Many of you know the story of the Sony PlayStation. Lesser known is it’s dual affect on Namco and the collateral damage inflicted upon the coin-operated game industry.
Namco (now Bandai Namco) and Sony were each at the top of the food chain. However, they were in two different food chains. Namco (Yin), an icon in the world of coin-operated video game amusement and Sony (Yang), arguably the world leader in consumer electronics. But together they found synergy through each other’s unique talents and complementary skills. In combination, their sum was greater than the parts.
The arrival of the Sony PlayStation did more than pulling the rug out from console maker Sega. And while Namco collected riches through console software sales, the PlayStation was sending a shockwave through the already fragile coin-operated game industry. In America, some might argue that the arcade industry was by then extinct, but this was hardly the case.
Arcade game revenue in 1994 amounted to $7 billion compared to home console sales of $6 billion. In America, it had already survived the Video Game Crash of 1983, the 1985 introduction of the NES and a slew of next generation consoles. And as odd as it may be, there was a peaceful coexistence between coin-op, console, hand-held and home computer gaming.
Arcades still had legions of fans who came to play the latest and greatest because the best games debuted in arcades. The versions ported to console were then never as good. Lower quality graphics, audio, and controls made for a less immersive experience. Plus, playing in arcades meant you could look your opponent straight in the eye.
For game developers, coin-op was the last refuge where their dreams could become reality. Free of the shackles that surrounded console games, designers operated with greater freedom. Arcade hardware was designed for the game, while console games were designed for the hardware they operated on. Each game was free to showcase cutting edge technology of its time and be optimized in whatever way was required. And if merited, the game would become packaged with custom controls, large medium-resolution monitors and even a custom cabinet. Passionately speaking, I thought many to be works of art.
I joined Namco America (now Bandai Namco) in 1993 as their product manager in North America. Within a couple months, I was asked to attend a meeting in Japan to pitch my concept for a Namco fighting game. Nothing was decided at the meeting, but our group in attendance left optimistic about how the meeting transpired.
Namco excelled at making games in several genres, but fighting games weren’t one of them. Especially those that would appeal to American players. Within a few weeks of returning to California, I was pleasantly surprised to receive videotapes of very early character modeling experiments.
Around this same time, internal rumblings began about the development of a new lower-cost 3D hardware named System 11. I recall being both pleased and puzzled with this news. The number “11” sounded like any other internally developed hardware. However, the timing of this news was unusual given that System 22 was only recently released.
Typically the economics of hardware development required a certain number of games before realizing a return on investment. Namco was not one to squander money or have an imperfect strategy. Either there was some new big breakthrough, or something else was in the mix.
But solving this conundrum wasn’t my top priority. Namco was a well-oiled game publisher, developing and shipping games like clockwork. I was busy helping R&D to localize, optimize game design, and market games for American players. My pet project was the fighting game that would become Tekken.