How PlayStation democratized 3D video games
Twenty-five years ago, PlayStation played an instrumental part in making 3D graphics the industry norm for video games. Sure, it wasn’t the first hardware capable of such things and the industry probably would have gone that way anyway, but PlayStation took the concept from something inaccessible to something mainstream.
That story begins long before PlayStation, at the end of World War 2, a time of immense change and growth for Japan.
Following Japan’s surrender from the war in 1945, the country was occupied by the United States in an effort to reestablish Japan’s economy and hinder the Soviet Union’s increasing influence on the Pacific. It also created opportunities to export goods to the U.S., which following the war was experiencing record economic growth, cementing itself as the richest nation in the world. After a decade of rebuilding its economy from shambles, Japan began experiencing its own immense economic growth, sparking a nearly 50-year period referred to as the country’s “economic miracle.” By 1954, Japan’s economy was booming, thanks in large part to Keiretsu groups — corporations that conglomerated around Japanese banks and bought each other’s shares to secure stability through cross-holdings. Between 1967 and 1971, Japan experienced the largest period of growth in its recorded history at the time, creating new manufacturing processes and consumer goods.
Japan’s economic growth led to the country making great strides in the electronics and tech industries through the 1980s, introducing innovative consumer electronic and personal computer devices such as the Sony Walkman, the VHS, and game consoles like the Nintendo Entertainment System. One technology proving to be interesting to a lot of Japanese companies at this time? 3D graphics.
“A lot of companies wanted to do 3D — even construction companies wanted to make 3D simulations,” said Kazuyuki Hashimoto in an interview for a recent Polygon documentary celebrating PlayStation’s 25th anniversary.
Hashimoto went on to work at Square on games such as Final Fantasy 7, but before that he worked for Nichimen Graphics, a company that did CG development and support for television broadcast networks. In the 80s, companies like Nichimen began making strides in 3D, making similar innovations to what the electronics business had. Sony, getting in on the action, released the System Gazo, or System G, a computer originally used for producing 3D graphics in real time for broadcasts.
Sony creating a 3D video game console was largely the brainchild of Sony Computer Entertainment engineer-turned-CEO and chairman Ken Kutaragi, whose interest in 3D video games stemmed from seeing Sony’s System G.
Kutaragi first encountered System G back in 1984, when he was shown a demo of a computer generated face changing shape at Sony’s now-defunct Information Processing Research Center in Atsugi, Japan. “It was far more advanced than state-of-the-art graphics systems of the time. It was awesome. I was really impressed that such a thing existed,” he later told Reiji Asakura, author of Revolutionaries at Sony: The Making of the Sony Playstation and the Visionaries Who Conquered the World.
“What a powerful game machine we could make with System G,” Kutaragi, who’d long been interested in the game industry and had centered his college thesis on computer graphics, recalled thinking. Granted, at the time, a computer like System G was far too expensive for Kutaragi to use, but he predicted that in a decade’s time the System G’s price would’ve fallen enough that the technology could be used in a consumer product like a video game console. He was right.
Masanori Yamada, a lead engineer who worked on the early Tekken games, told Polygon that the first time he touched a PlayStation, he felt like the world was about to change.
In the early 1990s, following a failed partnership with Nintendo, Kutaragi began working in secret on a new Sony-made games console, implementing the now-cheaper System G technology. After convincing Sony’s then-CEO Norio Ohga that his company needed to make its own console, Kutaragi established the original PlayStation initiative more like a computer entertainment company than a video game company, envisioning building an operating system on top of the PlayStation and creating libraries for it.
Partnered in the early days with Sony Music, Sony Corporation also chose to print games on CDs — which stored a large amount of data — rather than the then-customary cartridges, opened its doors to more third parties than its rival Nintendo, and of course, pushed for 3D graphics on its new machine.
And the plan worked.
PlayStation brought aboard the vast majority of third-party developers and helped usher in the first era of 3D video game consoles. Developers could now experiment with an entirely new dimension, getting it into the hands of players for a fraction of the cost of what many expected. Some developers could hardly believe it.
Hashimoto first encountered PlayStation’s 3D capabilities when Sony contracted Nichimen to help with a demo of a 3D tyrannosaurus rex. Prior to this, Hashimoto said he figured one day games would run in 3D, but at the time the technology just wasn’t there yet. Only computers costing more than $10,000 could process the technology and it’d be impossible to do on a home video game console, he thought.
“When I saw the specs, my perception immediately changed,” Hashimoto said.
Other developers also found the PlayStation’s use of 3D to be a revelation. Masanori Yamada, a lead engineer who worked on the early Tekken games, told Polygon that the first time he touched a PlayStation, he felt like the world was about to change.
Released in December 1994, PlayStation became a fast success in Japan, selling more than 300,000 units in its first month on the market. In the United States, it passed 100,000 preorders by its September 1995 launch. By the end of 1996, Sony announced it had sold seven million consoles worldwide. This was helped in no small part by games on the PlayStation, such as innovative and influential 3D games like Metal Gear Solid, Crash Bandicoot, Final Fantasy 7, and Resident Evil.
Now, 25 years later, 3D graphics are the industry norm. The PlayStation family of consoles has, accumulatively, sold more than 430 million units. And Sony’s push into 3D graphics has been a huge part of PlayStation’s success.
“We could make 3D games never seen before,” Yamada said. “It became the platform where many creators could evolve.”