Tanked up on coffee and wrapped in a warm jacket, this morning I once again set forth into the wastelands of mid-lockdown Brighton for another episode of "what does a console launch look like in 2020". This time, it's the PlayStation 5 edition.
If you missed my prior escapades, last week I visited GAME's Brighton store to see exactly how the retailer was handling the launch of the Xbox Series X/S in the middle of England's Covid-19 lockdown. Game stores are classed as non-essential shops, meaning they're officially closed - but GAME has organised a click-and-collect system to allow customers to pick up their consoles on the day. For the Xbox launch I arrived at lunchtime, when things had really quietened down, so to catch some of the prospective PlayStation 5 owners as they were picking up their consoles, I set my alarm clock to arrive slightly before opening time at 8:30am.
GAME Brighton is located within Churchill Square Shopping Centre, which normally opens at 9am, but special arrangements had been made for the PlayStation 5 launch. Queue spots were marked out to remind customers to keep a distance of 2m from one another, and a security guard was on duty to ensure a timely opening... and hand out the occasional elbow-bump.
As far as I could see, nearly everyone was adhering to social distancing guidelines, with customers keeping their distance and the vast majority wearing masks even when outside. The eager beavers at the front of the queue had been there since 7:30, and I caught up with the person who'd managed to bag himself the first spot in line.
"I'm click-and-collecting for a friend, who's working away at the moment" said NHS worker Jamie when I asked about his decision to collect a console. "Mine's being delivered at 10 o'clock, so I've got to rush home after this and make sure I get back in time for mine!"
"Your friend owes you big, seeing as you had to get up early," I said.
"Yes, I also paid for it and pre-ordered it for them", Jamie added. Now that is true friendship. I hope Jamie gets paid back in full - and possibly a couple of beers thrown in.
Perhaps surprisingly, when I asked Jamie about the atmosphere of the launch he felt it was better than in previous years. With everyone queued in orderly fashion the proceedings had been quite calm, in stark contrast to the hundreds who would cram into a store on a typical launch day. He also felt that social distancing was being handled pretty well. "I think we were pretty much self-spaced anyway, and security came around to space out everyone else", he added.
I spoke to another customer in the line, KFC worker Scott, who similarly wasn't troubled by the social distancing requirements.
"I'm fine with it! Working in KFC you just get used to wearing masks all day, and when people complain about wearing them for 15-20 minutes at a time you're like... come on, put them on," Scott said.
Scott explained he'd chosen click-and-collect after GAME's delivery stock sold out when he first tried to pre-order online. Luckily for him, GAME had allocated some consoles for collection on the day, so he managed to get an order in for one of these. Scott said he'd taken a whole three days off work to spend time with his PS5 - although this was partly because the lockdown had put an end to his tattoo appointment plans.
Of course, it had to be done, so I asked both Scott and Jamie if they'd ever considered buying an Xbox Series X/S instead of the PS5. Apparently this was a bad question to ask next to a queue full of people waiting for PlayStations at eight in the morning, as about five of them immediately shook their heads and a chorus of "noooo" sprung up around me.
"We don't talk about Microsoft here," one of them hollered.
Scott said his decision to pick PS5 had been a "no-brainer", as he'd been using the PlayStation ecosystem for gaming since he was young. Jamie explained his decision had been guided by the platform his friends were using. "If I can't play with my friends, there's no point playing at all," he said.
Today is also the day when people discover just how chonk the PS5 is for themselves, so I was curious to know if Scott and Jamie were worried about how it would fit into their homes. "I was a bit worried about the size to start off with," Scott said, "but I've managed to sort out my room to the point where I have a nice little spot to put it in where it'll be well ventilated, so it doesn't overheat." Jamie, meanwhile, had made even more drastic preparations.
"So I actually went out and bought a brand new TV unit just to fit it", Jamie said. "It was one of the things I left on the back burner until I found out the dimensions of the PlayStation."
Eventually, the doors were opened and about 20 customers filed into the centre to queue again outside GAME, which appeared to have much the same setup as last time. Customers queued on marked spots, hand sanitiser was provided, and bagged consoles were piled up in the centre of the store to be handed out over the barriers. About four or five staff were on hand to check purchase details and manage the queue, with two customers able to approach the store at a time - meaning the whole process was surprisingly swift. A source previously told Eurogamer that GAME employees had been provided "plenty of PPE and hand sanitiser" for the console launches, "so staff should be safe enough".
All in all, GAME appears to have done a solid job of handling click-and-collect console orders in such a challenging situation. And it seems like those who attended were still able to channel some of the fun of traditional console launches - making friends and chatting games in the queue, albeit from a further distance than usual.
But what will all these new PS5 owners be playing first on their new consoles? The overwhelming consensus according to the GAME Brighton queue: Spider-Man: Miles Morales. Well, they've already gone the extra mile to pick up a console mid-pandemic - so what's one more?