Dec 11, 2023 6 min read

The imperfect art of limited editions in gaming

A look at the battle against bots, scalpers, and the pursuit of fairness in the gaming collectible market.

The imperfect art of limited editions in gaming

A look at the battle against bots, scalpers, and the pursuit of fairness in the gaming collectible market.

Whether it’s a new fancy colour of some much-loved hardware, a console or controller sporting a fresh, unique design, or a game bundled with a bunch of extras — limited editions of both hardware and software are a long-standing tradition in gaming.

Be it a special Pokemon-themed Game Boy Color, or a Halo 3 collectors version complete with a comical cat helmet — the creation and sale of such limited-run items is not a new trend.

Halo 3 Legendary Edition Helmet
Halo 3 Legendary Edition Helmet

However, what was once seen maybe as a complementary bit of fun, and admittedly a neat marketing gimmick, is now, repeatedly an exercise in exhaustion for those who care the most.

A few years ago Sony released a gorgeous limited edition PS4 to celebrate PlayStation’s 20th anniversary — I have vivid memories of friends (who cared more than I did) feverishly trying to get hold of one before succumbing to the inflated prices found over on eBay. Yes, they got their lovely grey PlayStation, but at an exaggerated cost.

You’ve no doubt seen it yourself, be that with a hard-to-come-by Amiibo, a fancy Xbox controller, some special edition of a game, or even a damn Van Gogh Pokemon card. In 2023, fighting to get the latest rarefied gaming goods is the norm — and it’s a norm that kinda sucks.

Cloud Amiibo - Final Fantasy VII
Photo by Ryan Quintal

Now, don’t get me wrong — I’m all for having special versions of much-loved gaming things. There’s nothing cooler than owning something that’s a little bit different from the standard, especially if it shows off your love of a certain franchise or series. A big Splatoon fan? Of course, you’re going to want those ink-splatted Joy-Con. Adore Spider-Man? It makes sense that you’re going to want to seek out that limited-edition PS5 hardware.

But in an age of scalpers, bots, and increasingly sophisticated AI, the mere act of buying products that are in such scant supply is gradually a more and more frustrating one.

Many products go up for sale, and the company selling them is keen to shout about how quantities are limited, stock won’t last, and you need to be first in line to ensure you get one. I get why it happens, but this habit of installing a ‘fear of missing out’ amongst your consumers feels somewhat off.

These sales typically target die-hard fans — the enthusiast crowd who are going to be excited at the prospect of getting such rare goods. But when bots and scalpers beat folks to it, it ultimately ends up leaving a bad taste with your most loyal customers. It’s more than frustrating to try and get what you're after and failing, walking away empty-handed because your roll of the dice was unlucky and you lost to a scalper.

Of course, companies are trying to combat such nefarious resellers and bots.

You need only look at the recent launch of the Limited Edition Steam Deck OLED as an example. This new model, complete with unique colour accents (is it red or orange?), was made available in a unique way. We can put aside the fact that this device was made available in just the U.S. and Canada, meaning those located in the rest of the world were locked out of even taking part — but for those who could actually buy one, yes the process was yet another mad dash through checkout (when it was working) but there was some fresh guarantee that bad actors weren't invited to the sale. Valve stipulated that only Steam accounts of a certain age and status could partake in the sale.

Smart moves like this go some way to help fix the problem, and admittedly for Valve, this is new territory for them. Offering special edition hardware is a new thing for the company — something which they’ve spoken about. They've detailed that this new limited edition OLED is an experiment of sorts, and I imagine the way in which they go about selling them is too. There are always lessons to be learnt.

Valve X post about the Limited Edition Steam Deck OLED model

However, even if the buying process was completely error-free and fair — with a lot of these products (and again, I understand the scarcity is part of the appeal here), the consumer just has no idea as to how many of a product is actually available to buy. How limited is this edition? Well, most companies aren’t going to tell you, the mystery is part of the intrigue I guess — so, instead, it’s just a case of turn up at 8am, credit card in hand, and try your luck.

I spoke with Christopher Taber of Analogue, the maker of the rather wonderful Analogue Pocket device — and he shared with me how the company has spent years now carrying out significant work in an effort to eliminate this scalper culture.

“We’ve implemented a system that is quite sophisticated and far beyond what any other company is doing.”

Taber has been vocal about this for some time, with Analogue publicly outlining their stance on things back in early 2021.

2021: Pocket, Bots, Scalpers, Limited Quantities vs Limited Editions and Customer Support - Analogue

Of course, ultimately, it’s a two-headed issueone of both scalpers and scarcity.

It’s encouraging to see action from manufacturers and retailers alike in attempting to curb the efforts of bad actors. As more and more barriers are placed in their way, scalpers, who typically snap up any and all of a new product to then flip for an insane profit on auction sites, will hopefully be deterred from even trying. But this anti-bot, scalper battle is really one of whack-a-mole that requires a constant effort from those selling.

Valve Limited Edition Steam Deck OLED
Valve's Limited Edition Steam Deck OLED

The other side of the coin here is the scarcity itself. With little consumer know-how on product availability, it again falls to retailers and manufacturers to develop more equitable ways to sell their goods — ways that make a buyer feel confident and that they are buying in a fair way, and that doesn’t give them any sense of artificial scarcity.

One such way to do this is to open up orders, make what’s actually asked for, and then sell that as a limited run to those who asked for them. Sure, such a method won’t work for all, but an approach like this goes some way to remove the air of mystery that often clouds such hyped hardware or prized products.

It’s an imperfect art. There’s plenty of nuance to this issue — with each individual product launch and manufacturer requiring its own set of considerations. Different approaches, rationale and overall solutions.

I’m hopeful that things will get better here, and it’s clear that product makers are at least trying to find a sound approach to offering neat, special goods to those who want them in increasingly fairer ways — but the reality of that is we’re all here partaking in the retail experiment until a solid sales practice that pleases us all is found.

How does the current scarcity and scalping issue affect your perception of limited edition gaming products, and does it change your enthusiasm for these special releases? Let us know in the comments!

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