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.
The event space in the Sony Centre is what an estate agent might describe as “cosy” or even “intimate”, and you and I would just call “small”. It’s designed for small-scale demonstrations and minor press conferences, not for big public events; any veteran of Sony’s E3 conferences, or even smaller scale keynotes like TGS or an Apple “Town Hall” event would find this an unusually tiny venue for Sony’s bigwigs. Once 10.30pm rolls around and Sony’s event starts, though, it’s pretty clear that the choice of this space perfectly matches the tone the company wants to set.
This isn’t a gigantic spectacular, the return to Rome of a conquering army. Given this week’s extraordinary PS4 sales figures, Sony would be forgiven a touch of triumphalism, a bigger venue and a lot more fireworks, but there’s none of that to be found tonight. Instead, the event feels surprisingly homespun and off the cuff. This is Sony’s living room, and it’s invited its best friends around to celebrate together. Everyone will fit in if they squeeze.
Nothing of value for the news media comes out of the event. People overseas who tuned in to watch online were no doubt turning off in droves when it transpired this was not a press conference or announcement of any kind - not to mention being entirely in Japanese.
The hour and a half event rambles by entertainingly. It’s far from the tightly scripted events we’re used to seeing from Sony and other platform holders - there are to be no important announcements tonight. The closest we get is that there’s a limited edition Yakuza Ishin hard drive bay cover for the PS4, which will seemingly only be given to 100 customers at the Sony Store (so no, you can’t have one).
The atmosphere is relaxed and cheerful. Sony Worldwide Studios boss Shuhei Yoshida and SCE Japan & Asia boss Hiroshi Kawano take the stage together to thank everyone for coming, the pair veering into comedy double act territory more than once.
There are a couple of exhibition matches (Killzone: Shadow Fall and FIFA 14) played by Sony staffers, top FIFA gamers and minor Japanese celebrities. More celebs appear on video to muse about their love for PlayStation and congratulate Sony on new arrival - these videos are actually rather endearing, with musicians mostly just chatting off-the-cuff about their favourite games and consoles. Rock group Fujifabric got seriously into Final Fantasy 7, it seems, while a duo from girl group Scandal reminisce about Para Para Paradise and Bust-a-Move and indie crooner Daisuke is, surprisingly, a massive fan of Oblivion, Fallout and Skyrim.
Developers turn up too, although nobody says anything terribly interesting. Capcom’s Ono Yoshinori has made a video for the event, in which he apologises for the Deep Down beta being unavailable at launch, and inexplicably holds a tiny figurine of Blanka in his hand throughout, like the world’s worst ventriloquist. Nagoshi Toshohiro, Yakuza series creator and five-time winner of the coveted “game developer who looks most like a character from one of his own games” award, really gets into the house party atmosphere, turning up on stage with bottles of booze for Kawano.
The man responsible for the remarkable resurrection of Final Fantasy 15, Naoki Yoshida, is next up, accompanied by veteran developer Shinji Hashimoto, producer on Final Fantasy 15 and Kingdom Hearts 3. Finally, Hideo Kojima takes the stage. He introduces the laser-engraved FOX Edition of the PS4, which will launch alongside Ground Zeroes, and talks for a bit about his dream of making games you can play over and over again in completely different ways, so the idea of “clearing” a game is no longer relevant. He pauses midway to check the time; he’s worried he’ll talk so much that they’ll miss the actual countdown to midnight, he laughs.
Nothing of value for the news media comes out of the event, and people from overseas who tuned in to watch it online were no doubt turning off in droves when it transpired that this was not a press conference or announcement of any kind (not to mention being entirely in Japanese, of course). Still, it feels like a nice reward for the crowd who were shivering outside earlier. Moreover, it feels humble and personal - as much a “thank you” from Sony to its most loyal consumers, as a triumphal blare of publicity from a firm that’s already sold 5.3 million consoles before even setting a foot on home turf.
There’s one moment that sums it up nicely for me. When Yoshida and Kawano stepped off the stage at the start of the event, they didn’t go backstage - they walked into the audience and found empty seats right in the middle of the people who had been queuing up outside. This was stage-managed, of course, but it was genuine in its own way. After all, you don’t invite people to a party at your house and then insist on sitting in a different room from them.
Finally, it was nearly midnight. Sony Computer Entertainment boss Andrew House was the last man to take the stage, thanking the audience in excellent if heavily accented Japanese for their support, and apologising for the cold weather they’d endured. Kawano drew a number from a box; the person who would be Japan’s first PS4 owner was decided. To my amusement, it was a cosplayer; to my disappointment, it wasn’t the absolute legend who had turned up to the event dressed as a seven-foot-tall PlayStation Move controller.
A chap going by the name of “Nekomi”, in full combat fatigues and sporting a replica assault rifle and a shocked grin a mile wide, made his way to the front. The whole audience counted down to midnight together. Cheered by developers, celebrities and his queuing companions, Nekomi took the coveted box from Andrew House. Cameras flashed; PS4 was finally, finally out in Japan.
If it felt cold in Ginza on Friday afternoon, it felt absolutely freezing in Akihabara at 7am on Saturday. Outside the famed electronics district’s largest store, Yodobashi Camera, a carefully corralled line had formed in an area bedecked with PS4 posters and decorations. By my reckoning, about 150 people turned up for the 7am opening, which was counted down by a lady whose voice was far too cheerful for 7am on a Saturday morning. “Zero!”, she exclaimed at the end. “Yay…” mumbled the crowd, waving the PS4 branded scarves they’d been provided. Japan isn’t a nation given to American-style whoops of delight at the best of times - I reckon turning up for a 7am launch is enthusiasm enough. Asking for hearty cheering on top of that is a bit much.
Even on the strength of preorders alone, PS4 is almost certainly going to be the most successful console launch ever in Japan, matching similar performance in the USA and Europe.
Only a handful of those at Yodobashi had queued overnight for the console, a member of staff told me, with the rest arriving in Akihabara on early trains. Perhaps the Ginza launch at midnight took some of the shine off staying out overnight to wait for a new console, since you won’t even be in the first 100 to get one, while the weather undoubtedly played a part as well. Still, the turnout by 7am was impressive.
Last time I attended a console launch in Akihabara was the 3DS back in early 2011 - that time, hardly anyone queued up for the console, although a number of sites posted pictures of long queues which, had they bothered to actually speak to anyone, they would have discovered were for a newly released Kamen Rider toy, not for the 3DS at all. The scale and atmosphere of today’s event couldn’t be more different from Nintendo’s troubled launch.
I walk around a bit asking people what games they’re going to buy. A surprising number seem to be happy enough with the Knack bundle - perhaps it’s going to go down better in Japan than it did abroad - but Yakuza: Restoration is definitely the top pick. Battlefield 4 is also a popular choice, much more so than Sony’s own Killzone: Shadow Fall. As for games everyone is looking forward to down the line, Final Fantasy 14 has pride of place, but Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes is also on plenty of lists. There’s a solitary vote for Watch Dogs; “it looks so cool”, an earnest young man tells me.
Yodobashi was the only place in Akihabara with queues for launch, but plenty of other stores had signs advertising the new console. On the district’s main street, gigantic retailer Sofmap helpfully indicated that it had about 300 PS4s in stock for launch day - a pretty huge initial shipment, and other retailers around Tokyo also indicate that they’re very happy with the number of consoles they’ve received for day one.
While I wandered Akihabara, a friend texted me from Yurakucho, a business district near Tokyo Station, where he was waiting to pick up his preorder from Bic Camera. He’d just spotted Hiroshi Kawano turning up to watch the launch in a bright blue PS4-branded coat, presumably none the worse for wear from Nagoshi’s sake gift.
On the other side of the city in Shinjuku, Bic Camera also opened at 7am to sell PS4s. I dropped in on the way home to chat to a friend on staff there, who told me there were “20 or so” people waiting when they opened the doors in the morning, with the console selling strongly ever since. Echoing comments I’ve seen in the Japanese press, he told that PS4 is the most pre-ordered product the store has ever sold. “We still have stock, but it’s still early,” he said. “We got a lot of consoles but I’m pretty sure they’ll all be gone today. If you want one, you should get one now.”
I demur. I’ll probably check back later, but it’s risky to try to estimate a console’s performance based on a launch like this. From here, it looks like a sell-out opening weekend despite the huge levels of stock Sony has provided for launch, but “here” is central Tokyo where demand is likely to be highest. Retailers elsewhere may be left with a surplus of consoles; or sales may slacken considerably once pre-orders have all been collected.
Even on the strength of preorders alone, however, PS4 is almost certainly going to be the most successful console launch ever in Japan, matching similar performance in the USA and Europe. With its home territory launch in the bag, PS4’s lead in these opening skirmishes of the generation will be extended; and Sony can rest assured that it still commands enough devotion from its fans to keep them warm through some pretty cold nights (and mornings) on the Tokyo streets.
PlayStation 4 launched in Japan on February 22.