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Why were the PS5 and Xbox Series X pre-orders so chaotic?

Buying a new, next-generation console is supposed to be an exciting thing. But this generation, pre-orders for the two upcoming consoles, the PlayStation 5 and the Xbox Series X, were more of a time for frustration and disappointment as the preorder periods for both consoles turned into complete fiascos. So what happened?

The PlayStation 5 pre-orders were the first to launch — prematurely, apparently. While pre-orders were supposed to start on September 17, they actually went live on September 16 with almost no warning. Within minutes, both versions of the PS5 were sold out everywhere, and even those who thought they’d managed to snag one would find it vanishing from their carts. For those who’d made the dreadful mistake of eating dinner because they weren’t expecting the pre-orders to go live (such as myself) they completely missed even the opportunity to buy one.

Sony later apologized for the mess, saying it “could have been a lot smoother” (you don’t say) and promising to release more of the consoles for pre-order. Let’s hope that’s true, because, according to Press Start’s Shannon Grixti, at least one retailer has already sold their total 2020 stock. One wonders if the company is having to scramble to make more PS5s, as initial reports said it’d limit supplies at launch.

Microsoft officials were quick to chuckle and say that their launch wouldn’t be quite such a mess, but they were apparently a little too quick to say so. The Xbox Series launch was just as bad, if not worse.

At least two retailers — Best Buy and Amazon, of all places — didn’t launch the pre-order option on the consoles until well after the start time. Amazon didn’t even have a page for the Xbox Series X ready to go. In fact, while the report is somewhat dubious, it appears enough buyers were so confused about the lack of an Xbox Series X option that they accidentally bought the similarly named Xbox One X (see, this is why names like this are foolish, Microsoft). I’m told that GameStop would put players in a pre-order queue and would warn them not to refresh the page lest they lose their place, only to keep them stuck in purgatory while the consoles sold out.

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And in the case of both consoles, we now have scalpers selling their preorders on eBay for ridiculous markups. If I tell you nothing else in this article, let me tell you this: don’t buy one of those.

What the heck happened here? Why did the launch of these consoles, what should have been one of the most meticulously well-planned events from two of the biggest companies in the world, turn into such a shitshow?

I put at least some of this down to sloppy planning on the part of both companies. I’m not sure if I believe the rumor that both firms were waiting for the other to announce a release date first, but it is worth noting that the first release date was revealed through a leak. The Xbox Series release dates were leaked ahead of time, forcing Microsoft to finally give an official date of release far, far later than they reasonably should have. Sony followed up with the PS5’s release date shortly afterwards. It would make a depressing amount of sense for the launches to be this haphazard if the companies really did wait until the last minute to set the dates.

There’s also another explanation, which would put this outside the companies’ control: scalpers used bots to buy the console specifically for resale before any human customers managed to get in. This theory was expanded upon by Kotaku’s Luke Plunkett, who described the bots as “software that’s able to crawl a site’s store page and complete multiple sales before actual human fingertips have had time to even move a mouse cursor onto the thing they want.” If that’s the case, let me reiterate — do not buy from scalpers. It’s worth waiting a few weeks or even months after launch to hold onto your money and integrity.

Let’s hope both companies can restock. Until then, lots of us who didn’t manage to snag one of the consoles will just have to wait.

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Published September 23, 2020 — 23:58 UTC