Earlier this month, IGN confirmed that international game retailer GameStop was spooling up operations to begin buying and selling retro games in the New York and Birmingham regions. A spokesperson for the company described a two-month windup process buying older games, from the NES all the way through the N64 and Sega Dreamcast, to resell in some 250 initial locations. It’s a potentially lucrative deal for the big retailer--with some retro games selling as high as $26,000 and beyond, GameStop’s operation and willingness to scoop up so many games could send many older players digging through their basements for hidden treasure.
That plan means GameStop would be cutting into a longstanding niche market within the game industry: the retro game store. An offshoot of the old independent game retailers that thrived before GameStop and EB games cornered the market, retro game stores across the nation have become small hubs for local communities with a select interest in older games and older game hardware. Some sell modern games, others act as antique shops, but all of them have a community niche that could be greatly impacted if a mass-market operation became their next-door competition.
But if you talk to the store owners and managers, you might find different ways as to how GameStop will affect their market. To Israel Roldan, manager at World 8, GameStop joining the retro game community isn’t entirely a bad thing.
“It'll affect [our business]. I'm not sure if it'll be in a negative way," he said. "It's a good way to kind of get people to understand that these games are just games, just like everything else--there's not real novelty behind it, there's nothing special about them. Lots of people think because they're old, they're worth so much money, when in fact that's not necessarily true.”
“It gives the consumer more options, which I think is a good thing," he added. "I think the people that might suffer the most from something like this would be independent resellers on Craigslist or Ebay.”
World 8 deals in the same sector of retro games that GameStop hopes to--they only go as far back as the NES era and they have an in-house repair shop dedicated to making sure the games and the hardware will work with modern television sets. They also feel though, that one big asset to their store over GameStop’s is their ability to hold community events that support interest in their retro game business.
“We do hold game tournaments every month. It's usually a Smash Bros, Street Fighter, or Ultimate Marvel tournament," he said. "And yeah, that does help bring the people in and some of them aren't aware that we carry N64 and Nintendo games. They don't necessarily buy them though. That's another thing about retro games: people see em, they get all nostalgic, they like them--that doesn't necessarily mean they'll buy the stuff. I think it's a nice novelty thing to have, but they don't really like to play old cartridges that might not work.”
"The retro gaming community is a community and not just a way to make a quick buck."
But to other stores, their retro business is far closer to their central operations, and they know what GameStop’s getting into if they commit to this. The manager at New York’s 8 Bit and Up, who wished to only be identified as Marcus, got down to brass tacks about the real challenges at hand. “I think the biggest problem is that they don't have the expertise. Their employees won't have the expertise to price this stuff properly, to buy this stuff properly.”
“It's like being in antiques," he reasoned. "When you're buying vintage stuff...you really have to know what you're doing or otherwise you're gonna get murdered. Somebody will come in with a boxed copy of MUSHA. It's a valuable game, probably worth $350 or something like that. I know that, 'cause I've got a copy of MUSHA. I also know... it's very hard to sell, because there aren't that many Genesis collectors. So when I buy that, I'm not giving the guy $200 for the game, because I know it's gonna be next to impossible to sell it. There's a lot of local models we've developed, especially at our pricing models, and the way this stuff is priced, we've spent an awful lot of time, learning about pricing, watching the trends, and making sure our prices are stuff that goes up, not down.”
And because of that process, Marcus doesn’t see this as a threat. “I think they've got problems. We look at it as a sign of desperation. They're gonna wind up being Blockbuster because their business model, it's just not working anymore.”
But some store owners are worried. Not just for their business, but for their customers and the community they serve. Darrin Griffin runs Warp Zone: Video Games and Beyond out in Hilliard Ohio -- far from the sprawls of LA or New York. And his greatest concern is his ability to be there for his customers.
“As far as the role we play in our community, my answer about GameStop moving into this [is this]: I don't think they have the best interests of the community at their heart. And that's really what we're all about. Serving the community. The retro gaming community is a community and not just a way to make a quick buck.”
That extends not just to the local events or being a hub to hang out and talk about old games, but right down to the fairness when purchasing games from collectors. “What they need to keep in mind is that these games that people are trading in are worth something.” Griffin says. “You can't just give 50 cents for an NES game because it's an old game. [GameStop] is going to have to have somebody that is keeping an eye on the market, and they're going to have to pay fairly.”
Because as Marcus points out, when you’re in the retro game business, you need to make sure that buyer can become a de facto supplier for your store. “You have to nurture these people so that they come back. A lot of them sell collections in piecemeal. So they may come in with a couple games, but that's not all they have. They may have five other wagon-fulls of stuff they're looking to get rid of, and they just couldn't carry it all in. So you don't want to kill them either. I was looking at GameStop's trade-in values the last time they tried to do it online -- they're giving people 50 cents for Super Mario Brothers 3. You know, you gotta be kidding me!”
So Griffin, ultimately, is worried about his prospects, but hopeful his community will recognize the realities of the situation. “It's a little scary, but I have a feeling that a lot of retro gamers out there are not gonna be buying into this GameStop program.”
Gamestop’s plan is set to roll out later this fall, again, in the New York and Birmingham areas. A representative for GameStop had not replied to a request for comment at the time of this writing.