Tim Rogers has an interesting write up about the Japanese launch of Dragon Quest IX, a holiday of sorts in the land of the rising sun. In said write up, he asks a specific question about the nature of gamers lining up for a hotly anticipated release.
"I wanted to buy Dragon Quest IX, and not just stare at people in a line, so I walked around the corner to the Bic Camera. Bic Camera, like all the other shops in the area, wouldn't open until 11am, though they had a table set up out front with hundreds of copies of the game — and not a single customer. This is interesting. Maybe. People would much rather wait in line for something than not wait in line for the exact same thing. Why? You know the thought experiment about what happens if you place a donkey perfectly equidistant from two absolutely identical bales of hay? He starves to death! Bic Camera and Tsutaya were not identical bales of hay. At the end of the day, however, they tasted the same. (From the Tsutaya exit, I could just barely see Dragon Quest series producer Yuji Horii standing inside, numerous flashbulbs going off like popcorn all around him. I recalled that time I saw him smoking a cigarette outside of Tokyo Game Show, and I said hello to him, and he did an amazing job of pretending that he didn't think I was a psycho.)"
Having worked both sides of this phenomenon, retail and within the line, I can offer a unique understanding of what's going on.
I see the central question as "why would anyone want to wait in line for a hotly anticipated game when you could just pick it up in an instant?" The answer would have to be that lining up is one of the few community aspects that require gamers to be in close contract with each other anymore. The death of the arcade and the advent of online gaming has only encouraged gamers to stay in doors. Game launch's or console launch's allow gamers who are already interested in the same title or console to coerce and interact with each other in a friendly manner. Friends can be made!
That's not to say lines can be a little less than friendly. In 2006 when the PS3 and Wii were launching, it was like A Tale of Two Cities. The Wii line was friendly, but the PS3 line was held up every so often and people's cars were broken into. The people waiting to pick up the PS3 weren't fans, they were scalpers.
Hopefully we'll continue to see launch day lines (for those that choose to participate) and other forms of communing with fellow gamers.