Shootings, stampedes, people lined up for days on end. Sounds like food riots in a West African economic basket case, or the beginning of the Christmas season in the developed world. The PlayStation 3, Sony's answer to the Microsoft Xbox 360, is the first high-demand toy to go on sale this season, and given the sheer number of units already posted on eBay (over 14,000 at the time of this writing), it's safe to say the PS3 is in short supply.
By now, getting a console on launch day is a pretty routine procedure. Those hopeful to get their hands on a machine line up months before it actually debuts in order to preorder the device, theoretically guaranteeing them a console as soon as one is available. Then, a few days before the launch, prospective buyers discover that there will be fewer machines available than retailers had previously expected, which means only the people who show up early with their preorders have a realistic shot at getting one.
This is why your local Best Buy, Target and Wal-Mart has had a line around it for the past three days. Gamers, parents and low-rent entrepreneurs huddle together, sometimes for days, at the entrance of retail stores, preorders in hand, weathering the elements in an effort to earn the Early Adopter, or possibly the Shrewd Asshole, moniker.
While the process isn't very easy on the body or the mind, at least it's fair. Whether you wanted to play the PS3 or not, if you wanted one this Friday, you more than likely had to give up your Wednesday and Thursday to stand in line, just like everyone else.
Well, maybe not everyone else.
I spoke with a gentleman named Charlie who picked up two PS3s by working a contact on the inside of a major gaming retailer. He has a friend who was scheduled to work the release who was willing to give him early access to the store's supplies. Rather than having to wait overnight in line with other hopefuls, Charlie just "rolled in there about a half hour before they opened. He took my credit card, walked past the whole line, opened the door, rang [the PS3s] up and came back outside with the receipt." Charlie then went home.
Obviously, letting a friend cut in line to score a 0-day console was a violation of the company rules, and Charlie's friend could easily get fired if word were to get out. I asked if anyone said anything to him when he showed up with his friend in tow. "[My friend] was in uniform, with his little [name]tags and all that crap. So nobody said shit to him, and I was just hanging out. A couple people were looking at me really funny, saying, 'Oh, you need a number,' because they were passing out numbers. I was like, 'No, I'm good.'"
I mentioned that, even setting aside the fact he cheated his way to not one, but two PS3s, there's been a lot of animosity toward people who plan on flipping PS3s for a high price. (Charlie is hoping to sell his for $6,650, plus $50 shipping.) I asked him if he felt he was depriving honest gamers of a chance to buy an affordable console. Charlie claims he didn't see many gamers in line. "It looked a lot more like family, more like parents and shit. I could only make out maybe one or two gamers," he said. "There's a lot of people out there that want to buy Little Johnny that special Christmas present that he won't shut the fuck up about. And, you know, this year, it happened to be the PS3."
Additionally, he doesn't feel as though flipping PS3s is wrong. "It's a free fucking market," he said. "I'm providing a service here. People were unable to get them; they're very limited. I used my contact to do so.
"Everybody knew it was limited. They've known it was limited for months. Any true gamer who wanted it would have been waiting in line for three days. Otherwise, they can wait."
It's a ruthless mentality, but it's nothing new. Years before Xbox 360 and PS3 shortages, people were jacking up the price on Cabbage Patch Kids dolls, Tickle Me Elmos and Beanie Babies. Any time demand outweighs supply, third-party players are going to find a way to profit. Given that the Wii is debuting this Sunday, I asked Charlie if he plans on trying to flip it, like he is with the PS3. "There's not going to be a need to. There's going to be a demand, don't get me wrong. But there's not going to be a lack of supply [from Nintendo]."
Since Nintendo plans to make 1 million Wii units available on the day of its launch, I'm inclined to agree with Charlie; it's hard to charge thirsty people for water when you're standing in the middle of an oasis.