The PS3 launch is likely to remain Japan's most unusual for many moons to come. The man on the street expected Sony to put its considerable marketing clout in full motion months ago, but the first PlayStation 3 commercial arrived only few days before the launch. No ads could be seen in the streets of Tokyo to inform the public that the launch of a new PlayStation console was imminent. In contrast, Wii is everywhere, but it's also true that Nintendo has to explain what it is about to introduce to market. So on Friday November 10, the day before PS3's launch, the absence of queues in Tokyo came as no shock. Just a surprise.
The uncertainty about the number of units going on sale may have convinced people to stay at home. While Sony announced 100,000 units would be available, the Nikkei Shimbun later confirmed that only 80,000 would ship for launch, and created huge confusion in the mind of gamers and stores alike. Shops in Tokyo's famous Akihabara district were allocated 100-150 units. In total, more than 1,000 people would get a PS3 there. Much smaller game shops could secure only a couple of units. Tsutaya in Shibuya, which normally plays host to countdown events - as it did for PS2 and Xbox - only had 300 machines confirmed. A few major retailers like Bic Camera or Yodobashi Camera were expecting much more, at least 1,000 units, the former expecting 1,200 units at its main store in Ikebukuro and 1,100 in Yurakucho (the business district in central Tokyo). Meanwhile, Yodobashi Camera was getting more than 1,000 units at its game-oriented shop in West Shinjuku and another 1,000 units at its new huge centre in Akihabara. Even so, the scarcity of pre-order campaigns was marked.
Uncertainty about shipments forced many stores to sell their units on the launch day itself - obvious nervousness about running pre-orders schemes keeping pre-release hype at bay. Very few online shops went with pre-orders. Even Sony's PlayStation.com website refused to offer hardware pre-orders, just software. So basically, getting a PS3 on day one meant queuing, possibly a couple of days before the release. And even that wouldn't definitely secure you Sony's new console.
In Akihabara, stores shunned PS3 pre-orders in the face of expected shortages, but also to counter the "Chinese" issue. Since the launch of the PS2, Chinese buyers have become a common sight in Tokyo, working in large groups to secure as many units as possible. With PSP and DS Lite, they became organised into networks, even employing local homeless people to increase their chances of success. To avoid troubles (particularly with angry Japanese gamers), the Akihabara stores decided to sell most of their units via lottery. People were given a coupon with a number. At a given time, winning numbers were announced, and the person with the right coupon was able to buy their PS3.
This almost worked, as most of the foreign buyers gathered on locations where "normal", first-come first-served sales were taking place. And indeed, at Ikebukuro's Bic Camera and West Shinjuku's Yodobashi Camera Game, Chinese was by far the most common language heard in the long queues snaking through the streets. While some South Koreans were also present, a large European presence was also noticeable. In front of the Japanese media, many of them confirmed they were here to get a PS3 and sell it online.
The PS3 was sold out at Shibuya's Tsutaya six hours before the official launch. The first buyer was waiting in front of the store for 30 hours. Even Bic Camera's store in Ikebukuro saw all its 1,200 units sold out by 6am, despite stores across Tokyo apparently only putting the machine on sale from 7am. Ken Kutaragi and others officials chose Yodobashi's Akihabara and Bic Camera's Yurakucho centres for the official countdown event.
In Akihabara, the lottery kicked off. People were anxious to know if they had a winning ticket and also if their number would get them a 60GB unit, not the 20GB version. The 60GB pack was the model desired. In places like Ikebukuro or West Shinjuku, coming at the end of the queue meant getting a 20GB pack. People in front were given paper to fill so they could select the desired model of PS3, games and accessories.
The PS3 was sold out in Japan before sales actually started.
Queues were closed as the number of people queuing matched the number of units delivered to the store. No date was confirmed for the next shipment. As for the games, stores acknowledge the line-up was far from stellar, and this worked in favour of Ridge Racer 7, certainly the most reliably bankable launch title. On average, buyers spent a little more than 70,000 yen (EUR 463 / GBP 311). Rapid shortages of some accessories indicated low stocks of hardware other than the machine itself.
Real problems did not wait for the machine to go on sale. The police had already been in action in Akihabara the day before. A few cases were reported of units being stolen while the trucks were delivering precious shipments to stores.
It is too soon to evaluate any technical issues the PS3 is facing as users are exploring their new acquisitions. SCEJ has already posted an online database with the details on each game. Most of the PS2 online games seem not to work properly on the machine - Final Fantasy XI, Front Mission Online and Nobunaga Online most notably. Even Gran Turismo 4 is experiencing troubles. SCEJ indicates that those issues should be fixed with patches soon. Some users are already reporting PS3 games freezing during play and some other technical issues.
Handicapped by the limited number of units available, the PS3 launch may not have been the huge success the PS2 was. But all the stores are happy that the machine is now out there. This is, and will remain, an incredibly important event, if a low-key one.
We'll be bringing you news from the US PlayStation 3 launch on 17th November, where 400,000 units are confirmed for retail.