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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Quick note: This is all coming from memory from the 1994-1996 period, so I welcome any corrections or pointing out of mis-rememberances. Your own memories, too.
Wow — that’s definitely a precursor to Sony’s PSP marketing scheme in which they paid to have PSP-related graffiti painted on buildings. It’s like company employees that go and leave fake comments on Amazon and people’s blogs. So sad.
Funny story: for a short period of time, I owned five of those blue dev PlayStation consoles. I worked out a deal with a guy who bought a large lot of them from Acclaim after they went out of business. I got a good enough deal that I was able to buy five and flip four of them to pay for my own. I currently own both blue and green dev units (the green ones were released later and I believe use a slightly different power supply). These are desirable both from a collectible point of view, and for the fact that, being dev units, they have no copy protection checking mechanism built in. They’ll play betas and CD-R copies all day long.
Blotter paper …
The ultimate irony here is that all the madness we now know as “Playstation” started as a CD-ROM unit for…wait for it…SUPER NINTENDO. Surely one of the strangest tales in videogame hardware history.
Well. That certainly makes the whole white-lady-beating-up-black-lady ad for the white PSP seem a bit less shocking. Sony may be tasteless, but at least they’re consistent.
Jason, I’m the author of the article you link at the beginning of this post. Let me start by saying thanks for reading! Secondly, this is a fantastic story and I’m glad I got a chance to read it. Perhaps this is a few lingering scraps of my excessively jaded teenage-self talking, but I suppose in the end I’m not terribly upset at Sony for going to such lengths to promote a product. I don’t expect much from Marketing types (I am one, after all) and when things like this cross my way I just sort of shake my head and maybe look the other way. Plus the Wipeout series is more or less responsible for my career path today (graphic designer, not drug peddler) so I’ll always have a soft spot for it.
Now when their entire network infrastructure collapses like a house of cards and my credit card information has potentially been leaked to the internet-at-large…THEN I’m pissed.
I’ve still got one of those in a box in the attic somewhere – It was like a black perforated postcard with the logo and “It’s more powerful than God” written on it.
Interestingly, I had always thought it was to be used as roaches for spliffs – I seem to remember the shapes were more rectangular than square.
I should dig it out just to check either way.
K. Thos, I would absolutely love to see a photo of this – I recall them being square.
So, as a couple people have told me, it is entirely possible this was NOT for blotter paper, but for holding roaches. It’ll be nice to see if someone comes up with a specimen for us people from the future to look at – until then, it is definitely some kind of drug paraphernalia, just a question of which.
I remember this. I even remember the main image; it was by the famous UK artist Dave McKean, and can be seen here under Miscellaneous/Sony PlayStation ad graphic:
As I recall, it was a postcard sized piece of cardboard, perforated into approx 1cm squares and placed as a magazine insert in the UK.
At the time, Sony’s target marketing demographic was definitely the hip and the cool 20-somethings with money. Savvy youth would connect with the unusual “underground” art which was radically different from the often kiddy-friendly day-glo or amateurish artwork used on games at the time. And they’d recognize the squares as a sly reference to drug culture, giving a feeling of both being “in the know” and “this product is not for kids”.
The image K Thos. mentioned is included in this article from EDGE magazine:
Wow. Just… wow. I knew they were trying to infiltrate “club culture” with their marketing campaigns of yore, but I had no idea that it spanned such dastardly depths. Great article, Jason!
From the press side of things Psygnosis was leading the pack in providing digital assets to magazines. I’ve still got all of the PR material from those years. They were one of the firsts to sendi out digital press kits on CD-ROM. But they also went a step further and included things on them like image assets from Wipeout that still had the alpha masks present, wireframes from F1, concept art, etc… nobody else was providing source material like this at the time (atleast in this volume). At best you’d get some screen captures if you were lucky.
Talking to the team over at Psygnosis Europe a trick as well I spent the longest time trying to co-ordinate an IRC interview with Tim (his soundtracks still hold up very well with age) over e-mail and we eventually gave up because there was apparently no simple way to bridge their network with the Internet to pull it off, lol. I ultimately just resorted to phone calls in the middle of the night to the PR team over there when I had questions the US office couldn’t answer.
I think I finally had to admit to myself that anything Psygnosis was finally gone when The Designers Republic folded back in 2009. Sigh. I loved Wipeout HD, but the mangled attempt at non-integrated adverts really was a big turn off. The current team there clearly just doesn’t get it.
On another note, seeing the time frame you had listed for working there. Did you ever see Game Zero mascot/Lemmings t-shirt we did for the US marketing lead (I think you’d remember it if you saw it)? It sounds like you were working there around the right time. We never formally published it but if you’re interested I’ll try and throw up a link for giggles.
Along the same lines, the original light pen for the Vectrex came pre-filled with black-tar neon and heroin.
Yes, I knew the failure of the Playstation would have sunk Sony. Kutaragi had to argue just to get it all going; a 1-million-gate LSI was science-fiction when he proposed it. But reading this story is just shocking. I did a post about Sony this week:
And someone else did one PS-related just as devastating:
I remember this particular piece of perforated cardboard. We’d always assumed it was roach material, going on the assumption that post going-out would involve sitting round playing games with other people either skinning-up or smoking and watching. Strangely I seem to remember the size and ‘weight’ of square not being quite right however.