Console gaming may be only a few decades old, but we have our traditions, our moments of congregation.
Few are as celebrated as the console launch retail line, a rite of passage for all true believers. All of us know someone, or is someone, who has endured the trial of joining a bone-chilling line upon the windswept parking lot outside some electronics retailer. There are even those hardy individuals, like Triforce Johnson, who dedicate themselves to grabbing a console earlier than anyone else.
Even so, there might have been some doubt about the likelihood of retail crowds this year. Many people now buy from online retailers who deliver goods to households. Most of the consoles bought on launch day will have been pre-ordered, negating the need to wait in line.
But this week's launch of PlayStation 4 and the arrival of Xbox One next week will bring the lines out once more. Microsoft has confirmed to Polygon that extra Xbox Ones have been shipped into the U.S. to supplement pre-orders, and although Sony has not responded to requests for information, leading retailers like Best Buy and GameStop both say they expect stock to be available for both machines.
Availability is going to be tight. GameStop spokesperson Jackie Smith advised anyone without a pre-order to call their local store, to find out if it is worth committing to lining up for a purchase.
If nothing else, the retailers are making damned sure these consoles arrive accompanied with a human spectacle that the media can report, and so they are doing their best to create the circumstances in which a gathering of humans is likely. Sony and Microsoft are also working with retailers to stage large launch events at key locations in big cities
For retail chains, the favored line-generation tool is the midnight launch, at which customers can come pick up their new machines and hold them and take them home and play them at, literally, the very earliest opportunity.
GameStop is organizing midnight launches across 4,200 North American stores. "These events are a great way to get people excited and provide a fun environment for customers as they await a release," said Smith. "Most importantly, they mean that at 12:01 a.m. our customers are the first to have product in hand and can go home and play that night."
"The gaming crowd is very engaged and avid," said Best Buy's Matt Maclean. "They want to get their hands on the systems, even though they know they have the console waiting for them at the store. They want the console in their hands so they can go home and play right away."
Maclean works at Best Buy's head office in Minnesota, liaising with retail managers on game-related promotions. He spent some years working at retail stores, and has experience of the console launches. "In years past we had people lining up well ahead," he said. "This time, gamers are hungry for these new consoles. It's been a long time since the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 launches. so I anticipate there will be people lining up early."
Best Buy will actually be opening many of its outlets at 10 p.m. prior to the console launches, for those who have bought pre-orders. The idea is that those people can enjoy a leisurely perusal of peripherals and games before they line up at the register to pay for their goods and for their consoles, which will be released at midnight. So, for them, there's the additional benefit of being inside the shop, out of the cold.
This means that there are two lines; one for the haves and one for the have-nots. Maclean said that managers will be organizing and monitoring lines to make sure customers are aware of where they should be. For those without pre-orders, there will be a ticketing system. "It makes sense for our customers to arrive early," he said. "There will be lines and there will be limited quantities available for those who did not pre-order."
Smith said that the launch is really a culmination of months of effort that goes into building expectation, selling pre-orders and doing everything possible to persuade consumers to buy extra stuff and to join loyalty programs. Traffic and 'footfall' is the lifeblood of retail.
"On launch night, as hundreds of fans are lined up outside the stores, we give them the opportunity to purchase additional game-related toys, accessories and downloadable content," she said. "We have learned how to utilize our competencies to maximize launch day sales."
Store managers, also on hand to deal with customers and any local media interest, are well prepared. "Both Sony and Microsoft will be giving each one of our store and district managers a console so that they can fully understand their products to better able to explain them to customers," said Smith.
Managers are encouraged to stage special events like contests and some take extra care of those people patiently waiting in lines, by offering treats like hot drinks and cupcakes or by organizing food trucks.
Maclean said that, in his experience, staff working unusual shifts for console launches are usually happy to do so. "There are always a lot of employees who are excited to work these events," he said. "The atmosphere is infectious and it's fun to deal with customers who are the most engaged."
Console retail launches follow a pattern, but at individual retail level, they are all different. A straw poll of Polygon readers found many who fondly recall these events as times when gamers came together around a common passion and who shared the humor and adrenaline of the moment. Others recall disorganized lines and confrontations. But even in the age of pre-order dominance and Amazon day-one deliveries, midnight openings are still a part of gaming. The next few days should supply a new generation of launch-night stories and memories.