi said about the pitching the CEO in an earlier interview with Polygon. “It was just Kutaragi’s team pitching Ohga. Ohga was personally interested in the project.”
To drive his message home, Kutaragi reminded Ohga about the failed partnership with Nintendo, asking him if he’d sit back and accept what the company had done to Sony. This reminder was enough to enrage Ohga, who, the legend goes, told Kutaragi, “Go for it. Do it. This is a project that Sony needs to be in.”
“Ken’s career went from almost zero [to essentially running Sony Computer Entertainment],” Utsumi said about the meeting.
With the greenlight from Ohga, Kutaragi went on to oversee the original PlayStation’s development. The console released in December 1994 and September 1995 in Japan and the United States, respectively. It went on to sell more than 102 million units, beating its collaborators-turned-competitors’ consoles, the Nintendo 64 and Sega Saturn, by wide margins.
Despite the success of the first PlayStation, some executives at Sony didn’t see a successor as a guaranteed win. In 1999, as Kutaragi was planning the PlayStation 2, he was talked into a meeting with Microsoft’s Bill Gates by Nobuyuki Idei, Ohga’s successor as chairman of Sony.
The meeting, which occurred in secret in May 1999, according to a 2002 report from The Wall Street Journal based on interviews with numerous Sony executives, saw teams from Sony and Microsoft discussing the possibilities of launching an online video game console together. The companies met at least one more time in July 1999, according to the report, but talks ended soon after. Details on the meetings are scant, with The Wall Street Journal reporting that neither Microsoft or Kutaragi would comment on why they ended, but the outlet says Idei told Gates, “I don’t control Ken Kutaragi.”
The next year, only a few days after Sony released the PlayStation 2, Microsoft announced its own video game console — the original Xbox. The two companies began a fierce rivalry with each other for dominance in the console space.
Over the last 25 years, Sony’s failed partnership with Nintendo has become a big chapter in the history of the game industry. For the people that were there, it’s also been something of a “what if” scenario, a hypothetical where the industry’s biggest consoles never came out. Sony’s potential collaborations with Sega and Microsoft, on the other hand, not so much.
Whether or not any of these collaborations would’ve been fruitful, there’s really no way of knowing. But 25 years and 430 million units later, it’s safe to say Sony’s choice to go it alone ended up being a resounding success.