Yeah… two console launch preorder days in the past week, and they were both a cluster nightmare moist dumpster fire. They were just a mess for different reasons. The PS5 was a mess because Sony lied, contradicted itself, and clearly didn’t plan out the release well. It waited far too long to announce anything, due to a big game of chicken with Microsoft I guess as to their next gen dates and prices, and that seemingly forced it to turn around on everything to try and deflate what Microsoft had going in. Of course, in hindsight, Microsoft kind of had an ace up their sleeve before they opened preorders.
Microsoft tried to get in front of it, announcing the date of the preorder during their conference (compared to Sony’s tact of leaving that out entirely), and in response to Sony pantsing it hard with their launch lies on Twitter, came out with a bit of shade that the Xbox Series S and X would go up for sale at 11 EST on Tuesday the 22nd (yesterday, at the time of writing this). As they say though, no plan survives first contact with the enemy, and the Xbox Series Whatevers preorder launch went… poorly.
The ball was seemingly dropped by retailers with the Xbox, rather than Microsoft directly, but since one of those retailers was the Microsoft Store, they aren’t blameless. The worst offender in all of this has got to go to Amazon, which didn’t list the console until hours after the fact, and was constantly giving 404 message pages with various pictures of dogs if you tried to go to the product pages. Apparently, it worked on their affiliate partnership site, smile.amazon.com, but by the time it was fixed on Amazon, they were sold out. Who knows who actually got them, most likely bots, but it was an absolute tire fire.
Walmart was the only retailer who seemed to get their crap together and get a working site ordered… which is a bit shocking. I know a lot about Walmart’s internal workings, and while they have a lot of talented people working for them, their website is pretty terrible. Try to go look up a product and determine if it’s in a store near you… yeah, any luck? Didn’t think so. Even though their site worked, they sold out within ten minutes or so.
Target had the most frustrating problem, which was explained very well by Penny Arcade. You could see the console, click preorder and then… you were screwed. It supposedly went in your cart, but you couldn’t see it. If you went to your cart, it was empty or it errored out. If you tried to add it again, it told you that you had the maximum number already in your cart. Apparently, if you used the mobile app, you were able to preorder, so long as you hadn’t tried to use the website first.
Best Buy was late to the game, not putting them out until an hour or so after everyone else. They had a weird throttling that prevented people from starting the checkout process, and kept giving an error message. No idea how random it was, but I was never able to get through with it. Best Buy would have been a nice choice, since I could have done store pickup for my console from there.
GameStop, being the terrible and backwards company that they are, had the “solution” to the problem that I find the most humorous and creative. In the real world, I do web development for enterprises, and I’ve polished my fair share of turds in the many, many, years I’ve been doing that. But nothing I’ve ever done matches the engineering solution that Gamestop came up with.
When you hit their pages, you got a screen prompting you to wait. You were in queue, and you just had to be patient and you’d get your chance to order. The most important thing, though, was to not refresh, because you’d lose your spot in line. Which cool, that’s some fun tech that – yeah, Gamestop didn’t do that. They added a small bit of HTML markup to the page that just automatically refreshed the page every 30 seconds, not an actual queue.. it just randomly served up the correct page so you’d have a chance. Which would be funny, if it didn’t also drop you on a page that didn’t have the console, that required navigating around, often to broken pages that would not load.
I ended up securing a console, by going through the Microsoft Store, which was just having old fashioned load issues. You could start the process, but trying to add it to your cart would give you a 404 error more often than not, or time out getting to checkout. But if you could get to checkout, you could get it… it was just painfully slow.
I’ve talked a lot about FOMO, skipping the generation, or just waiting… and honestly, I could have done it. The only reason I jumped on it was because I’ve had Xbox Game Pass for ages, and my Xbox One has been having issues. So I wanted to replace it, and doing that with the latest console made more sense. I’m glad I got it, but could have survived if I didn’t.
This Is Getting Worse
That being said… this is a worrying continuation of a lot of things. There were similar problems around the launch of the nVidia 3080 graphics cards last week, with the markup on those reaching 300% higher than the already high SRP. LEGO fans are obviously familiar with how stupidly fast sets come and go when they launch. We covered the Nintendo pins for Mario 3D All Stars last week, and they were gone within 4 minutes of Ace posting that and me going to redeem my code.
The PS5 and the Xbox Series X were always going to sell out during their preorders… but what we’ve seen is just ridiculous. The biggest problem behind this, and so many other issues lately, seems to be with bots. It’s why we haven’t been able to find a Switch, Xbox One, or PS4 online since the pandemic started, why LEGO sets sell out immediately yet flood the aftermarket for jacked up prices, and now why most people never got a chance for a new console. The computers were able to hit the sites and order instantly the moment they were there and flooded out everyone else.
What’s frustrating is that this is a mixture of things that can be fixed, things that can’t be fixed, and the general incentive of companies to not bother fixing it. Consumers have the “easiest” fix here, and that’s don’t pay stupid markup for things on the aftermarket. A loss of demand will dry up some of this stuff right away… but FOMO is at absurd levels so I have no faith in our collective self control. There will always be people with more money than sense willing to pay, which is how these schemes stay propped up.
Companies could fix some of the issues just by closing off the ports and tools that bots and scrapers are using, adding mechanisms to prevent the automation and hammering. They do it all the time on non-commerce things, like adding the annoying reCaptcha checks to logins, making you prove you are a human, asking you to rotate images, or just putting in DDoS checks on a page. Yet when it comes to sales, they don’t want to do these things, because, ultimately, they don’t care who they sell it to so long as they get their money. eBay doesn’t care if people are angry at scalpers because enough people still buy.
Microsoft, LEGO, Sony, and Nintendo care about selling the units to retailers, and don’t care if the retailers keep customers happy. Because it probably doesn’t even matter if we are happy. What alternatives do we have on where to go when the paths in are controlled by so few. It would be an arms race in trying to fix it, to be sure… bots are always going to improve and get better, and so long as there’s profit in the aftermarket, there are going to be people to exploit it. There wouldn’t be a fix that works forever, maybe not even works all that long… but doing nothing has just pushed it out of control.
There’s a parallel that’s been thrown around, something I know nothing about, and that’s with the collector’s shoe market. I know that there were people who collected shoes… I am not one of them. I’m very much a middle class suburban dad when it comes to shoes, and I have no interest in them. Scalpers and aftermarket sellers are an issue there, with so many limited runs and special editions… but there’s also a difference: the shoes are a limited run product. The consoles and graphics cards most certainly are not. They’re going to be in stock eventually, and nothing will come out between now and then that you really needed it for.
I get it… I obviously wanted and went after an Xbox Series X, but this all feels like FOMO run amok to the point where this could all just implode. I know it won’t, and I know some are probably sick of reading all my anti-consumerism screeds on a site that’s pretty much all consumerism… but this all feels wrong. Like we’ve lost something, or given something up, and we aren’t going to get it back until it crashes and takes the things we love with it.
You know what, I’ll tie it back to LEGO… what’s going on feels a lot like what drove me out of collecting in the first place. I also know it’s what drove a lot of others out of collecting. It stopped being special, and the fun and uniqueness of the sets and figures was replaced by rampant FOMO that wore off quickly. For me, it was seeing LEGO start cranking out a half dozen CMF lines, slapping together garbage like the Hoth UCS set, and raising the price and complexity of the Modular buildings while also turning out more of them a year.
I know we had some former Bothans that left, some who had been collecting since Star Wars was first released, because things like the Comic Con exclusives and limited release sets made it impossible to keep a full collection. The rarity in that case ended up making it less special, and the number of things coming out, and demanding your money and attention, just makes you tune out eventually. I’m probably going to do another article on that, and how LEGO has devalued their own product in how they release now, but it still feels so much like it. The VIP early releases, the pre-orders, the exclusives… it all hits like things that we’re seeing play out more and more with video games.
Maybe we already lost the battle, or even the war. The bots aren’t going to go away, and the only thing we can do is make sure we don’t feed them any more than you shouldn’t feed trolls. I don’t have any good solutions, I just know that a lot of people who were excited to pick up something new are left with very sour tastes in the past week or two…