When I arrived to pick up my copy of Death Stranding at 9:00 PM on a Thursday night, my Gamestop was nearly empty. A group of teens kept to themselves near the demo kiosks, while a handful of us walked up to the counter to get the game. Since I arrived a couple minutes after 9:00, it’s possible I missed a big line, but judging from the quiet atmosphere, that’s pretty unlikely. Out of curiosity, I asked the employees if there had been any activities planned, since I was told over the phone they were expecting people to arrive as early as 6:00 PM, but they said nothing went on. Actually, fewer people pre-ordered Death Stranding than they’d planned and the event was held anyway out of a mix of obligation, expectation, and convenience. At the very least, picking it up at 9:00 PM gave people a chance to install the game so they could play it the next day.
Back in the early 2000’s, when midnight releases became big, things were much different. The tradition has roots back in the midnight showings of certain 1970’s movies like The Rocky Horror Picture Show (which is still on the midnight circuit today), but it crystallized into its current form thanks to the release of the last few Harry Potter books. HuffPost’s Jenna Amatulli has a good write up looking back on the era of prime Pottermania, but as someone who attended the midnight release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows myself, I can confirm that it was a huge event. In my local downtown area, it was an opportunity for businesses to get together and throw a Harry Potter festival that lasted all afternoon, with the book launch as its centerpiece. The photography studio sold portraits with the promise that customers would look like they were in the wizarding world, while restaurants, bars, and candy shops offered products like butterbeer, Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans, and more.
By that point in mid-2007, midnight releases were popping up everywhere, especially in the video game market. When the launch of Halo 2 made the news for its Times Square midnight release, that was big on its own. With the dawn of new consoles like the Playstation 3 in 2006, Gamestop was ready to mobilize and offer a midnight launch nationwide, while the Wii, which launched to immediate success and constant hardware shortages, inadvertently took the idea to a whole new level. In order to get their hands on the system as soon as possible (and avoid getting scammed online) families and enthusiasts alike would get up early to wait outside of Targets, Walmarts, and whatever other stores were nearby, hoping the next shipment of Wiis would include enough consoles to satisfy everyone.
This was a phenomenon that went on for months. As one of the families that participated in the Wii hunt later on, I can tell you what it was like for my dad and me: disappointing, frustrating, cold, and surprisingly a lot of fun. Despite looking back at it now and noting that, yes, we were all just extremely afraid to miss out on the latest technology craze, a quasi-community vibe formed around the hunt. My middle school friends and I would talk about our experiences, getting jealous of anyone who got the console before us, while our parents swapped notes about which stores got shipments on what dates, and how many Wiis were supposed to be on the truck.
What ties these events together, and ultimately what made them successful, is that they were not just about waiting in line. Spending the day celebrating Harry Potter with like-minded fans elevated the experience, while plotting out which stores gave us the best chance of getting a Wii was a thrill all its own. In the years since, the appeal of waiting outside a store for a physical product has lost the newness it once had, but it’s fascinating to see how commonplace midnight releases have become. Some products, like the latest iPhone, are still able to draw long lines because they release so consistently every year and have such fervent fans, it’s become tradition. Meanwhile, events like large budget movies have moved beyond starting at midnight, to 7:00 PM the night before, if not earlier than that, and it’s largely worked out for them, especially if the box office numbers for movies like Avengers: Endgame are to be believed. After all, they draw audiences into the theater to watch something, not just walk up to the counter, pay for something, and drive home.
Video games and books have not been so lucky. Thanks to the rise of digital media, being able to download a book from home, or buy a copy online, pretty much put the idea of launching a book at midnight out to pasture when the Harry Potter series ended. For video games, though the digital convenience is there, these events have not gone away. They’ve tried to pivot, like movies, to be more feasible to attend. At their height, these events were fun because it wasn’t just about someone getting their copy of a game, it was also being among people who liked what you liked, and anticipating the release of something everyone would, in theory, like together. Plus, you never quite knew who would show up. Around the release of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, begging go to Gamestop resulted in my dad getting to meet and talk football with Jarrett Payton while I waited in the car.
As people have grown more comfortable talking about video games in their lives and the hobby has grown more mainstream, the allure of meeting others has dwindled, too. It’s much easier to find a coworker you can talk about games with, or friends you made online. Not only that, there are so many late night launches now, it’s hard to care about them in the same way. It’s nice to be able to pick up Death Stranding, Far Cry 5, the latest Call of Duty, or any other hotly anticipated AAA game at 9:00 PM, but it’s also just as easy to wait the extra day and pick them up at 10:00 AM, or 3:00 PM. These launches aren’t so much “events” anymore as they are extra opportunities to get the game as soon as possible. No excitement, no thrills, just the two minute transaction and maybe a small line for your trouble.
So why even have these events anymore? We don’t need them. For years, people have been able to preload games on a console before launch, so that it unlocks at the appropriate time. That carries with it all the excitement of someone getting their hands on the game the minute it’s out, without having to go anywhere. With no rhyme or reason to when these events are held, or any kind of enticing factor to make the drive out to the store worth it, there’s no need for video game launch events to exist. If specialty game stores waited for the next truly shiny rock on the horizon, like the Final Fantasy VII Remake, to bring back midnight releases and make them actual events with excitement, activities, and a sense of community, then I could see why they might have a place in the industry. But with the way Gamestop’s stocks have been going these days, that seems pretty unrealistic.
If you like what you’ve read, be sure to leave a comment below! You can also reach me by email (dcichocki(at)tiltingwindmillstudios(dot)com), and you can find me on Twitter, too. For my previous coverage of Death Stranding, check out my list of Ten Games to Look For in November 2019. Thanks for reading!