For much of the midwest and east coast, the hobby of video game collecting subsides as chilly winter temperatures take over. No sane homeowner hosts a garage sale when it’s 20 degrees. Outdoor flea markets disappear. Digging through thrift stores means scraping windows and driving on roads that could just as easily host impromptu hockey matches.
The hobby part of video game collecting, which used to mean spending weekends digging through dusty boxes in search of a great find, has evaporated anyway. Finding decent retro games in 2015 is pure luck. Prices in the past six years have ballooned to what seem like unsustainable levels, the vintage market seized by newcomers and those restlessly seeking feelings from their childhoods. There’s too much demand, too little availability. Nintendo cartridges like Flintstones: Surprise at Dinosaur Peak, once unwanted fodder, now demand an enormous $600+ asking price. It’s twice that if you have the original cardboard box. Flintstones is an anomaly for sure, but one which makes the scale of inflation visible.
Blame nostalgia, partially. Everyone interested lurks eBay or local Craigslist sections for a buy, paying obscene prices for a flash—or flickering screen—of what is forever part of their younger selves.
California native and now North Carolina resident Josh Fairhurst gets it. He’s a longtime collector. Fairhurst is also a developer for independent label Mighty Rabbit Studios and director of its new physical media-publishing subsidiary, Limited Run Games. But he thinks collecting exploded for another reason.
“The rise of Let’s Plays has gotten younger gamers into retro games.” Let’s Plays, YouTube videos where people watch others play video games, certainly could have helped the push. Those videos are now a significant part of any game’s visibility.
Into this tenacious and changing market, Fairhurst launched Mighty Rabbit’s Breach & Clear, a tactical special forces game. Breach & Clear was first made available digitally across the standard spectrum of modern storefronts: PC, iPad, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, all for $14.99 each. Then, under the Limited Run Games label, Fairhurst sent Breach & Clear onto the fledgling portable PlayStation Vita—not only digitally, but as an actual cartridge too. The game came packaged like everything for Vita does: an official blue case, high quality paper insert, and a part number, an innocuous addition which is critical to considering Breach & Clear an official part of the system’s library.
The 1500 physical copies they made—at $24.99 each—sold out in only 108 minutes. Fairhurst was stunned by the response.
“When we went to print this physically, we never thought 1500 copies were going to sell. Not even 2000 people wanted it digitally. Why would this many want it physically? It’s a niche medium, and we’re asking for more money.” It was the right time to sell, a cold Eastern Thursday morning on October 29th when few collectors would be rummaging through their local hot spots. Breach & Clear had what it needed to be enticing in this market: officialness, low price, and scant availability.
The need for physical media still exists. It’s not only for persistent collectors. In an era where many click a button to begin a movie on Netflix or stream games on their PlayStation 4, physical media maintains an appeal. Limited Run’s Head of Sales Doug Bogart explains: “I like being able to see a shelf full of games and being proud of where my investment went. There’s something I spent my money on. Whereas with digital it’s like, oh, look at all the games I have installed on my PS4 or Xbox. I don’t see what’s proud about that.”
Fairhurst is more adamant about another digital problem. “I was one of the unfortunate people who actually bought an Xbox Live Arcade game on the original Xbox,” he said. Before the PS3 and Xbox 360 made downloading games ordinary, the oblong black and green original Xbox hosted one of the earliest online console marketplaces. A few classic video games, like Pole Position and Pac-Man, were available to download for $15. The price was high. Few people bought in. But for those who paid, on April 14th 2010, the online functionality that hosted those games was shut down.
“They removed all the services for the original Xbox. I had some Halo 2 downloadable content…and I no longer have access to that. I lost my XBLA games. I can’t play Pac-Man on my original Xbox.” says Fairhurst. Poor Pac-Man.
It’s a likely scenario with other services too. Fairhurt continues, “My brother was buying a lot of music on iTunes and I’d always tell him, Apple’s not bulletproof. At some point in the future this iTunes stuff isn’t going to exist anymore and you’re not going to have access to your music.”
The hyper popular PC game download service Steam, with 75 million users, is not invincible either. The service needs to be up and running for players to access their games, and that’s not foolproof. “Everyone is always like, oh, if they [Steam] go out of business they’ll flip some switch that will make every game playable but I don’t think that’s even something they can do.”
It sounds alarmist, but therein lies a key appeal to physical media: true ownership. If a manufacturer of music CDs shuts down, their discs continue working. Nothing changes. If a digital music provider meets their financial demise, there are no guarantees purchases will be useable. Physical games for the Atari 2600, released in the late ‘70s, still work. Some digital games released for the original Xbox in 2007 do not. It’s a potential preview of our all-digital future.
To Fairhurst, that is the reason why Limited Run Games exists. They’re prepared to publish up to one game a month for any developer who wishes to see their game in print as opposed to an ephemeral digital service. And people are calling. “I’ve had six or seven contracts signed so we have a lot of games in the works,” says Fairhurst. “I thought we’d get six releases out in the first year. What’s actually happening is the inverse. We might have two per month.”
Is there a market for smaller games, printed on tiny Vita cards or PlayStation 4 discs? It’s possible. Breach & Clear’s success is a small indicator, but the game’s limited print run of 1500 copies probably had a lot to do with it. Numbers that low put Breach & Clear in some vaunted collector territory. (Spider-Man: Web of Fire, a rather dismal 1996 release for Sega’s failed 32X, had a stunted print run and only an estimated 1500 copies exist. Web of Fire now commands a $300+ premium on eBay.)
Buying Breach & Clear now for $24.99 makes sense, even as a low-end investment. But what if the appeal is only in the limitation? Fairhust believes the model still has merit. “There are probably 400 or 500 people who legit wanted Breach & Clear in a physical form for their Vita. It’s not all artificial demand, but the artificial demand was necessary to reach the minimum order quantity that we had with Sony.”
This limitation is a siren call to resellers. The same as Tickle Me Elmo famously reached $1000 price tags during a heated 1996 Christmas season, Limited Run’s first release attracted its own scalpers. Even with unexpected limitations in place, Breach & Clear is already commanding $70 on eBay as of this writing. Says Bogart, “There was a lot of debate about the limit. I was more optimistic. But after hearing Josh explain it to me more, Breach & Clear didn’t sell well digitally so I started getting nervous. I said let’s not put a limit. Then we realized it was a bad idea.”
During the Thursday sale, Limited Run Games announced on Twitter they would be canceling certain orders. “I didn’t expect someone would come through and buy 100 copies at the same time, which happened. We had to retroactively think, maybe we should have put a limit on this.”
In the end, the average order was 1.3 copies. Friends chipped in together to save on the $4 shipping charge. Some collectors wanted a sealed and opened copy. Those were legitimate reasons. Obviously, a few had other ideas.
THE NEW MARKETPLACE
The new physical media market seems to be one where those interested will be fighting for scraps. Limited Run Games plans to increase print runs with each successive release—if they sell well enough. It will be tough. Fairhurst sees it as a niche market from here on out.
“Just from seeing a lot of the resistance from some of the Reddit posts that we’re doing and on some of the forums, there are still people that think that physical media is unnecessary. It’s for people who are hoarders and like clutter. I think it’s going more like vinyl records where there’s a very niche audience but I can see it becoming bigger. We’re only doing 2000 run releases right now. I can see us growing to a point where we would cater to a market of 10 or 20,000.”
Their ultimate goal is keep physical media alive, even if it’s only a fraction of the market. Continues Fairhurst, “I do think an all digital future is on the horizon. The platform holders [game console makers like Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo] in the next 15 to 20 years are going to eliminate optical media. One of the things I want to do is for developers to get the most out of this. I’m trying to take all of the risk.”
There is definite risk. Getting Breach & Clear on the PS Vita was an eight month process of finding the right people at Sony, creating the proper code for a physical game, and dealing with other details bureaucracy—like fonts.
“The legal text on the back of the PS box is Helvetica. And Helvetica is a font you have to pay for. In order to make your packaging with Sony, you have to buy $500 worth of Helvetica,” according to Fairhurst.
Limited Run’s next physical release is another Mighty Rabbit game, Saturday Morning RPG, due to be open for sales on January 15th, 2016—with Helvitica fonts, certainly. The only other announced game is Cosmic Star Heroine from Zeboyd Games. More are coming and for the same $24.99 price point. And their games will eventually be across Nintendo and Xbox One consoles as well, if all goes according to plan.
If they fail, Fairhurst and Bogart have a safety net. “With Breach & Clear, it was all about doing a test run to see if this was viable and we didn’t want to get too in over our head with production costs if it didn’t go well,” Fairhurst said. “Our back-up plan was to bulldoze whatever copies we couldn’t sell.”
There is actually a precedent—and it was profitable. “Dig 'em up 20 years later and sell 'em for 5 times the price,” joked Fairhurst, referencing the infamous 1983 landfill disposal of unsold Atari 2600 cartridges. In 2014, they were dug up and made the town of Alamogordo, New Mexico $37,000 in revenue. Maybe it’s not such a risk after all. Collectors might clamor for landfill copies of Breach & Clear. Plus, if the future is all digital, landfills may sadly be where collectors make all their best finds.
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