What's the "father of PlayStation" playing at?
At the recent opening of I SquareSoft's new Honolulu division (it's halfway between Tokyo and LA., providing an ideal chance for Square's Japanese creative team to dip its collective toe in the American pool without losing sight of a top-notch Sushi bar), Next Generation got to chat over a bottle of wine with Ken Kutaragi, the new CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment of America. Despite this prestigious new appointment, Mr. Kutaragi remains most famous for being the man responsible for designing the world-conquering PlayStation. He is also at the heart of Sony's PlayStation 2 project, a bid to produce a 64-bit, possibly DVD-based game powerhouse for release (we expect) in late 1999.
So does his move to the U.S. mean that work on PlayStation 2 is complete already? if not, can he possibly do both jobs at once? And what else does the world's premiere games hardware designer have up his sleeve? Next Generation asked these questions and more.
In the beginning...
NG: How did your involvement with the PlayStation project begin?
Mr. Kutaragi: Just before the PlayStation was born, there were the 8-bit and then 16-bit Sega and Nintendo machines. And I was very impressed with these — I was a Nintendo kid, when playing with my son. it was very, very nice entertainment for us. At the same time, though, l thought that videogaming had the potential to become an even more entertaining medium, if the experience was combined with the power of an advanced computer. So l thought that at some point in the future we could combine the two and create a new kind of small console.
NG: So when did you actually start work on realizing this dream?
Mr. Kutaragi: We started the project at Sony in 1986. To begin with there were just me and two other people — just three guys! — and then eventually we formed Sony Computer Entertainment in 1993 as a part of the Sony Corporation. By this time there were 60 or 70 people involved — some were young, some were old, some were from Sony music, and some were from all sorts of other areas of entertainment. Now there are almost 1,000 developers working with PlayStation, and between 57000 and 10,000 creators working with these developers. So I am very, very happy with PlayStation and to have this opportunity.
NG: Which aspect of the PlayStation project was the most difficult to get right?
Mr. Kutaragi: The objective was a high-performance, low-price videogame system which also had a design which was easy to write games for. We wanted to get many software companies creating games, and so we had to design a very small and sophisticated operating system and develop software libraries to help programmers. These libraries enabled programmers to create games quickly and easily and also allowed them to write high-quality games in a short period of time. Balancing these three things: performance, price, and ease of use, was the hardest thing to get right.
NG: Perhaps PlayStation's most distinctive feature at the time of launch was its joypad. What was the thinking behind its design?
Mr. Kutaragi: The PlayStation gameworld is typically 3D, and so the controller needs the shoulder buttons to move in 3D space. So we added the buttons for the index and middle fingers but realized that this made the pad unstable, so we had to add the grips on the lower part. In development, we simulated every possible joypad situation. We imagined what it would be like to have to continually put the pad down while mapping a game, or playing while lying on the floor, and many other cases. After that we had to decide on the weight of the buttons and the pad itself. We adjusted the weights one gram at a time and eventually found the correct balance. We probably spent as much time on the joypad's development as we did on the body of the machine. Sony's boss showed special interest in perfecting the final version of it, so it has his seal of approval.
NG: How closely does the finished PlayStation resemble your initial plans?
Mr. Kutaragi: Well, 100%. The original idea was to make a synthesizer for graphics — something that could take a basic graphic and then add various effects to it quickly and easily. I wanted to develop a machine capable of displaying subtle effects without difficulty, and I believe we achieved that. I have a long list of things which could be used in future generations of the hardware, but in order to meet the low cost demanded of PlayStation, many elements had to be left out this time.
NG: So you were the chief designer of PlayStation (and have since been dubbed the "father of PlayStation" in Japan). But PlayStation's design was finished three years ago, so what have you been doing since?
Mr. Kutaragi: Yes, I was the starting engineer, and many times I have been called the "father of PlayStation". But I also work in the software department, so I have also been involved with the hiring of people for Sony's software development — and this has been ongoing since the PlayStation design was finished. And I try to hire nice people. It's good to work in a corporation that is made up of nice people.
NG: Nice people? You make Sony Computer Entertainment sound like one big happy family.
Mr. Kutaragi: Yes! [Laughs] Because the chances are that a nice person will make a nice product. It does make a difference. We now have very talented designers, sales people, and nice people in all areas of the business.
NG: So you have staffed up Sony's PlayStation project with strong, talented, and — let's not forget — nice people. Now you have moved over to California to run Sony Computer Entertainment of America, does this mean that you are no longer designing hardware?
Mr. Kutaragi: No, I am still an engineer. I still have ideas, and I still have a team of designers in Japan. So although I am now CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment of America, I still dream engineer's visions.
NG: So you still have engineering responsibilities. When we spoke to you last, in NG 06, you talked about the frantic final period of PlayStation's design and commented that, "At the peak, we stayed up all night for several nights in a row. We couldn't stop working because our work was so interesting. The only problem was that our office in Akasaka didn't have a bath in it. One of our employees didn't wash for two weeks!"
Because you were the chief designer of the original PlayStation, it has always been assumed that you would also be the chief designer of PlayStation 2. And yet taking on a large responsibility in the U.S. doesn't seem to be characteristic of a man who presumably also has to "stay up for nights in a row" designing PlayStation 2 in Japan. So does your move to SCEA mean that the PlayStation 2 design is already completed?
Mr. Kutaragi: Now you are speculating! [Laughs] Yes, I too have read this speculation — and plenty more speculation — on the Internet. It's very, very, interesting.
NG: But is it true?
Mr. Kutaragi: No, it's not true. And it's also incorrect to think that I am only doing one thing. As well as being an engineer, I have been involved in the business side of things for many years. I helped start the company, and I have always been involved in business decisions. So it is not as if this new position is a radical new change of direction for me.
Besides, there are only five executives of Sony Inc. There is Terry Tokunaka, Shigeo Marayama, Akira Sato, Akira Tajiri, and me.
And because there are only these five people who make up the core management team, there is a lot of rotation between duties. So everyone is skilled in many disciplines. In this way, we are a good team.
And as for my work at SCEA, Kaz Hirai, the current COO of SCEA, will remain as COO and this will be a great help to me.
NG: But you're still involved with PlayStation 2?
Mr. Kutaragi: I am head of the development team, so yes, you could say that I am involved. [Smiles] But I can't say anything about it.
NG: you can't talk about PlayStation 2 at all?
Mr. Kutaragi: No, sorry.
NG: OK, let's try a different angle. PlayStation was Sony's first dedicated games console, and obviously it has been a huge success. But is there anything that you would change about it? Or, if you could start the PlayStation project all over again, is there anything that you would do differently?
Mr. Kutaragi: Doing it again at the same time, in the same time period? [Thinks] No, I think I would release the same machine, it was a very focused machine; regarding the RAM size, the CPU, the controller, even the color of the machine — everything was there. It was and is a very satisfying machine. Sure, it would have been nice to, say, double the size of the RAM memory. This would have been very easy. But suppose we had doubled the size of the memory, it would have been very expensive, it would have cost more at a retail level, and we probably would not have sold as many.
Sure, Nintendo 64 now has a faster clock speed, but the ratio of clock speed to price typically doubles every two years, so it's no surprise that it is faster. But PlayStation was the cutting-edge technology of its time, and I am happy with it.
NG: One last try. in NG 06, we asked you what features you would like to include in PlayStation 2. You replied, "Two things. One is higher performance in computer graphics, because clearly, as a videogame machine, it's important to have even more spectacular effects. This will come about as a result of faster and more compact integration of silicon. Within ten years we will see vivid computer graphics on a TV screen generated by 0.25 micron silicon. These computer graphics will be rendered at 10 million polygons per second — the equivalent of a movie image. But the most important development over the next ten years will be the widespread use of high-bandwidth communications, and future versions of the PlayStation technology will feature this."
Do you still stand by these statements?
Mr. Kutaragi: I'm afraid I can't comment.
PlayStation versus Nintendo 64
NG: So how is the PlayStation business doing, and what are the latest sales figures from Japan?
Mr. Kutaragi: The PlayStation has sold extremely well around the globe. The cumulative manufacturing number is almost the same as the installed base — we have sold as many PlayStations as we have been able to make — and that number is around 15 million. Even now we are manufacturing 1.5 million PlayStations a month, and this is a record high manufacturing history for Sony in Japan. It's higher than CD players or Walkmans ever were. And yet this is still insufficient to meet the demand which
continues to skyrocket.
I visited London last week and there were no PlayStations to be had — many people shouted at me to get more PlayStations! Yesterday, I was speaking to one of the employees at Square who told me that she had to wait one month to buy a PlayStation in Japan. And she works for Square!
NG: So how does this compare to how Sega and Nintendo are doing?
Mr. Kutaragi: Today I went to a hardware shop in Honolulu and I found that there was very little stock of PlayStation or Nintendo 64, and my understanding is that the two machines are selling at a one-to-one ratio all across the U.S.. Sometimes we're ahead, and sometimes Nintendo is ahead on a week-by-week basis, but obviously overall we are way ahead.
In Europe, last month the ratio was two PlayStations to every one Nintendo 64 sold, and in Germany specifically — which is usually a strong market for Nintendo — the ratio was six PlayStations to four Nintendo 64s. In Japan, however, it is a very different story and PlayStation is selling a lot stronger than Nintendo 64.
NG: Do you have any actual sales figures to back up your claims?
Mr. Kutaragi: Yes, the latest statistics in Japan, from the magazine Famitsu weekly, say that from Christmas to this week, sales of videogame hardware have been of the ratio of ten PlayStations to one and a half Nintendo 64s to just one Saturn. In Japan, every week there are roughly between 100,000 or 125,000 PlayStations sold through, so this means that if we are selling upwards of 100,000 per week, in that time Nintendo is selling 15,000 Nintendo 64s, and Sega is selling just 10,000 Saturns. So in Japan no one cares about Nintendo 64 and no one cares about Saturn.
NG: Why do you think Nintendo 64 has failed to make any kind of impact in Japan?
Mr. Kutaragi: They are too late; people got tired of waiting for two years, and their timing is now wrong. Their other big problem is the pricing of the software. When you consider that a Nintendo 64 cartridge costs ¥9000 and that you can get a PlayStation Greatest Hits CD for ¥2500, it is easy to see why more gamers think that PlayStation offers a much greater value.
NG: You say that one of Nintendo's problems is that it was late releasing Nintendo 64, but this is partly due to it being a newer design than PlayStation, using more modern 64-bit technology. Will you acknowledge that Nintendo 64 is technologically superior to PlayStation?
Mr. Kutaragi: In regards to the graphics rendering portion, Nintendo 64 has an advantage. It has bi-linear and tri-linear interpolation and anti-aliasing, and this makes some of the graphics look very nice. Another nice thing about Nintendo 64 is that they integrated a lot of their chips together, and this is a very nice thing from a cost and manufacturing perspective.
But if anything, they have oversimplified, and other engineers have found that the Nintendo 64 system is very difficult to work with. PlayStation is a much more well-balanced system and is a lot easier to work with. This means that a game developer doesn't have to spend so much time getting to grips with the hardware and fine-tuning everything, and instead they can spend time on the creative side of making a game, and this is the most important thing.
NG: Do you think this explains why there has been such a shortage of top-quality Nintendo 64 software?
Mr. Kutaragi: I think so, yes. This and the cartridge model which means that it is a very, very tough business for publishers. PlayStation introduced a lot of new concepts to the videogame business, but Nintendo has tried to keep things the same as they have always been. Nintendo wants Nintendo 64 to succeed using the same concepts as they had for 8-bit and 16-bit — even the game characters are the same!
NG: Do you think 64DD, Nintendo's proposed disk-drive add-on, will give Nintendo 64 a new competitive edge?
Mr. Kutaragi: I know nothing about 64DD. They haven't shown it to me! [Laughs] But I think that CD-ROM is probably the best medium for game publishing for the time being. It's cheap and it is easy to make quickly as many or as little as you want to. 64DD is some kind of floppy disc drive, and the PC market gave up on these and now uses CDs.
PlayStation's untapped potential
NG: How much unexploited power is left in PlayStation? If Nintendo 64 games continue to get better, can we expect PlayStation developers to keep pushing back limits also?
Mr. Kutaragi: I am always asking the same question to my engineers! So they have made a new weapon — we call it the Performance Analyzer — to test software with, to see how much it is exploiting the PlayStation.
NG: And which games push PlayStation the most?
Mr. Kutaragi: Well, for example, Formula One from Psygnosis is a great-looking game, but according to our performance analyzer it is only using 50% of PlayStation's potential. And this was, until very recently, the most advanced game. Tekken 2 uses only 30% to 40%. But now Tobal No. 2 uses 90% of PlayStation's potential. I was very surprised to see this, and they have done a very nice job with very little distortion. It's very stable and very nice. All games are different, and it's very difficult to measure this kind of thing exactly.
NG: And which developers do you feel have done the best work with making the most of the PlayStation technology? Aside from our hosts, Square, of course...
Mr. Kutaragi: Politically, this is a very difficult question to answer. [Smiles] But generally Namco has done some great work and the software divisions within Sony have also.
NG: Are you worried at all by Matsushita and M2? On paper, the machine looks far more powerful than either PlayStation or Nintendo 64...
Mr. Kutaragi: No, no I'm not worried. I'm just tired of waiting. [Laughs]
NG: So, even if it's not going to come from Matsushita, what technological innovations do you think that videogame players will see in the next ten years?
Mr. Kutaragi: The next PlayStation, PlayStation 2, PlayStation X, or whatever, or Nintendo 128, or some kind of Windows-95 compatible machine from Microsoft — whatever new machines we will see in the future — obviously we will see greater graphics capabilities. Games designers always want the game graphics to look the same as they do on a workstation, and workstations are always improving. But the most dramatic new benefit and revolution will be in the synthesizing of human characteristics and creating a more human environment.
NG: Is this predominantly a hardware problem or a software problem?
Mr. Kutaragi: It is both, and it is a very, very difficult challenge. It won't be until well into the next century that this dream is fully realized but we will definitely see some radical steps forward taken in the next ten years.
NG: And will you be designing such a machine yourself?
Mr. Kutaragi: [Smiles] I'm afraid that I cannot comment on that.
/ NEXT GENERATION, vol.3 32, August 1997 /