PlayStation 4 launched in Japan this week, and Rob Fahey was there to witness the cold queues, geeky celebs, and the prospect of a record-breaking launch.
February isn’t a forgiving time of year to be queuing outside in Tokyo. The short line of fans shivering outside the Sony Centre in the heart of the fashionable Ginza district have lucked out, in some respects; today is sunny, even if the wind remains bitterly cold. Last weekend, Tokyo was blanketed in its heaviest snowfall for decades. Dirty, frozen slush remains piled up on the edge of the pavements, a reminder that there could be far worse times to be queuing up for a PS4.
When I swing past the Sony building, the hardy souls at the front of the queue are being interviewed on an impressive looking TV camera, so I slink towards the back to chat with some of those who turned up later. “I just got here a bit earlier,” the first chap I speak to tells me. He’s respectably bundled up against the cold, and a little tough to understand through his thick scarf. “I have today off work. They say the person at the front has been here for days.” Since Wednesday, I tell him. He shakes his head. “Crazy!” he announces in English. I point out that he’s going to be queuing up for around 12 hours. “That’s right,” he muses. “Maybe I’m a little crazy too?”
This is, as far as I can gather, the only place in Japan where PS4 will go on sale at midnight. Across Tokyo, major electronics retailers have had signs up for weeks counting down to the PS4 launch, but none propose to open at midnight to fulfil their preorders. Instead, big retailers are opening earlier than usual in the morning – mostly around 8am – so the hundred people queuing up in Ginza will have an eight hour head-start, at least, on the rest of Japan.
Plus, prior to getting to buy the console itself at midnight, they’ll get to attend a special event with presentations by the likes of Metal Gear Solid creator Hideo Kojima, Yakuza series director Toshihiro Nagoshi, Final Fantasy 15 producer Shinji Hashimoto and Sony’s own frontmen, Shuhei Yoshida and Andrew House.
Then again, an eight hour headstart in Japan doesn’t compare too well to the three month headstart audiences in North America and Europe have had – and even the devoted hardcore of PlayStation fans queuing up are keenly aware of that. “Hey,” says the person behind the guy I’ve been chatting to, “are you an American?” I’m European, I tell him, a stock response that generally avoids repetition of my regrettably frequently required explanation of the difference between Ireland and England (and occasionally, Ireland and Iceland). “Oh, European,” he says. “Is PlayStation 4 already out in Europe?” Yes, it came out last November. “I knew it!” he says to a friend queuing up next to him. “I told you it’s already out everywhere else. Japan is last!” He turns back to me. “So you’ve already got one?”
“I live in Tokyo so I’ve been waiting, the same as all of you,” I hastily explain. It doesn’t feel like the right atmosphere for a lynching, but you can never be too sure. Satisfied that we’re all on the same side, he nods his head. “It’s the worst, isn’t it? Last country for the launch.” I turn back to the first guy I spoke to, and ask if he’s annoyed about getting the console after the rest of the world too. “It’s annoying,” he admits. “Isn’t Sony a Japanese company any more? I think a Japanese company should launch new things in Japan first.”
His neighbour in the queue nods vigorously. I point out that Sony said it wanted to wait for Japanese games to be ready before launching here, and the chap who first asked where I was from takes over again. “It’s got nothing to do with that,” he says. “America is just a more important country now, for games. Japan used to be rich, but now the economy is bad, so it’s more important to sell a lot in America. That’s all.”
This is veering dangerously close to a political economy discussion, so I steer us back towards safer ground by asking what everyone wants to play when they get their hands on the new console. Yakuza: Restoration! (Ryu ga Gotoku: Ishin!) is an unsurprisingly popular choice – when I check later, it’s riding high at the top of Amazon Japan’s software preorder chart for PS4. I tell them that the game just got 39/40 in Famitsu’s review, to appreciative “ooh” noises – although the “are you American” guy, to whose relentless cynicism I’m starting to warm up, says that he doesn’t trust Famitsu because “it’s mostly just advertisements”. He concedes that the game looks great anyway.
Big retailers are opening earlier than usual in the morning, yet an eight hour headstart doesn’t compare to the three month headstart North America and Europe have had – and even the devoted hardcore of PlayStation fans queuing up are keenly aware of that.
“I want to play Knack,,” Captain Cynical’s up-until-now silent friend chips in. “We get it free with the console. It looks fun.” I point out that it didn’t get great reviews in the West. “I don’t mind,” he says. “Do you know Crash Bandicoot? The guy who made Crash Bandicoot made Knack. I love Crash Bandicoot!” Warming to the theme, my original conversation partner announces that he’s really looking forward to Final Fantasy 14. “Actually, I’m really addicted to it on PS3 already, but I think the PS4 version will be even better,” he says. More nods from those around us in the queue. “I like American games too,” he continues, “so I think I’m going to get Battlefield 4 tomorrow.” I ponder telling him that it’s actually made in Sweden, but my new cynical pal pipes up to say “those American shooting games are so boring, they’re all the same”, so I decide to spare the good people of Sweden his ire.
Amazon’s sales charts for PS4 make interesting reading, as it happens. Yakuza: Restoration is indeed in the top spot, followed by Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes (out here on March 20th) and then a brace of launch day titles: Battlefield 4, Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag, Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition, Killzone: Shadow Fall, Shin Sangoku Musou 7 and FIFA 14. Final Fantasy 14 is in 8th place on the chart, which is actually rather impressive when you consider that it’s not out until April 14th, that access to the PS4 beta is free and that existing players can download the PS4 client for free – so the actual audience for a boxed copy of FF14 on PS4 ought to be somewhat limited.
Of course, whether Amazon’s ranking will be reflected in the charts next week is another question, but the retailer is a big deal in Japan just as it is elsewhere in the world, so its charts provide a somewhat useful barometer of consumer tastes. In this instance, they suggest that many of the biggest launch PS4 games will be Western-developed titles, which perhaps says something about the nature of the early adopter audience here.
Checking Amazon and a few other popular retail sites, such as Yahoo! Auctions, also reveals that plenty of opportunistic resellers are offering launch PS4 consoles for significantly over the RRP. A first wave PS4 appears to command a ¥10,000 to ¥15,000 ($100 to $150) premium. It’s not clear how well business is going for these scalpers, but if they’re managing to sell consoles at those prices it clearly implies that tomorrow’s launch is going to be supply-constrained. We won’t know final figures until next week, but it seems eminently likely that most of the PS4’s launch shipment will be snapped up on Saturday morning.
“Hey,” asks the chap who wants to play Knack, “did you talk to those girls yet?” There’s a group of girls in the queue, sporting identical hockey masks for some reason and regularly being interviewed by Japanese media. Perhaps I’m being sexist and cynical, but there’s something a bit off about them – I’ve assumed they’re here as some kind of PR stunt, rather than as a straightforward expression of girl geekdom. “No, did you?” He shakes his head. “I think they’re from a band or something. Their manager was here earlier. Maybe you should talk to them, they’re cute.”
I look them up online later – they’re members of a band called Game Girls, each member carefully profiled by the types of game she likes, so there’s a girl in the band for every genre of game. I can’t figure out whether the fact that these are the only girls in the queue signifies a surfeit of enthusiasm on the part of Japan’s women gamers, or merely a surplus of common sense – it is, after all, very cold. Cold enough that I’m moved to charity; I offer to fetch hot drinks from a nearby cafe before I head back to the comforting warmth of my apartment. My offer is cheerfully declined – everyone seems to have brought thermos flasks with them. These guys are pros.