The North American launch of the PlayStation 3 really began at Wal-Mart. Sonyās well publicised events in San Francisco and New York were aberrations. There, many hundreds of fans were able to secure a system; for the country between those two cities, the story was quite different.
At four in the morning, in Austin, Texas, the streets were deserted; the temperature was four degrees Celsius. Some people already had their PS3s. Inside a Wal-Mart Super Centre, a store employee named John was stacking televisions.
Just hours before, the store made its limited stock of units available to those waiting in line. It happened at midnight, and that was it, John said.
"It was pretty painless... Except for the 20 people waiting in line hoping someoneās credit card would get declined."
The store only had six units to sell: "Four of the good ones, two of the ham-strung ones." Other Wal-Mart stores were promised ten units, but only got six.
The night before, a vendor stocking the shelves with Wii games commented that the situation was "crazy", noting that Wal-Mart is the largest buyer in the world. He observed that a branch of Sam's Club (a warehouse chain also owned and operated by Wal-Mart) across the street "only got two units".
Nor was this unique to Wal-Mart. Most retailers, including Circuit City, GameStop and Toys R Us, came up short, reporting an average of six units per store. Several mentioned originally higher shipments than they received.
So for most hopefuls, the morning began at 4am, in the parking lot of a Best Buy. And that store emerged as the most successful retailer, consistently having more than 25 units per location.
It should be noted that lines at stores and camping was, by and large, based on the number of units available. If there were 26 units, 28 people would wait. Others might wander by, but once informed of how the numbers worked out, they moved on.
Local newspaper reporters and television film crews also made good use of the opportunity to find human interest stories - and there were several.
At one Best Buy, Vladimir was the first in line, having started queuing on Wednesday night. To keep the punters going, and to seize the opportunity for a bit of promotion, Red Bull girls arrived to hand out free drinks, while Best Buy supplied doughnuts, hot chocolate and pizza.
Vladimir said that he was a fan, but "the system Iām getting here is for a friend in Iraq that doesnāt have the privilege of getting it over there". While many in line planned to sell their units, he noted that no one was hiding the fact.
"Thatās the beautiful thing about this country. You have the option to do that. If thatās what you want to do, by all means, do it," he said.
At the other end of the line, Carlos clearly had too many people in front of him to get a system. "I donāt know," he offered as an explanation of why he was still there. "Seeing how it plans out." A self-proclaimed Sony fan, he mentioned that all the launch titles look good.
At a Samās Club, a sign clearly stated they had "One units" (sic). Outside his tent, a camper named Dustin huddled with his girlfriend Jessica. He said he enjoys the seclusion "instead of a bunch of people crowded around me. Probably angry people... I like to know Iām the only one here, and Iāve got it". Dustin will get his PS3 at 7am, and hopes to sell it for US $5000 - the highest figure mentioned by those in lines.
At a Best Buy in North Austin, Ryan Bishop was going up and down the queue doing a roll-call. An employee himself, he joined the line in 22nd place, and as an avid gamer, he was hoping to get a 60GB system for personal use.
During the 5am roll call, an older couple arrived at the end of the line. Ryan added them to the list (numbers 51 and 52), making sure they realise only 36 units are in the store.
Standing in line was an accident. Ryan had come in to check the employee schedule when he learned that the policy had been changed. So at 2pm on Thursday he joined the queue because, "Iāve been hyping this thing up for a long time now."
General managers at several Best Buy locations had been able to broker deals with Simon Property Group, allowing the people to line up overnight. "Itās been really fun, up until it got really cold in the last hour," Ryan said. .
Off-duty police were also there. "Theyāve been really low-key." One officer himself calmly commented that "itās not the end of the world", and that it had been a quiet night.
"Weāve been following eBay prices all night," Ryan explained. "The most recent average is $4000." Josh, who was standing at the front of the line, plans to sell his. "Iād rather get two-and-a-half-grand and wait a few months."
There was a definite camaraderie among those in line. The roll call allowed them to leave and purchase food, or warm up inside their cars, while keeping a place in line. If they missed a roll call, everyone was moved up. There was even a dog, Rusty, waiting patiently to purchase a PS3.
At 7am, store employees handed out tickets to those in line. At 7.30, a pickup truck drove by, filled with hoodlums throwing water balloons at an already cold line of people. The off-duty officer gave chase.
At 8am the doors opened and groups of ten were brought in. By 8.30, all units had been sold, and everyone had left the store - which opens for regular business at 9am.
All in all, the launch ran like clockwork. According to store manager Scott Parson, "everyone that did come in, and had a ticket for it, was extremely happy".
Parson went on to note that Best Buy as undergone some changes recently: "Weāre all about the customer now. Thatās the way weāre going to be successful." he said.
Of course, they'll have to do it all again on Sunday, when the Nintendo Wii launches in North America. Will it be the same story? "Very much so," said Parson.