You know those stories where you go “man, when I write out the big long memoir and history, that’s gonna be one fuckin’ funny chapter”? And then you don’t? And then they’re gone? This is one of those, except it’s not going to be gone. I’m putting it here, after reading this excellent analysis of the Playstation logo. The writer is unsure how to find certain aspects of the history and so he’s sad he can only do a little bit of the work and do massive leaps of logic where he wouldn’t have to if he could talk to the right people, the names of which are gone. That made me sad for him. And it reminded me of a story.
So, this may or may not be that well known, but not only do I fucking hate Sony, I worked for Sony for a year. This was when I was hired as tech support at Psygnosis USA. I loved everything about Psygnosis, past and present, and so I was absolutely delighted to work there, and the only downside was they’d been bought by Sony, and Sony are assholes. In fact, Sony was in the process of wanting to rename Psygnosis, with the distinct logo and brand and all that, to SCEA – “Sony Computer Entertainment of America”. It was like replacing an incredibly unique sculpture with a cinderblock.
One of the side effects was I got to be there just as the Playstation was introduced. I got to see a development console come in, one of the blue ones. Here’s something I’d forgotten until I just thought of it – when the development kits with the blue playstation went out to the companies, it had 8mb of memory to work with. At some point, Sony decided that the Playstation would not have 8mb of memory – too expensive. So they made it two. So in some cases, various developers were caught flatfooted when the system they were developing on had its total available memory cut to 25%. On that development station, I was able to play a few games before they got squashed, so some games had more parallax backgrounds (Adventures of Lomax, which did not have a lemming for the main character at this time), or additional characters (Dark Stalkers), etc. I know Psygnosis had to help in the background with some of these companies, to help Sony ensure as many launch titles as well. No, this isn’t the story yet.
Additionally, and this again is probably not too well known, Sony was banking everything on the Playstation – they had to pull back the 8mb RAM to 2 for this reason, as they were losing money on every console (a process that still takes place, if you follow that sort of thing). But what I heard, and this is hearsay, was that if the Playstation had tanked, pulled a 3DO or perhaps a TI-994/a to be exact, it would have SUNK SONY. They’d survive, of course – those monstrous places always do. But they’d be completely wrecked as a force in the world. People would be losing jobs by the boatloads. It would have been a shadow, until outside investment or some other angel force helped them out of the hole. I’m just saying they had a lot riding on the Playstation.
So part of this, I think, explains Sony’s reliance on Sony Europe on how to make the Playstation play to western markets. While Sony would do what it could locally in Japan to bolster this game machine to the populace, the massive audiences of Europe and most specifically North America were the critical battleground to win. I suppose I could launch into some portrayal of which consoles were active and what the lines were, but let’s keep our eyes on the main theme: Sony. Desperate. Lots riding on the Playstation. Willing to Do Anything.
So in this period, when the plans are being drawn to come up with how to market the Playstation, the decision was made: Club Culture. Nightclubs, and dance halls and lounges and whatever the hell else had a blasting beat and dancefloor and tons of bodies was going to be one of the vanguards of the Playstation’s marketing assault.
This helps explain, I hope, Wipeout, the Psygnosis runaway hit. Hey, funny story there. So Sony was in the process of making Psygnosis change its name to SCEA (Sony Computer Entertainment of America, remember) and things looked dim; one of the co-founders of Psygnosis had left some time ago, leaving just one. And just when it started to happen, Wipeout became a huge goddamned hit and sold a bunch of copies (and, ostensibly, Playstations), and Psygnosis’ co-founder basically went “Nah, fuck you, we’re sticking with Psygnosis”, and so the name stuck for another half-decade before he left and Sony finally named it to “SCEA”, as planned. Oh, but that gets even weirder, because for a while, the European branch of SCEA became known as “SCEA Europe”. Oh, you heard right – SONY COMPUTER ENTERTAINMENT OF AMERICA OF EUROPE.
Wipeout was a massive hit, one of Psygnosis’ biggest, up there with Lemmings, which is what put Psygnosis (and DMA, later Rockstar) on the map. It was, after all, the thing that made you buy a Playstation. But wait! You probably never knew this, but Psygnosis ported and came out with versions of Wipeout for the Sega Saturn and for PC. Hold up for a moment, and consider that. A wholly-owned subsidiary of Sony, given development money to make a first-class launch title for their new console, then goes ahead and ports it to all of that console’s rivals. Can you fucking IMAGINE what the sound must have been when the Sony people found out? Oh man, it must have been dazzling.
No! I’m still not at the story quite yet!
So, if you take a look at Wipeout, you can see how this whole “Club Culture” idea was being spread through it. For the soundtrack, Sony pulled out all the stops and got all sorts of hot groups like Prodigy, Future Sound of London and Chemical Brothers to be what was blasting on your speakers and your hot flatscreen TV. The game showed up in the Hackers movie, although in that case they used the SGI-developed prototype/animation system instead of the not-as-nice Playstation version. You were in the future, but the soundtrack was perfect contemporary club hits. Too bad they only had licensed them for Europe – when Wipeout came over to the US, they had to mostly make new soundtrack cuts, which fell to a wonderful musician named Tim Wright, who under the pseudonym Cold Storage wrote all manner of club-ish hits that slipped right in among chart-topping hits. Not bad, Tim.
The Wipeout game had something that has gotten some controversy in later years – in-game ads. The billboards for the Wipeout tracks all advertised Red Bull, a soon-to-be-classic club-mixing drink. Note that this was the real early days of Red Bull, when it still had the Bull Semen rumors being floated around and it was barely in the States – I remembered playing it and being sad they had to make a fake soda brand for all those billboards, unaware how much of that logo I’d be seeing on cans I was drinking for the next 20 years.
So Sony began dumping TONS of money into the Playstation, paying for events, press, announcements, parties… whatever it took. They held demonstrations at nightclubs – they paid for artists to perform and get the playstation logo up near the DJs. They paid whoever they could to promote it anyway they could, and as I’m about to tell you, there were no limits.
The Psygnosis US office at this time was rather small, and I knew everyone, and everyone knew me – there were probably 25 folks in total, some of which have stayed in the industry and some which have not. It’s been nice to reconnect on facebook, talk to them, see how they’re all doing. Among this group were two guys in marketing, who kept all manner of marketing materials at their desks. In one of my many wanderings, I’d sometimes go through the pile of marketing materials just to see the cool little weird ideas that the gang was coming up with. And by “the gang”, I mean “the gang in Europe”, because the US office had very little pull and would often just be sent things out of the blue. Marketing, in other words, ended up mostly being “Sales” and being an american phone number to call when a magazine needed more original artwork sent over.
So there I am, going through the stuff, and I found a small cache of Playstation material. And in that Playstation material, among the Wipeout promotions and “U R NOT E” sloganeering, was this perforated paper, light cardboard really, with the Playstation logo.
It kind of confused me; who’d want some cardboard logo which was hundreds of tiny squares combined in a grid to form a Playstation Logo? Then it hit me.
SONY MARKETING HAD CREATED ACID BLOTTER PAPER TO BE HANDED OUT AT CLUBS.
I didn’t keep it; I just put it back in the pile. I think in one moment I saw the level of desperation Sony would achieve in marketing the Playstation, the no-holds-barred level they’d go to get the Playstation logo out there. I have no idea how the whole thing would work, how you’d hand this blotter paper to the right people, how you’d leave it somewhere for folks to find, how you could possibly, ever, think this was a good idea. But someone did, and I saw in all this some of the face of how insane things had gotten.
And now you know. Thanks for listening to an old videogame kid spin his tale.
Categorised as: computer history
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