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Daily Reaction: Happy Birthday to Ken Kutaragi; The History of PlayStation’s Father

August 2, 2013 Written by Dan Oravasaari

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Today, August 2nd, 2013, the man who started it all, Ken Kutaragi, turns 63. So the Daily Reaction crew of Seb and Dan take a day to wish the man a Happy Birthday with a quick look at his history with Sony and how he brought about the PlayStation.

Dan: Before there was Kaz, there was Ken. Ken Kutaragi, the man known as the ‘father of the PlayStation’ was born in Tokyo Japan on August 2nd, 1950. Having always had a knack for tinkering with toys and electronics, he got a job working for Sony at their digital research labs right after graduating from Denki Tsushin University in 1975 with a BS Electrical Engineering.

Having had a growing interest in the video games market, he assisted Nintendo in the development of a sound chip for the Super Famicom – although he had to keep it a secret at first, in case Sony canceled the project, with President Norio Ohga saving Ken’s job when the chip was outed. Ken was then able to persuade Sony into doing research for a Super Famicom CD. This joint venture with Nintendo ultimately failed at the last moment, after the console manufacturer publicly withdrew from the agreement in 1991 at CES, when Nintendo struck a new deal with Sony’s competitor Philips. Sony was said to have been ready to drop the project altogether after the fiasco, but Ken pushed for them to continue working on the project and grow it further, inevitably becoming the head of development for the device dubbed the Play Station.

Sony pushed forward, creating Sony Computer Entertainment and gearing up for launch. The platform that was to become the first PlayStation created enough buzz that a relatively unknown programmer and designer at Crystal Dynamics named Mark Cerny even applied for a DevKit. Crystal Dynamics eventually became the first US based company to receive one, ultimately because working next to Ken was a man named Shuhei Yoshida, who thought Cerny was onto something.

Launching in 1994, the PSOne (almost 20 years ahead of the Xbox One) became the most popular console of the era, even though it went up against veterans Nintendo and Sega. The PSOne became such a success that Sony Computer Entertainment became the most profitable division of Sony, and proved to everyone that the games industry was not just a two horse race.

In 2000, the PlayStation 2 launched and ultimately became the best selling console of all time. It was a system that was grown out of Ken’s vision for a video game device that would become the center of the living room with the ability to watch movies, play music and PS1/PS2 games. This decision ultimately changed the landscape of the medium forever, becoming a cornerstone of gaming as we know it. The concept of a centralized device that could do it all while attached to your TV was an idea that Sony Corp embraced as they launched a DVR capable console in Japan called the PlayStation X in 2003.

Later in 2003, Ken was appointed CEO and President of Sony Computer Entertainment, Deputy Executive President, Chief Operating Officer and Vice-Chairman by Nobuyuki Idei the CEO of Sony Corporation, who had taken over from Ken’s good friend Norio Ohga. Ken became the name behind the emerging console giant and received global recognition for his work with Sony in getting the platform released and was named one of the 100 most influential people in 2004 by TIME magazine.

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Seb: At the time, it seemed like Ken was king of the world – not only was he head of all of PlayStation, he now had control over all of Sony’s consumer electronics division. But, like Icarus shooting towards the heavens, he was getting dangerously close to the Sun. Things were starting to come apart.

Unlike Norio Ohga, who had been a huge supporter of Kutaragi throughout his career, Nobuyuki Idei was reportedly not a fan, with rumors suggesting that Idei had extended his term as CEO simply to ensure Kutaragi would not succeed him.

Kutaragi was not particularly successful as the head of the consumer electronics division, but that wasn’t fully his fault – he took control just as cheaper competitors like Samsung were beginning to eat up Sony’s marketshare, and he was already disliked by employees for his comments about the iPod having a better media presence than Sony’s products.

Internal support for Kutaragi began to wane, and his desire to create the best possible hardware above all else was no longer the best way to sell electronics in a connected world where easy-to-use and ‘sexy’ iPods ruled supreme.

By 2005, Kutaragi had done little to prove to Sony’s board that he could run the entire company, and when Idei retired that year, he instead promoted Sony BMG Music Entertainment’s head Howard Stringer, making it the first time someone who wasn’t Japanese would run the company.

Kutaragi lost his seat on the board, but was still head of SCE, still in control of PlayStation. Unfortunately, things were about to get worse.

At E3 2005, the PlayStation 3 was announced, but third time was far from the charm. After the unparalleled successes of the PS1 and 2 and the relative success of the PSP, most thought that there was no way Sony could mess things up, but over the next year and a half leading up to launch, Kutaragi would sadly prove them all wrong.

The system was massively behind schedule, impossible to develop for and horrendously overpriced – not just to the consumer, but to Sony, who lost hundreds of dollars on every console sold. Rumors persist that Kutaragi hid the enormous R&D costs of creating the PS3 – which involved the development of the radically different Cell chip – from the rest of Sony by making it seem like R&D costs for other electronic devices.

Kutaragi had already earned the moniker of ‘Krazy Ken’ for his bizarre and outspoken comments during the PS2 era, but now that the PlayStation 3 was becoming increasingly unpopular, his outbursts were no longer seen as humorous, and rather as those of someone becoming more and more out of touch with reality.

“[PS3 is] for consumers to think to themselves ‘I will work more hours to buy one’. We want people to feel that they want it, irrespective of anything else.”

“The Xbox 360 is more of an Xbox 1.5 than a next generation console”

“The PlayStation 3 is not a game machine. We’ve never once called it a game machine”

Kutaragi had become a public liability for Sony, his comments to the press were embarrassing and not what was to be expected from a senior manager of a major technology firm (although they were brilliant for headlines). He was also the man in charge of the the most expensive and costly launch in the company’s history, responsible for what many thought at the time was the death of PlayStation. It didn’t matter that he had created PlayStation – Sony was hemorrhaging money across their entire product line, but PlayStation, once a shining beacon of success, was the worst of the lot. Someone had to be held accountable, Sony had to look like it was changing things up, otherwise investors would panic.

In November 2006, only a year after the PS3’s console launch, Ken Kutaragi was replaced by Kaz Hirai as head of SCEI. He was no longer in control of PlayStation. And, while he was technically promoted to Chairman at the same time, he no longer had any real power.

In January 2007, he was made CEO of Cellius, a joint venture between Sony and Namco Bandai, with the aim of the company being to “help take share from Microsoft Corp. and Nintendo Co.” But, considering that the studio has only made the incredibly disappointing Ridge Racer Vita, and their website no longer works, it’s unclear if they even exist any more.

On April 26th 2007, Kutaragi retired from Sony, becoming an Honorary Chairman, fully giving up the position in 2011. The story of Krazy Ken and his role at Sony and PlayStation ends there. But his story is still not over.

At the end of 2009, Kutaragi formed Cyber Ai Entertainment, with 90% of the company owned by the man himself, and 10% by former Sony engineer Takashi Usuki. What the company, and Kutaragi himself, are working on is unknown, but in late 2011 he teased that it was something “totally cool”.

PSLS then uncovered that he was developing “next generation human interfaces” and was “involved in the creation of a new entertainment area”, with his inspiration including H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, Arthur C Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Jules Verne, Blade Runner, Minority Report and more. It’s fascinating stuff, and you can read more on what he’s up to here. On top of that, Kutaragi has become Marvelous AQL’s External Director as of June, and serves on the boards of Kadokawa Group Holdings, Inc., Nojima Corporation, and Rakuten, Inc.

Kutaragi is often referred to in the past tense – ‘he was the father of PlayStation’, ‘he was a key Sony employee’, ‘he was a divisive figure’ – but he is still involved in the creation of the future and, while we all celebrate his birthday today, what is most exciting is what’s still to come.

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Dan: Looking at the fall of PlayStation and Sony’s troubles, a lot can be attributed to Ken Kutaragi and his transition into ‘Krazy Ken’, but we really cannot forget or overlook what he did start. The birth of the PlayStation and Sony’s entrance into the gaming market has changed the way people look at gaming today, and in a sense that has changed the world itself.

Ken never seemed to stop thinking big and beyond the natural scope of things, and this was the reason he was able to even get the electronics giant into a market that was not taken seriously. Now gaming is a billion dollar industry that has a presence in almost every major country in the world and has already started to find its way into other mainstream media sources.

Much like Sebastian had said, most people refer to Ken as being someone of the past, as if he is somehow past his prime. The truth is, I don’t think that the reasons for the issues we have seen with the PS3 are because he has past his prime, but simply because the world was just not ready for his vision. The PS3 was a monumental console that was designed to push the industry forward by a momentous leap, but due to the realities behind resource limitations and complex development those problems stunted the system until the world could catch up.

Having his head up in the clouds has cost him a great deal in terms of his reputation, but I for one am very thankful that he has always been able to dream big, and for that, I say thank you Ken Kutaragi and wish you a very Happy Birthday.

Seb: Ken Kutaragi was someone who made a huge gamble, and sadly lost. The Cell was his vision of the future, but it was too costly, too difficult to develop for, and too alien to be fully embraced by gamers and developers. While the PS3 eventually persevered, its technology will die with it, left to inhabit a few technological oddities rather than power the world.

Kutaragi was, and is, an Engineer, a creator. Not a businessman. And, like any genius creator who is given unparalleled resources and no oversight, he aimed big. Kutaragi dreams big, he has never done half measures, he has always pushed to be different. The PS3 was the result of a man who truly believed he could create something unlike anything else, something that fundamentally changed computing.

But I hope that he won’t always be defined by the mistakes he made at the end of his career at Sony, but rather all he has achieved. Kutaragi single-handedly formed PlayStation as an entity, a product, and a way of life. His work has moved gaming forward, and countless developers, publishers and journalists (including us) owe their career to what he has done.

Every gamer who has played a PlayStation game can only do so because of him. Even Xbox fans wouldn’t have been able to play Microsoft’s console if it hadn’t been for their desire to compete with Sony in the living room. People’s lives have been forever changed because of the mark he has left on the world, and that should never be understated.

Kutaragi is one of the most important people in the entire history of gaming. Happy Birthday, Ken.

What do you think about the history of the PlayStation and Ken’s involvement? Was he wrong to over-design the PS3 as many say? Or was he really a genius who always pushed for the stars? Let us know in the comments below, wish him a Happy Birthday, email us at DailyReaction@PlayStationLifeStyle.net or tweet us birthday cakes at Seb and Dan.