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.