November 20, 2006 6:01 PM |
[Regular GSW columnist Matt 'Fort90' Hawkins spent all of this past Satuday night, and early Sunday morning, at Nintendo's Will launch spectacular in the heart of New York City, Times Square, to provide the following special report on perhaps one of the most successful console launches in history.]
I arrived in Times Square around 8:40pm-ish, forty minutes late for the official kick-off for the midnight countdown for Nintendo's Wii (would have been sooner, but the subways in New York City, especially on a weekend evening, are often frustratingly flakey) and as I approached the Toys R Us, which was the official site for the system’s launch, I was expecting a long line of diehard gamers all waiting for the opportunity to be the very first to take Nintendo's latest little wonder machine home. And that's precisely what I got, but a whole lot more.
[Click through for LOTS more - jeez, Matt, this must be the biggest Wii launch report EVER!]
It was immediately apparent in the first 15 seconds that the proceedings was not going to be the same as Sony's PlayStation 3 launch event from just two days prior. Granted there was also a huge throng of people (though Nintendo's would bring together far more when all was said and done), but that was pretty much it. One key difference was the people themselves. Sony's event had brought together 400 "lucky" gamers, many of whom seemed rather gruff and surly, perhaps because they were all exhausted from waiting in line for many cold and wet hours, even days. Quite a few seemed to have a slight chip on their shoulders, as if they had something to prove, either to others or themselves, for going through such hurdles (the ordeals involved for anyone wanting a PS3, given all the nonsense relating to the oncoming shortage for example, had clearly left their mark). Others obviously wanted to get it all over with so they could just go home and not play their new hot toy, but just put it on eBay and turn a profit.
But not the Nintendo crowd. You could just tell that everyone wanted to be there, and was actually having a great time. People in line were very talkative and friendly, and many were quite proud to show their Nintendo colors (their legion of diehard devotees are often the brunt of messageboards like NeoGAF, but such vocal displays of affection was a breath of fresh air, again when compared to Sony's gathering, which had a strong layer of tension throughout).
And if people weren't chatting, they were just sitting around, enjoying wireless play sessions of assorted DS games (though you had a few PSPs sprinkled about).
Some folks choose to pass the time with games that were not of the video variety, but card or board games. I was half expecting someone to have the Nintendo-themed Monopoly, but alas, no dice.
Nintendo themselves also did an exemplary job of keeping the masses happy, by passing out assorted freebies such as shirts and caps, which helped to keep everyone nice and warm.
They also had folks riding around in Segways with Wiis attached and parked them at assorted spots of the very long line for keeping folks entertained. And that there is another key word, entertained. People playing the system seemed genuinely enthralled by the experience... whereas the looks on most folks' faces at the PS3 event as they tried out assorted launch titles had a definite "oh, so that's it?" expression to them.
The curly-haired kid to the right in the second pictures is Michael. While he played Wii games throughout the evening, his parents were stationed in line, lounging in camping chairs, with either a book or a coffee in hands. I spoke with Michael's mother Leah and she told me that the next day, which was technically a few hours away, was his 13th birthday, with the Wii being his present. When I asked her what she thought of the whole scene, she admitted to be pleasantly surprised, and did mention some hesitation with the idea of waiting in a long line all evening for a video game system, simply because of all the headlines that came from the PS3 lines.
That was also another reoccurring attitude and sentiment; everyone waiting for a Wii simply did not want to be associated with those who had waiting for a PS3. Which not only meant avoiding getting into fisticuffs over a video game system, but also not selling their new acquisition once they got it.
Every single person I asked said that they wanted to play their Wiis, period. And almost every single person, save one, did not have a PS3, nor were they interested in one, at least at its current price tag. The consensus was that there were no games of interest at all, save Metal Gear Solid 4, which as everyone knows is quite a while away. When asked what games they all wanted, the response was loud and clear: Zelda.
Though here's a guy who had no idea what to get. His name is Joe and here he is surfing the web looking for information on what games are coming and what to get. Joe told me that he hasn't had a video game system since the original Nintendo Entertainment System, and that video games haven't really interested him since, but the Wii offered something new and exciting, something worth taking the plunge for. And aside from the sheer number of people waiting in line that evening (which I'll touch upon in just a few) was the cross-section of the people waiting in it. Aside from the diehard gamers, a very sizeable portion were "casual" game players, those who at the very least you wouldn't expect to be there, waiting in line outside in the cold for a game system.
Many seemed to have been bored or scared away from gaming and Nintendo's new system appeared to be the olive branch to bring them back to the fold. Also of note was the variety of age: from young kids (as you already saw with Michael and his friends) to folks in their 40s. This is a strong contrast to Sony's event which only had folks in their 20s, with only one child spotted in the entire time, along with a few older folks in their 50s who obviously looked bored and eager to get the hell out and deliver the goods to whomever benefactor had paid for them to pick up their PS3s. On a side note: when I caught up with Joe later, he told me that everyone in line wanted to let him check their MySpace messages.
Back to the length of the line, it was long. Very long.
I knew it would be long beforehand (a friend of mine who knew I was going to be writing this report had text messaged me the night prior, around 1 in the morning, to say that there was already 75 waiting in line), but I wasn't expecting the scene that was laid out. The line began at TRU's front door, which is the corner of Broadway and 44th street, when up the side of the store, and the ones next to it, turned at 45th street, then went to and turned south on 6th, then turned back onto 44th.
According to various folks, the line had begun forming around Monday, with about a hundred of so bodies by that Saturday afternoon. Then a massive influx developed in the late afternoon. For those who had been there since day one, some of them developed a system to ensure that if anyone had to leave the line, for say a bathroom break, they would be ensured a slot when they returned. It was also developed to avoid line-cutters and the such. The system was simply people putting numbers on the back of their hands, with someone keeping a detail record of who had which number.
At five, TRU and Nintendo began to set their own plans into motion, which meant creating their own designated waiting area for people. And that also meant some of those who had been in line lost their place, which naturally upset them. But practically all bad feeling were wiped away, primarily fears of not being able to get a system, when white wristbands were given out to those in line that would guarantee a system. And the number of bands given out was 3,000. Perhaps more than anything, it was the fact that Nintendo had more than enough stock on hand (4,000 systems in total; 3,000 for the line-waiters and 1,000 left-over for pre-orders and late comers) that helped to set the laid-back, stress free tone of the entire evening. On another side note, it was funny hearing all the rumored numbers of systems that would be on-hand from line-waiters, which ranged from just 83 to 9,000. And at one point, even it was even said that Shigeru Miyamoto would make a surprise appearance.
On-top of all the good feelings, Nintendo also provided various folks on pogo-stilt legs running about, and doing somersaults, as well as a stage on the side of the store with assorted musical acts to lend to a real street-fair atmosphere to the proceedings.
You also had guys with LCD monitors strapped to their backs giving out information. Everyone on staff was exceptionally friendly and helpful. Again, a 180 to the Sony event, in which everyone working was both clueless as to what was going on and visibly exhausted, even annoyed with everything.
The line was either filled with happy folks, or attracting them, such this past summer's internet sensation, and host of GameLife, Andrew.
Even Spider-Man made an appearance.
There was only one cosplayer that I spotted at the TRU line. Her name was Rachel.
Here's two fairly normal guys...
... Nothing special, right? Well, immediately after this picture was taken, the guy on the right spotted a bunch of club girls walking down the street, and here's guessing that girls finally took precedence over video games, because he tried to hop the barricade to go after to them, but got a foot caught and almost broke his nose on the pavement. And unfortunately, the picture of the aftermath didn't come out well at all.
Near the end of the line was Sumayya, a design major at the School of Visual Arts, who created a bunch of buttons and even seat cushions for fellow Wii-fanatics to sit on.
So who happened to be at the very head of the line? Isaiah, aka Triforce, one of the figureheads of the local gamers association known as Empire Arcadia. Anyone who's familiar with the hardcore gaming scene in the Big Apple is no stranger to Triforce and his gang, all of whom were right behind him in line, so it was no surprise really to see him there.
Though I did have to point out the fact that it did seem a tiny bit suspect that he was at the head of the line, and enjoying all the attention that comes with it (he was constantly surrounded my reports and cameras) and at the same time also the star of a brand new reality show on MTV that focuses on gamers... and how the MTV offices are literally across the street, but his reputation would not be questioned, and assured me that he had been waiting since the previous Thursday, well over a week (yikes). When asked what what it meant to be the first person to get a Wii, he went on for over a minute with a rather rambling, and incoherent, response about "giving gamers a voice" and "to help unify the gamers and the game creators." And for anyone who knows the guy can attest that Triforce more than lived up to his reputation.
As previously mentioned, everyone couldn't have been in higher sprits, but it wasn't till an hour before midnight when the anticipation reached a fever pitch. An hour previously the last armband was given out and the final off the street folks were still being let in. More and more drunken party girls from the back-seat of cabs could be hear screaming "Hey, what are you all waiting for? .... A Wii-what? .... A video game system? .... No seriously, what are you waiting for?" At 11:30, some VJ from MTV hit the stage to talk with some folks waiting in line, including two kids and their mother who had been waiting since earlier in the week. The kids were the real gamers of the household, but the mom was clearly the most animated and excited.
Then the president of Nintendo of America, Reggie Fils-Aime went out and was warmly greeted by the crowd. Much like a spiritual leader, or the head of some cult, albeit one consisting of mostly harmless gamer geeks, Reggie gave a short speech that encapsulated what the Wii was all about and all that jazz, which got folks even more pumped and primed for zero hour.
And once Reggie exited the stage, those "extreme" stilt walkers from before went back on stage, hoppin' and a boppin'.
Meanwhile, myself and rest of the press folks followed Reggie into the store. Among all the other representatives for EGM, New York Times, ABC News, and assorted Japanese television crew members were two high school kids reporting on the behalf of their school newspaper. Both were totally bouncing off the walls with excitement to be there, and they were a lot of fun to talk with, until they started to cause such a ruckus, I had the feeling that they would get kicked out of the store, and get me dragged out with them.
Soon we were all downstairs in the video game department, and eventually Triforce made his appearance again, this time at a cash register, with Reggie on the other side to help ring him up.
Then it finally began. The Wii was finally on sale. The flood gates were open and soon groups of about twenty of so people at a time were let down to finally grab their systems.
Numerous cash registers were open throughout the floor, and more kept opening up, one after another.
And once again, there was plenty of Wiis to go around. All throughout were huge bins filled with games and accessories...
... and as soon anything began to become depleted, fresh stock was immediately introduced.
Most folks grabbed one system and a copy of Zelda, though some decided to take advantage of the situation and get one of two of everything.
The energy and excitement that filled the store is simply hard to describe. It felt like a bunch of kids in a candy store, all feverish running around, not because they couldn't find anything, since again there was plenty of everything, but simply due to some gamer's high. Everyone had waiting for that moment, and this was it. Though again, Nintendo and TRU really went the extra mile by having the entire process highly streamlined. As soon as people got off the escalators, they were greeted by TRU employees who had in their hands games and controllers, much like the hot dog vendors at Yankee Stadium.
One last example of the high spirits of everyone is courtesy of Anastasia, a college student from Florida who came up for the launch.
Overall, everyone went away a happy shopper. With the exception of those who wanted component cables, since none were on-hand. For those people, pissed is perhaps putting it lightly.
Here's what the line looked liked around 2 in the morning. There were still thousands of people in line, but things were moving at a fair pace, which was good enough for them. Again, just knowing that a system was waiting for them is good enough.
Afterwards I decided to stop by the Nintendo World Store, which is just a few blocks away from Times Square and TRU to see what the scene was over there. There was another fairly lengthy line... not as long the one at TRU, but substantial nonetheless.
Though the vibe was totally different; it didn't feel like some big party at the other location, but then again, it was far later and it had also gotten much chillier. Hence why most folks were bundled up or passed out.
But they still showed their fandom when possible.
Meanwhile, more than few were also up and about, and simply psyched for what was to come.
And there were even two different Links on-hand.
Even Mario and Luigi were in the crowd.
But the mood was definitely somber. A few in line called themselves the "true" Nintendo fans, because they had been waiting there at the official store instead of hanging out where all the noise was. Many were confused why Nintendo would choose a Toys R Us to be the launch epicenter when they have their own dedicated store just a few blocks away, and I myself felt the same way, til the scale of the TRU event sunk in and it was made apparent that the same thing simply could not have been done in a retail outfit many times smaller. Still. the folks who had initially pre-ordered at the Nintendo World Store were then left frustrated and even torn; some wished they had just gone and bought their system at TRU, especially after they discovered that it was so relatively easy.
As the hours crawled towards 6am, which was the time set for the system to go on sale for pre-sales, and 8am for everyone else, the energy levels began to rise, as did the length of the line believe it or not. But things began to resemble the aforementioned Sony event; most folks were totally confused as to what was going to happen. It was expected at a certain point that the lines would be split, but there were no Nintendo Store representatives to be found anywhere. At around 4 in the morning, a small gathering of folks began to form near the store's entrance, and those who had been waiting patiently nearby all that time (actually, the guys dressed like Mario and Luigi) were afraid that they would have to take a back seat once doors were open. Again, much of the anxiety came from the fact that no one knew how many systems the store had.
At around 5:45am, various store employees began to go down the line and give out info. The line would not be split, and instead those with pre-orders would simply be pulled from the line. When people heard this news, along with word how that there would only be three registers open, all they could do was groan. And everyone began to note that things were operating in a similar fashion as to when Miyamoto visited the store a couple of months ago: extremely disorganized. Again, it kinda began to feel like Sony all over.
But a few minutes after 6, the doors finally opened and the first sales were rung.
When I asked one proud new owner of a Wii if he was going to sleep or play games first, he responded with "Play games of course... plus we're also going to pop the cork and celebrate with some champagne!"
[Matt Hawkins is a New York-based freelance journalist and Gamasutra contributor. Plus he has a regular GSW article, Cinema Pixeldiso, which covers video game related films. Matt also designs games, makes comics, and does assorted “other things.” To find out more, check out Fort90.com.]