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The Playstation

Dr Kenny McAlpine examines Sony's Playstation, and how its CD-ROM drive, combined with Sony's back catalogue, changed the sound of game music.
In the previous activities we’ve been exploring the idea that technological constraint was a key driver for creativity. Now I’m not sure there’s anything particularly contentious about that idea. After all, constraints map out boundaries, and it’s by pushing against these boundaries and transgressing them that creatives challenge accepted norms and collectively, our tastes and preferences shift. Some people, though, hold a much stronger view. In the opening of his book, Hints & Tips for Videogame Pioneers, the industry veteran, Andrew Hewson argues that it’s only really in the immediate aftermath of the launch of a new technology that we see true creative practise emerge.
Once the technology matures and is understood, once its possibilities have been explored, and its territories mapped out, the applications of that technology can only ever really be derivative and what follows is a process of refinement, repetition, and commoditisation. Now it’s an opinion that Hewson acknowledges is open to challenge, and yet I suspect that it’s one that has formed through a career spent on the front lines of the video games industry itself. And it’s that aspect, the refinement and the commoditisation of video game music, that we’re going to look at now thanks to a crossover technology that was at the heart of a machine released by a global entertainment corporation.
When Sony announced that it was moving into the gaming industry with the PlayStation in the early 1990s, there was a mood of excitement coupled with a degree of scepticism. After all, although it had a long history of successfully launching products like the Walkman,
Sony’s expertise was in mass entertainment: in film and in music. Unlike Nintendo, Atari, and Sega, Sony had no arcade division from which it could develop console games, and nor did it have any in-house development teams that could carry out the conversions even if it did. But of course, Sony wasn’t looking to jump on a rolling bandwagon in the way that other manufacturers had in the first home video game boom in the 1970s. It was looking to diversify in a way that complemented its existing business, and it was building on gaming expertise that had been in development for nearly a decade.
Sony had been drawn into the gaming sector in the mid-1980s when it entered into a partnership with Nintendo to supply the sound chip for the Super NES. And so when Nintendo considered developing a CD-ROM drive for its consoles, it was to Sony that it turned. The companies signed an agreement in 1988, and Sony began work on a pair of devices, an add-on CD-ROM peripheral for the Super Nintendo and a standalone console, the Nintendo PlayStation, that could play both Super Nintendo cartridges and CDs. The new console was due to be announced at the summer Consumer Electronics Show in 1991, but as the event approached, Nintendo began to get cold feet.
The details of the agreement essentially handed Sony complete control over any and all titles written on the new CD-ROM format. For Nintendo, which had built its reputation for quality based on its tight control of its closed development platform, this was completely unacceptable. And so instead of announcing a partnership between Sony and Nintendo as planned, Nintendo chairman, Howard Lincoln, stepped onto the stage and announced a partnership with electronics giant Philips instead. Sony responded by canning the Nintendo compatibility and going it alone, developing its own next generation CD-ROM console, the Sony PlayStation.
Nintendo had effectively created it’s own biggest rival, first of all by pulling Sony into the games industry and then forcing them to sink or swim as it cut its one-time partner loose. And of course, Sony – well, Sony has been swimming ever since. The PlayStation became the first console to sell 120 million units, and each successive generation has been at the cutting edge of console gaming. The sound chip on the PlayStation was fairly powerful, a 16-bit, 24-channel hardware sound processing unit that ran at sample rates of up to 44.1 kilohertz, true CD quality. But it was the CD-ROM drive that transformed the in-game musical experience of the PlayStation.
With that CD-ROM drive, it became possible to stream pre-recorded music directly from disc. That meant that full production quality music, anything from high energy electronica to epic orchestral soundtracks, could now be part of the experience of gameplay. And Sony had one of the largest back catalogues of popular music on the planet.
That was precisely how Sony managed the risks associated with diversifying and breaking into a new market. It used its expertise in technology and product design to create a platform that would allow it to cross-promote another aspect of its business. Sony might not have had a catalogue of arcade titles to plunder, but it had artists and repertoire.
Wipeout, one of the PlayStation launch titles, featured a high octane electronic soundtrack that was mostly composed by video game composer Tim Wright under the alias CoLD SToRAGE, but the game also featured tracks that were licenced from Leftfield, The Chemical Brothers, and Orbital. Sony also licenced music from some non-mainstream electronica acts to create an original soundtrack album that was released to promote the game in 1996. The PlayStation and games like Wipeout really established the idea that music in games could, and should, sound just as good as the music that you might actually want to listen to at home.
And at that point, just as the arrival of Technicolor almost overnight ended the dark, brooding unreality of the black and white movie, the cheery, blippy sound of chip music effectively disappeared from video game soundtracks and would only re-emerge much later when retro gaming became cool.
This development in video game hardware shifted the expectations of the gaming public and pushed video game music in a new direction, but it was at the expense, perhaps, of interaction between the game and the music. Streaming audio is essentially linear and so couldn’t integrate quite so tightly with the gameplay. Was that trade-off worth it, or is it possible to have the best of both worlds? How might a composer write music for a video game that has a very produced and polished sound but which is still flexible enough to adapt to the gameplay? Spend a bit of time thinking about that and post your thoughts on the discussion group.

The release of the PlayStation, with its integral CD-ROM drive changed the sound of video game music forever.

Before then, music had to be generated in real-time using on-board sound chips. The CD-ROM enabled developers to produce authentic-sounding popular music and store it on CD. In this video, we’ll examine how the combination of CD-ROM technology and Sony using games as a way to cross-promote its music, shifted gamers’ expectations.

It could be argued, however, that the gains in sound quality were at the expense – at least in the short term – of interaction between the game and the music. Streaming audio is essentially linear, and so doesn’t integrate quite so tightly with gameplay. Was that trade-off worth it? Or is it possible to have the best of both worlds? How might a composer write music for a video game that has a very produced and polished sound, but which is still flexible enough to adapt to the gameplay?

Spend some time thinking about this, and post your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Video Game Design and Development: A Bit-by-Bit History of Video Game Music: Video Game Sound and Music

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