Remembering PS2: Naughty Dog, Insomniac & more look back on Sony’s game changer

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After 12 years the PS2′s long and influential life came to an end this January. Sony announced its production of the console was winding up in a blaze of impressively hard to grasp stats including 153 million units sold along with 1.52 billion pieces of software. Practically anyone with even the most casual gaming interest has owned one, and you’d struggle to find a single gamer who hasn’t got a memory or story linked to the machine. When PlayStation 2′s designer Teiyu Goto said his aim was that, “the design had to inspire a great leap forward” he succeeded.

Remembering PS2

crash bandicootAndrew Gavin, Naughty Dog co-founder turned novelist, remembers his first contact well. “In the spring of 1999, I had to go down to LAX and claim my prototype unit, one of the first to leave Japan”. Naughty Dog’s initial attempts to secure a PS2 hadn’t gone smoothly according to Gavin. “A few weeks earlier we had sent an employee to Tokyo to get one and he’d been turned back at the airport because customs thought it might be a weapons computer!”

As unlikely as it sounds the idea that a collection of PlayStation 2’s could somehow be used for war was a popular rumour doing the rounds thanks to a story that Saddam Hussein had bought 4000 and might be planning to wire them all together into a budget supercomputer. That story originated on the site World Net Daily where author Joseph Farah stated, “One expert I spoke with estimated that an integrated bundle of 12-15 PlayStations could provide enough computer power to control an Iraqi unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV”. It was apparently enough to cause problems according to Gavin who claims, “It took several hours of walking paperwork around freight offices behind the airport to claim my prize”. Interestingly, the development PS2 (often called a debug) bore little resemblance to what gamers would finally play Jak & Daxter on. “I dug through the giant crate of peanuts to uncover a handmade aluminum cube about 18 inches square, filled with wire wrapped circuit boards. It smelled like ozone. The shell was a bit bent in transit and I was terrified it wouldn’t work, but it did”.

“I dug through the giant crate to uncover a handmade aluminum cube 18 inches square”

While the early dev kits were functional in appearance the final form of the PS2 was a critical part of the console’s success. Tomb Raider’s multiplayer producer Joe Khoury sums it up perfectly, “At the time it looked cool, it looked something you’d see in your living room – whatever high tech stuff you had? It fit in their perfectly”. A sentiment that Sleeping Dog’s Dan Sochan backs up, “It looked high tech and more like an ‘entertainment system’ than a gaming machine”.

While the machine was a clearly a step up technically, it’s important not to underestimate the impact of this new living room-friendly overhaul. It was as much a statement of intent as a simple case redesign. The PlayStation 2 looked like a grown up and mature piece of consumer electronics because gaming was becoming a grown up and mature pastime (or at least Sony had decided it should be). “It was a really impressive looking, sexy piece of hardware compared to what we were used to back then” explains Hitman: Absolution director Tore Blystad. “It looked sleek, futuristic and certainly next gen” says Sochan.

One important trick PS2 had up its sleeve was the fact that it played DVDs. “We laugh at it now but in the very early days a lot of people couldn’t believe it also played DVDs!” says Evolution Studio’s Matt Southern. It was a smart move on Sony’s part because, as the DriveClub director points out, at the time, “Buying a stand alone player for an amazing new movie format was expensive. A lot of people saw PS2 as a no-brainer just for this feature”.

“We laugh now but in the early days a lot of people couldn’t believe it also played DVDs!”

It’s a feature that Blystad agrees with, “The DVD inclusion was a stroke of genius, making it a must-buy for families that wanted to invest in movie watching and practically get a console for free”. Sochan backs that up “DVD was a huge factor that added to its success. It was a high quality DVD player, and it retailed about the same price as a stand alone DVD player. I know several households that picked it up for that reason alone. Or at least that was how the husband justified it to his non-gaming wife”. Overall it was a combination of form and function made it a difficult package to resist. Or as Gavin sums it up, “It was small. It played DVDs. The price was reasonable. And the games rocked”.

God of War 1 PS2As arguably the first practical gaming/media living room box the PS2 marked a definite step away from a childs toy and took firm steps towards the adult gadget arena. As Matt Southern points out, “PS1 made gaming cool, PS2 built on that reputation.” Crystal Dynamic’s Khoury goes one step further, “At the time, in my opinion, PS2 was the console that got people talking about gaming. God Of War, Devil May Cry, Metal Gear Solid. They had these ‘Wow!’ moments that made people start talking about it. Not only had it become mainstream culture with us talking as gamers, but also in films. Playing PS2 became a cool thing. It started to feel like it wasn’t just ‘gamers’ that were playing but other people”.

As the PlayStation ‘grew up’ from PS1 to PS2 and matured it extended its audience as a result. “I think with the PS2, gaming got a lot more serious and not just a kid’s pastime”, says Blystad. “The production values went through the roof and people started comparing games to movies”. Ex-Naughty Dog Gavin talks about how “The PS2 really brought video games out of the Mario/Zelda kiddie style and into direct parity with other entertainment mediums like film”. That upgrade opened up a whole new stylistic palette for developers. “The PS2 had sufficient horsepower to make games look fairly realistic. You could actually put motion captured human models in a game and have them look okay” explains Gavin. “On PS1 that was hopeless. Take a look at how blocky Lara Croft was back in the day and you’ll see what I mean. The ability to have human characters drove the whole style of games in a much more realistic and film-like direction. Before that, games were much more cartoon in style. The stylistic line between an effects laden blockbuster and a big video game is very thin now” he says. “There’s even been a lot of back-flow as video game sensibilities push into other mediums”. Movie-making mo-cap technology didn’t grow out of developments in the film industry for example – the technology that makes something like Avatar possible started with PS2.

 “With PS2, gaming got a lot more 

serious and not just a kid’s pastime”

Part of that leap in production values was due to the PS2’s Emotion Engine. It was a revolutionary custom chip designed by Sony and Toshiba specifically for 3D gaming. “Back then it was about the number of polygons you could display on-screen,” explains Insomniac’s Ted Price. “What was cool was that we could make much more complex models. I remember the comparison; Ratchet, as a [PS2] character, had more polygons than any of our Spyro [PS1] levels on their own. It was a real eye-opener for most of us because that was a stark demonstration in the leap of processing power that the PS2 had over the PS1.”

And the PS2’s unique brain had been specifically built and designed to crunch the big numbers needed for all the extra polygons. “The thing was a beast,” says Gavin. “What was really impressive once you got into it was how much floating point vector math you could do on the vector units if you took the time to program them”. If that doesn’t make a great deal of sense to you then let Gavin clarify the difficulty it further. “This was hard. Seriously hard, but the things worked all from on-chip memory and were ridiculously powerful for the time”. United Front’s Dan Sochan agrees, “Its focus on horsepower was impressive. It was competing with high end PCs of that time, so we were really able to push the envelope with the visuals”.

But while it was powerful that came with a price: the new hardware was unlike anything developers had used before. “It was a really powerful machine, but challenging to work with,” explains Blystad. “[But] if you had a really great programming team you could continue to push the envelope through the entire console cycle. For instance, we had a legendary programmer who managed to get normal maps working on a PS2 for Blood Money which was unheard of back in 2005”. Dan Sochan goes so far as to describe PS2 as a “visual revolution” for the gaming industry. “If you wanted to play great looking games before PS2, you generally were playing a PC. But with this, people stopped playing games in their office or den, and instead were sitting on the sofa playing the PS2 with their new widescreen TVs”

Given the current economic climate and the proliferation of gaming platforms it’s unlikely we’ll see any one format have the same impact as PlayStation 2. The gaming life you have now – the multimedia whistles and bells, the designer looks, mainstream appeal and big budgets – all owe an incredible debt to Sony’s black slab. It was the console that changed the world. “It’s funny,” says Matt Southern, “I’ve now got three of them in the spare room cupboard, two broken! They almost look old-fashioned”.

 

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