This month marks the fifteenth anniversary of the U.S. release of the Sony PlayStation. But what would it be like if it never existed? Graham Russell imagines how one bad mood could have changed the industry.
Hiroshi Yamauchi winced. The Nintendo president had woken up that morning with a pain in his neck, and it was making him frustrated, tired and just plain irritable. He looked anxiously at the clock on his desk, hoping for the day to be over. 4:15. 4:26. 4:33.
Then the phone rang. It was Takehiro Izushi.
Izushi and Shigeru Miyamoto were meeting with Argonaut Games head Jez San. San and his team were working on a project that would push the limits of the upcoming SNES hardware. Izushi explained the situation.
“He wants to develop a chip. He says the system’s not powerful enough.”
Normally he would have said yes. But this was the wrong day to ask Yamauchi for anything.
“If he wants more power, he can make something for that CD-ROM project we’re working on.”
He angrily slammed the phone down, then looked back over at the clock. It was 4:47.
“Close enough,” he said. He grabbed his coat and headed out the door and down the hallway.
It had been a long road for Ken Kutaragi. Years had passed since he began working on Sony’s joint CD add-on project with Nintendo. There had been lawsuits, broken promises and outright insults, as Nintendo had partnered with Philips on a new add-on and Sony had started releasing Sega CD games.
That was all over now.
There was a lot of pressure on both sides, but ultimately a deal was made for Sony to work with Nintendo and Philips on a unified format for the device. Nintendo, reluctant to release the system and share profits, couldn’t hold off any longer. The competition was catching up, and the company had nothing else up its sleeve to one-up Sega.
And now Kutaragi was standing on the show floor of the Summer CES in Chicago, watching as the crowds gathered around the Nintendo booth. The SNES-CD, released in time for 1993’s holiday season, was a moderate success. With launch titles like StarFox and Super Street Fighter II, it was faring better than Sega and NEC’s attempts, and the future looked bright.
He watched as the screens around him showed teasers of upcoming titles: Killer Instinct, Doom, NBA Jam, and the big one: Donkey Kong Country. All on a disc that was making his company millions.
That should be easy to remember, thought Sega VP Peter Moore as he looked through a folder of marketing ideas in a starkly-lit conference room. The third round of the console wars between Nintendo and Sega had gone about the same the as the second, so the company was still struggling to keep up. And Moore’s company was throwing down the gauntlet, launching a new system just two years after the rival Nintendo 64 was released.
But it wasn’t like they had a choice. Nintendo had trounced Sega with the release of Super Mario 64 and Final Fantasy VII at launch. The system’s higher graphical capabilities, combined with the spacious disc format, gave it an advantage. All Sega had in its pocket was a partnership with Electronic Arts, and to get their support for the Dreamcast, they had to pay a large price: exclusive rights to develop sports games for the system. To make matters worse, the arcade audience that comprised Sega’s core was shrinking. But Sega had a plan.
He pulled out a sheet of paper from another folder marked “SegaNet.”
SegaNet was an attempt to lure back some of the consumers that left for the PC, by offering online play in a simple, easy-to-understand format. At this point, it was a real issue. Both the Saturn and the N64 were convoluted systems to develop for, and many Western developers were shifting to the friendly confines of the computer. In his last meetings with EA, the company seemed eager to return to the system they started on.
His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of shoes and a squeaky door. The staff was filing in, and it was time to start moving.
The room was silent. Silent and dark. But it soon wouldn’t be. The line outside was getting longer every minute, and people were increasingly restless.
The manager of the game store pulled into the shopping center on the warm August night, parked his car and pulled out his keys.
“Everyone excited for Madden?,” he said.
He was met with a few yells and a smattering of applause. This was a big release, after all: the Madden series hadn’t appeared on Nintendo’s new DVD-enabled GameCube console, and it wasn’t in the launch lineup for Microsoft’s Xbox. (What was, though, was exciting: Grand Theft Auto III, Halo: Combat Evolved and Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty.) Microsoft knew just how to lure EA away, though, and the Dreamcast was really getting left behind technologically. (There were rumors Sega would unveil a new system soon.) At midnight, Madden 2003 would release for all three systems.
The first person in line came out of his tent when he heard the manager. He dusted off the front of his Marshall Faulk jersey and approached the door. When he left, he was clutching a green case. So was everyone else.
One morning in September, a particularly groggy games writer stumbled out of bed and sat down at his computer. He looked through the messages in his inbox:
- “Dreamcast is back on XBLA!”
- “EA Sports’ Peter Moore talks NBA Jam”
- “Ninja Theory announces new game at TGS”
He tried to focus, but his mind drifted elsewhere. He kept thinking about how just one little change in the industry could have made everything different.
“Maybe later,” he thought. “For now, let’s play some games.”
The writer threw a Blu-Ray disc into one of his consoles, sat down on the sofa, and pulled out two little controllers for a few rounds of table tennis and archery.