Now that we are finally cooling down from the latest two system launches — hopefully the last two for several years — I figured it was time for a good debriefing. Let’s recap the (d)evolution of system launches over the years, and where there is still room for improvement.
I would personally call my launch experience exceptional, having acquired my Dreamcast, PlayStation 2, Game Boy Advance, Xbox, GameCube, DS, PSP, Xbox 360, 3DS, PS Vita, Wii U, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One all on their respective launch days. Notwithstanding outliers, that counts for 13 of the last 15 major launches. Incidentally, the two that I missed, PlayStation 3 and Wii, were due to circumstances beyond my control, although they are simultaneously the launches I would’ve opted to miss if I had to pick two. This is due in no small part to their anemic launch lineups, which really made it missing the launches far less disappointing than it could have been.
To this day, those first two (Dreamcast and PS2) hold a particularly big place in my heart. Games like SSX, Hydro Thunder, Sonic Adventure, Tekken Tag Tournament, Ridge Racer V, and SoulCalibur represent true wow-factor moments that exemplified the generational transition, and they held up as some of the best games on their respective platforms by the end of their lifespans. Even more than that, though, those experiences defined to me what a launch should be like, with the latter ones serving as a warning of what launches would become.
At 7 AM on the morning of 9/9/99, I walked into what was then my local Fred Meyer store’s electronics department, asked for a Dreamcast, and was directed to a neatly-arranged stack of them in the center of the department. There was no line, there was no crowd, I just picked up my system and left, waiting until the mall opened at 10 for my games as Fred Meyer only had Sonic Adventure. Things were livelier at the mall, but it was still a small crowd not even bothering to line up, just sitting at the entrance to KB Toys talking games while waiting for the store to open. The whole experience was laid back and stress-free, pretty much the opposite of how we think of launches today. Ironic, since it’s still widely regarded as one of the most successful ever.
In contrast, thinking back on it now, 10/26/00 could’ve gone far differently; far worse than it did. I preordered my PlayStation 2 the day KB Toys started taking deposits, and due to system shortages, was still completely uncertain as to whether or not I would even have a system to get on launch day. I was one of the lucky ones, but the way the company decided to handle it makes me quite glad they’re no longer in business. They had a $30-50 price premium depending on when you preordered, and if you weren’t there and willing to pay the premium when the store opened, you didn’t get a PS2.
Once the stress was out of the way, again it was a very positive experience, with a crowd of gamers (many of us who were there for the Dreamcast the year prior) just relaxing and conversing outside the KB gate. When I got home, the games were fantastic, and the system itself very much lived up to the hype, but I admit the stresses were a warning of what was to come. There was a particular sense of relief any time I would sit down to play some Tekken Tag or Ridge Racer V that winter when I knew there were PS2’s getting kicked around on eBay for several hundred dollars markup.
All told, these were easily the definitive years for me as a gamer, and many of the games released during this timeframe rank well among those I hold as the industry’s prime to this day.
The next few were still solid. The Game Boy Advance, as disappointing as its initial incarnation was from a hardware standpoint, remained a strong launch experience with genuinely good games and ample supply. Xbox and GameCube, meanwhile, had enough residual hype from the PS2 that nobody who wasn’t willing to either camp, preorder, or grossly overpay would go empty-handed. There was still that small-group camaraderie from the Dreamcast and PS2 launches present, but it was worrisome to think of how many hoops we might have to jump through to get our next systems. However, things ended on a relatively positive note, as KB Toys, which was at the time my employer, price-gouged itself completely out of reach. I worked a closing shift the night after the GameCube launched, and its horrific markup and forced bundle stuck us with each and every unit Nintendo had sent us by the time the store closed. My sense of justice sent me home satisfied and flu-stricken after I had camped out at Walmart the night before.
By the time the Xbox 360 was upon us, we had gone through two more stress-free handheld launches, and KB Toys was nothing but a distant memory. I will always remember this as the launch that defined modern launches. Absurd preorder numbers, absurd lines outside the local EB Games, that aforementioned camaraderie from launches gone, replaced entirely with a tense “Lord of the Flies” type of atmosphere. There was almost enough supply to meet demand, but no leftovers for anyone who didn’t preorder, and eBay once again unfortunately went nuts. The Wii situation in particular was ridiculous, with systems remaining scarce throughout most of 2007.
After this point, something changed for me, and I felt an even greater sense of urgency than before to secure my systems at the earliest possible moment. This didn’t come into play for the PS3 and Wii, since my financial situation and work schedule kept me from going to any launches, and the initial lineups for both systems kept me from feeling too badly about it. From there, though, I started to obsess. I would preorder online while also keeping a local preorder in my proverbial back pocket, just in case Amazon or Gamestop.com got shorted, and then cancel the local order once my hardware shipped. The good times and atmosphere of hanging out with a bunch of local gamers outside my shop of choice, and unique launch-day experience of going around town to gather a nice haul has been replaced by holing up in my apartment and waiting for the FedEx guy to get here.
Production plays a major role in it for sure. It’s laughable to think that in 2013, hardware manufacturers find it acceptable to launch with the same paltry million or so units that the Nintendo 64 shipped in its first two days on the market, with arguably the worst launch lineup in history. The gaming public has exploded in the last 17 years, and launch day production hasn’t even begun to try and catch up. To put a number on it, I would suggest that if a manufacturer isn’t fully prepared to ship four million units worldwide on day one, they truly have no business declaring their new arrival ready for prime time. That should be enough to satisfy the genuine demand and effectively offset the artificial scarcity generated by middle men forcing themselves into the equation and taking up systems they aren’t going to play. I would suggest some kind of industry-wide policy to remove them (say, binding the system to a single account on its corresponding network for six months at the point of sale, rendering it mostly useless to secondary buyers), but throwing mountains of hardware into the market is an easier and more direct solution. Whatever the case, the resale market during the launch period absolutely must go. Its very existence is simultaneously an indicator of just how pathetic supply is compared to demand, and a detrimental factor in and of itself. Eventually the manufacturers have to wake up to the fact that there’s a lot of money out there that they aren’t getting because of the instant aftermarket they’re enabling, and when that happens, this will all thankfully come to a screeching halt.
2013 was already one of the best years for gaming since the 90’s, with or without the two new consoles. We could’ve easily afforded to wait until June or July 2014 for the PlayStation 4, have it go to war with a launch day shipment of five or six million units, a launch lineup that included Infamous: Second Son and DriveClub, and third-party offerings that included Watch Dogs, Thief, Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, and an NBA Live 14 that had months more to prepare, along with all the third-party stuff that already accompanied the PS4. Imagine an Xbox One launch next Summer with millions of units, and a launch lineup that added Titanfall, UFC, and Elder Scrolls Online. What would an installed base of 10-12 million users by their first holiday season translate to in software terms? Obviously, Knack and Ryse sell many more copies in that event, to say nothing of the higher-quality games on the launches. There was absolutely no reason whatsoever to rush those systems out for an already-loaded 2013 holiday season.
Something has to be done, though, to be sure, by the time the next systems come around in seven or eight years. There has to be a change of philosophy regarding how consoles are rolled out. Gaming is better than this. It is built upon the great memories we have of not just the content of the games we play, but the culture that surrounds them. The fact that preorders did not guarantee that every single person who preordered a PlayStation 4 or Xbox One would have a system on their respective launch dates is entirely unacceptable. Launches should be about making a day of it, going around and having a good time picking up your console and the games that will comprise your first experiences with it, not about languishing in line for hours before you even know there are enough systems to go around, or staying at home looking for ways to waste time until a delivery arrives. Scarcity has ruined the launch experience, and for no good reason.
The time to talk about fixing it isn’t at E3 or TGS the year the ninth generation shows its face, it’s right here and right now.