One of Sony’s most successful products, the PlayStation is arguably the most successful gaming console in the world. All iterations of it have sold at least 80 million units.
- First PlayStation –102 million units
- The PlayStation 2 – 159 million units
- PlayStation 3 – 88 million units
- PlayStation 4 – 91 million units
The PlayStation 2 remains to be the best-selling gaming console of all time, while the PlayStation 4 holds the record for being the fastest-selling gaming console in history.
Sony PlayStation didn’t suddenly become the favorite gaming console in major gaming markets, though. It went through a process that was remotely smooth sailing. It benefited from the already established fame of Japanese video games and gaming devices, but it had to go through its own struggles.
History of Sony PlayStation
A creation of Sony executive Ken Kutaragi, who is dubbed as the Father of the PlayStation, this popular gaming console’s history can be traced to 1988, when it was originally a collaboration between Sony and Nintendo. The two major Japanese companies sought to produce a CD-ROM for the Super Famicom (or the SNES in North America). Due to disagreements on profit sharing, the joint project deal between Nintendo and Sony broke down.
The breakdown in the deal led to the appointment of Kutaragi as head of the team responsible for the development of the Sony PlayStation. The goal then was to rival what Nintendo was set to release.
Did you know that the original idea was rejected by Sony’s Board of Directors?
In June 1992, Kutaragi presented to Sony’s Board of Directors a proprietary CD-ROM based gaming system that featured 3D graphics. The idea, however, was rejected by the majority of the board, especially by the older generation of executives. Kutaragi was even moved to Sony Music after the fateful board meeting.
Sony, at that time, was uncertain about the idea of using 3D polygon graphics. However, it became clear to everyone that 3D was the right direction to pursue after Sega released Virtual Fighter, the first ever arcade fighting game in 3D graphics. Virtual Fighter turned out to be a hit as well as a critically acclaimed success that it had to be ported to other Sega platforms and even to Microsoft Windows.
But, the guys persevered.
Being at Sony Music didn’t stop Kutaragi from working on the PlayStation. In November 1993, Sony Computer Entertainment Inc. (SCEI) was founded by Kutaragi along with Sony Music CEO Shigeo Maruyama and Sony engineer Akira Sato. SCEI then worked on the PlayStation project after it finally received the approval of Sony executives.
In 1994, the SCEI team staged a tech demo of the newly built console to game publishers and developers. Sony’s distribution plan for the new product was also presented. Having witnessed this, several game publishers expressed interest in the Sony gaming platform. Reportedly, the most compelling points that attracted publishers were the following:
- 3D capability
- Cheaper price
- Easier manufacturing as compared to Nintendo’s cartridge-based gaming console
The first ever Sony PlayStation was launched in December 1994. It became a massive success particularly because it was cheaper than its main competitors such as Sega Saturn and the Nintendo 64.
And the rest is history.
From the first PlayStation launched at a price of $299, the popular console fondly referred to with the moniker “PS” has spawned successful next generation iterations including the all-time best-selling console PS2, the Grand Theft Auto V console PS3, and the superior-to-Xbox PS4.
Sony also released related devices such as the PS One, a significantly smaller version of the original PlayStation, and portable/handheld systems including the PocketStation, PlayStation Portable (PSP), PSP Go, PlayStation Vita, and PSX.
The expanding Sony PlayStation ecosystem
The commercial success and popularity of the PlayStation led to the launching of several services and platforms.
- PlayStation 2 online service was launched in Japan in July 2001, followed by an August 2002 launching in the North American market and a European introduction of the service a year later.
- PlayStation Network service eventually replaced the PlayStation 2 online service with special focus on multiplayer gaming and digital media.
- PlayStation Store, an online digital media store serving users of the PS3, PS4, PlayStation Vita, and PSP was launched in November 2006, This store offers different kinds of downloadable content for players including games, add-ons, themes, demos, and avatars.
- Several other PlayStation-branded services and products were introduced later on. There’s the PlayStation App, which allows PlayStation players to view their game activity on through their Android smartphones; the PlayStation Mobile, a software framework for enabling downloadable PlayStation content; the video game streaming service PlayStation Now; and the PlayStation Home, a social network for PS gamers.
Creating the global appeal
Arguably, Sony PlayStation revolutionized gaming. It became the trailblazer that took gaming out of the ‘80s arcade style as it introduced photorealistic 3D gaming and gameplay never before seen in other consoles. The PlayStation was built with highly powerful hardware to support its 3D gaming requirements. It was so powerful that it was labeled as an equipment that can be adapted for military applications.
Did you know that buyers of Sony PlayStation 2 had to get a military license?
In 2000, Japan’s Trade Ministry had to impose export limits on it (requiring buyers to get a military export license) after concluding that the device could act like a small supercomputer (according to ‘90s standards) capable of rapidly processing high-quality images. Many news outfits spread this military application hype of the PlayStation, which further stirred interest in the product. Clips of PlayStation games being aired on TV as part of news clips solicited awe even among those who are not into video gaming.
In addition to the glowingly positive press, the PlayStation did not have to struggle when it comes to marketing. It is a product of Sony, which was at its peak as a leading consumer electronics company. In the ‘90s and early 2000s, Sony was undoubtedly the brand to beat. It was on top of the TV market. It introduced the Walkman, which became the precursor to portable music playing devices at present. It had a relatively successful mobile phone business in partnership with Ericsson. Sony developed the DVD along with Toshiba, Philips, and Panasonic. The company also spearheaded the creation of the DVD successor, the Blu-Ray.
There was no other company in a better position to introduce a game-changing video game platform in the ‘90s. Sony already had the massive marketing arm and extremely high brand awareness among consumers to catapult the PlayStation to success. Coupled with the competitive pricing and superior technical specifications, the PlayStation had remote chances of flopping.
And, game developers sought to expand their video games
Of course, it was also a significant factor that Sony forged partnerships with several game developers not only in Japan but also in North America. The CD-based (and later on DVD and Blu-ray) system for loading games to the PlayStation was a more attractive option for third-party players compared to proprietary systems like the cartridge-based Nintendo. Game developers that sought to expand their video games considered porting their games to or creating new games for the PlayStation as it was unrivaled and most popular console during its first years in the gaming space.
In summary, Sony PlayStation achieved global success with the following factors:
- Lower price than those of major competitors’
- Powerful technical specs
- The Sony brand awareness
- Massive marketing arm
- All-encompassing Sony consumer electronics ecosystem
- Favorable media coverage
Making a Japanese product succeed in the West
A Japanese product dominating the video game industry did not really appear surprising at the time the PlayStation was introduced. Sony was competing with other Japanese brands such as Sega and Nintendo after all. Japanese companies were on top of the console gaming market in the ‘90s and 2000s. Only the Xbox from Microsoft managed to pose a serious threat to Japanese dominance in console gaming.
The Japanese identity of Sony PlayStation was well-known but also largely ignored at the same time. Many knew that the popular PlayStation gaming consoles are a product of Japanese engineers and marketed by a Japanese company. However, everybody seems to view Sony as a global brand not different from the likes of Microsoft, Apple, HP, Intel, or Dell.
Even when it comes to the game content, the Japanese heritage of the PlayStation was never an issue. Sony PlayStation was no longer part of the meme-worthy mistranslations of early Japanese video games. Sony has been using competent video game localization services for the games it was exporting mainly to the English and Chinese speaking gaming markets. For third-party created games, the localization is handled by the game publishers that are exerting their best efforts to make sure their games are marketable in the foreign markets they are trying to penetrate.
In summary, the PlayStation’s journey to becoming a famous and highly successful global product was not an easy peasy achievement. There were some struggles particularly in the development and introduction stages. However, things went smoothly when it came to bringing the product to the global market thanks to Sony’s popularity, deep marketing pocket, partnerships with important industry players, and the acknowledgment of the need to make their products suitable for the local markets being targeted.
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