The life of a games journalist isn’t all champagne events and endless boxes of freebies and tchotchkes. Case in point, the launch of the Xbox One. USgamer was assigned just one unit, and over the past few weeks it’s been on the road as our coverage workhorse. Its permanent home is now on the East Coast, which means that with me representin' on the West Coast, yo, I’m having to buy my own console.
So this week, with no preorder to rely on, I’ve been pondering which location would give me the best chance to secure one. I immediately thought of Microsoft’s swanky flagship store in downtown San Francisco, since they’re guaranteed to have stacks of systems. But at the same time, I assumed that since the store was having a huge, much-publicized launch party with guests and DJ’s, it’d be like a zoo with queues a mile long. I applied the same logic to the big GameStop store close by. And indeed to the only Best Buy in San Francisco that was having a midnight opening.
So I looked further afield, and in the end decided that my best chance was to go somewhere inconvenient and out of the way - so I settled on a place called Colma, which I doubt you’ve ever heard of. It’s a tiny town about 10 miles south of San Francisco which is most notable for being a place where the dead vastly outnumber the living. The last survey done put the ratio at 1,500 people above the ground, and 1.5 million below. Yep. Colma is San Francisco’s graveyard city, and the resting place of the likes of Joe DiMaggio, Levi Strauss and Wyatt Earp.
In amongst the endless expanses of graveyards is a strip mall with a Best Buy, and that’s where I drove to at around 8:30 pm. When I arrived, there was already a line of some 35 people, mostly wrapped up in scarves, hats, multiple layers of coats and gloves, because man, was it freezing cold. Well, freezing cold for California – about 47 degrees fahrenheit (8 degrees celsius), which to those a little further north is probably quite pleasant for the depths of November. I was impressed at just how well prepared people were: most had chairs, thermos flasks and snacks, and almost all were watching or playing on iPads and iPhones.
I took my space at the back of the line, just where the queue snaked around the corner of the store, and out of the wind. Everyone was in a good mood and chatting to each other. One guy told me he was there to buy a machine so that he could flip it. He complained bitterly that he’d been here the previous week to buy a PlayStation 4 and had barely made $100 profit. I found it hard to sympathize with him. I talked to another guy who heard my English accent and told me all about his recent trip to the UK. He works with the San Francisco 49'ers and traveled to London to the game they played against the Jaguars at Wembley. Obviously, he wanted John Madden Football. I ended up having the longest conversation with a person who loved European history, and we ended up geeking out over the minutiae of World War I. Talk about random - but it was cool. Despite us being as diverse a group of people as you could imagine, we were - flippers notwithstanding - all there because we were excited to get the latest gaming machine.
At about 9:30, a Best Buy employee, shivering in a blue shirt, walked down the line handing out Xbox t-shirts, which was a nice little bonus, and a welcome cushion for the hard, cold concrete curb I was sitting on. Then at 10:15, it was the moment of truth. A store employee walked down the line handing out tickets to everyone, and I watched as her already slim stack of papers became thinner and thinner, holding my breath until I realized that I was indeed in luck - with just a few tickets to spare.
As the rest of the line filed away in disappointment, everyone with tickets excitedly talked about what they were going to do with their systems. Then a giant SUV emblazoned with KMEL 106, a local radio station that’s “San Francisco’s home for hip-hop and R+B” rolled up. A couple of people hopped out, walked down the line, and handed out some freebies, while talking pictures of us all. I guess if was some kind of random promotional thing, because they posted the pics on their website. This is mine - I’m with oldschool gamer dude on the left who’s taking his wife to the opera tomorrow, and hardcore gamer dude in the middle who bought a PlayStation 4 last week and was very disappointed with the launch games and wonders why he rushed to buy one.
At around 10:30, the store opened, and the line shuffled its way towards the checkouts, creeping past tables groaning under the weight of games and accessories. A couple of enterprising employees used the time to give us some seriously hard sell on various things – but mostly expensive Protection Packages. The specter of the red rings of death of yore were alluded to, but not actually mentioned to help undermine our confidence in the longevity of our yet-to-be-purchased systems. Knowing that these insurance packages are retail’s most profitable item by far, I declined the opportunity to safeguard my console. If it dies, I’m going straight to Microsoft.
As I trundled past the tables loaded with games, I picked up a copy of Forza, complete with shiny “Day 1” packaging, and from the table piled high with accessories, I bought a rechargeable battery and charger cable – one of those things you think should come with a $500 console but doesn’t. Once I’d paid up, I was given a numbered receipt, and wandered outside to run down the arbitrary clock to midnight, when I could officially pick up my machine. As I walked out, I noticed a fairly long second line had formed outside the store – this time it was the pre-order folks who were turning up a little early so they could pick up their machines.
I sat in my car playing on my iPad until a few minutes to midnight, whereupon the doors of the store were opened again, and everyone shuffled in for a second time. We had to run the gauntlet of goodies and more hard sell again, and then finally we picked up our machines. Mine was number 31 – of only 37 additional units sent to the store beyond their pre-order allocation.
Heading back to the car, I must admit I felt really thrilled. The excitement of finally owning a machine I've been looking forward to for months, but also the satisfaction of tracking it down and bagging it like some kind of big gaming hunter. It’s ridiculous and irrational, but it’s a feeling I’m sure most gaming nerds would understand. The whole experience was one of muted excitement – the antithesis of the loud and over-the-top launch parties in London, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and the one that thousands attended in New York where armored cars turned up filled with Xbox Ones.
Nope. This was the real world, and despite it being completely mundane, I absolutely loved every boring, tedious minute of it.