These Bots Can Help You Buy a PS5
At this very moment, there are millions of people out there who want a PlayStation 5 and cannot get one. And, at least according to a few of them, it’s all software developer Kevin Hirczy’s fault.
Hirczy, who lives in Austria, is the programmer behind the Twitter account @iloveps_5, a bot account that crawls online retailers and tweets when one of them makes more PS5s available for sale.
Hirczy’s quickly hacked solution has helped a lot of human shoppers reach a retailer’s website fast enough to buy the system before an army of other buyers — most likely bots programmed to make such a purchase — got there first.
“Sometimes, people [message me to] say thank you, and some are like, ‘I wanted to buy one for my son, and thanks to you, I was able to get one.’ That always makes me happy,” Hirczy told me.
Others aren’t so lucky. Why, asked one disgruntled user in an email to Hirczy around Christmastime, did he insist on building a PS5-themed Twitter bot without guaranteeing the bot would lead to a successful purchase?
This notion is hilarious, for the record. But it also says something about the heightened drama and general confusion surrounding the PS5 drop in November and subsequent scramble for the limited stock. At many online retailers, the consoles would sell out within seconds of their release. How could anyone click through the checkout process fast enough to get one, some shoppers wondered?
Consumers with an interest in expensive sneakers already knew the answer. The rival shoppers weren’t other video-game-playing humans, but automated scripts trained to quickly buy goods online. For any product with a limited supply and very high demand — like rare Air Jordans, graphics cards or gaming consoles — bots were a strategic way for scalpers to bypass other consumers and, hopefully, turn a profit on the resale.
This harsh economic reality made my fiancé sad. Why were upstanding citizens like himself stuck refreshing the pages of Walmart’s website while people with programming know-how simply had bots do that work for them?
Who Is Using Bots to Buy All the PS5s?
First things first: The people using bots to buy and resell PS5s probably aren’t standalone coders. They’re professional scalpers, and someone sold them a bot.
Either that, or Hari Nagarajan might have given them one for free.
Nagarajan is the creator and maintainer of the open-source buybot Fairgame. As its name suggests, the software is free for anyone to download — and requires only basic knowledge of the coding language Python to deploy. This, according to its GitHub page, helps everyday shoppers compete with the PS5 scalping bots on their own turf.
Nagarajan, who by day is an engineer at Amazon Web Services, decided to build the bot after trying and failing to manually buy a Nvidia GeForce RTX graphics card last September. Within a few moments of release, the cards were sold out, and he immediately started seeing them pop up on eBay for almost four times the retail price. When he clicked on the sellers, their other listings — largely expensive streetwear — instantly gave them away as professional scalpers.
It was, according to Nagarajan, “really annoying.”
That was a Wednesday or Thursday, he recalled. He stayed up all night Friday building a “Nvidia bot,” and by Saturday, it was up and running. The next time Nvidia released the cards, he bought one easily, and he put the bot’s code on GitHub so other people could use it.
“I made a Discord server just in case someone had any questions. And I didn’t look at it for like the entire day. And then there were 1,000 people in there,” Nagarajan said.
“The person using one of these open-source bots to get themselves their PlayStation, they’re not the ones taking your PlayStation. It’s the people you’ll see in your local Facebook marketplace, or Craigslist, with 20 PlayStations in their garage.”
From there, he and other developers went on to build buybots for BestBuy, EVGA and Amazon, and, when the PS5 dropped in November, their audience broadened considerably.
For people on the market for a buybot, Fairgame had some strong selling points.
First, it was free. On sites like Bot Broker, similar software goes for upward of $8,000. Those programs are far more user friendly, Nagarajan said, with easier installation, better customer support and simpler interfaces. But, for plenty of people, saving the money was worth the more challenging installation process: Even after its heyday, Fairgame gets 5,000 unique visitors from Google searches alone every day, Nagarajan told me.
Second, it worked. Even in the first days after the Nvidia bot went up, Nagarajan saw user after user report they’d successfully bought graphics cards. At one point, Fairgame developers added a reaction rule to their Discord server, encouraging members to leave a reaction if they completed a purchase. Out of 3,000 members, 18 percent reported a successful checkout. Factoring in which cards they purchased and a representative scalper listing price for each product, those users had saved $350,000 as of December 3, the Fairgame contributors calculated. (Estimates of scalpers’ profits from PS5 sales hover around $19 million.)
And last, maybe an open-source bot available to anyone didn’t feel quite so much like cheating the system. Its name had the word “fair” in it, after all, and its repo home page declared in bold letters: “If everyone is botting, then no one is botting.”
“The person using one of these open-source bots to get themselves their PlayStation, they’re not the ones taking your PlayStation. It’s the people you’ll see in your local Facebook marketplace, or Craigslist, with 20 PlayStations in their garage.” Nagarajan said. “That’s who you should be mad at.”
What About Twitter Bots?
For shoppers not inclined to overpay a scalper or unleash a buybot, there are also Twitter bots that tweet when retailers make scarce items available.
Hirczy’s availability bot was originally for himself — he wanted to get a Nvidia graphics card with minimal drama, so he took three hours to train a script to crawl retailers’ websites.
“I don’t want to press F5 all day long,” he explained. “That’s terrible.”
But something gave him pause: If he, a programmer, had access to that information, shouldn’t everyone else?
“If the bot reports a false positive, they are like: ‘Your bot is shit. You are shit.’”
When Hirczy eventually made an availability bot for PS5 stock, he posted about it on Reddit and gained 5,000 followers overnight — the account now has 26,000 followers. He also made the code open source, so other people could create their own Twitter bots. Hirczy was able to buy the graphics card he wanted, as well as PS5s for himself and a friend, and even started making some money from affiliate links.
But there was trouble in paradise. He ended up removing the bot’s code from GitHub after some users adjusted the polling frequency to less than five seconds, which would likely damage shop servers by overwhelming them with traffic. But keeping bad bots at bay isn’t easy. He still sees plenty of rogue bot accounts — like this German one — advertising fake PS5 drops with links that turn out to be affiliate marketing for unrelated products.
He also sometimes struggles to maintain the large Twitter and Discord communities that popped up around his projects. Scalpers infiltrate the server, looking for willing customers, and he has to kick them off. Other members ask the same questions over and over (Hirczy does not know and will never know when the next batch of PS5s will drop). People also get mad at him.
“They don’t care about my intentions behind it. They just care about if they can buy something,” he said. “And if the bot reports a false positive, they are like: ‘Your bot is shit. You are shit.’”
It’s hard out here for a PS5 bot-maker.
Whose Fault Is This?
For retailers, there’s no difference — at least in terms of revenue — between bot customers and human ones. And that, according to Hirczy, is an “absolutely valid” argument. After all, these retailers have never explicitly courted scalpers or asked for bot business.
But many of them haven’t meaningfully addressed the issue, either.
The week that Nagarajan made his Nvidia bot, for instance, the company changed its checkout process.
“They said they were going to beef up security and get real, right?” Nagarajan said. “Then they added a CAPTCHA.”
Within two hours, he and other members of his Discord had built and released a workaround that allowed bots to continue buying from Nvidia, he said. Later, Fairgame contributors realized that Nvidia hadn’t properly secured its purchase API, so bots or bad actors could make purchases directly from the back end without interacting with any of the website’s front end.
Eventually, Nvidia stopped selling products on its site, opting instead to work with Best Buy.
“The question to ask is, when people are scalping using these bots, is that actually limiting the supply? Or was the supply already limited before they were scalping?”
Other retailers had more effective responses. EVGA switched to a queue system, in which shoppers would sign up for whatever graphics card they wanted before the release. Then, the company would authenticate each user to establish they were indeed human. When the cards dropped, each queued customer would get an email and have a few hours to make their purchase. After this change went live, the Fairgame maintainers removed the EVGA bot from the project’s repo.
German consumer electronics chain MediaMarkt, meanwhile, implemented a cap on PS5 purchases to prevent scalping bots from buying up too much inventory.
“I saw some screenshots on Twitter and everything where people bought, I don’t know, 50 or 60 PlayStations,” Hirczy said. “That should not be possible with a product that is so hard to get, in my opinion.”
But perhaps bot traffic is the symptom, not the problem. Scalpers are willing to pay thousands of dollars for buybots because they make that money back reselling items people really want. That only works if products have very low supply, which depends on the number of products manufacturers deliver — and supply-chain issues like the cost and availability of component parts.
“The question to ask is, when people are scalping using these bots, is that actually limiting the supply? Or was the supply already limited before they were scalping?” Nagarajan said.
What’s Next for Bots — and Their Creators
Unless manufacturers fix supply shortages, curbing the bot market will depend on retailers beefing up cybersecurity. Bot money may be just as good as human money, but consumer goodwill still matters, Nagarajan noted. Maybe it would take scalpers targeting necessities in low supply — like face masks or water — for retailers to take the situation seriously, he mused.
“In Austria and in Europe last year, toilet paper was sold out everywhere,” Hirzcy said. “I probably could have started a toilet paper bot.”
Barring a toilet-paper-bot apocalypse, though, the situation will likely stay the same: Scalpers scooping up consoles, the rest of us trying to beat them to it.
But what about people like Nagajaran, who fall somewhere in the middle?
Even in the beginning, he told me, working on Fairgame felt like a necessary evil.
“We were like: ‘Ideally, we shouldn’t have to make this. Like, this shouldn’t exist,’” he said.
When someone in their Discord server told them a scalping group had switched to using Fairgame because it worked so well, at first, Nagarajan and the other contributors celebrated. But later, he felt less confident: “Wow, this is actually part of the problem too.”
By the time a new member showed up on the Discord server complaining that someone had sold them the Fairgame bot for $50 — and attempting to dox the alleged seller — Nagarajan had seen enough. He stepped back from maintaining Fairgame.
“If I knew that it would end up like this, I’m not sure I would have made this bot,” he said.
As for Hirczy, he said he’d build another bot, if that’s what it took to get a tough-to-buy product. But he hopes that, someday, PS5s will simply be available, and he can stop validating shop crawlers and moderating Discord channels for hours each week. For him, successfully buying a PS5 was only the beginning.
“It didn’t change my life or anything,” he said. “Yeah, the bot is still up and running, because it helps people. I’m happy about that. But people take a lot of these things far too seriously.”