PS5 – Opinion: The Steam Deck Queue Showed How Companies Can Fight Against Hardware Scalpers
Within the last year, AMD, Nvidia, Sony, and Microsoft released new gaming hardware. Like every major hardware release, demand is always high, but fervent demand for next-gen consoles like the PS5 and Xbox Series X/S and new PC graphics cards turned the act of purchasing these high-ticket items into a recurring nightmare akin to going to your favorite retail store on Black Friday, hoping to find something good at a discounted price, but with all that disappointment popping up again and again from home.
So, when Valve announced the Steam Deck, I, and I’m sure many others, imagined the same hellish cycle would once again play out: Valve would announce the product’s release date and MSRP, followed by details on when and where to preorder, and chaos would ensue from there. While, yes, the initial part of the process went as expected, Valve also found a more efficient way to ensure less stress in securing its new gaming hardware, the Steam Deck, while also starting to combat the biggest challenge facing many looking to buy a PS5, Xbox Series X/S or a new GPU: scalpers.
The entire process had its flaws, sure, and even with those requirements the weekend after reservations opened up saw plenty of scalpers trying to make a quick buck, but the upsides to this queue system demonstrated a measure that more retailers should take note of and apply to future launches.
The Persistent Preorder Problem
Gaming hardware has often been susceptible to the resale market, but the recent supply issues due to chip shortages combined with the high demand for the recently released consoles brought a new level of notoriety to the scalping secondhand market.
Late last year, Sony officially unveiled the pricing for the PlayStation 5 along with a release date and word that preorders would become available on September 17. Unfortunately, PS5 preorders started appearing a day early. While it’s never been made exactly clear what problems arose behind the scenes, shortly after the preorder date was announced, Walmart cheekily opened availability early, and many retailers began to follow suit after the shopping giant gleefully announced on social media that it was opening PS5 ahead of the announced time.
Close-Up Photos of Valve’s Steam Deck
Preorders, unsurprisingly, ran out nearly instantly, and in the months since most of those looking to buy a PlayStation 5 have had to wait for retailers to randomly drop stock availability periodically, or if they felt no other options were available, to turn to third-party sellers on the Facebook marketplace or eBay where consoles could potentially have an overinflated price and, in the worst cases, even potentially be a scam. And though Xbox kept preorders for its new console set to a specific date and time, those consoles too became difficult to find in stock, and in both cases scalpers found opportunities to sell consoles at massive markups.
And PC owners looking for the latest parts have run into similar issues. Both AMD and Nvidia announced a new line of graphics cards in 2020: AMD’s Radeon RX 6000 series and Nvidia’s RTX 30 line. Both graphics cards, especially Nvidia’s, have been just as if not more complicated to purchase as a ninth-gen gaming console since their release late last year, and most of these GPUs can cost you upwards of over $1,000 depending on the GPU you are looking to buy, such as an RTX 3080 Ti or a Radeon RX 6900 XT. And it’s not even resellers marking GPU prices up either; Nvidia and AMD consistently keep their own in-house GPUs at the MSRP both announced, yet third-party companies such as EVGA and Zotac tend to increase the prices above the debut MSRP.
An ongoing global semiconductor shortage has strained various industries, including the gaming industry, which further limited supplies of all this new hardware. The lack of defined restocking windows has even led to a bit of a cottage industry, as Twitter accounts and live streams kept tabs on restocking moments for major retailers like Amazon and Walmart.
All of this demand and limited supply came at a time when interest in gaming skyrocketed, in part due to pandemic stay-at-home orders leaving many looking for means of entertainment. In 2020, US consumers spent record amounts on video games, as NPD reported a record $56.9 billion spent on gaming, hardware, and accessories. If you focus on money consumers spent on gaming hardware alone, it was $5.3 billion, higher than it was in 2019, making it the most in hardware spending since 2011 which reached $5.6 billion in hardware spending alone, according to NPD.
Between an ongoing chip shortage, a global pandemic that has caused most of these high-ticket items to be sold mostly online or in select in-store locations through specific means, combined with unprecedented demand, it seemed, at first, that Valve’s portable gaming PC was to have a similar fate.
Valve’s Preorder Mandates
As someone who preordered a PS5 and an Xbox Series X, and also purchased two RTX 30 graphics cards (one on launch day and another within weeks after release), I found reserving a preorder for the Steam Deck to be less of a headache. Yes, even a cursory glance over the weekend demonstrated scalpers took full advantage of the Steam Deck’s preorder launch, with several listings pricing the handheld well above its MSRP for the high-end model. eBay is starting to remove these egregious listings from its site, per its pre-sale policy, which specifies that pre-sale items must ship within 30 days, but it’s clear scalpers hoped to find the same success as they had with the recent console launches.
Thankfully, Valve’s approach with the Steam Deck queue system demonstrated a number of smart choices that made buying this high-ticket gaming hardware much simpler for actually interested buyers than the rest of the recent crop.
Ahead of preorders opening on July 16, Valve revealed Steam Deck hopefuls would actually have to meet some requirements to even be eligible for the first wave of preorder reservations. The major sticking point was that would-be buyers needed a Steam Account used to make a purchase before June 2021 to be eligible within the first 48 hours of preorder reservations opening up. Accounts would also be limited to one Steam Deck per Steam account.
Valve stipulated these requirements as a clear effort to curb scalpers who would likely take advantage of the high demand for the Steam Deck by creating last-minute accounts.
The Steam Deck queue system mandating that accounts purchased something before June 2021 would theoretically prevent any scalpers from just making an account on the day to buy a system. Compare that to other retailers, such as Amazon and Best Buy, where an account is not required to purchase something. Valve also required you to be logged into a Steam account to check for preorder reservations; you could not simply go onto Steam on a web browser and make the reservation for all three models of the Steam Deck. Each Steam account was locked down to one model that you placed $5 on to ensure you had a reservation for when Valve eventually opened up full-fledged preorders at a later date.
The decision to place a $5 reservation down with a one per account-model was a smart move for multiple reasons. On one hand, the $5 reservation guaranteed that you would have a chance to actually preorder the Steam Deck you wanted when it was your turn to order the console, ensuring that you would not have to endure a mob of bots and other humans. The decision to lock a preorder reservation, and by extension the preorder itself, would theoretically prevent bots and scalpers from taking advantage of the system and buying up multiple units. Yes, scalpers can still get their hands on a Steam Deck, but being limited to one per account was a sensible mandate that helps Valve better control how the Steam Deck supply was distributed.
That said, it’s not like Valve’s Steam Deck “sold out” so to speak, you can very much go on Steam Deck’s listing right now and make a reservation. However, I would not expect your unit to come in anytime this year given the high demand and many users seeing various 2022 shipping windows. Nevertheless, Valve is still taking into account how many people are interested in the product. While some will need to wait longer than others, the fact they are still taking reservations right now is a tremendous buyer service – if someone is interested in preordering a Steam Deck, they can immediately see a window of availability, and not just hope for a tweet to drop announcing more are available.
All of these precautions are worth analyzing in the context of where the Steam Deck was being sold. Unlike other high-ticket gaming hardware, the Steam Deck was sold exclusively on Steam, whereas the other products were being sold at multiple third-party retailers such as Amazon, Best Buy, Game Stop, and/or Target, alongside first-party retail outlets like the PlayStation Direct service Sony used for the PS5. Even so, these retailers could learn something from Valve’s implementations.
Sure, some of them are already taking measures, such as GameStop’s PS5/Xbox Series X/S bundles being sold sometimes to only Pro members or Best Buy giving out tickets on the rare occasions it has done in-store RTX 30 restocks. (Granted, people are prone to camp out to ensure they can get one in that case.) But Valve’s protocols make requirements like users needing accounts for online storefronts seem like easy fixes that could be implemented across the board, no matter whether a seller is first- or third-party.
Of course, you do not have to go to a retailer like Walmart to buy a PS5 or Xbox Series X/S. Both Microsoft and Sony have been known to sell its product on their own, respective storefronts. You can very much get lucky one day and buy an Xbox Series X or Series S console. However, like most retailers, Microsoft does unannounced drops, meaning you either have to be at the right place at the right time or have some type of another notification system that keeps an eye on restocks when you don’t have the bandwidth to do so.
Sony’s Direct service is a bit different, as it uses a virtual line queue, which unfortunately means timing can again be a factor since reservations are not always open like with the Steam Deck, but it does at least allow Sony to directly reach out to PlayStation users and offer a chance to purchase a system.
Valve’s process was by no means perfect; I very much was one individual among many others met with error messages and long waiting periods just to ensure I had a reservation for a Steam Deck unit of my own. But it employed many smart tweaks to the preordering system that sellers across the industry should take note of. But it employed many smart tweaks to the preordering system that sellers across the industry should take note of.
The preorder process was imperfect and it did not keep scalpers away entirely. But the fact of the matter is, scalpers will always exist in some capacity. And there is no sign that retailers are planning to consistently sell these highly desired products anytime soon and even if they do the supply will be even more limited than it would to just sell it on a retailer website. And based on the few instances we have seen PS5s, Xbox Series X/S and RTX 30s out in the wild, people are more than ready to camp out for the chance to possibly secure these items.
Will scalpers always exist? Yes, so long as highly anticipated items are sold online in any capacity. But the Steam Deck’s queue system showed us there is a better way to ensure there is somewhat more of an even playing field when it comes to preorder opportunities for these expensive but highly in-demand items. Hopefully, some of these lessons can be learned before the PS6 and Xbox Series XX come to market. As preordering becomes more of a norm and the internet becoming a better way to distribute units to order compared to dividing a limited supply of units across various stores, it is time for retailers to implement a better moderation system and stop making it easier for scalpers to control the supply of many high-ticket items. And Valve just demonstrated some of the simple but important measures that can be taken to achieve just that.
Taylor is the Associate Tech Editor at IGN. You can follow her on Twitter @TayNixster.