Forums were the primary source of communication between fans and creators in an era before everyone had a voice online via social media. The concept of a “social media influencer” was utterly foreign, and without a unified voice for people to rally behind existed a community known as the PlayStation Underground. Deeper within that community existed a subset of “elite” gamers, handpicked by Sony, to serve as the voice of the broader gaming community. These people were members of what was known as the PlayStation’s Gamer Advisory Panel (GAP).
Since very little of this information exists in a single location, I’m going to try and be as thorough as possible with the essential pieces that will ultimately form the full puzzle. With that said, let us start at the very beginning.
The PlayStation Underground is a defunct video game “magazine,” which was an original publication of Sony Computer Entertainment. PlayStation Underground existed alongside the Official US PlayStation Magazine (OPM) but contained one notable difference. Each month, subscribers received two CD-ROM discs that contained demos, hints, trailers, and occasionally previews of imported games. These discs were playable on either the original PlayStation or the PlayStation 2. The first Issue of the PlayStation Underground went out on March 26th, 1997, and its final issue was sometime between July and September of 2001. The PS Underground combined with OPM upon its discontinuation.
Alongside your subscription to The PlayStation Underground, you received access to their Members Only website. This access allowed you to convene with gamers who were all sharing in the PlayStation Underground experience. Here you could participate in forums and discuss the different things that you received in each issue. Although the subscription service portion of the PlayStation Underground ended in 2001, the website remained online. The PlayStation Underground forum no longer required a paid membership to join and became the open and de facto forum for any PlayStation Fans. This concept was the foundational building block for what became the Gamer Advisory Panel.
On April 4th, 2003, Sony announced the development of the Gamer Advisory Panel. It was to be “an exclusive panel of thousands of users” that would allow for a “two-way dialog between its members and PlayStation.” They sent out invitations for the GAP by scanning for the most active, engaged, and trusted members of PlayStation Underground community. According to Sony, the Gamer Advisory Panel represented a fraction of a percent of the entirety of American gamers who identified with the PlayStation brand.
Information surrounding the invitation process is somewhat spotty. From what I can surmise, there was an aptitude-like test, and upon receiving a “passing grade” from Sony, you would begin the initiation process. The confirmation email that confirmed your status also notified you that you would be receiving a welcome package alongside a physical membership card. Depending on when you joined, you received different items ranging from PS Underground apparel, CD-ROM Binders, Pens, and more. Your PlayStation Underground account had access to the new Gamer Advisory Panel message boards. The vast majority of content in the GAP forums was nothing of note, save for the occasional poll given by a development team, giveaways, and developer updates.
The real bread and butter of being a GAP member was early access to unreleased games. You would receive CD-ROM discs in the mail that contained beta content for upcoming PlayStation games. Upon completing the beta test, there was an expectation that you would return to the GAP forums and report any bugs, and give your overall feedback/impressions for the game.
Another “perk” of being a GAP member was the opportunity to attend E3 as a full-blown correspondent. Sony only chose two per year, and it was a very prestigious honor. These lucky few also had the privilege of their E3 coverage to be featured on the official PlayStation Blog during their time at the convention.
Sadly I couldn’t find a definite date for the end of Sony’s Gamer Advisory Panel. My best-educated guess is sometime between 2008 and 2009. In 2013, a similar program began known as PlayStation MVP, but it was only a shadow of its predecessor. The PlayStation MVP initiative closed its doors on April 18th, 2016. No further community-oriented projects such as these have been set into motion by Sony.
Writing this has been extremely fun and challenging for me. Historically I’ve only written opinion pieces; however I got my first taste of creating a “retrospective” type article late last year. I would love to keep these coming as I see them as filling a hole, albeit a tiny one, but I would also like to stick with topics that interest me. If you hadn’t guessed by this point, I am a card-carrying member of the Gamer Advisory Panel. I don’t recall being particularly active on the PlayStation Underground, but I do remember filling out the application and receiving my care package full of GAP goodies. If I could go back in time, I’d have kept more of the memorabilia, but I’m thankful to have my membership card.
Please let me know if you were a GAP member or even a member of the PlayStation MVP. It would be exciting and fun to see someone else’s perspective on this program.