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The consumer quest has begun for the current video game holy grail, the PlayStation 4.
Sony's new PS4 home game console officially goes on sale Friday for $399.
Demand for the PS4 and Microsoft's own new home system, the Xbox One (out Nov. 22, $499) is expected to outstrip supply through the holiday season and into 2014, says Norman Fong, CEO and co-founder of BuyVia, which has a smartphone app for tracking retail deals.
Consumers started lining up at retailers in San Francisco on Thursday morning, Fong says, in anticipation of the first systems to be sold after midnight.
Elsewhere, the line at the Game Stop store in West Ocean City, Md., began at 4 a.m. Thursday, when 14-year-old James Stewart brought a folding lawn chair and parked it right beside the entrance.
Stewart, of Ocean Pines, Md., got a ride to the store at the White Marlin Mall from his uncle, Danny Parker, 46. They showed up so early because they expected a much longer line by daybreak, but that never materialized, both said.
"Later on tonight it's going to be a lot worse, because that's when all the people who got pre-orders are going to come down here," Stewart said.
The second person in line was Tony Coffield, 21, of Ocean Pines, Md., who arrived at 6 a.m. "I ain't playing no games. I'm serious. I'm really legit," he said. "I came here just to make sure I'm going to get my system. If you don't get it today, you ain't getting your system. That's how rare it is. It's already sold out now. They only got a couple, and that's what we're in line for, the first extra."
Coffield says he knows the rival Xbox One is coming out soon, but he won't be buying it. Besides the fact that the new Xbox retails for $100 more, he thinks PlayStation 4 has superior graphics and gameplay. "The realism is amazing," he said.
A handful of gamers arrived at Best Buy in Green Bay, Wis., when the store opened at 10 a.m. Thursday to get in line for a limited supply of the $399 consoles that the store planned to sell after midnight, a sales associate said.
In Appleton, Wis., a GameStop store roped off a waiting area for the die-hards hoping to get a first play of the new system.
Jason Allen was the first in line shortly after noon Thursday. He said he would wait until 6 p.m., when numbered tickets were to be distributed. He joked that the console would be a Christmas gift for his kids, but might have to be opened shortly after midnight, "just to make sure the thing works."
In Fort Collins, Colo., about 40 people were waiting in line at 8:30 p.m. outside the city's sole Best Buy.
First in line was Jonathan Baak, 20, a college student who didn't have class or to work until 2 p.m. Friday. He snagged his spot by arriving a 6 a.m. Thursday --18 hours before sales began.
"My girlfriend thinks I'm nuts," he said. "She was here for half an hour and then went home."
Baak said he's a veteran of late-night releases, having waited for video games and Harry Potter books over the years, and has his system dialed in: bring food, caffeine and a computer, and make friends with fellow line-waiters in order to trade off for bathroom breaks. "Otherwise, it would get real messy," he said.
Kennon Werner of St. George, Utah, knows he's a lucky man. His girlfriend, Brittnee Bennett, also of St. George, started waiting in line Thursday at the Best Buy store in Washington City, Utah, a few hours before he was able to join her. She was buying it for his 25th birthday on Monday.
"He's spoiled," Bennett said. "He didn't even wait in line with me at the beginning."
Bennett arrived around 7:30 p.m. and was still near the end of short line of about a dozen hopeful PS4 buyers by 9 p.m. when Werner joined her. Werner said he currently has a PS3 and simply wants to keep up with the changing technology by playing the most up-to-date system.
Up at the front of the line in Washington City was Skip Boyce, also a St. George resident, who arrived at the store at noon and begin officially waiting in line an hour later.
"I just decided I wanted to be the first person in line," he said. "I'm mostly looking for updates. The PS3 has been out for a long time. I just want better graphics, better gameplay."
Consumers are eager because the PlayStation 4 is Sony's first new home system in seven years, an eternity in the fast-paced consumer technology world. Sony and Microsoft hope to reinvigorate the console game market with their new higher-powered systems and more immersive and innovative games.
Retailers from Best Buy to Target have sold many of the initial systems to consumers on pre-order. But most stores hope to have a few extras available for the hopeful.
"We have thousands of pre-orders, but we also have PlayStation 4s on hand for people to purchase," says Walmart spokeswoman Sarah McKinney.
While it expects to run out, Walmart will have PS4 and Xbox One systems for Black Friday shoppers. "We're going to be putting them out as fast as we can get them in," she says.
Sony has sold more than 1 million PS4s to retailers already and hopes to sell more than 5 million globally by the end of March. "Getting out of the gate is important," says Sony Computer Entertainment President and CEO Andrew House.
Competitor Nintendo released its Wii U last November and has had moderate success with that new system. It has sold more than 3 million so far. That's a much slower sales rate than that of its predecessor the Wii. Sony and Microsoft are expected to perform better and to benefit from slow Wii sales, says Piers Harding-Rolls, head of games research for global market analysis firm IHS.
By beating Xbox One to market by a week and being priced $100 below the competition, Sony "has got itself into a much stronger position at the launch of the PS4 compared to the PS3," he says.
Still, he expects few Xbox defectors because of Microsoft's successful Xbox Live online gaming network, which is extremely popular in the U.S. "As such in these opening weeks we expect Xbox One to outsell PS4 in North America, with the reverse taking place in Europe," he says.