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Psygnosis: how did a Liverpool company transform the gaming world?

Liverpool studio Psygnosis was behind some of the Sony PlayStation’s most iconic early games. Damon Fairclough was there for their rise – from Wavertree to world domination!

A name that no one quite knows how to pronounce may not seem the perfect choice for a business that aims to be around for a while, but when I joined Psygnosis as a creative writer and copywriter in early 1995, the video games developer and publisher was already more than a decade old.

During those 11 years it had published beautifully-presented games like Shadow of the Beast and the phenomenon that was Lemmings, and its mildly-baffling moniker (“Sig-no-sis” if you want to pronounce it like a pro) had become a tongue-twisting fixture on the UK’s games scene. As a result, its influence had grown and spread worldwide – there were offices in Paris, Frankfurt, California and beyond, as well as several UK studios and a rapidly growing HQ here in Liverpool.

Any new job is a cause for celebration, but gaining employment at Psygnosis – which had just been acquired by Sony on the cusp of the PlayStation era – seemed worth an extra shot of adrenaline, and it was worth moving cities for too. I packed up my Sheffield flat and got a place off Liverpool’s Lark Lane, little realising that this city wouldn’t just be a temporary career stop-off, but would become the place that, more than 25 years later, I still call home.

Wipeout featured in Edge magazine, June 1995. Image courtesy of Damon Fairclough

Wipeout featured in Edge magazine, June 1995. Image courtesy of Damon Fairclough

On arrival at my Psygnosis desk it quickly became clear that big plans were in motion. Within a couple of months we’d left our rather dark, cramped offices on Sefton Street and moved into a light-filled steel-and-glass palace in Wavertree Technology Park – though the game development teams quickly set about closing all the blinds and turning off the lights to create the gloomy cathode-ray glow they loved.

Former office of Studio Liverpool, Wavertree Technology Park

Former office of Studio Liverpool, Wavertree Technology Park

And in May that year an army of Psygnosis foot soldiers trooped across the Atlantic to the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles – an industry shindig better known as E3 – and returned euphoric with tales of success. The global press pack had loved its first sight of our groundbreaking new titles for the as-yet-unreleased Sony PlayStation – particularly the explosive anti-gravity racing game, Wipeout – and I realised the work we were doing was whetting gamers’ appetites all over the world.

What followed was a hectic few months in which I wrote manuals, developed backstories, and helped create advertising that raised the profile of our games across Britain, Europe and the US. Our Wipeout ad in particular whipped up a storm of its own, with its nosebleed-smeared couple pushing boundaries a little too far for those with more traditional games industry tastes.

That, however, was what the new PlayStation and its eye-popping Psygnosis line-up were all about. These were games that aimed to go faster, more furiously, than ever before, on a console that was changing the way gaming was perceived.

When the PlayStation finally hit UK streets in September 1995, Wipeout turbo-boosted its way to the top of the sales charts, smashing the arcade-favourite Ridge Racer into second place and becoming the console’s first must-have title. Other big games followed in quick succession, with our stockcar smash-‘em-up Destruction Derby repeating the chart-topping trick.

Both games had sequels the following year – big hits all over again – and I loved the sense that the work we did right here in Liverpool had an impact wherever games were enjoyed. At heart, we were a global business, but one with a swaggering Liverpudlian soul.

Wipeout game, PlayStation, 1995. Box art by The Designers Republic. Image courtesy of Damon Fairclough

Wipeout game, PlayStation, 1995. Box art by The Designers Republic. Image courtesy of Damon Fairclough

Week after week, teams from France, Germany, the States and elsewhere, rocked up in Wavertree to talk marketing, distribution and international sales, while hidden away on the building’s ground floor, ranks of thumb-twitching play testers – mostly young scousers with a first-class degree in hilarious banter – subjected every game to their laser-guided gaming skills, and every copywriter to their razor-tongued wit.

As far as I could tell, the play testers were almost all under 20 years old, and many other Psygnosis teams had average ages that were barely any older than that. If the industry had matured a lot since its early bedroom-boffin years, it was still driven by youthful energy, and at the advanced age of 27 when I joined the company, I sometimes felt a bit ancient in comparison.

Formula 1, PlayStation, 1996. Image courtesy of Damon Fairclough

Formula 1, PlayStation, 1996. Image courtesy of Damon Fairclough

I left in early 1999 to join a standalone advertising agency that had grown out of the Psygnosis creative studio, and for reasons that are too tangled to unravel here, the Psygnosis name finally disappeared around the turn of the millennium. Still part of Sony, it was renamed Studio Liverpool – an acknowledgment, perhaps, that it was now to be seen as a grown-up member of the wider Sony family rather than as the rebellious scouse teenager in the loft.

As Studio Liverpool, it continued to produce notable titles for a number of years – including the official Formula One racing series and further iterations of Wipeout – but was finally closed by Sony in 2012.

One result of that youthful dominance, however, has been the continuing influence of those who spent their Clearasil years at Psygnosis. Very many of those who worked alongside me as coders, artists, producers and game designers now hold senior positions in the global games industry, and a number of successful Liverpool-based companies are run by Psygnosis alumni.

One notable name in the city’s gaming ecosystem is Firesprite, who created the space survival thriller The Persistence, along with other titles for cutting-edge hardware. Launched in 2012 by a few of my former Psygnosis colleagues, city centre-based Firesprite now employs more than 250 people and was itself acquired by Sony in 2021.

Over in the Baltic Triangle, another company founded and led by Psygnosis veterans, called vTime, is making waves of its own by creating opportunities for people to engage socially in alternate realities – virtual experiences that, in their words, are ‘as powerful as face-to-face interactions’.

And so continues the legacy of Psygnosis and its pioneering work in what was then a nascent games industry, but which became today’s global entertainment behemoth – a sector worth hundreds of billions of dollars worldwide. It’s a story that helped raise Liverpool’s profile within that world – a tale that’s further explored in the Liverpool and Gaming displays in the Wondrous Place gallery at the Museum of Liverpool.

Psygnosis creative writers Huw Thomas (left) and Damon Fairclough (right) after a casting session for the Wipeout press advert, August 1995. Image courtesy of Damon Fairclough

Psygnosis creative writers Huw Thomas (left) and Damon Fairclough (right) after a casting session for the Wipeout press advert, August 1995. Image courtesy of Damon Fairclough

And for those of us who worked there during those glorious years when everything we touched turned to gaming gold (and we enjoyed the parties and endured the hangovers that proved it), there’s the irresistible legacy of our memories too.

Believe me, I could tell you some stories… but for brevity’s sake, let’s just say that with the benefit of almost 25 years’ hindsight, working at Psygnosis really wasn’t an ordinary job.

This article was originally produced for National Museums Liverpool.

By Damon Fairclough

Damon Fairclough is a freelance writer based in Liverpool. As a creative copywriter he has written for many global brands, and spent four years at Sony Psygnosis where he created advertising campaigns and backstories for PlayStation games including Wipeout and the Colony Wars series. He has also written books and short plays, and covered the arts and culture for publications across the north.