The needless drama of buying a PS5
Securing a PS5 is not easy, and it feels like it could be. With a combination of greed and incompetence, the stores selling PS5s in the United States have transformed the process into a weirdly dramatic affair where you’re forced to join Discords and follow overly exuberant guys on Twitter in the hopes that they’ll give you a heads-up on a PS5 “drop” — a store making a big shipment of PS5s available for purchase. These stores have turned every drop into an event, when really, buying a PS5 should be as easy as buying a pepper grinder.
The other day, a package was sitting in the vestibule of my apartment building. I noticed my name on the label and mentally cataloged any recent purchases I may have made or packages someone mentioned sending. This didn’t match anything I was expecting, and I brought it upstairs, carefully opened the box… and found the pepper grinder I’d Kickstarted back in 2020. It began shipping months before, and my name had finally popped to the top of the queue.
Buying a PS5 feels like trying to enter a supremely pricey raffle, securing a COVID vaccine slot in March 2021, or getting tickets to a Serenity preview in 2005 before we knew Joss Whedon was an awful human and Browncoats were insufferable. Every time a PS5 “drop” is imminent, my blood pressure rises to the occasion, trying to prepare me for a Sisyphean “Add to Cart — slog through a Recaptcha — watch the PS5 leave my cart” process.
Again and again.
I have gotten extremely good at Recaptcha. (I only learned Thursday that my ad-blocker may be responsible for my prolonged experience with Recaptcha and that I should white list any site I’m trying to buy a PS5 from.) I can spot the smudgiest bus and the most hidden car with ease. I can now safely tell you that it’s okay to not click on the one tiny bit of the bicycle in a lonely square but to not ignore things that look like a crosswalk but aren’t because Recaptcha’s database is different from the database you call a brain and cares not for logic but only for your furious clicks of things it approximates are other things. Recaptcha was created to teach computers to see, and I am confident that when a nuclear murder robot one day tracks me down in the midst of a crowd to forcefully shuffle off my mortal coil, I will have trained the damn thing with Recaptcha clicks to buy a PS5 that I still do not own.
I didn’t take part in the initial rush to buy Sony’s next-generation console. I already had an Xbox Series X and told myself I’d get a PS5 when the furor had died down and an exclusive I was interested in was closer to launching. I’m old enough now that lining up for hours outside Walmart or Best Buy has lost any romance it once had. I like to think I am an adult and can patiently wait to buy the thing when it does not involve Black Friday rushes.
But Final Fantasy VII Remake Intergrade is out in June.
Six months in, the furor to buy a PS5 has not died down. Thanks to a semiconductor shortage affecting everything from laptops to cars, the PS5 supply has not been able to meet demand. Sony admitted the delay would last well into 2022.
If a PS5 were like my pepper grinder, video game preorders at GameStop, or most things at mom-and-pop stores, then I would simply put my name on a list at a retailer, put some money down, and patiently wait for my name to appear in the queue and then the PS5 on my doorstep. But that isn’t what has happened. Instead, a whole weird sub-economy has sprung up around the PS5 and other products affected by the semiconductor shortage, like the Xbox Series X, AMD’s entire new lineup of GPUs and CPUs, and Nvidia’s newest GPUs.
Sites, including The Verge, have gotten very good at pointing readers to restocks that become obsolete minutes after the drops go live. Personalities on Twitter have developed whole brands around restocks.
Retailers have put labyrinthine mechanisms in place in an attempt to discourage scalpers who resell the products for hundreds more. In practice, scalpers still seem to have no issue stocking up, while typical consumers are left feeling like they’ve entered a lottery and the prize is spending hundreds of dollars. Enterprising programmers have attempted to halt scalpers in other ways, such as overbidding on products on eBay, but for the most part, people are in a race with other people who just want to try out Returnal and a guy who wants to try to sell a PS5 for $500 more on eBay or StockX.
NewEgg’s solution has been to transform buying a PS5 into an actual raffle. Newegg periodically announces free drawings. The prize? You get to buy a PS5!
Best Buy and Target’s apparent method to halt scalpers is to force you to wait between the first and second click to add the item to your cart and then require you to pick up the PS5 in person. Given I live in New York City, where one walks everywhere, I have been okay with losing out on these PS5s, as I assume it also means missing out on being robbed as walk home with a giant PS5 box.
Walmart and GameStop both ship you the actual device. That’s perfect! However, both are inconsistent with drops, and GameStop forces you to pad your purchase with gift certificates and games you probably don’t want. Worse, neither company has updated its website since, I think, HTML became the primary language of websites. After many Recaptchas, I got a PS5 into my cart at both stores, only to lose them when the checkout process ground to a crawl.
Sony will sell you a PS5 directly but uses a randomized queue similar to the one San Diego Comic-Con relies on to book hotels. You can use as many computers as you like to sit in the queue (and you will be forced into a few Recaptcha processes along the way). But unlike the others, if you get in, you actually get in. No elation over getting a PS5 in your cart only to experience the extremely stupid but very real annoyance of losing it because they’re sold out in your area or the Waltons’ billion-dollar empire can’t handle a few thousand people trying to check out at once. You’re in. You get a PS5. You have to pay shipping because Sony only offers free shipping on purchases over $510.
And this awful and overly dramatic way of doing business isn’t going away anytime soon. The semiconductor shortage means there will be plenty of must-buy gadgets in short supply and the companies with barely functional webpages have feverish consumers in need of the next new thing over a barrel. They can make us jump through hoops just for the chance — the mere chance — of buying something because they have the supply and we all have the demand.
My PS5 apparently ships from Sony next week.