Picture this: You pop into your neighborhood big box store, hoping to buy a PlayStation 5, and it’s just there. It’s on the shelf. You can pay for it, you can leave the store with it, and it’s yours. No need to sit at your desk refreshing browser tabs all day. Sounds pretty nice, right?
On November 12, 2020, Sony released the PS5 in a handful of markets, with a global release the following week. Four months later, it remains nearly impossible to get your hands on one—a shortage you can chalk up to a perfect storm of scalpers, production hiccups, and one unprecedented global pandemic. Even worse, the situation shows no signs of abating, and may even persist into the latter part of the summer.
“The primary challenge here is the semiconductor shortage that’s impacting basically everything in the world, from cars to computers to graphics cards to PS5s,” Mat Piscatella, executive director and video game advisor with the NPD Group, told me over a Zoom call recently. “This looks like it’s going to be a challenge for a while, probably into Q2 or Q3 or even later, depending on a whole bunch of factors.”
As the Harvard Business Review detailed last month, that semiconductor / chip shortage both is and is not a result of the pandemic. Last year, fires essentially decommissioned two major production plants in Japan: one that makes fiberglass (used in the construction of computer parts), and one that makes electronics. The automobile industry also played a role. When the pandemic first bore down last spring, confining millions to home, auto manufacturers reduced orders on pretty much all production parts, including chips, which are essential components in many modern cars. Then, as vehicle travel ramped up again later in the year, those same companies ramped up orders for chips. And then there’s Donald Trump, who royally fucked things up by kickstarting an ill-advised trade war, regulating the sale of American-produced semiconductors to China-based companies (which forced those companies to stockpile), and directing the federal government to blacklist the China-based Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation.
Beyond that, as HBR points out, air freight has seen significant restraints in recent months, the result of a number of factors, including the top-priority need to ship covid-19 vaccines, the across-the-board decline of passenger travel (which means companies can’t use those flights to ship inventory), and the February grounding of a Boeing fleet.
Now, wrap all of that in a global pandemic that has upended the supply chain in too many ways to list. You can start to see how production of the most anticipated gaming console on the market has ground to a halt.
The PlayStation 5 makes use of a chip developed by Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), a California-based semiconductor manufacturer that produces graphics cards, processors, and the like. (AMD did not respond to a request for comment from Kotaku.) Earlier this year, AMD CEO Lisa Su told CNBC that the company expects chip production shortages through at least the first half of the year. As reported by Tom’s Hardware, Su said as much during an AMD earnings call from January.
“Production lines can only yield so many units per hour. An allocation of production lines that can build things like a new console are not infinite. So we’ve seen that in the past, every successful new console faces supply shortages of one kind or another, usually for the first six months to a year. But that’s just because demand always significantly exceeds the production capacity. So we would still hit limits on the capacity. It’s just, right now, these chips are adding an extra layer of capacity challenge,” Piscatella said. He further pointed out that the number of new consoles made right now doesn’t differ much from previous console generations. The main contrast is that, typically, at this point in the cycle, you can point to some sort of increase in production. That’s not the case this time around. (Piscatella was unable to provide specific numbers as a result of data agreements between console manufacturers and NPD.)
But, hey, the White House is on it. Last month, President Biden issued an order to review the causes behind this semiconductor shortfall. The short version is that, pending the results of the review, this order would basically result in the United States producing more semiconductors domestically. It remains to be seen if this will amount to anything at all. According to research conducted by the consultancy firm McKinsey, it can take up to two years to create a semiconductor fab, plus at least another year or more on top of that to actually ramp up production.
So, what’s this mean for you and your potential PS5? That dream, where you can just walk into your local Best Buy—or Target, or GameStop, or Walmart, or wherever—and buy a PS5 off the shelf? When’s that happen?
Sony hasn’t said. When reached for comment about when wide, regular availability for the PS5 might happen—at least in the company’s estimation—a Sony representative said they would look into the question.
Piscatella is marginally more optimistic: “If nothing else goes wrong, then hopefully August, September, we’ll start seeing a little bit more inventory out there for folks.”
Now, let’s say you’re seriously itching for an all-digital PS5, and you happen to luck into a model with a disc drive in the interim. (This also applies to those in a vice-versa situation.) Your best bet, probably, is to just grab the first model you come across.
“I don’t know if folks are going to be able to be able to pick and choose [between models], especially over the next six months,” Piscatella said. “If they’re going to want one, they’re just going to have to grab whichever one becomes available to them, because it’s not going to let up anytime soon.”
In other words, the PS5, just like all of us and all of everything, is up to the whims of 2020 Part II: 2021.
“Hopefully, at some point this year, they’ll be on a shelf somewhere and you can just pick one up,” Piscatella said. “But, y’know, 2021. Chaos reigns. Everything is uncertain.”