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PS3 Launches in Europe

The wait is over as Sony's next-gen console makes its debut.

It was hard to know what to expect from the official UK launch of PlayStation 3. The road has not been an easy one for Sony, right up to the last minute - with news emerging only last week that people wouldn't be allowed to queue outside on the street as with previous console launches.

HMV and GAME changed their plans, opting to go for early morning 'breakfast launches' instead. But as Sony's official retail partner Virgin Megastore decided to stick with the midnight timing, and allow people to camp out in the store as early as noon on Wednesday.

As it turned out, only a handful of people took that opportunity. And on walking into the store at 11pm last night, first impressions suggested that Sony and Virgin might have gotten it wrong. There were just over 100 people in the queue - a far cry from the long line which snaked around the block at the Wii launch in December.

But the circumstances are very different to those surrounding the arrival of Nintendo's console. To begin with, there's the high price point of PlayStation 3 - more than double that of the Wii.

Then there's the issue of stock. At launch it was clear that the Wii was in high demand and short supply, while Sony promised 1 million PS3 units for Europe on day one in a bid to ensure that customers would be able to pick up a console without pre-ordering.

And, of course, there's the console itself. Nintendo was vocal about the fact that the Wii was designed to be a games machine, pure and simple. Sony has been promoting PS3 as an all-round entertainment device, offering not just good games and a motion-sensing controller but a Blu-ray player, high definition visuals, a unique online service, multimedia functionality and more.

In short, PlayStation 3 is a machine that's unique in terms of price point, stock supplies and capabilities, all of which reached levels never seen before. That's not just compared to Wii, but also Xbox 360, PlayStation 2 and even PlayStation 1. So perhaps it should come as no surprise that the launch of PlayStation 3 was also unique, in more ways than one.

It's true to say that Virgin Megastore felt strangely empty when you first walked in last night. It's a huge store, and despite the 100-strong queue and entertainment in the form of large screen TVs, a DJ and breakdancers, there was a definite sense of space. However, although it took a little longer to sink in, there was a definite sense of excitement.

No, there weren't any groups of teenagers chanting the platform holder's name. No, there weren't any celebrities expressing their newfound love for gaming. And no, there weren't queues around the block. But there were gamers who had waited a long time for the arrival of PS3 - not necessarily for 36 hours inside the shop, but for months after the console hit the US and Japan.

Sony played the hour before midnight carefully, with a little something to keep the crowd going at regular intervals. First, a laminate number was picked at random, and the owner was told he'd be getting his PlayStation 3 for free. Later, it was confirmed that the first 150 people to buy a console would also receive a free copy of first-party title Resistance: Fall of Man. But it wasn't until 11.40pm Sony UK boss Ray Maguire came forward to address the crowd, and Sony brought out the really big guns.

Standing in front of a large flatscreen television, Maguire said, "This is a 46-inch Bravia W series. It's an award-winning flat panel. And do you know what the good news is guys? I'm going to give you one free."

The immediate response from the crowd was a mixture of cheers and confusion. But then Maguire affirmed that Sony was giving away 125 top-of-the-range televisions worth around GBP 2000 each, adding, "Every single one of you in this queue is going to get one." Then came the real cheers, followed by whoops and applause. This wasn't a free game, a free controller, a free HDMI cable; this was a real reward for sticking with Sony.

The buzz continued to grow as the news sunk in further and midnight drew nearer. By 11.55pm the crowd were in position by the tills, while a large group of photographers competed for the best spot. Then came the ten second countdown, the inevitable cheers, and the moment when Europe's next-gen console battle officially began.

The first person in the queue was 17 year-old Ritatsu Thomas, who arrived at the store at 5am on Wednesday. He said he'd only had around five hours sleep the previous night, and was tired of answering questions from the media for nearly two days. So was it worth the wait?

"It's been a very strange experience but there have been a lot of highlights, like being interviewed by the BBC, and making new friends... So it's been a good experience." Not all good, though: "I don't know if I'd do this again if it wasn't outside. Because inside the shop, it's a hot spot for the press to harass me with constant questions."

Leaving Thomas to take his PS3, free TV and courtesy Hummer ride home, then, it was time to turn to the second in line - Shadie Chatfield, 19 years old and a self-confessed Sony fangirl.

"It's been very tiring, but it's been a really good experience - I've really enjoyed it. Apparently we are the first people in the world to sleep in a Virgin Megastore, they've never allowed it before, so that's a cool thing. They treated us so well."

Meanwhile Chatfield's boyfriend, Anthony Brophy - who had waited in the queue with her - was across the other side of the store talking to Sony Worldwide Studios boss Phil Harrison, who made a surprise appearance at the event. "My girlfriend loves PlayStation, and she thinks you're amazing. Would you sign her console box?" Harrison, smiling and looking somewhat surprised, replied, "I'd be delighted."

Although Harrison was a little more reluctant to talk to the press, Maguire was forthcoming.

"The launch has been great, considering that we weren't allowed to let people queue up outside and there were loads of restrictions," he said.

"People waiting for 36 hours and sleeping overnight is absolutely unbelievable - it shows the affinity people have for the brand, and it's really humbling."

Maguire's colleague at Sony UK, PR boss David Wilson, was keen to address the issue of stock supply - and the suggestions from some critics that having consoles on shop shelves at the end of a midnight launch event indicate a lack of demand.

"We've got more stock for this launch than we've ever had before for a launch. A lot of retailers are going on the record saying for the first time, along with really good pre-orders, they'll actually have free stock on shelves for people to walk in and buy - and that's a great message," he stated.

"It's always great to say, 'We sold out.' But it's probably indicative of the fact you're not being very good with your supply.

"With our stock it's less tempting for less scrupulous people to exploit the situation, either by people at retailers forcing people to take loads of games - as happened at the PS2 launch - or scalpers putting them on eBay and taking a huge premium."

It wasn't just present day Sony executives who made an appearance at the launch. Also there to show his support was Chris Deering, ex-SCEE boss, former head of Sony Europe and the man responsible for establishing the PlayStation brand on this continent more than a decade ago. Deering retired from Sony in late 2005 - but now, experiencing the PlayStation 3 launch, did he wish he was back in the fold?

"Feels like I never left," he replied with a chuckle. "There's the same enthusiasm and excitement I remember with PSone, when I was in this very store playing Tekken with Richard Branson at the launch. I won, believe it or not, much to my own amazement - I wasn't even trying to beat him, but he was so bad... PS3 is great, and good things come to those who wait."

And according to Deering, Sony's new console has been well worth the wait. "If you make the analogy with airplane engines, everything up to now has been a propeller plane - and this is the first jet," he said.

"I think people will come to understand just how much horsepower exists under the bonnet of PS3, the versatility, the interactive use, the entertainment use... But never forget that PlayStation is about games, and the games are going to be unbelievable."

Deering wasn't the only one talking up the capabilities of PS3, or remembering console launches past. Said Harrison, "I've seen PlayStation 1 and PlayStation 2 launched on Oxford Street, but this is the most meaningful for me personally, because I think it's so important not just for our industry but for UK consumers - the fact that they're going to get the best machine with the best software support, the most Network service and the firmware update...

"They had to wait, and I feel really bad about that. But I'm hoping we can make it up to them with the quality of software that we've got coming out."

Amongst those who had to wait was the girl who wanted Harrison to sign her console, Shadie Chatfield - and he naturally obliged. But after the experience of spending 36 hours camping out in a shop to get her hands on a new console, will she ever do it again?

"This is brilliant, so yes, I think I will. For PlayStation 4..."

But that's as much as ten years away, according to Harrison, and at this point even the future of PlayStation 3 remains unclear. Sony has pushed a lot of boundaries, taken significant risks and received some harsh criticism, and there's work yet to be done.

In the end, last night console's launch was impossible to predict, and it turned out to be a launch unlike any other. Now the battle really begins - now, it's time for Sony to convince gamers that PlayStation 3 is a console unlike any other.

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Ellie Gibson avatar

Ellie Gibson

Contributor

Ellie spent nearly a decade working at Eurogamer, specialising in hard-hitting executive interviews and nob jokes. These days she does a comedy show and podcast. She pops back now and again to write the odd article and steal our biscuits.

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