Nov. 11, 2006, was one of the most stressful nights of my gaming life. That was the date the PlayStation 3 launched in Japan — and it was hell.
Leading up to the PS3 launch, Sony had pushed a hype-fueled PS3 roll-out. Japanese gamers, who had been frosty toward the Xbox 360, were anxious to enter a new era of high-definition gaming. But it wasn’t the hype and the expectations that made Nov. 11, 2006, so damn stressful — it was the fact that most retailers didn’t offer preorders.
Preorders have long been commonplace in the West. Gamers line up for slips of paper that they redeem for the product when it actually goes on sale. But people lining up for slips to exchange for product a month or so later isn’t sexy — it doesn’t quite make for the same photo opportunity that unfolds when 1,000 people line up for a new console and leave the store exhausted and smiley with their new hardware. Lines for preorders feel far more subdued and abstract, even. They’re lines of people patiently waiting to enter into an agreement with a retailer to buy a product that they’ll receive at a later date.
Nov. 11, 2006, was anything but subdued. Long lines of angry people at big stores, such as Yodobashi Camera and Bic Camera, screamed at overwhelmed security guards. Homeless people — paid by others to queue all night for consoles — mixed with disgruntled gamers. And the news ran images of people shouting and generally looking unhappy. It was chaotic and grueling. By the time I got home with my new PS3, I felt slightly ill and just wanted to sleep — but ended up working instead, writing reviews of the PS3.
It wasn’t only the PS3 launch either.
Lining up the night before the launch of a new product is something Japanese gamers have been doing for years, and the queues are a tangible marker for a new console’s success — or failure. Short lines for the Xbox 360 launch were a harbinger of the ensuing uphill battle Microsoft faced in Japan. Long Wii lines cemented Nintendo’s successful new game machine.
I remember lining up all night for the Wii, finally getting a piece of paper with a number and being told to come back a few hours later to line up again for the actual product. The hours in between were spent sitting on the floor of a parking garage at Umeda Yodobashi Camera in Osaka.
There were huge lines when the Nintendo DS went on sale, too. One retailer in Osaka was kind enough, however, to provide folding chairs for those who waited. Preorder slips would have been nicer, so everyone could have gone home and not stayed up all night, but those chairs felt like a godsend at the time.
The lines never bothered me. Neither did the waiting, the standing, or the sitting on cold concrete. I’ve always felt that queuing for something is a bit like urban camping: You endure the elements, combat wildlife (here, fellow gamers), and usually end up either sweaty or cold, depending on the weather. All that’s missing are tents and bug spray.
What did bother me those times was that, upon arriving home, the I-cannot-wait-to-play-this-all-day feeling had usually been sucked out of me entirely. It was like pulling an all-nighter on Christmas Eve, and then trying to maintain your energy level while tearing through shiny wrapping paper in the morning.
Preorders do not erase the lines or the excitement, nor do they erase that all important I-can’t-wait-to-pay-this feeling.
Last month, on Oct. 14, more than 1,000 people lined up to preorder the Sony PlayStation Vita at Yodobashi Camera in Akihabara, Tokyo. The Vita is the successor to the PlayStation Portable. It features a beautiful OLED touch screen as well as a rear touch panel. The graphics, while not as good as the PS3, are high-powered. Sony is hoping the handheld will compete with not only Nintendo’s 3DS portable, but also the increasing number of very capable smartphones than can run popular games. The queue for Vita preorders was similar to the long lines for those of the 3DS this past January. People left with their preorder slips, and retailer after retailer closed preorders after exceeding their expected inventory.
But it’s not only bricks-and-mortar retailers that are offering preorders in Japan these days. Online retailers such as Amazon likewise allowed gamers a chance to preorder a Vita from the comfort of their living room. For the Vita, Amazon Japan burned through its preorder stock in about 20 minutes.
Preorders act as a release valve for the hype. They provide a much-needed cooling-off period before the actual hardware launches that allows gamers to come to their senses. When the PS Vita is finally released on Dec. 17, there will be excitement. But, hopefully, if gamers end up exhausted the next day, it will be from a long session of gaming on their new toy — and not from standing in line all night.
Brian Ashcraft is a senior contributing editor at gaming website Kotaku.com.