Four months ago, Sony launched its latest video game console, the PlayStation 5. The company sold 4.5 million units during the launch quarter—an impressive figure for a console that seems impossible to buy.
I want one. But I can’t find one. There are shortages. There are scalpers charging as much as $1,000 for a $400 to $500 console. There are digital storefronts crumbling under the massive and unrelenting demand for the PS5. There’s a subculture dedicated to purchasing the console, because there’s still no reliable way to get your hands on one of these things. You refresh the webpage; you roll the dice. It’s the sneaker drop that never ends, though even sneaker drops pale in comparison to the senselessness in the rollout for the PlayStation 5. Sneaker drops are competitive opportunities to buy collectibles produced in a definite, limited quantity. The PlayStation 5 launch is a competitive opportunity to buy a hardware upgrade (assuming current ownership of a PlayStation 4) that won’t be particularly scarce in the long term and isn’t especially useful right now.
The most compelling PlayStation 5 exclusive, Deathloop, is scheduled for release in May—six months after the console’s launch. The latest edition of the acclaimed Final Fantasy VII remake will arrive in June. All in all, there are less than a dozen other next-generation exclusives launching this year. Meanwhile, the PlayStation 4 remains a popular choice to play 2021’s most in-demand games, including cross-generation titles that can be picked up later on the PS5. The immediate improvements over the previous PlayStation are pretty mundane: a new user interface, faster loading times, and better graphics. Not nothing! But they’re not the most urgent reasons to ditch the PS4—a perfectly good console, hardly as obsolete as the overwhelming demand for its successor might suggest.
The nearest comparison to this current console craze is Nintendo’s spring 2017 launch for its handheld platform, the Switch. Notably, Nintendo’s previous console, the Wii U, was a commercial failure. So the Switch and its leading launch title, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild—now widely regarded as one of the best games of its generation—rushed to fill an obvious void in the market. Breath of the Wild in large part justified the desperate pursuit of a Switch at launch. The PlayStation 5 thus far largely appears to be an avenue for clout and memes.
The initial shortages for next-gen video game consoles, especially during holiday launches, are nothing new. I’ve known console shortages since the PlayStation 2 rollout in October 2000, which made a mess of Walmarts on Black Friday. What the PS2 lacked in killer launch titles it made up for in vastly improved graphics and controller responsiveness, which allowed game developers to create far more ambitious worlds, characters, and stories. The same could be said for the leap from Super Nintendo to Nintendo 64. These consoles may have initially lured in consumers with flashy hardware specs, but their impact on content and storytelling is ultimately more profound. Will the relatively minor updates in the PS5 cement a similar legacy?
The current PlayStation 5 shortages have lasted into the spring, with analysts warning the underlying semiconductor shortage will “get worse before it gets better in 2021.” In the meantime, social media, gaming publications, and national news websites amount to a massive real-time tracker for the sporadic, ephemeral quantities of new stock at major retailers. This is not the only new gaming hardware to meet insatiable demand in recent months. Microsoft launched the Xbox Series X/S two days before the PS5, and Nvidia released its GeForce 30 series graphics cards for PC gamers a month before those console launches. Both products continue to sell out. In the early months of the pandemic, Nintendo struggled to keep pace with demand for the Switch. There’s a massive appetite for new gaming hardware in general. But the PlayStation 5 is distinguished in the durability of its market dominance and the sheer size of its hype. It’s on track to become the bestselling video game console of all time despite being nigh-impossible to purchase months into its launch.
Given the pandemic, Sony restricted retailers to online-only sales at launch for the PlayStation 5. This is where the problems started. Sony, Amazon, Best Buy, Target, and GameStop each frustrated consumers in peculiar ways. Best Buy ejected the console from carts during checkout. Amazon sold out of consoles before they’d even published the listing; Twitter users circulated links that bypassed the storefront and sent the user straight to checkout with an unlisted console mysteriously added to their cart. Websites crashed. Worse yet, websites worked slowly but sensibly to process preorders and sales until the very last steps in checkout—and then they crashed. Sony apologized. But four months later, the retailers and the consumers are more or less where they started: stressing the shaky web infrastructure and fragile supply chains that continue to buckle under the overwhelming demand for new consoles. “In a lot of ways,” one financial advisor told The New York Times, “they don’t want to satisfy demand initially. They want to have an ongoing gap between supply and demand. [...] They want to have buzz and excitement around it for a longer period of time.”
In other words, it’s just how these releases work now. It’s hard-coded into video game culture.
What, then, is the real impetus for rushing through so many obstacles to buy a PS5 so early on? There’s some perverse gamification in the process: evaluating leaks, refreshing websites, comparing notes with the rest of the internet, and reveling (however grudgingly) in the uncertainty. And that’s just if you’ve yet to purchase a PlayStation 5. I can only imagine the catharsis one achieves once they’ve managed to buy one. It must feel a bit like overcoming a final boss on hard mode.