The Beginning of PlayStation: Shuhei Yoshida Speaks about Development and Behind the Scenes of Sony’s Consoles
Speaking onstage at EGX 2015, Shuhei Yoshida reflected back on the very early days of PlayStation and what made it special. Shuhei started out helping Sony communicate with Apple since Sony was helping to design and manufacture Apple products. He met with Ken Kutaragi, who told Shuhei of the upcoming PlayStation product. Ken boasted that it was going to contain some of the most powerful technology of the time, and he was going to sell it for $500. Shu did not believe at first, and it was his curiosity and love for video games that caused him to sign on. He originally entered the team to help with the business side, given his prior experience of building relationships between companies.
The first software he saw running on the PlayStation’s prototype hardware was Jumping Flash which later released in 1995. Speaking of Ken Kutaragi, Shu said that Ken is very happy now when he visits the offices, as he remembers how hardworking Ken was previously. Shuhei mentioned that Ken would come into work on Monday with completely new ideas for the PlayStation that the team would then have to work on and see if it would be possible. Shuhei also understood that the guys working for Ken could sometimes have it very hard, but they were overall happy to be a part of Sony’s first console. The team at the time in R&D was made up of maybe 10-20 engineers, so it was a very close knit team.
Shuhei began as a third party relation manager for Japanese studios. He recalls that Namco was one of the earliest and most important third party partners, along with Konami. Namco’s work on Ridge Racer was one of the earliest launch games Shu saw in action.
The original PlayStation launched in December of 1994 in Japan, and then September of 1995 in Europe, which was due to the lack of resources that Sony had at the time for the PlayStation division. Namco, Konami, and a smaller company called Artdink were pushed the hardest due to having to help launch the PlayStation in Japan, the first market.
When asked which games defined the PlayStation, Shuhei gave Namco’s Ridge Racer and Tekken, Capcom’s Resident Evil, Square Soft’s Final Fantasy VII, and Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid as the groundbreaking games that really propelled PlayStation into the culture. The success was also helped by the CD-ROM, which allowed developers to put actual music into their games, such as with Wipeout and the Chemical Brothers. Tomb Raider is a later game that also pushed the limits of the hardware with the 3D technology.
With the PlayStation 2, Shuhei admitted that Sony’s launch was pretty weak at first. While the third party publishers were ready to transition to the new generation, for Sony it was a learning curve. It was around this time that Shuhei also began to have more hands on with creating games, such as Ape Escape which released in 1999, just as the PlayStation 2 was about to launch in 2000. For his work in helping release FantaVision on the PlayStation 2, Shuhei was ridiculed a bit in-house for his contribution being a smaller puzzle game. Unsurprisingly, the DVD capabilities of the PlayStation 2 also helped, with the Matrix being the biggest seller during the PlayStation 2’s launch.
Grand Theft Auto 3 was the biggest title on PlayStation 2 for Shuhei, who saw sandbox games beginning on the late PlayStation games with Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and Driver. It was GTAIII though that gave an entire city for the player to explore and most impressed him.
When asked about Sony heading into handheld markets, Shuhei said he never felt that the PlayStation Portable was a risk for Sony, and pushed internally for Sony to get into portable gaming despite his lack of influence at the time. Due to the cyclical nature of hardware, with launches and peak levels, he felt it would be good to have a portable inbetween those seasons as another hardware launch. He was very excited to get his hands on an early PSP since it launched in Japan first and Shu was still living in North America.
Shuhei feels the video game industry is bulletproof since any technological advancement are just taken in and used to create a new gaming experience. The PlayStation brought real-time 3D graphics, and PS2 had online capability added later in its life. And with the PlayStation 3, Sony began to head in the direction of the Wii with their motion controls after the monumental success Nintendo experienced. He mentions that PlayStation VR is something he is very excited for as the next big technological step forward.
When the PlayStation 3 era came around, Kaz Hirai took over for Sony and made things very different. Kaz pushed hard for the software developers to work with the hardware team closely. He even asked Shu to move to Japan in 2008 so he could be closer to the hardware team. Shuhei’s time was spent half with the hardware team and with the first parties in order to work out relationships between them. Traditionally hardware didn’t really talk to developers since they can have contrary opinions. Now, the hardware team knows who to talk to and so Shuhei, while he still lives in Japan, isn’t as on-hands with the hardware team as he was during the PlayStation 3 era.
Using Naughty Dog and Quantic Dream as examples, Shuhei was asked what makes a great development team. His answer focused on the developer having strong leadership, and cultivating a strong development culture to where each employee knows what they as a team can handle and what decision they would make if a problem arised.
Given the chance to go back in time and send his past self a message, Shuhei would tell himself that he made the right decision to stick with PlayStation and to work hard to make a great console. His most fond memories are of the PlayStation era, due to the small team. At the time there were 31 employees when Shuhei joined, making him number 32. The entire company would discuss everything with everyone, about pricing, hardware features, and other market issues. He really enjoyed being with those people, since they all shared the same passion and desires to see the PlayStation succeed.
Of all the games he has worked on Shuhei was most proud of his work with Ape Escape, due to being hands on with the creative side of that game. He did mention the localization of Naughty Dog’s Crash Bandicoot, and how it was how he met Mark Cerny, the system architect for the PlayStation 4. As for one of his favorite games, he gave Journey due to the connection to pain and loss. Shuhei had lost his grandmother a couple of years prior to playing the game and finishing it brought some tears to his eyes remembering that loss, which he also mentioned occurred with others who played.