Permission to Launch
Editorial: We explore the various circumstances surrounding the launch of a console
Not too long ago (around 18 years) the idea of an event or expo where the main focus centered on a games console's launch was mostly unheard of. But with the rise to prominence of home gaming—and gaming in general—the need to capitalize on the consumer, and more importantly the public, changed.
Sony's release of the Playstation at the inaugural E3 in 1995 helmed this shift, and marked the birth of console launches as we experience them today, as well as the advent of game-centric industry events.
Prior to this, the public learned of a console's release through more traditional media such as gaming publications, store catalogues, and TV adverts and tech orientated shows. This blanket approach, while effective, lacked the ability to unite the public in a singular event where the product, promises, and hardware specifications were all laid bare. By creating a spectacle that drew investors, impacted public, journalistic, and corporate opinion, companies like Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo had the ability to manipulate and filter content for the greatest impact.
However, industry launch events did not spawn in such a grandiose fashion. Sony's keynote speech at the inaugural E3 was for the North American launch of the Playstation. The company wanted to establish themselves as a serious contender in the video game market, with the ability to go punch-for-punch with heavy-hitters Nintendo and Sega. This breakthrough into an unexplored market (aside from their brief partnership with Nintendo) forced Sony to create a bold statement. There were several areas whose dynamic shifted over time: Your target audience, the content of the presentation, the spokesperson, and the arena in which you delivered the message.
For those familiar with E3, the audience still had to endure whatever pop hits had made the rounds on the airwaves until a promotional VT rolled. As with any medium, it was always more pro-active to display what you were showcasing, rather than begin with a suited mouthpiece on stage; it creates intrigue and a little tension and is common practice not only for E3, but for any industry. The content of the video was your usual smorgasbord of sound bites, spasmodic text and visuals, but it was not until two minutes later we actually see the games, and that lasts for all of thirty seconds.
After this brief form of visual pre-gaming, a staff member waltzed on stage and rolled right into the opening speech. E3 1995 had no lofty arena with IMAX screens or celebrity guests flapping their gums or body in support of the product. It was all quite a barebones affair.
The introduction speaker lacked the, what some might say, "faux" enthusiasm of those who conduct recent console launches. E3 1995 still clung to an air of formality reserved for a boardroom presentation and had not yet grasped exactly who their audience was. The man reads off the console's affiliation, partners, and goals with the gusto of a lawyer dictating the contents of a recently deceased relative's will to a hundred bereaved family members. But when we acknowledge livestreaming, blogging, immediate onsite and offsite reports were unheard of at the time; the main form of dissemination was through the written word. The Playstation's information was delivered via a proxy to the public.
Yes, there were reporters, industry folks, investors, developers—people close to the tech community, but the public had yet to factor in to such an open and sometimes damning degree. We still had frenetic editing techniques, industry jargon, and actors spouting "hip" dialogue to entice journalists and industry types.
Fast forward to Sony's 2013 press conference and while the video introduction is present, we cut straight to the heart of the matter with games leading the forefront, all wrapped up in a flashy display of lights and music. The script was less formal, more aware of and acknowledging of its audience, and the platform in which they shared the conference.
But our somewhat "stuffy" speaker of Sony's E3 95 was only paving the way for Olaf Olafsson, physicist, author, and chief executive of Sony Interactive Entertainment—a far cry from sport, TV, film, and Youtube personalities, or fervent devs and employees that have featured in recent industry expos. Now, multiple speakers discussed their roles and projects within the industry to showcase the diverse nature of the platform.
In a strange way, Olaf's calm and measured air conveyed a sense of believability and sincerity. Who was going to be of most comfort in a dark, sweaty conference hall? A physicist or pop star? The latter could have informed me Sony's console was the second coming and I'd have nodded along, waiting for the four horsemen to mount the stage and espouse Ridge Racer and Wipeout as their earthly, digital avatars, and our saviour as the T-Rex included on the demo disc.
As jarring as it was for a formal and relaxed speech, today's stars, at the very least, are linked to company they're speaking for, whether it was via an in game, app, or subscription affiliation.
The focus on their audience determined what Sony spoke of, with an overview of the financial impact of the video game market. The content of Sony's talk stuck to the market's fluctuating potential and decried consoles such as the Super Nintendo and Megadrive/Genesis with the impending death of the 16-bit era. While jabs at other consoles showed no signs of waning in passing years and a strong emphasis on the potential on advanced hardware still prevailed, companies had relied on exclusive IPs and hardware capabilities to sell their console. Sony's 1995 presentation drew paralles to the Shawshank Redemption in order to simplify the gap in hardware from the Playstion to the previous generation's consoles.
Sony's discussion of the advantage of "plug-and-play" being superior for direct access to content, and the PC's lethargic installation process came off as quite ironic given the often truncated gap from inserting a disk only to suffer a lengthy installation process. The need for "a dedicated platform" has since changed drastically at a time when consoles were expected to perform not only with their games, but with the ability to harness and integrate into other media to form a homogenous hub of entertainment.
Another prominent shift in the audience dynamic came with the Sony's target audience. At around 12 minutes in we're treated to a rather trite examination of what Sony dubbed as "The Digital Kid," who devours new technology like the rising internet with his Saturday morning cereal. This clinical examination was like a scientist parading around a rather smart monkey, minutes before they attached electrodes to its brain to discover what game makes it soil its nappy. If we compared that view with the present focus on family inclusion and mainstream involvement, Sony's demo, which displayed one typical male in their teens solely enjoying the Playstation, it appeared alienating. Companies learned not to dictate what a "gamer" was to their audience as the audience actively participated in their console event. This was present not only with Sony, but with Nintendo and Micrsoft—Nintendo was arguably the first company to openly seize the market with Wii. After Myamoto's stint as a mad conductor the audience was launched into a family/friends dynamic.
With Sony at E3 95, it took close to 23 minutes to delve into the real purpose of the keynote speech and event. With Sega's Saturn console previously released and priced, Sony was quick to capitalise on the event in what became industry legend. Sony's North American president Steve Race waltzed onto the stage and simply said: "$299," as if reading a boring restaurant bill. He then strode over the Saturn's corpse. If this event had transpired via an article in a newspaper, or even a report, the initial slug of the statement would have lost its impact. By grasping the initiative and potential of the event, Sony disseminated their console killing message in the quickest and most effective medium available at the time. Who's who knew and it was then all about who had the chance to break it first.
The obvious parallels to the event in the updated console wars, was at E3 2013, where Sony similarly cocked and fired the same weapon. But with the advent of new media, the impact reached a goliath audience, and feeds, blogs, Twitter—an array of platforms—were alight with the buzz.
It was interesting, and a little jarring to examine that over a decade later the impact of Sony's console launch was still creating waves. The way in which developers communicated with the press, investors, and their target audience via an event medium evolved to be more a inclusive, flashy affair where spectacle and one-upmanship of the event was a key weapon in defeating competitors, and engaging with their audience.