An Ode to the Midnight Launch
Long lines, harsh weather, and the fear of missing out. But above it all: comradery.
It’s seven at night. Winter is slowly creeping in, and daylight savings forced the sun to set long ago. A biting wind blows, and it’s threatening to snow. Only five more hours until midnight.
You stand in a haphazard line against a cold brick building, alongside two-hundred other hopefuls, waiting on the chance to be one of the first to get the newest game console.
Inside the building, haggard-looking employees rush back and forth, moving displays, setting up stanchions, laying out the red carpet, and completely rearranging the store in a way to keep you and all the other dedicated — possibly rabid — gamers outside from completely demolishing their hard work.
They’re panicking, but so are you. Will you be able to get your new system? You have your pre-order slip, but what if they don’t have enough to fulfill all the orders? Are you too far back in line? Will you be leaving cold, tired, and empty-handed at one in the morning? Not for the first time, you try to count how many people are ahead of you in line. You lose track near the front, where the mass of people transforms into a sea of tents. Exactly how long have they been waiting? Your heart begins to beat a bit faster.
A car pulls up to the metal barrier that separates you from a more rational world. The doors open, and an older couple steps out. Someone’s parents perhaps? They walk up to the line, holding multiple containers filled with homemade cookies. A cheer goes out from the line as snacks and stories begin to get passed around. Around you, there is laughter. Someone asks what game you’re looking forward to the most.
Five more hours in the cold? That’s nothing. You can do that. Easy.
Ask a gamer about their first midnight release, and they’ll probably smile warmly and look off into the distance as they recount what is undoubtedly a formative experience. The friends they made. The trials they faced. The fear and anticipation intermingling in their stomachs for hours until at last the doors to their local game store opened and they were finally able to procure their prize. To some, it was less about the release itself, and more about the experience and gathering of like-minded souls. It was a reason to come together and to add an extra layer of meaning to the entire gaming experience.
The recent release of Sony and Microsoft’s newest generation of consoles, however, saw no such event. The tightening of restrictions during what is now the third wave of COVID-19 all but made that a certainty. The PS5 was only available online at launch, with many brick-and-mortar stores following a similar trend. This may not have done much to change how quickly the consoles sold out, but without this event to which so many of us have become accustomed, the beginning of this new generation of gaming feels like it has less of an impact. More of a soft opening instead of a grand event.
There was a point in time when the only way to get a product was in person. Amazon wasn’t the commercial giant that it is today, and there were no guarantees that an online order would arrive the day — or even week — of release. No, if you wanted your new console or game on release day, you had to go to your local game or big-box store, and hope. Things did get easier as time went on, though. Pre-orders, a more streamlined online system, and the ability to pick up in-store gave many people the peace of mind they wouldn’t have been afforded beforehand. But if you wanted it before everyone else, then the only option was to wait in line.
As gaming transitions more and more into an online-only space, there’s the thought that someday people won't want to wait in line anymore. We’re busy people with many important things to do. Who even has time to stay up until midnight nowadays? Especially when you can go to one of the numerous places online that will all but guarantee to have the console on your doorstep the day of release. You won't even need to put on pants, let alone stand out in the cold.
But there was life in that line. What started as a mad dash to get the newest, biggest, and best console or game before supplies ran dry transformed into a communal gathering. Did I really need to get a copy of Fallout: New Vegas the moment it was available? No. Were they going to be sold out by the following morning? Not even close. But in going to the midnight release, I got to see and meet every Fallout fan that was in my neighborhood. At that moment, I felt like I had a deeper connection to those around me than I would have if I had just stayed home and gone to bed at a reasonable hour. Not only were we all there for the same reason, but it was an instance where everyone shared common ground. It was easy to strike up a conversation with anyone because we all had at least one thing we knew we could talk about.
Once, I joined a friend who was in line for the release of the Xbox 360. Since I was coming from work, I brought a couple dozen pies to share with everyone in line. After seeing this, others began to leave their hard-earned spots in line to bring back more food, and after a while, we had a massive campout and potluck in front of our local Best Buy. That moment transformed from the hype and anticipation of a new console into something bigger. A moment that no other person would be able to share that wasn’t there on that day, in that moment. It was ours, and ours alone.
These lines didn’t always bring the greatest experience, though. Waiting for hours on end, for a chance to maybe spend $400 isn’t exactly an exhilarating experience. There was a lot of time spent doing nothing. Sometimes the store you were at wouldn’t have enough units, or the process would be mismanaged. And there was always that one person, who showed up days ahead of everyone else, just to smash the highly anticipated console to bits in front of the rest of the line. That in itself became a sort of odd —and mean — tradition. One that has thankfully been on the decline.
But with each passing generation, the events got easier, and a bit better managed. Stores began to see how dedicated these gamers were and started to make concessions for them, so they wouldn’t have to wait forever or in the cold. Smartphones and portable consoles made the wait more bearable. It was still the same event, but those rocky edges were smoothed away.
Even though we’re not going to see a midnight launch event at any point in the immediate future, that doesn’t mean they’re gone for good. They will continue to evolve into the future, just like they always have. They may never be the same as they have been, with the anticipation and the fear of missing out giving way to convenience and quicker gratification, but as long as someone is willing to sit and wait outside of a Wal-Mart until they open, there will always be a demand for stores to open at midnight. There will always be at least one person who will want theirs before everyone else.
It is one of the traditions shared amongst most every gamer, and that will continue to be the case for a long time. Even if we can’t gather in front of stores, for the time being, we can still share our experiences, and bask in the shared community of this newest gaming generation.