The PlayStation's the thing for those who wait

What compels more than 500 people to wait patiently in line for hours in a driving rain outside a Sony shopping complex in San Francisco?

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
4 min read
Rich Austria stood outside Metreon, Sony's downtown-San Francisco shopping center, for roughly 26 hours to become one of the first people in the western United States to buy a PlayStation 2.

He and three friends faced strong winds, endured heavy rain, slept on mats and had to give "like, 20 to 30 interviews" to the BBC, national news stations and other media outlets. So why was he doing this?

"We're trying to avoid the line," he said.

Strange as it might sound, Austria's response pretty much captures the motive that drove more than 500 people to wait patiently for hours in a driving rain outside the Sony shopping complex in the hours before the new game console went on sale. Because of a components shortage, the hotly sought PlayStation 2 will be in short supply this holiday season.

Despite the conditions, many in the large crowd said it wasn't really like waiting in line.

"I'm extremely happy," said Paul Krivda, a 23-year-old who, just ahead of Austria and his friends, was the first person in line. Krivda arrived at 8:30 Tuesday night. By the time he bought his PlayStation 2 console at 12 a.m. Thursday, 27.5 hours had passed. During that time, Krivda met fellow gamers, conducted more interviews than a U.S. senator, and had been treated like royalty by a swarm of Sony public relations employees.

"I was pretty much afraid of the shortage," he said. But not of the treatment afforded him: "We were allowed to go to the bathroom, which is pretty rare in line."

In fact, Sony made sure that pretty much anyone who waited was in a good mood. The Japanese electronics giant fed the crowd three times, passed out sweatshirts and hired comedians to entertain everyone.

"As soon as it started raining, they brought out ponchos--boom!--immediately," said Nicole Bibb, a 31-year-old risk analyst with Wells Fargo Bank. "Sony went all out." Bibb arrived at 5:30 a.m. Wednesday to save a spot for herself and her three nieces. When she learned at 8:30 a.m. that she could buy only one unit, she called her mother, who brought the girls over.

The company even paid the city for two members of the police department to oversee crowd control and avoid any post-purchase rip-offs, said patrolman Eric Washington. "(The crowd has) been well-behaved," said Washington, surveying the mostly teenage assemblage.

Like others, Bibb had come primarily because of the allure surrounding the game console. "I can get a DVD player, a video game player and a CD player for $299. You can't get that nowhere else," she said. Reviews of Sega's Dreamcast, meanwhile, left her cold. "They put that together too fast," she said.

Will PlayStation 2 sell well after initial rush? Software is another draw. Although only 26 games are available at the launch, Sony is promising a quick flood of other titles. One person in line said he planned to buy all 26 titles with the $299 console, for a bill that, with taxes, comes to $1,711.37.

"The (graphics) are better, but you also have to look at the variety of games," said Nat Baldwin, a 21-year-old "fun-gineer" at Gamers.com, a Web site aimed at game enthusiasts, and a former beta tester for Microsoft.

Among the games recommended by the Gamers.com staff: "SSX," a snowboarding game ("It is the game to get," said Sam Bishop, an editor); "Madden NFL 2001" ("Madden's only a small part of the box now," said site producer Christian Nutt); and "Fantavision" ("It's 100 percent better than the Japanese version," Nutt added).

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Fans get their game on for PlayStation 2 launch

Although shoppers maintained their patience for hours, order began to deteriorate around 11 p.m. At that time, Sony had let everyone into the cavernous Metreon but seemed unsure what to do with the crowd. Four men in orange jumpsuits guarded a plate of cookies. Public relations managers and cameramen were shouting as if the event were a NASA launch. "OK, we have three minutes, people," yelled one, raising the volume with each sentence. "WE HAVE GOT TO GET THAT PLAYSTATION SIGN HIGHER, PEOPLE."

A number of high-level Sony executives retreated to the comfort of the still-closed PlayStation 2 store, but they were ousted by PR managers. "That looks bad, that looks bad," one said to a colleague. Krivda, Austria and those closest to the front of the line were now sitting on the floor being interviewed. Sitting cross-legged with floodlights blaring down, they looked like they were being arrested.

But by 11:45 p.m., things seemed to be in order again. Sony personnel were behind the counter and ready to sell machines. The ousted Sony executives were allowed to return to the PlayStation 2 store. Members of the press huddled around the counter.

Then, at the stroke of midnight, Krivda came through the Plexiglas door and bought his game player.

The Sony executives, and everyone else, applauded.