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Farewell, Father

Charting the rise and fall of Ken Kutaragi.

Dark blue icons of video game controllers on a light blue background
Image credit: Eurogamer

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

The ill-fated SNES-CD.

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

Kutaragi fathered the PlayStation, but you had heard from him before. In this case literally.

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.