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With the launch of the PlayStation 3 in Europe fast approaching, there are plenty of people with something to say about the imminent arrival of Sony's latest. Sony themselves, of course, have a fair bit to say - most of it focusing on the claim that this will be the biggest launch of any console yet, despite the well-publicised problems the firm has had with keeping hardcore consumers on-side in the last 12 months.
Their stance seems to be backed up by the majority of retailers, with several - including massive online retailer Play.com - claiming to have taken more pre-orders for the PS3 than for any other console, ever. Detractors point out that while consoles like the Wii and the Xbox 360 sold through their pre-order allocations in a matter of minutes, pre-orders for the PS3 on popular retail sites are still open after over a week. How, ask the sceptics, can this be considered a successful launch if the demand is so low that pre-orders aren't snapped up instantly?
The obvious answer - which may well have the added benefit of being true - is that PS3 pre-orders are indeed higher than the Wii or 360 pre-orders, but that Sony's allocation of the console for day one in Europe is vastly larger than its rivals' allocations were. This means two things; firstly, that PS3 is probably going to have the biggest console launch ever in this territory, and secondly, that such figures are somewhat meaningless, since all past console launches have been constrained not by demand, but by availability.
It also, of course, opens the floodgates for critics to ponder out loud why it is, exactly, that Sony has so many units to ship to Europe - and fingers will no doubt be pointed once again at the system's reportedly faltering sales in Japan and North America, where an increasing weight of evidence suggests that sell-through simply isn't as rapid or as healthy as Sony might have liked.
A launch, in other words, is a wondrous thing - although if it's any consolation to Sony, it's not really something which they could have got "right", as such. Too few units and there would be outcry; too many units and there are concerns over sales. Naturally, there is a very big difference between having units on the shelves due to strong supply (which Sony claims), and actually missing your sell-through targets (which its critics believe), but since nobody actually has figures to prove things either way, we'll probably have to wait until March to make a determination on that particular chestnut.
Here in the UK, returning to the issue of the impending launch, not everything is rosy despite the solid figures being reported by retailers. Regardless of how impressed consumers may be with the PS3 itself, it would probably be tough to find a single consumer who's particularly impressed with how the launch is being handled by certain retailers. I refer, of course, to the ages-old practice of bundling, which forces consumers to buy a mountain of other stuff in order to be guaranteed a console within the launch period - a practice which has reached mind-boggling new heights with the impending PS3 launch.
Many stores up and down the country are demanding that customers pre-order a large number of games if they want their console pre-order to be valid - a common tactic, and one which does boost the tie ratio of the machine, but also one which lumbers consumers with a stack of games, many of which may be utter rubbish added to the bundle because that's the only way they'll sell. Further up the line, you've got HMV - one of the biggest media retailers in the country, who have decided that their bundle deal will see customers paying not only for a PS3, but also for a PSP and a 4GB memory card. The price? A cool GBP 675.
Okay, so that's a relatively isolated deal - but it has still raised eyebrows, and hackles, among many consumers. They may well have a point, too. I find myself wondering what my reaction would be if I was told that I needed to buy a Blu-Ray or HD-DVD player if I wanted to be guaranteed to have my new flatscreen TV delivered on time - or imagining myself laughing in the face of the salesman who told me I had to buy six albums with my new iPod.
Bundles, of course, can be hugely successful when you're actually offering the consumer value for money with them - in general, for example, this is the case when a platform holder chooses to put together a bundle deal with a specific high-profile game. However, when consumers are being forced to buy extras which they don't want in order to boost a retailer's margins, you have to question whether the games industry is really going the right way about convincing people to buy into this as a mainstream leisure pastime.
Even once the launch is done, the spectre of frankly awful bundles will continue to haunt the horizon. On more than one occasion, I've walked into retailers in the UK to buy a console which has been on the market for several years, and have been told that I can only acquire it as part of a bundle with several games. Certainly, this bundle is ostensibly cheaper than buying all the games together - but then again, the games in question are often absolutely terrible, and have been included in the bundle because there's no other way of getting rid of them. An informed consumer may know that they should avoid such false bargains; but many people undoubtedly fall for them, and end up with terrible games, a hole in their wallet and a very low opinion of the games industry.
Of course, conventional wisdom says that publishers and platform holders should say nothing about bundles, even when the bundling policies being used by retailers are abusive, unfair and exploitative. After all, more software and accessories sold means additional revenue for publishers, not just for retailers - why upset the apple-cart? But for platform holders, questions have to be asked on an ongoing basis about how retailers choose to present console platforms to their customers - and firms like Sony must remember that while the initial transaction may be with HMV, Virgin, GAME or Play.com, the buyer of a PlayStation is a Sony customer as well.
Being forced into an uncompetitive bundle deal, pushed into buying poor software or awful accessories, and generally gouged by an unscrupulous retailer at the point of purchase is not a good start to a long-term customer relationship. The industry's responsibility does not end at the point when a product makes its way to a retailer's shelf - these are your precious brands which are out there on the front lines, and it's important that publishers and platform holders alike should question exactly what is being done to public perception of those precious brands by their fair-weather partners in retail.
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