Prior to the mid 90s no one over the age of 15 would have admitted to owning a video game console. A surprise visit from a friend would have resulted in kicking your Mega Drive under the bed and hoping they didn’t trip over the wired control pad. Consoles were toys. Toys are for kids. Adults who did play with them probably did so in darkened bedrooms on Friday nights, alone, or at a push, with other Metallica T-shirt-wearing outcasts who couldn’t get girlfriends.
Console yourself with play
The truth is, consoles were nothing to be proud of. They weren’t very good. Sega’s Saturn was a cosmic flop, Atari’s Jaguar was a joke and PC gaming, save for a few classics like Doom, was convoluted, time consuming and plagued by computer crashes (if you could load a game in the first place).
But Christmas 1994 saw the atomic bomb of the video games industry dropped onto the world. The brainchild of Sony’s Ken Kutaragi, the PlayStation launched first in Japan and annihilated the competition with its mind-blowing technology which rendered 3D graphics, and its revolutionary control pad; the most intuitive ever designed. Just like the nuclear arms race, the PlayStation sparked a scramble to lead a new league of gaming technology that took six years for any other manufacturer to seriously challenge. But there’s not much point in building a grown-up games machine if everyone thinks it’s for kids.
“It was an interesting time because [before PlayStation] there were only two gaming brands on the market; Sega and Nintendo. They were really toy brands, probably best depicted by their Mario and Sonic characters. They were really sort of niche brands,” remembers David Patton, who left his post as UK product manager at Nintendo to become vice president of marketing at Sony Computer Entertainment Europe in 1995, before the console’s European launch that September (he later served as senior vice president from 2004 to 2007). Sony’s mantra was to “legitimise gaming in the eyes of the mass market,” says Patton. “We wanted to take gaming to a broader and an older market. We wanted gaming to grow up.”
“From the very onset of launching, we set out to create a brand that was aspirational, incredible, but always somewhat unconventional. We always wanted advertising that disrupted and challenged people’s perceptions of the brand and we always wanted it to trigger a high level of involvement and engagement.”
Creating engagement with a brand might sound like a cinch today, but at the time, Mark Zuckerberg was probably more concerned with hair growing in strange places than inventing Facebook, and the internet was still, for most people, the stuff of science fiction. It took mould-breaking thinking to create a conversation between brands and consumers back then, but Sony seemed to have the formula for success. “We always targeted the opinion leaders in everything we did and we worked on a very simple philosophy that [if you] get the three per cent [the leaders], the 97 per cent will follow,” says Patton. “We’re talking about, in an interesting way, not gaming opinion leaders but lifestyle opinion leaders. So PlayStation became very much involved in a lot of skate parks, very much involved in music, somewhat involved in film. But really, PlayStation was very much associated with entertainment.”
By the late 90s PlayStation had infiltrated public consciousness like no console ever had. Giant versions of its WipEout game were ridden (and fallen off) by boozy young adults in nightclubs, and pixel pin-up Lara Croft graced the cover of The Face. But the concept of gaming hadn’t earned the ‘cool’ stamp just yet. That came in 1999 with the release of what many falsely remember, due to its monumental significance, as PlayStation’s first advert.
Double Life was nothing short of an instant classic. The 60-second Frank Budgen-directed spot by TBWA GGT Simons Palmer, which showed ordinary people from all walks of life talking about the double life they’ve led (playing PlayStation games), was beamed into homes and projected onto cinema screens across Europe, captivating audiences. The ad did two things: “It was really the start of taking PlayStation truly to what I call the mass, mass market. Existing PlayStation owners loved it because it absolutely got their world, so they immediately identified with it, and the non-gamers were drawn into it because it was something they’d never seen or experienced before,” says Patton. Tony McTear, founding partner and ECD at Peak15, remembers Double Life’s other function. “It made the brand really cool,” he says. “Double Life took away the stigma of sitting in your bedroom and being a loner.”
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