Sophia is the kind of woman you don't take home to mother. She's big and tough, with a thing for leather and a history of kicking the stuffing out of guys twice her size. Yet if someone in your family plays video games -- or watches television, for that matter -- chances are Sophia has spent time in your living room. Not only is she the main character in Toshinden, a popular PlayStation game, but she is also one of the company's mass-market mascots. Last fall, in a series of intense, rapid-fire TV spots, the lithe warrior made short, loud work of a progression of opponents, after which viewers were taunted with a sinister voice-over: "You are not ready."
The spot was unabashedly risqué -- and targeted at a twenty-something audience rather than the pimply teenagers normally associated with video games. Which means it was perfectly consistent with Sony's aim to redefine its market and create new techniques for reaching it. Indeed, almost everything about the rise of the PlayStation -- from the console itself to Sony's relationship with gaming "evangelists" -- reflects a strategy to beat the competition by changing the rules of competition.
Early on, Sony concluded that it had to reach an older, more sophisticated crowd -- which meant changing the image of games from a dubious juvenile pastime to a legitimate hobby that responsible adults could enjoy. That's why it designed the PlayStation console to look less like a toy and more like a sleek consumer product. It's also why Sony keeps slashing prices for hardware and software. (PlayStation launched at a list price of $299 and now sells for $149; games list for $49.99 but are often available for much less.) Sure, cheaper is always better. But PlayStation's ultimate goal is to make buying a video game a legitimate economic alternative to a night at the movies or a restaurant -- which means slashing prices further.
Still, Sony's core challenge is to create excitement rather than cut prices -- to craft a message for PlayStation that resonates with people who might never otherwise think about video games. That means more TV spots, the best of which remains a celebrated ad featuring Crash Bandicoot. But rather than use the game's animated character, the ad features an obviously human actor dressed in a clumsily fabricated Crash Bandicoot suit, who drives a pick-up truck to Redmond, Washington, home of Nintendo. Crash arrives at the company parking lot, megaphone in hand, and challenges "Mr. Super Mario" to come out and fight -- only to be dragged off by security guards.
The goofball character is almost as memorable -- and nearly as deep -- as Bill Murray's Carl the Greenskeeper from "Caddyshack." The spot itself is a shrewd take on popular culture, a mixture of MTV, "Saturday Night Live," and "Twin Peaks," designed to appeal to an older crowd unaccustomed to the peculiarities of gaming but happy to try something associated with wit and hipness.
In that sense, it captures the essence of PlayStation's market position. Andrew House, the 32-year-old vice president for marketing, puts it this way: "If Nintendo owns 'fun,' then we own 'cool.'"