Yesterday, right after Sony’s big PS5 event, the company announced that pre-orders for the next-gen PlayStation console would “be available starting as early as tomorrow at select retailers.” And then, they weren’t.
That’s pretty clear, right? “As early as tomorrow” suggested that some places would have their pre-orders go live on the morning of September 18, while elsewhere, it could come later. It suggested there was some kind of plan to the whole thing.
Only there wasn’t. Not long after Sony’s event finished up, retailers like GameStop and Wal-Mart started offering their pre-orders, straight away, no warning, no heads-up. Other stores like Target quickly followed. Pretty soon the internet was awash with panicked PlayStation fans sharing stories of finding a retailer that was suddenly offering pre-orders, only by the time they tried to add the console to their cart they were told they were sold out, or hit with site error messages.
It left a lot of people, people more than willing in the middle of a global pandemic and economic crisis to throw down $500 on a video game console, very disappointed! It also gave rivals Microsoft a free hit, announcing their own pre-order plan would be...an actual plan, while also gently flipping Sony off in the process:
That’s got to be slightly more comforting to prospective Xbox Series X/S buyers, but here’s where this gets really interesting/terrible: a scheduled launch isn’t really going to help regular folks get their hands on a console, because this is 2020, and the resale game is out of control.
The idea that unscrupulous individuals will take advantage of the gulf between supply and demand is as old as human civilization itself, and we’ve seen new consoles reach crazy prices on sites like eBay for almost two decades now. In the olden days, though, resellers would have to manually purchase those consoles, whether in a store or by buying them online like everyone else. Today, things are different.
For years now, groups like sneakerheads and streetwear fans have been used to online sales being dominated by bots, software that’s able to crawl a site’s store page and complete multiple sales before actual human fingertips have had time to even move a mouse cursor onto the thing they want.
Those bots are working for resellers, who pay money to get access to them (and the Discord groups made up of fellow users, also known as “cook groups”). A reseller’s aim, as always, is to buy something for its retail price (let’s say, a sneaker that costs $200) and then flip it for what the market is willing to pay (sometimes that’s $250, other times it can be in the thousands).
While these bots, and the groups using them, got their start with sneakers and streetwear, I’ve noticed lately—particularly thanks to the pressures of the pandemic—they’ve been branching out into video games as well.
That was earlier this year, when Ring Fit Adventure was everyone’s #1 lockdown game of choice, but the same groups soon moved onto buying and reselling almost entire shipments of Nintendo Switch consoles as well, when scarcity and hype sent their prices soaring.
Which leads us to the impending next-gen console launches. If you were wondering how resale was going to work on stuff like the PS5, know that StockX—a website that sells sneakers—already has a dedicated page up for PS5 resales, along with the console’s accessories as well:
eBay, as expected, is not looking great either:
And it’s not just consoles! Nvidia’s new GTX 3080 launch was about as calamitous as Sony’s, thanks in no small part to bots and cook groups, who flooded the sales and had a lot of actual customers accusing Nvidia of simply flipping their sales from “coming soon” to “sold out” without actually offering the cards for sale. They did, it’s just that bots work that fast.
It’s easy to let this get you down. There’s double disappointment in missing out on something to resellers. Not only have you failed to get hold of the thing you were trying to buy, but you’re now faced with the prospect of the thing you wanted suddenly being unaffordable.
There is hope, though. Sony’s own internal pre-order system, built on the idea of drawing from the existing PSN community and relying on individual email confirmation, is a great way to bring human interaction back into the buying process, as it eliminates the ability for bots to simply do everything they need to do on the one website. Sony have even baked in a custom URL for each pre-order customer, and if anyone else tries to use that URL, then “you may be locked out of the order system.”
Another way a lot of sneaker/fashion stores attempt to beat bots—and other games retailers could certainly copy this—is run raffles. If 10,000 people want a pair of shoes, and only 1,000 were made, then 10,000 entries are put in and the randomly drawn winners are given the chance to buy. Again, by introducing things like captcha checks and email confirmations this greatly cuts down on the number of bots able to automatically scoop everything up.
Of course neither of these approaches can entirely eliminate resale, as there’s nothing stopping the “winners” selling their individual purchases for more than they paid for them. But they’re certainly a good start. And a lot easier to implement than Sony somehow being able to build enough PS5s for everyone, right away, or Nvidia being able to rewire thousands of years of human conditioning and economic precedent just for some graphics cards sales.