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In Tokyo, PS3 launch cures few of fever

The hard-core and hearty get new Sony consoles, but most gamers are left out in the cold and go home empty-handed. Photos: Long, wet wait for PS3

TOKYO--For the hearty souls willing to brave the chill of a November night in Tokyo, it didn't take more than a few minutes past midnight to know if a PlayStation 3 would be theirs--those lucky gamers were handed a numbered ticket which guaranteed them a unit.

Then it was just a matter of waiting out the hours until stores in Tokyo's Shinjuku and Akihabara neighborhoods opened their shutters.

But that woke up at more reasonable hours Saturday, the best option was to secure a raffle ticket and hope that Lady Luck would be on their side upon their return to the store for the raffle.

PlayStation 3 in Japan While there may have been enough who wanted them badly, there was no denying that Sony's Japan allocation was too slim to match the demand.

As the countdown to the PlayStation 3 launch in Japan ticked down to its last minutes, GameSpot editors headed to Shinjuku's Yodobashi Camera, where Sony Computer Entertainment President Ken Kutaragi made an appearance during the PSP launch back in 2004.

Phil Harrison, the company's head of worldwide studios, was spotted for a short moment just before the scheduled launch time, at 7 a.m., but most eyes were peeled for Kutaragi, who was expected to show up and reprise his role leading the PSP launch in '04.

Kutaragi did eventually appear at the store as expected, but unfortunately, it was well over an hour after the opening hour and drama of the launch activities. He had picked the Bic Camera main branch outlet in Yurakucho to hand out the first console--to a young, eager customer from China, we were told.

At Shinjuku's Yodobashi camera, the first person in line was a 22-year-old student who had been waiting in line since 6 p.m. on Friday. While he looked tired and worn from the long wait, he shined a grin as he walked away with a PS3 and Mobile Suit Gundam game.

Similar scenes were taking place in other locations throughout Tokyo, most selling PS3s without preorders or raffle tickets. The Ikebukuro Bic Camera had more than 1,200 customers with numbered tickets, while the Shibuya Tsutaya, the official launch location for Microsoft's Xbox and Xbox 360, had about 300 units to sell.

While hard-core gamers returned home happily with their PS3, it was another story with the general public who weren't aware that the PS3 would be supplied in only limited numbers.

PlayStation 3 From about 8 a.m. on, we saw dozens of people approaching stores only to see Sold Out signs in front. It was pretty apparent what was going to happen next.

To see how things were going at stores giving away the raffle tickets, we went to the Shinjuku Bic Camera to see if there was a line. To our surprise, more than 400 people had formed a line by about 9 a.m.--when the store was scheduled to hand out raffle tickets. Soon, a staffer came out and held up a Sold Out sign at the end of the line, telling the unlucky stragglers that they had no chance of buying a unit.

A similar scene was building at Sakuraya, which had only about 20 units each of the 20GB and 60GB models. There was still a line of about 200 people, even after the scheduled closing time of the raffle ticket distribution.

In Akihabara, Sofmap's main branch had about 300 people lined up to get raffle tickets, with everyone holding umbrellas to cope with the heavy rain. Similar to the line at Shinjuku Bic Camera, a staffer eventually came up and held up a Sold Out sign, turning away any additional people trying to line up after 9:30 a.m. when the store was to hand out its tickets.

Generally, those waiting in line to get raffle tickets were a very different group from the customers who waited overnight. The crowds we saw in the overnight lines consisted of hard-core gamers, foreigners and homeless people hired by scalpers. They were mostly male, and many of them wore heavy clothing to survive the cold, additionally prepared with portable chairs and handheld game devices.

On the other hand, the lines that formed at raffle locations consisted of more casually dressed people, with a good number of female customers and parents with children, plus a few seniors.

Sony seemed to have anticipated that there might not be enough PS3s for the casual consumers at launch, which would explain why the company seemed to have been holding back on its mass-market ad campaign.

While Sony had posted numerous billboards at train stations and had run a flight of TV ads in prime time, the company didn't begin its push until just a week ago. In comparison, Nintendo has been running Wii ads on TV for nearly a month, even through the console isn't due until December.

Given the high demand of the PS3, the console is already selling at inflated prices on auction sites. The 60GB model, which sold for an average price of 59,800 yen ($508) at stores is now selling for about 90,000 yen ($765) on Yahoo Japan's Auction site. The 20GB model, which retails for 49,980 yen ($425), is going for 70,000 yen ($595).

Sony expects to ship 100,000 units every week after today's launch, which should give it total sales of about 400,000 units by the time the Wii is released in December. Coincidently, Nintendo expects 400,000 units to be available on the Wii's launch day in Japan.

Then the console race in Japan begins in earnest.

Hirohiko Niizumi of GameSpot reported from Tokyo.