Welcome back to Brick & Mortar – the only segment on Retroware that drags you to an unfamiliar location, tells you a bunch about it, and then tosses you into a retro game shop. I want to begin today by thanking my readers, as well as those that have taken the time to leave thoughtful comments on my previous four articles. You guys make this awesome, and I can assure you that we’re just getting started!
This week, we’re going to do things a little different. Rather than focus on one local gaming shop or event in particular, I’m going to discuss the state of the scene in more general detail – exciting developments, continuing trends and concerns for the future. Just yesterday, fellow RetrowareTV contributor ManCaveKris posted an article that begged the question “what will become of retro game collecting?”. And I think that’s a fascinating topic – one that I’d like to unpack today.
I would like to begin with Kris’s assertion about the market itself – supply is shrinking, demand is growing, and prices are getting out of control. From a man-on-the-street perspective, it sure as hell seems that way! Before we get technical, let’s get anecdotal for a minute. When I was about ten years old, my cousin saw me flipping through a players’ guide of his. I loved all the claymation representations of characters and enemies, as well as the general weird aesthetic of the whole thing. He asked me if I’d like to play the game. When I said yes, we went up to his room, and came back with a large box with a silver space-man looking figure on it, with a SNES cartridge inside. He told me I could keep it – that Funcoland would only give him $10 for it, and he’d rather see someone he knew enjoy it than a stranger. That’s the story of how I got Earthbound, complete in box, on accident, because the damn thing was only worth one Alexander Hamilton on the market.
Okay, now let’s take a step back. Every retro collector over 25 will be happy to share with you abundant tales of getting games that sell for $200 these days for a fraction of the cost years ago. And sure, every console and game library goes through the same stages – new & shiny –> established platform –> late cycle curiosities –> low demand, high supply –> easy re-entry, curiosity grows –> retro scene develops –> games and consoles become financially unattainable. So sure, SNES games were at it’s “low demand, high supply” stage in 1997.
But consider that it wasn’t until the early 2000s that retro gaming became an established market, with the growth in popularity of eBay and Amazon (and Yahoo Auctions Japan, for you foreign collectors!), before that there wasn’t an easy way to track market value of an item with a central figure. What this meant is that game shops, and gamers themselves, had to use their own internal reasoning when it came to the value of their games. This meant that “pulling a fast one” was far more possible up to even ten years ago. It was far more likely to go game chasing and just stumble on a gem marked at a laughably low price.
In addition, there was just less demand for retro games, and therefore less fellow gamers to beat you to the punch – and again, those gamers were often generally uninformed on what held value and what didn’t. The first generation of video game players – let’s call them the Atari generation – largely moved on from gaming after the 1984 game market crash and writing it off as a fad that had run it’s course. The Nintendo Entertainment System was marketed in America as a children’s toy, to get away from traditional video game branding and marketing, and the games largely targeted the children of the late 1980s. This means that come 2000, the Atari generation would be old enough to crave things from their childhood and have the capital to purchase it, but that Atari rush never seemed to explode like you might expect. And they certainly weren’t feeling nostalgic about that kid’s toy their younger brother played.
No, the second generation of gamers – let’s now call them the NES generation – were perhaps the first generation of gamers who played and purchased consistently from childhood to adulthood. I mean, consider the age bracket – let’s say you were born in 1980. You would be too young to have memories of the Atari 2600 or the Colecovision. You might have very early memories of an Atari home computer or something like that. The NES would hit right at the prime of your childhood, and as your teen years arrived circa 1993, the content and focus of the game market would shift right along with you to teenagers. And just as you might grow out of sprite-based gaming, pining for something sophisticated, here comes the 3D and compact disc generation of consoles.
And to speak of the 1990s for a moment, it was an era of gaming that couldn’t have been less interested with what came before. Magazines like EGM and the aptly-named Next Gen was constantly teasing you with images of fully 3D, disc-based games, and it seemed like an innovation that would lead to a massive leap forward was constantly around the corner. It was hard to feel pity or longing for sprite-based games of yore when there was so much AWESOME on the immediate road ahead! This fact is precisely why games like earthbound and the late SNES Squaresoft game had such low print runs and are so rare today – gamers were already so willing to move onto the latest and greatest, even if an amazing 2D game was staring them in the face.Certainly not a conducive time for the development of a retro collecting scene.
But okay back to you – the proverbial you, that is. By the time you’re in college, circa 2000, you probably own a Dreamcast, are waiting eagerly for the PS2 (both companies you enjoyed systems from as a teenager), but you’re starting to miss the simplicity of the good ‘ol days with your childhood NES. By the time you get your first career job with disposable income to collect in earnest, it’s 2002. And Nintendo, for the first time ever, began to acknowledge it’s heritage in a concerted way right around that time. But let’s examine two cases – NES games made collectible in Animal Crossing, and the NES Retro series for the Game Boy Advance. With the former, this was the earliest incarnation of what would someday become the Virtual Console, but none of these games cost a thing – likely because Nintendo saw no path to make money from them, even then. And with the latter, which came a couple years later, Nintendo finally seemed to get that they could financially gain from capitalizing on retro fever. What I’m trying to point out is, if it’s hard to see when retro fever began from ground-level, take a look at when it clicked from on high, at Nintendo.
And from then on, retro game collecting became a hugely successful secondhand industry. And from my personal experiences, price hikes began with the popular platforms with the greatest nostalgia – Nintendo, Sega – and then moved outwards, to the more obscure options – Atari Jaguar, Panasonic 3DO, Sega CD, Phillips CD-i. When I began collecting in earnest around 2005, I was able to get most of these obscure systems and games at a pittance. I got three Atari Jaguars ultimately, two in box, for $25 each. The games often cost me less than $5. That’s certainly not the case anymore.
If we’re to take our little anecdotal history lesson up to present day, it seems that the price hikes that were already beginning to affect popular platforms ten years ago are now affecting even the most sideshow of curiosities. No game is safe! What’s worse, market value in general has gone topsy turvy. In my early collecting days, if a game was common, it was stupid-cheap. It didn’t matter how popular it was – it was a market based entirely on rarity. This meant that you could easily find many Nintendo and Sega classics for very little cost. I have distinct recollections of most first-party N64 titles costing around $5-15 each. I remember when I lost my Super Smash Bros cart about four years ago when moving, and being shocked when my local game store was asking $30 for a replacement. Super Smash Bros (N64) often costs far more than $30 these days, despite being no less easy to find then it was ten years ago. By all accounts, it was and is a common game.
What has changed, or at least what I think has caused this shift, is that the market became too flat price-wise: it was no longer the cheap and easy option for collectors on a budget to pick out weird curiosities over established favorites, and with that loss, the only games that continued to sell on a large scale were the popular favorites. So based on this, rather then lowering the prices of platforms off the beaten path, they raised the price of beloved franchises, regardless of rarity, because they know these will sell regardless, and they need to make up for lost sales with diminishing demand and loss of sales due to online resellers. So now an unboxed copy of Ocarina of Time can easily cost you over $40, as prices begin to approach the actual cost of the game when it was new.
Wait, did I just say diminishing demand? Didn’t we begin by saying that supply is shrinking, and demand is growing? Well, some years ago, I would agree that this is the case. But as Kris eventually also points out, I think the retro game collecting market may be approaching a turning point. Prices may be slowly outpacing what most collectors are willing to spend. And at the moment, market prices are just in suspended animation – with the mentality of “well this is what it’s worth, take it or leave it”. But I’m going to venture a guess that more and more gamers are choosing to leave it. I believe it’s only a matter of time until the market succumbs to this shift, and lowers its prices again. It’s either that, or watch the entire micro-economy of brick and mortar shops go under, one by one. And if I’ve seen anything on my travels thus far, that would be devastating to the community of gamers these stores service.
We live today in an era of gaming where all platforms are increasingly moving to digital-only… flash sales are enticing those (including myself) away from box games with ludicrously cheap prices that are difficult to refuse… the two most successful game platforms – Steam and the Apple App Store – are already entirely digital… and the invasion of free-to-play pricing structures and micro-transactions… it seems like the entire game industry is desperate for money more now than it ever has been… from the contemporary producers to those selling relics of the industry’s storied past. But I’m not liking the methods they’re choosing to solve these issues.
But what do YOU think? I hope for this to be my most interactive article yet, as I want to see what you readers think of the State of the Scene. What excites you? What concerns you? How do you see the future of game collecting going, and do you believe that we have a say in changing course towards sunnier shores? Let me know! Write me a comment below.
Phew! That may have been a bleak one, but I’ve got a much more pleasant topic in mind for my next piece. I’ll be returning to my regular format, discussing in depth my formative brick and mortar shop – the one I grew up around the corner from, and the one that launched me into a lifetime of collecting. As always thanks for reading, and #ShopLocal!