This article originally appeared on VICE US.
During the global coronavirus pandemic, demand for the Nintendo Switch console has skyrocketed and retailers have repeatedly run out of stock. Seizing that opportunity, some price gougers on Amazon and eBay are selling Switches for hundreds of dollars over the recommended retail price.
Like lots of money-making opportunities in online shopping, many of these resellers aren't just stumbling upon their in-demand product of choice. Instead, developers are creating dedicated tools to automatically buy Switches from stores when they come back in stock, and before others get a chance to. Motherboard has traced some of the bulk Switch buying to a community revolving around a new, particular bot. Hundreds of people looking to jump on the gold rush or who are just desperate to get their hands on a Switch for themselves have joined a Discord group where users share tips on how to effectively use the tool.
"I decided to make it as a joke, but I quickly realized just how powerful it could be," Nate, the creator of Bird Bot, the open source tool for quickly purchasing Switches, told Motherboard in an online chat.
Do you use bots to buy items online? Or do you know anything else about the industry? We'd love to hear from you. You can contact Joseph Cox securely on Signal on +44 20 8133 5190, Wickr on josephcox, OTR chat on email@example.com, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Right now it is open season for profit seekers. Some resellers on eBay are asking for over $500 for a Switch, with some vendors successfully getting around $750 for the Animal Crossing themed bundle of the branded console and the game within the last week. The typical retail price for those products are $300 and $360 respectively.
Resellers or collectors of sneakers as well as ticket brokers sometimes use automated bots for identifying whether an item is back in stock, adding it to their cart, and completing the checkout process as quickly as possible in order to beat other buyers (in the case of ticket brokers, they use bots when tickets go on sale). Websites will often try to block automated buyers like these, but the bot designers and users will then route their traffic through various other computers before ordering the item or use other tricks to avoid the website's mitigations. The bots can be tricky for the average user to deploy properly, so bot creators run Discord servers to provide customer support. Some of the communities can even have insiders from companies leak the URL where a hot new item is going to appear, finalphoenix, a researcher who presented their work on fashion bots at the annual DEF CON hacking conference, previously told Motherboard.
Bird Bot fits into this space, performing many of the same tasks as a sneaker bot, but for Switches from Walmart and Best Buy. Nate told Motherboard the bot was designed for buying Switches, but it can work for other items from the stores too. And although many of the fashion-focused bots can cost hundreds of dollars to even buy in the first place, Nate made Bird Bot free, meaning anyone can download it and have a go at sourcing consoles.
Nate is a reseller himself, although he sticks mostly to sneakers, he told Motherboard. Nate acknowledged that the bot is designed for both resellers and people who want to grab a Switch for themselves.
"Me and my friends were talking about reselling Nintendo Switches, and at one point my friend, nicknamed Bird, told me I should make a bot. And here we are today," Nate said.
This week, around 600 users were in the Bird Bot support Discord server when Motherboard joined, and chat logs from the server indicate it has had up to 1,000 participants recently. Some of the users explicitly say in sections of the group chat that they are trying to sell consoles, or they share screenshots of offers they have received for their stock.
Others are trying to capitalize on the stimulus checks the Treasury Department is sending to Americans this week.
"Yeah mine are taking so long to deliver I want them to hurry up while everyone stills [sic] has some money," one apparent reseller said referring to their Switch orders.
Bird Bot users are managing to source Switches in bulk, according to screenshots shared in the Discord, especially in the "#success" channel. On Thursday night, one moderator of the community posted a Walmart link in the "#important" section of the Discord, adding, "@everyone in stock." Within minutes of Motherboard checking the link, all of the Switches had been sold. The bot herders don't always win though: some users reported cancelled orders from retailers.
"Please be mindful not everyone will hit a restock. There’s hundreds of people with bots that are running for Switches, Oculus, and Webcams," one moderator of the community said in the Discord group chat.
Maximizing the chance of a successful order is what many of the Discord members discuss. As well as pasting a list of Walmart and Best Buy links to point your bot towards, users try to figure out the best balance of "tasks" to run simultaneously, whether or not to use proxies and which ones, and finally post how many checkouts they managed to grab with that particular setup. Walmart and Best Buy did not respond to a request for comment on how they attempt to stop bot users.
Of course, the fact that there are potentially hundreds of people trying to buy Nintendo Switches every time they come back into stock at popular retailers means that people without bots, who are trying to buy a Switch at list price for themselves or a loved one, are losing out. Reddit, for example, is full of people who can't find Nintendo Switch consoles, and one person has even resorted to building his own Switch to avoid resellers. There are other tools available, as well, that send automated text messages or emails when consoles go back in stock at a variety of retailers. One developer last updated a bot in 2017 that crawls different online shopping sites, and then sends notifications through Slack or the messaging app LINE when a Switch is available.
Some members of the Discord group indicated they don't only rely on online-shopping, but use websites such as Brickseek to see which physical stores near them have new Switch stock, and then travel to buy those up as well.
"I hit way more local than online," one person in the group said. Separately, Reddit users have indicated they're even hunting out Switches on websites that only sell to veterans of the armed forces, simply because the site still had some in stock.
Bird Bot may have been specifically designed for buying Switches, but other more established tools typically used to source sneakers are pivoting to the Nintendo Switch space as well. Nate, the Bird Bot creator, told Motherboard both Scottbot and Swift, two other bots, can work to buy Switches. Several users in the Discord discussed the bot called Phantom, and what different stores, such as Walmart, Best Buy, or Gamestop, other bots could handle.
"Phantom currently supports Best Buy with more future sites to be added. In our first 24 hours we had over 500 checkouts of Switches," a representative for Phantom told Motherboard in an email. Admins for Scottbot and Swift did not respond to a request for comment.
As Switches have repeatedly vanished, plenty of people have directed animosity towards resellers who aren't buying consoles for their own enjoyment but to make a quick buck during the global pandemic.
"Screw you if you are one of the bad guys making a buck off of a crisis," the creator of the DIY post for making your own Switch wrote in their guide.
Nate said some people have contacted him in his direct messages and Discord, upset that he is helping the resellers, too.
Nate claimed the bot has raised over $1,000 for charity. On Monday, a moderator of the community shared a link to the Make-a-Wish foundation to the Discord, asking for donations by users of the app.
Nintendo says a restock of the Switch is coming soon. But even when the company does get more Switches out on digital or physical shelves, the bots will be ready.
One user in the Bird Bot Discord group wrote, "Honestly I can't wait till the mass restock."
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