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How Software Development Helped Make Sony’s PlayStation the King of 1990s Consoles  

Recently ICHEG added a display of rare PlayStation software development materials to its eGameRevolution exhibit.  Among these materials are an MW.3 or “PS-X” and blue and green debugging stations on loan from the PlayStation Museum. These artifacts shine a light on the often overlooked game developer, while illustrating the ways in which software development helped establish the PlayStation as one of the best-selling, and for many gamers—essential consumer products of the 1990s.

Before Sony launched its PlayStation in Japan in December 1994, game industry journalists and critics seriously questioned whether the company could compete with video game console titans Nintendo and Sega. Having never produced a dedicated video game console of any kind, Sony learned from their own missteps with Betamax video cassette recorder and the stumbles of Atari’s Jaguar (1993) and 3DO’s Interactive Multiplayer (1993) game consoles. Those gaming systems suffered, and ultimately failed from a mixture of design flaws, high pricing (the Interactive Multiplayer retailed for $599 at launch), stiff competition, and a lack of third-party software developer support. Sony offered a superior CD-ROM console for $299 at launch ($100 below Sega’s Saturn) with a stable of third-party software developers to produce games.

Although the PlayStation boasted a graceful gray case, groundbreaking technology, and an innovative ergonomic controller, it would never have succeeded without high-quality launch titles such as the 3D fighting game Battle Arena Toshinden (1995), a conversion of the wildly popular coin-op game Ridge Racer (1994), and the downhill racing game ESPN Extreme Games (1995). Sony’s ability to generate quality in-house (by allying itself with game developer Namco and purchasing developer Psygnosis) and third-party software at competitive prices helped transform the company into a video game industry powerhouse, while crowning the PlayStation the king of 1990s consoles. But first, Sony needed to provide developers with the tools to produce a first-class catalog of games.

In 1993, Sony partnered with SN Systems to offer software developers systems that simplified programming, even for complex games. As a result, companies lined up to develop games for the console. As Erick Dyke, co-founder of the n-Space game development studio, told GamePro magazine in June 1995, “The PSX developer’s environment is solid! We were converting models from our 3D modelers and seeing them on the box within the first week! The development kit is almost an in-the-box solution that’s as easy to set up as a Sony TV.”

The PlayStation’s development environment allowed the designers of ESPN Extreme Games to transform 2D drawings into 3D virtual spaces. Players could experience the rush of racing up to 70 miles an hour downhill on roller blades, a skateboard, mountain bike, or street luge while fighting off competitors, dodging obstacles, and darting over treacherous bridges in such exotic locales as South America. Such rapid and realistic 3D game play could not be achieved on the previous generation of consoles. Game elements such as these also rivaled some coin operated games and proved PlayStation was among the best game consoles offered up to that point. But without the artists and programmers and superior software development tools, Sony would never have sold more than 100 million PlayStation consoles and nearly 962 million copies of games.