At 9am one June morning in 1989, the rocky but brilliant career of a 38 year-old engineer at Sony almost came to an untimely end. The venue was the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, and despite the early start - 9am isn't a popular time in a city with as many partying opportunities as Vegas - the main hall at the event was packed.
Everyone was there to hear about the Play Station - a new product from Japanese videogame giant Nintendo which would integrate CD technology from consumer electronics firm Sony with the indisputable gaming prowess of the soon-to-be-launched SNES console. Sony's executives and engineers had been showing off the product proudly only the night before. It would be the world's first hybrid console, featuring a SNES cartridge slot and a CD drive side by side, with both formats available to game developers.
When Nintendo of America's then-chairman Howard Lincoln took the stage, there were already rumblings that everything wasn't quite going to plan - but nobody quite expected to witness something which went on to taint Nintendo's corporate reputation in Japan for over a decade. Instead of announcing a partnership with Sony, as planned, Lincoln stunned the audience by revealing that the company was now working with European electronics firm Philips - with the Play Station project being abandoned.
Shock waves rippled around the audience, around CES and around the entire Japanese business community - but it's likely that nobody felt the shock quite so profoundly as Ken Kutaragi.
Since joining Sony, his career had been defined as much by controversy and conflict as it had by a flair for great engineering decisions; on many occasions, he had found himself in direct opposition with people at the huge corporation far, far more senior than he was. Each time, he had survived - but Play Station was his baby, and Sony had just received the most public snub in its history over this project. It's very likely that on that morning in June 1989, Howard Lincoln's words made Ken Kutaragi's career flash before his eyes. This, surely, was the end of the road.
The Road Less Travelled
Kutaragi's career at Sony began in the mid-seventies, directly after he graduated with a degree in Electronics from the University of Electro-Communications in Chofu City, a small but highly regarded university in a bustling district of Tokyo. His appointment at Sony's digital research labs was his first full-time job.
Not much is written about Kutaragi's early life. We know that he was a habitual tinkerer, the kind of child who takes apart toys rather than playing with them. He was probably encouraged by his father, who ran a small printing company; while at school, Ken worked in the evenings on the printing machines. It didn't interfere with his school work, though, and he consistently achieved high grades - although he focused mostly, unsurprisingly, on more technical subjects.
At Sony, he had a chance in the late seventies and early eighties to work on exotic technology which has subsequently come to be a major part of the daily lives of almost everyone in the developed world. He came to the attention of his superiors for his work on technology like LCD displays and digital cameras, cutting edge technologies which go some way to demonstrating his obsession with driving forward the march of processing power and technological progress.
While it's his ability as a problem-solver and his engineering talent that are always remarked upon from this era, it seems likely that Kutaragi was also aided by an outspoken, brash manner which was atypical for Japanese workers of his generation. In most Japanese companies, that would probably have seen him confined to a desk by a window and never heard from again - but Sony in the eighties was ruled by engineers, not by executives.
In this environment, someone brilliant but outspoken like Kutaragi could thrive; being respectful of authority meant less than having engineering flair. It helped, of course, that he had the ear and the support of the king of all of Sony's engineers, Norio Ohga. Ohga, a trained opera singer who had been offered a job at Sony after writing a scathing letter to the company about the quality of its tape recorders, was president of Sony from 1982 to 1989, and CEO from 89 to 1999.
Kutaragi was, in a very real sense, his protégé. His own unconventional history as a complaining consumer who became president of the company gives a clear idea of why he would have supported Kutaragi whenever he rocked the boat. In fact, Ohga saw Kutaragi as a huge asset in a company which was filled with tired, excessively conventional engineers. His ability to make waves and to show up superiors who were getting in the way of progress made him into an ideal tool for trimming dead wood from the over-laden firm.
Playing The Game
At this stage it's probably worth mentioning that although videogames had been popular in Japan since the early eighties, there's no evidence that Kutaragi was actually anything remotely like an avid player. He was undoubtedly fascinated by the technology behind interactive entertainment - but if anything, the approach used by pioneers of the medium like Nintendo's Gunpei Yokoi would have been anathema to Kutaragi.
Yokoi, the creator of products like Game And Watch and the Game Boy, believed in a philosophy called "Lateral Thinking of Withered Technology" - essentially, taking old, well-understood and cheap components ("withered technology") and finding new, interesting ways to create entertainment with it. Nothing Nintendo made used cutting-edge technology; it just used relatively old technology in radical new ways. It's a philosophy which persists in Nintendo to this day - but to Kutaragi, whose entire career had been a life-long obsession with the cutting edge, no approach could have been less attractive.
However, when Nintendo came knocking, he was still quick to answer. In rare interviews, he has said that he realised the potential of videogames from watching his daughter play on her Famicom (NES); whatever the impetus may have been, he clearly believed in the market enough to take on a contract from Nintendo to create a sound-chip for its upcoming 16-bit console. Although the NES was still at the height of its success, Nintendo was conscious of the number of competitors who were launching systems, and its thoughts had already turned to the next generation of systems by 1986/87.
It's typical of Kutaragi's approach to work that he didn't actually tell any of his superiors about the Nintendo deal. Sony had no interest in videogames, and it's unlikely that bosses at the firm would ever have approved of his working on a chip for a Nintendo console. Undeterred, Kutaragi simply set about designing the chip in secret - eventually producing the design for the SPC700, the groundbreaking audio chip which allowed the SNES to seriously outclass all of its rivals in terms of sound and music.
Sony's executives were apoplectic when they found out about the project, and not for the last time, Kutaragi's career had a near-death experience. However, he was rescued by the intervention of Norio Ohga, who approved of the project, and allowed Kutaragi to complete work on the chip. You probably never realised it, but your first encounter with the work of the man who became known as the Father of PlayStation was actually on the SNES; every note of music or sound effect you heard was processed through the unique chip he designed.
Crucially, his work on the SPC700 chip also made Kutaragi into something of a favourite with Nintendo. The bridges he had built to the gaming company with this project meant that when Nintendo started thinking about using disc technology in the SNES, it turned to Kutaragi. Sony had vast experience of the CD-ROM format, and Kutaragi already had a hand in the SNES hardware; the match-up made sense.
Within Sony, any further gaming projects were viewed with hostile eyes, with the entire market still being seen as a fad - but with Ohga's blessing Kutaragi was able to embark on another, more ambitious project with Nintendo. They would build two devices - a SNES add-on, called SNES-CD, and a Sony branded console which would play either SNES-CD games or conventional Nintendo cartridges. It would be called the Play Station.
Which brings us back to that June morning in Las Vegas, when Howard Lincoln took the stage and very publicly smashed - or so he thought - Sony's aspirations in the gaming space. Much has been made of Nintendo's actions at CES that year. It was depicted in Japan as a complete betrayal, not least because it was outrageous to the Japanese business community that one Japanese company could dump another at the altar, in favour of a European rival. Moreover, in subsequent years, it has been portrayed as Nintendo's greatest error - since in dropping Sony, the firm essentially created its own greatest rival and sealed the fate that would see it confined to second place in the industry for at least a decade.
For Nintendo's incredibly outspoken and honest boss, Hiroshi Yamauchi, neither of those things mattered. He believed - and he was probably correct - that the deal that had been signed with Sony was completely catastrophic for Nintendo. Under the terms of the contract, Sony - which had created the technology for the CD-based games - would actually control the SNES-CD format. It alone would have its hands on the reins of this format, essentially removing Nintendo's control over releases on one of its own consoles. To Yamauchi, whose fierce sense of independence continues to thrive at Nintendo to this day, the idea of handing away control of software to a third party was unthinkable. He sent Lincoln and Nintendo of America president Minoru Arakawa to Europe to negotiate a deal with Philips at the eleventh hour - one which would give Nintendo control over all of its licensed software on the system.
The intricacies of the contract, however, probably didn't matter much to Ken Kutaragi that morning. His project had just been killed by Nintendo in the most public and embarrassing way possible. Sony, dipping a cautious toe into the videogames market, had just been dumped at the altar by the company whose alliance he had sought out and championed. This time, surely, the bosses at Sony who had opposed his efforts would have the last laugh; after gaining a reputation as a hatchet-man who brought down his own superiors, Kutaragi would finally be felled by executives who would be delighted to see him go.
It's interesting to wonder how the videogames industry would look now if that had happened - but Kutaragi was saved, once again, by Norio Ohga. If this were a Grimm brothers tale, Ohga would almost certainly appear with a wand, wings, and a remarkable ability to turn Kutaragi's pumpkin into a fine chariot; his regard for the engineer, coupled with a distinct feeling within Sony that Nintendo should be "punished" in some way for stinging the firm in this manner, led to him defending Kutaragi and the firm's videogame efforts.
Sony decided to push forward with its gaming ambitions regardless of Nintendo's "betrayal", and while the SNES-CD was shelved, the Play Station lived on. Nintendo was caught wrong-footed by Sony's decision; it's clear that the firm believed that Sony would never continue with a games system without Nintendo on board. Concerned at the idea of Sony launching SNES-compatible systems, Nintendo resorted to litigation to prevent the Play Station hitting the market - but an injunction claiming that the Play Station name belonged to Nintendo failed, and Sony was free to bring the system to market in 1991.
Nintendo shouldn't have worried - at least, not yet. The first Play Station was a disaster; industry lore suggests that only 200 of the consoles, sporting a SNES-CD drive (for which no games were produced), were ever produced. By 1992, Sony had worked out a deal with Nintendo which would see it producing consoles with SNES cartridge ports, but with Nintendo still making all the profit from the games. This, of course, was pointless; videogame hardware is traditionally sold either at a loss or a tiny profit margin, and the money comes from sales of licensed software.
Kutaragi saw this - and with the SNES hardware growing increasingly outdated, he finally had an opportunity to ditch Nintendo's "withered technology" and strike out to create something more powerful and cutting edge. By 1993, he was heading up a project at Sony to create an entirely new, CD-based console with powerful 3D capabilities. It would be called the "PlayStation" (note the dropped space between the two words), and would no longer have any ties to the SNES.
Climbing the Ladder
In late 1994, the PlayStation launched in Japan. In September 1995, it arrived in the USA and Europe. We all know the rest of the story, at least as far as PlayStation is concerned. Nintendo's rival console, the N64, was the last home system to use cartridges for software, as PlayStation pushed the advantages of its CD-based software and the infinitely cooler Sony brand to their fullest extent. PlayStation became the console that defined a generation, that opened up gaming to the wider world, and unsurprisingly, was the first console to sell 100 million units - a milestone it reached in 2005.
The success of the PlayStation made Kutaragi's position at Sony unassailable, for the first time. His mentor, champion and guardian, Norio Ohga, was by now CEO and Chairman of Sony Corporation, and had approved the creation of a whole new group within Sony to handle the PlayStation - Sony Computer Entertainment, or SCEI. Kutaragi was placed in charge of the division.
The stunning success of the PlayStation allowed Ken Kutaragi to build an empire at SCEI. US and European divisions - SCEA and SCEE respectively - opened up, staffing numbers swelled, marketing budgets went through the roof, more and more production facilities were brought on stream, development deals were signed and studios opened. Money was pouring in; the PlayStation rapidly became the shining jewel in Sony's tarnished crown. Sitting atop this empire was Kutaragi himself, the rogue engineer who was now turning around the fortunes of the corporation.
As early as 1997, Kutaragi was tipped as Sony's next boss. Despite being a maverick within the company, Norio Ohga's faith in him had paid off; SCEI was the most important business within Sony. It seems certain that Kutaragi was keenly aware of the speculation that he might be a future leader of the company, and it's almost as certain that he desired the position. He had strong views on how Sony's business should be run, and moreover, the idea of going from being an outspoken maverick to the head of the corporation would have appealed to him - not least because of Norio Ohga's own remarkable climb up the ladder.
In 2000, Sony launched its second console - the PlayStation 2 - into a market which was still reeling from the firm's unexpected dominance of the previous generation. SEGA, whose CD-based Saturn console had been a complete flop in the face of competition from the PlayStation, launched a new system called DreamCast to rival the PS2 - but a combination of Sony's better-known brand, stronger software support and inspired decision to support the burgeoning DVD disc format meant that the DreamCast was obliterated within months.
Microsoft, which would later launch the Xbox, still hadn't announced any plans to enter the console space; Nintendo was struggling manfully onwards with the N64, and wouldn't launch the GameCube for a number of years. The PS2, unopposed in the market and riding on a wave of popularity unseen by any game system before or since, outstripped sales of its predecessor. Kutaragi's star continued in the ascendant, as his risky gamble on the system - a research and development investment of around $2.5 billion - turned into an immense payout, with SCEI rolling in revenues of around $10 billion a year.
One major change at Sony, however, was less fortuitous for Kutaragi. Norio Ohga had named Nobuyuki Idei, formerly a director at Nestlé and General Motors, as Sony's next president - and in 1999, Idei became CEO of the company, taking the position of Executive Chairman from the semi-retired Ohga in 2000, and eventually becoming CEO and Chairman in 2003. Kutaragi had lost his oldest and most senior ally at the company, but with his personal empire at SCEI continuing its rapid growth and widely seen as Sony's strongest division, his position still seemed as secure as he could have hoped.
The Engineer's Dilemma
Nobuyuki Idei was about as far from Norio Ohga as you could imagine from a CEO. He was the first CEO of Sony not to come from engineering stock, and it showed. His appointment was hugely controversial within Sony, but considered to be a measured success within the business community - he was ruthless in his reforms at the firm, and started to turn around the internal perception that Sony should be engineering-led and focus on the company's profitable but underfunded content businesses.
When Ohga left Idei in charge, he told his successor to trust Kutaragi - and initially, Idei did exactly that. Kutaragi continued to be given a free hand at SCEI, and while Idei made sweeping changes to the rest of Sony, his reforms barely touched the hugely profitable videogames division.
Meanwhile, Kutaragi started planning bigger and bigger things for SCEI. His vision for videogames now saw the games console sitting at the heart of the living room, as the key entertainment device for a digital future. It's a vision which he had nursed since before the launch of the original PlayStation, and one which was shared by rivals at Microsoft, who were pouring money into their own game console project in a desperate attempt to head off Sony's efforts at controlling the living room via the PlayStation.
It's not really clear when, or why, Idei decided he didn't trust the Father of PlayStation. In some respects, it was probably down to the traditional schism between businessmen and engineers; Idei being the former, and Kutaragi the latter, the two men would have had radically different views on how Sony should be run. Kutaragi's outspoken and undiplomatic manner would almost certainly have rubbed the reserved Idei up the wrong way entirely, and seemed merely arrogant where to his predecessor, Ohga, it seemed like a breath of fresh air in a company suffocating under double-talk and politeness.
It can't have helped that this was around the time when Kutaragi started to earn his reputation as "Crazy Ken". His personality, which was given to brash pronouncements and hyperbole, had made him unpopular with many people at Sony from the outset of his career - but now, this controversial figure was also the most senior spokesperson for PlayStation. Few gamers who were around at the time of the PS2 launch will have forgotten his amazing comments about the ludicrously named Emotion Engine CPU, or his claim that the console would be like "jacking in to the Matrix".
SCEI couldn't very well hide away its own boss, despite his tendency to make outrageous statements - but at the time, it didn't matter very much anyway. The PlayStation and its successor were so wildly successful that Kutaragi's excessively effusive nature almost looked playful, and it's arguable whether his hyperbole did any damage to the brand. Success forgives many failings. However, what's not known is how this was received within Sony itself. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems almost certain that Kutaragi's newfound public persona did little to endear him to Sony's senior management, and specifically to Nobuyuki Idei.
At this time, it was widely expected that Kutaragi would succeed Idei when he resigned. There was simply nobody else in the frame for the role, and SCEI continued to march solidly onwards; even the launch of rival consoles from Microsoft and Nintendo seemed to be doing nothing to slow down the growth of Sony's astonishing games business. However, Idei made a surprising decision; he announced that he would be remaining at Sony for two years longer than originally planned, so that he could be at the firm for its 60th anniversary.
It was a somewhat weak excuse from a man who wasn't noted for being particularly sentimental about such occasions - especially not compared to the firm's previous engineer-CEOs, who had lived and breathed Sony all their lives. Within the company, the rumours about Idei's real intent were all focused on one thing, and Sony insiders are all fairly clear on why they think Idei hung around for longer than expected. Idei had trusted Kutaragi, as Ohga had instructed him, but he no longer thought that Kutaragi would be able to lead Sony effectively. Instead, he believed that his last task at Sony should be to ensure that Kutaragi did not succeed him.
To an external observer, however, Kutaragi's star was still rising - and shining brighter than ever. In 2003, in fact, Idei promoted him to a vastly senior role within Sony Corporation, making him into Deputy Executive President, Chief Operating Officer, and Vice-Chairman. No longer merely in charge of the videogames division, Kutaragi had - it seemed - been rewarded for his success with control over Sony's entire consumer electronics division. He was, the business community reasoned, now clearly in line to succeed Idei.
Moreover, he was now free to apply his ideas to turning around Sony's fortunes in the consumer electronics market. This, however, was the catch. Sony had been losing ground for some time in this area, and was faced with tough competition from rivals such as Korean firm Samsung, which was pulling ahead of Sony in the LCD market. Moreover, Kutaragi was deeply unpopular in parts of the consumer electronics division, having openly criticised the division's failure to compete effectively with Apple's iPod in the media.
In other words, Idei set up Kutaragi to fail - and fail he did. In a year and a half at the helm of consumer electronics, his efforts did little to improve the division's position in the market. He relied on engineering solutions to problems, and believed that developing superior technology was the key to beating the firm's competitors. In pursuit of that, he ruthlessly pruned away anything which he saw as a barrier to engineering flair - essentially removing the sort of managers he himself had butted heads with as a young engineer, but this time, from a position of absolute power.
The problem was that Sony's technology was already good - it was being outmanoeuvred not on engineering, but on innovation. It had missed the iPod revolution entirely, with the bitter irony being that the iPod was not actually a cutting edge piece of hardware. In fact, it was a device which followed Nintendo's old philosophy of "lateral thinking with withered technology" - the very philosophy which Kutaragi himself had shunned from the inception of SCEI.
Kutaragi's efforts were failing, and moreover, they were creating massive rifts in the electronics group - where he proved to be a controversial and divisive figure. His combative strategy, which had worked so well as an underdog, simply lost him friends as a senior executive. With Ohga gone, Kutaragi found himself exactly where Idei wanted him - completely out on a limb, with his only support coming from Idei himself.
Given enough rope to hang himself, Kutaragi had just managed to prove to Sony's top executives and board members that he wasn't the man for the top job. In his place, Sony took the extraordinary step of appointing its first non-Japanese boss - Welshman Howard Stringer. While Kutaragi had struggled with the poisoned chalice of the home electronics business, Stringer had been excelling as the head of the Sony BMG content business. Idei positioned him as an ideal candidate, replacing him as the favourite in the race to the top - and Kutaragi's ambitions of ever leading Sony died.
When Idei retired in 2005, Stringer took the reins - and Kutaragi lost his seat on the board and control of the home electronics and semiconductor divisions. He returned to his position at the head of SCEI, focusing on the launch of the vastly delayed and over-budget PlayStation 3 - but despite the end of his ambitions to lead Sony, Kutaragi's fall from grace was far from over.
End of the Road
The rocketing growth of SCEI had slowed down, which was to be expected after such an astonishing decade, but moreover, there was trouble brewing for the division - both outside and in. On the outside, Sony was facing growing criticism over the PlayStation 3 - which was delayed, and moreover, vastly expensive. On the inside, it's widely rumoured that Kutaragi had disguised the truly enormous costs of the PS3 research and development effort from Sony's board.
Nothing is certain about this, and details are scarce, but it's certainly true that as head of the consumer electronics and semiconductor divisions, he would have been in a position to use some of their budgets - rather than SCEI's - on the development of the console. When he left those roles, the true extent of the cost of the PS3 would have been revealed to his successor - leaving Sony keenly aware at last of just how much Kutaragi, who had spent $2.5 billion to launch the PS2, had staked on the success of PS3.
Meanwhile, Kutaragi's "Crazy Ken" pronouncements became more and more wild, and more and more widely reported. The "jacking in to the Matrix" comment about the PS2 proved to have been merely a prelude, as the outspoken engineer - perhaps angry at being jilted for the top job he had lusted after - completely stopped restraining himself in public.
He lashed out at Microsoft, claiming that the Xbox 360 was merely an "Xbox 1.5" and accusing the firm of targeting the PS2, rather than the forthcoming PS3. He defended the PS3 price point, saying that it was the kind of machine people should work overtime to afford. Among countless pronouncements that made headlines on specialist websites - and sometimes in mainstream publications - around the world, those ones stand out in memory. While such statements are fine to make internally, Ken's tendency to talk to the press in this way made many others within Sony, and SCEI, deeply uncomfortable with their boss' public pronouncements.
Another nail in the coffin came when, at the Tokyo Games Show in September 2006, Kutaragi gave the keynote address at the opening of the show - the same keynote which had been used a year before by Nintendo's Satoru Iwata to introduce the Wii's motion control system to the world for the first time. The world's press thronged the room, expecting to hear details of software, online services - anything to fill the gaps left in the public's knowledge of the PS3. Instead, Kutaragi chose to treat them to a lengthy, rambling discussion of his new pet subject, the future of networked computing - the kind of topic an engineer loves to talk about, but far from what was expected from the boss of a top platform holder only months away from his much-maligned system's launch.
The press crucified Kutaragi for that and many other slip-ups - and it rapidly became clear that within Sony, the Father of PlayStation was no longer loved as the family's patriarch. One very senior Sony Computer Entertainment figure, speaking off the record late last year, commented that Kutaragi "only opens his mouth to change feet". With the battle for hearts and minds slipping away from Sony, the brilliant engineer who had created the firm's games division in the first place became a public embarrassment - while in private, executives fumed at his handling of the PS3's development and launch.
It was no real surprise, then, when at the end of last November, Kutaragi's descent continued. He was replaced as president of SCEI by former SCEA boss Kaz Hirai, although he was promoted to Chairman in the same move. Still, it was clear to everyone that this was no happy promotion - and nor was it the end of Sony's retribution for Kutaragi's mistakes.
On April 26th 2007, Sony announced that Kutaragi was to retire. Like his mentor, Ohga, his retirement will see him taking on the role of Honorary Chairman - a non-executive role which is, in essence, a desk at the window with no real work to do. Kaz Hirai will take on his role as CEO, reporting to Sony's group CEO Howard Stringer.
At 56 years of age, for someone to retire from a senior role like Ken Kutaragi's is almost unheard of in Japan. His removal from the top spot in SCEI is not a voluntary one; it is both a punishment for his own failures with regard to the PS3, and, by extension, an offering to shareholders angry at the losses sustained by the firm in the development of the console, and the negative press surrounding it. His head has rolled - perhaps pre-empting changes such as a price cut, perhaps merely as an act of contrition for past failures. Whichever is true, the Father of PlayStation has been put out to pasture.
The sad part of this tale is that Kutaragi will almost certainly be remembered more for his Crazy Ken moments than for the immense, lasting impact which he had on the videogames industry. He risked his career time and time again to pursue his belief that Sony should enter this industry, and was willing to put his own neck on the line in pursuit of a dream - perhaps not the dream of mass-market gaming, but at the very least, the dream which ultimately led to mass market gaming being a reality.
Kutaragi is not only the Father of PlayStation, but the father of modern console gaming. His fall from grace has been rapid, shocking, and yet almost entirely of his own making; an engineer at heart, he was ill-equipped to deal with the executive world which he tried to conquer. However, his contribution to this industry, and this medium, is undeniable. It's a sad fact that many people are remembered for their big mistake, rather than their many achievements - Gunpei Yokoi is still perhaps best known for creating the Virtual Boy, rather than the Game And Watch, the Game Boy or the ubiquitous D-Pad.
Kutaragi will never be loved like Miyamoto; he leaves no legacy of instantly recognisable characters and franchises, and his showmanship was always outspoken and arrogant, rather than humble and playful. However, we can hope that in a few years time, when the dust settles on the controversy surrounding the PS3, Kutaragi will be remembered not for the Emotion Engine or jacking in to the Matrix; not for working overtime to afford a PS3 or for the Xbox 1.5; but for having the courage to fight Sony's own management to create a console called the PlayStation, without which many of us simply wouldn't be reading a games website, and for the countless hours of enjoyment people around the world have had with his creations.