Spot On: The US PSP Launch

Sony holds a major birthday party for its first handheld gaming platform. But were the guests impressed?


On October 26, 2000, Sony joined the Sega Dreamcast in ushering in the current generation of consoles with the launch of the PlayStation 2. Debuting with fewer than 30 launch-window titles, the PS2's future was, at the time, uncertain. In fact, some experts believed the device's price--then $299--would be prohibitively expensive.

Five years and 20 million-plus units later, the PS2 has become the console cornerstone of the world, bringing hundreds of games into the homes of hundreds of millions of gamers. The PS2 also helped spread the popularity of the DVD format by saving its owners the trouble of buying a separate DVD player.

At E3 2003, Sony announced it would try to leverage the PS2's success into the handheld market, revealing it was working on a portable with near-equivalent gaming power called the PlayStation Portable (PSP), which could fit in the palm of a player's hand.

As it turned out, the device would require two hands to operate and would take almost two more years to reach the US market. But tonight, in retail locations across North America, the PSP went on sale without a hitch, save for the odd robbery. Despite a higher-than-expected retail price of $249, versus the approximate $185 tag it carried when released in Japan last December, the PSP received a rapt reception, prompting long lines that formed hours--and in some cases days--before it went on sale during the first seconds of March 24, 2005.

Besides the celebrity-studded Sony Style party in New York City, which was (for better or worse) hosted by Carson Daly, Sony's main premiere event for its new platform's launch was in San Francisco. Held at the Sony Metreon, the titular company's premier entertainment complex in the US, the event saw throngs of gamers turn up to be the first people on the West Coast to get their hands on the device.

The first potential PSP purchasers showed up at the Metreon at 8:00am PST of the previous day, lured by the promise of handheld games with near-PS2 quality graphics. After spending the night camped out across the street, the eager early adopters were readmitted onto the sidewalk surrounding the entertainment complex the following afternoon. There, they were given food, drink, and hospitality by Sony workers, not to mention an inordinate amount of attention from news outlets.

But as the day progressed, the event turned from a small collection of the Sony faithful into an ever-expanding gathering of consumer acolytes. Underneath the glow of a giant PSP mock-up, complete with a 30-foot-wide LCD screen, the crowd expanded from a few dozen to more than 400 over the course of several hours. Those gathered were placated and/or teased by a group of a dozen spokesmodels, who walked the line showing off a pair of PSPs each...PSPs that were literally cabled to the models' waists to deter any potential cutpurses.

Inside, Sony Computer Entertainment America officials held court, ushering up selected press to discuss the PSP's prospects with SCEA executive vice president Jack Tretton (an interview with whom will run later today in GS News). In the confines of the PlayStation store, retail clerks set up a fortified bank of cash registers, behind which sat rows of boxes filled with PSPs, as local radio DJs spun a selection of stock tunes. This reservoir was replenished by semi-regular handcarts packed with the portables, often surrounded by as many as 12 Sony workers in silver Windbreakers, lest an overeager gamer run off with a dozen. Nearby, GameSpot Live set up for a special edition of its live weekly show, On the Spot, as playable displays of the PSP went online.

Ironically, many of those waiting outside already had PSPs. GameSpot editors counted at least one dozen gamers who were playing Japanese imports of the portable in line. "We're here for the games, dude!" shouted one wielder of the slick handheld, who sported 28 Days Later-esque contacts under a Naruto headband as fashion accessories. Others made due watching DVDs or surfing the Net on laptops as the clock ticked ever closer to the witching hour.

11:00pm PST: One hour before "P-Day"...

When asked to describe their feelings one hour before they got their hands on the prized possession they had camped out for--in the torrential San Francisco rain, no less--Richard Roth, who held the coveted wristband number one, said, "Relieved, sad, excited, hungry, and tired. The experience has been so good. The hyping has been great, and I've been treated very well." Given the PSP gear he was inundated with (T-shirts, knit cap, and more), it's safe to say this was an understatement...and it was made before the grand finale.

His cohort, and number two in line, Jossle Sison, when posed the same question, said, "Excited, speechless, sad, anxious, surprised." The two had been waiting for 42 hours. 42 hours! He went on to say that the wait was a life-changing experience.

The two had been mobbed by cameras and reporters in the waning hours of the launch and were to become media darlings, simply for their passion for gaming.

According to Patrick Seybold, senior public relations manager at SCEA, the Sony store at the Metreon had 500 PSPs to sell. By his count, the line had grown to approximately 400 eager customers as of 11:00pm PST. Unfortunately, only six of the eight Sony launch titles were actually in the store. MLB and ATV Offroad Fury: Blazing Trails "would be in the store tomorrow."

11:30pm PST: A half hour before "P-Day"...

Checking back with Richard and Jossle with only 30 minutes to go, GameSpot, in the spirit of the countdown, gave them only three words to describe the experience this time. Richard sighed, "Excited, worried, and starving." When asked why he was worried, he replied, "I'm worried about how I am going to get home." Little did he know what he had in store for him.

Jossle, a bit less media-struck, said, "Surprised, anxious, sad." Like a child unwrapping the last of his gifts on Christmas day, he knew the splendor was nearing its end. "It's just been such a great experience."

The pair are off of work until Friday, when they have to return to working at PetSmart.

GameSpot Live took over from there, as Richard was challenged by GameSpot's own sports editor, Brian Ekberg, to a one-on-one ad hoc Wi-Fi match of Ridge Racer over the PSP. Halfway through the race, Richard asked Brian, "Do you want me to wait for you?" While Brian held an early lead, Richard took over the second half of the race and was rewarded with his own copy of the game, courtesy of GameSpot.

11:36pm PST: 24 minutes to "P-Day"...

Those with wristbands numbered one through 26 made their ways into the Metreon.

11:57pm PST: Three minutes to "P-Day"...

The Sony employees took their positions behind the cash registers, and the currency-gobbling machines began humming.

12:00am PST: "P-Day" has arrived.

Amid cheers and whistles, Richard made his way to the counter, alone. Tretton handed Richard a box containing the first PSP sold on the West Coast and said, "One down." Richard was then mobbed by hordes of media personnel that wanted to get their takes on the first gamer on the West Coast to officially own a PSP.

Jossle, the second individual to own a PSP, summed up the experience in one descriptive word: "Phenonemal."

Amid the media hubbub, Richard made his way over to GameSpot and was, this time, asked to describe the experience in just one word. After mulling about the idea for a while, he raised his head, smiled, and said, "Glory."

As it turns out, neither Jossle nor Richard had reason to worry about a ride home, because Sony provided the duo with a limousine to take them back to their abodes.

While celebrity sightings were scarce, Golden State Warriors forward Mickael Pietrus, fresh off a defeat at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks, achieved a moral victory by picking up his own PSP, a good thing considering he's on the road 41 games a year.

Stephen, Chris, and Greg, who hovered around the wristband numbers of 18 to 20, held their PSPs with smiles. After posing for several pictures with their new gaming units held out for the world to see, Greg, from San Francisco, said, "I'm going to fall asleep with my PSP next to me."

Chris, also of San Francisco, quickly replied, "And when I wake up, I'm playing it."

The line was still deep as of 12:30am, but everyone remained optimistic. Tim Griggs, wristband number 412, and the last person in line, arrived at the Metreon at 12:15. "The first thing I'm going to do is take it home and let my 15-year-old play with it. I have to work tomorrow."

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