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Gaming

Game fans clamor for PSP

Hundreds wait in line for hours to snag one of Sony's new portable game players. Photos: Midnight madness for Sony's PSP

SAN FRANCISCO--You had a couple of choices if you wanted to be the first on your block to have a PlayStation Portable.

You could have placed an advance order at a participating retailer, shown up the store at a civilized hour and returned home rested, refreshed and ready for game excitement. Or you could sit outside the Sony Metreon retail complex here for more than 36 hours--some of them during heavy rain--for the chance to buy a single unit of the magical gadget at 12:01 a.m. PT Thursday.

Richard Roth of San Francisco wasn't exactly clear on why he chose the latter, but after camping out overnight to buy a PlayStation 2 and several PS2 games, a sidewalk ordeal seemed preordained for the PSP.

"It's fun," he said, noting that he also received a fair amount of attention four years ago for being first in line to buy a PS2. "It's my 15 minutes of fame," he said. "You don't get on CNN for putting in a preorder at GameStop."

Roth and hundreds of other dedicated consumers camped outside the Metreon--one of a handful of locations to stay open past midnight Wednesday to begin selling PSPs the minute that Thursday's North American retail date arrived--were convinced it was worth whatever discomfort they had to endure to snag one of the gadgets.

Kaz Hirai, president of Sony Computer Entertainment America, said the company pulled all the strings it could to make sure there were 1 million PSPs ready for the North American launch. "It's a huge number of units for a product like this," he said. The PlayStation 2 living room console, by contrast, arrived in North America with just 500,000 units.

A big launch is important to Sony, Hirai said, but the company is also managing inventory to ensure a steady flow of PSPs to stores. "We don't want to go dry for two months," he said

Keisler Nunez of San Francisco said he's a dedicated partisan for the living room version of the PlayStation and knew he had to have a PSP as soon as he saw one in action.

"I've played with a few other handhelds, but this really takes the cake," Nunez said. "PlayStation has the games I like, and now I'm going to be able to take them with me wherever I go."

Even gamers with more ecumenical tastes were ready for the PSP to rock their world. Moragot Bodharamik of San Francisco killed time outside Metreon playing his DS, the sophisticated new Nintendo gadget that will be the PSP's main competition.

Bodharamik said he has several different types of game consoles in his living room, and he expects to be equally impartial with portable gaming now. "I don't think one system is necessarily better than the other," he said. "It's about the games you want to play, and both the PSP and the DS are going to have good ones."

Sony isn't expecting folks to give up their DS players, either. The company is pitching the PSP as a new type of device that combines sophisticated video games with other entertainment experiences, especially movies, which have become an increasingly important aspect of Sony's marketing.

While the PSP wouldn't seem to need any advertising now, it will be hard to escape for the next few months, thanks to Sony promotions on billboards, TV and other media. Hirai said the ad strategy is more focused on the PSP's long-term health.

"The concept is...not to tell people to go out there and buy, buy, buy," he said. "It's to build awareness of the fact it's coming out and really try to position the product from the beginning. We're trying to enter into a new portable entertainment space, and we want to signal our intentions there...We want to get the message across that were not just trying to get into the handheld gaming space."

While the initial entertainment offerings for the PSP are slim, Hirai said choices will grow steadily as content providers and distributors see the PSP as a compelling medium.

"The most important thing is we need to get the installed base of the PSP as high as possible and create that market," Hirai said.

That doesn't look like it'll be a problem, judging from the rapturous reception for the PSP on Wednesday night. There's no doubt it's the hottest gadget around--this week.

"Oh man," Roth said, "when the PlayStation 3 comes out, I'll probably be in line for three days before that goes on sale."