After years of speculation, months of hype, and a mixed bag of launch titles, the Xbox 360 is now officially on sale across North America. The chaos began on the East Coast mid-Monday, when an armed robber absconded with two units from an EB Games outlet in Virginia.
Later, legal purchasers of the console got their first crack at the console at 12:01 a.m. EST when Best Buy, GameStop, and EB Games opened their doors. Simultaneously, at 9 p.m. PST, the 360 also went on sale at Microsoft's Zero Hour event in the Southern California desert. However, the rest of the West Coast had to wait for various "Midnight Madness" sales.
At one Best Buy in suburban Seattle, Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates showed up to help hand out 360s and engage in several not-so-impromptu Project Gotham Racing 3 sessions. "In the living room itself, Xbox 360 is our centerpiece and a product that redefines what goes on there," Gates told the Associated Press.
But for the vast majority of would-be purchasers, the quest for a 360 had less to do with visionary proclamations and more with rampant inconvenience--as well as the occasional anarchy. Problems were particularly prevalent in the San Francisco Bay Area, where members of the tech-obsessed populace were already lining up outside stores on Monday afternoon. By noon Tuesday, GameSpot staffers who had not preordered Xbox 360s witnessed sellouts of the console at dozens of locations, including Fry's Electronics, Costco, Circuit City, and Game Crazy. At the Toys "R" Us in San Francisco's Richmond district, which quickly ran out of its two-dozen-odd allotment of 360s, a hysterical woman demanded the manager come over to her house on December 25 to explain to her young son why he wasn't getting a Christmas present.
Microsoft's official retail partner for the 360 launch was Best Buy, which has several locations spread around the Bay. By 1 p.m. PST Monday, 35 people had set up camp outside the Santa Rosa Best Buy just north of the town of Sonoma, which expected to receive 190 systems; four hours later there were more than 100 people awaiting the outlet's "Midnight Madness" sale. Farther south in San Carlos, a clerk at Best Buy was already discouraging callers from showing up at the witching hour, saying the crowd outside would soon exceed the store's total allotment of 80 360s. In Rosevile, a throng of 300 customers waited hours, only to find the outlet had a paltry 57 units in stock.
On Tuesday, GameSpot staffers witnessed even more chaotic scenes at the local Target in Colma, on the peninsula south of San Francisco. There, a lone security guard spent most of the night shooing an increasingly unruly crowd away from the parking lot. The situation nearly spun out of control around 7 a.m., when the guard left his post for five minutes, prompting a mass influx of would-be customers eager to receive vouchers good for a 360.
When he returned, the security guard's attempts to get the 100-plus-person crowd to form a line were rebuffed until the arrival of police and a California National Guardsman around 8 a.m. A trio of veteran GameSpotters witnessed the Guardsman quickly take control of the situation and move to the head of the line--where he promptly turned around and asked for a 360 voucher himself. The Guardsman then promptly fled the scene, voucher in hand, leaving police, Target employees, and a visibly agitated crowd to fend for themselves.
Even more underhanded events were afoot at the Target in the East Bay suburb of Pinole. There, voucher-scalping was rampant in the parking lot prior to the store's opening, with some vouchers selling for as much as $300--not including the price of the 360. More enterprising profiteers purchased units and immediately resold them in the parking lot for as much as $800--over $400 more than the higher-end Xbox console's $399 sticker price. By midday, the console was fetching well over $3,000 on eBay.
Many gamers who had planned to avoid the usual platform-day launch bedlam by preordering the Xbox 360 also encountered frustration. One GameSpot staffer was sent a reassuring e-mail saying he was number 35 of the 40 preorders guaranteed at his local EB Games, only to later learn the outlet's allotment had been reduced to just 20 units, leaving him high and dry. Luckily, his subsequent 10-hour vigil outside Best Buy paid off.
Another GameSpot editor who had preordered his unit from Wal-Mart was sent a flurry of confusing e-mails regarding his unbundled, hard drive-equipped Xbox 360 and copy of Project Gotham Racing 3. Within seven hours of receiving his confirmation, the editor got another e-mail saying that both the system and the game had been cancelled. This past Sunday, the editor received an e-mail saying his Xbox 360 had shipped, but that his game order remained canceled. He had not received the unit as of press time.
However, not all Xbox 360 launch-day stories were tales of disappointment. Several attempts to acquire units at Costco and CompUSA were successful, although the latter store had no extra controllers and very few games on hand. A spontaneous visit to the Virgin Megastore in downtown San Francisco saw one buyer grab the last of the 14 360s on hand, thanks to a no-show.
For a complete rundown on the debut of Microsoft's next-generation console, check out GameSpot's Xbox 360 Launch Center.