Edge|December 2021
In 1999, Sony launched what would become the best-selling game console of all time. These are the stories of the people on the ground
Steven L Kent

Considering the success of the original PlayStation, hardware architect Ken Kutaragi could safely say he’d pitched a shutout. With PlayStation 2, he planned to pitch a no-hitter. If everything went as planned, Nintendo and Sega wouldn’t even get a single runner on base.

On March 1, 1999, Sony unveiled the PlayStation 2 in a worldwide press conference held in the Tokyo International Forum – a lavish, glass-encased convention centre complete with an enormous opera-house-style meeting hall. Reporters, industry executives and other invitees flew in from all around the globe to attend the event, which was titled ‘A Glimpse Of The Future’.

The event began with Sony Computer Entertainment president Teruhisa Tokunaka giving a speech in which he announced the company had shipped its 50 millionth PlayStation. Kutaragi, both the man of the hour and the host of the event, then ran several demonstrations of the Emotion Engine technology that would power the next PlayStation.

The demonstration included video of dozens of balls, faces and 3D models. By modern standards, the graphics in those demonstrations look primitive, but by 1999 standards, they were groundbreaking. The demonstrations included an image of an old man’s face that was considered lifelike at the time. Kutaragi demonstrated his new console’s ability to animate dozens of objects and track their motions. Everything looked polished, camouflaging three days of turmoil that had taken place behind the scenes.

“I arrived in Tokyo three days before the event. I walked into Ken’s office, and I said, ‘Hey, I just arrived. If you want me to have a look at the slides that you’re going to be showing, I’ll happily correct the technical information and make sure that there’s consistency.’

He looked at me and he went, ‘Slides? Oh, that would be a good idea.’” Phil Harrison, former head of PlayStation’s worldwide studios

Harrison spent the next 48 hours working with engineers to create slides with tables comparing the new console’s performance against the original PlayStation. They needed to present highly technical information in a way that journalists and consumers would understand.

“By the end of the process, I’m almost hallucinating with jet lag because I’ve had one hour’s sleep in three days. If you remember, on the stage was a single narrow podium with a VAIO laptop. That was my laptop.

I had the presentation on a memory stick. I walked onto the stage about a half an hour before the audience was let in, and my single task… the only thing I had to do was to copy the latest version of the presentation from the memory stick onto the laptop. Except I did the opposite. I copied the presentation that was on the laptop onto the memory stick.

On slide number whatever there was a typo and a number was given wrong. It was not the end of the world. I was the only one who knew. I just sat with the audience, and I was so tired and I hoped it went well. It did, but I had that sinking feeling because I knew exactly what I had done.

I blame Microsoft Windows for that.” Phil Harrison

Nobuyuki Idei, who had been appointed Sony Corp CEO earlier that year, gave a speech in which he congratulated himself for having stood by Kutaragi’s PlayStation project from the very beginning. In truth, Idei had voted to abandon PlayStation, as had every other executive on the board. Had Idei’s predecessor, Norio Ohga, not used his authority to push the project through, Kutaragi would have had to abandon it.

There’s nothing new or unusual about a top executive revising history and taking credit for projects they actually opposed; it’s fairly standard behaviour, particularly in Japanese corporations with a cultural mandate to respect senior officers. Looking back on ‘A Glimpse Of The Future’, Phil Harrison observed, “Success has many fathers. Failure is an orphan.”

Breaking with tradition, Kutaragi challenged Idei by stating that Ohga had been the only executive who supported the PlayStation. In Japanese corporate culture, contradicting a superior in a public forum is tantamount to a declaration of war. Other executives might have been fired on the spot. Kutaragi, however, could not be sacked easily. His PlayStation division had contributed approximately 40 per cent of Sony’s profits the year before.

“Kutaragi was unlike anybody else in that you could just take all corporate decorum and throw it out the window. He was a real visionary. I never worked for Steve Jobs. I certainly saw him speak. I never met him. But I think Kutaragi was kind of a Japanese Steve Jobs in that he had a vision that was very contrary to the corporate vision, and I think there was a time when he was potentially CEO of the corporation. I think he would have really shaken things up, but unfortunately that personality is not typically the type of personality that gets to run a large corporation.” Jack Tretton, former CEO, Sony Computer Entertainment America

After the main presentation, Kutaragi and Teruhisa Tokunaka held a much smaller press conference in which they answered reporters’ questions. Speaking through an interpreter – Shawn Layden, who eventually became the chairman of Sony Interactive Entertainment’s worldwide studios – they answered questions about technical specifications, launch plans, and upcoming games for over an hour. This was the presentation that would reach the dedicated audience. What reporters and editors from publications including Edge took home from this meeting would largely form the public’s first impressions of the next-generation PlayStation.

A handful of reporters asked about upcoming games. Kutaragi responded with examples from a seemingly endless list of top publishers. When a reporter from Belgium’s Official PlayStation Magazine suggested that the demonstrations might have been rushed, and asked if they would have been more impressive had Sony allowed Kutaragi more time to prepare, Layden fielded the question himself. Sounding surprised, he asked, “You weren’t impressed?”

For his part, Kutaragi expressed lofty goals. He talked about recent studies suggesting that playing piano might stave off the effects of dementia and said he hoped his next-generation PlayStation might do the same.

The Japanese launch of PlayStation 2 took place on March 4, 2000.

Game hardware launches had long been big events in Japan. Though the launch of the original Famicom went largely unnoticed, Tokyo ground to a halt with the launch of the Super Famicom on November 21, 1990. Nintendo-mania took Japan by storm. The Yakuza, Japan’s organised crime syndicate, reportedly attempted to hijack trucks delivering the game console.

The launch of the original PlayStation, on December 3, 1994, drew crowds, but even larger crowds had turned out two weeks earlier for the November 22 launch of the Sega Saturn. But nothing overshadowed the March 4, 2000, launch of PlayStation 2. It made headline news across the globe.

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