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/ February 4, 2013
Game Theory: NYC’s Retro Gaming Gurus Weigh In On The Industry

What do you know about New York City’s retro gaming havens?

There are two main joints around here: Video Games New York on 6th Street, which has been open since 2004, and 8-Bit & Up on St. Marks Place, which opened a little over two years ago. Giulio Graziani, President of Video Games New York, and Chris Scott, Co-owner of 8-Bit & Up, had much to say about the business, how games have changed and what’s ahead for the industry. The death of consoles, the rise of franchises and the possible end of used games were just a few of the things discussed.

Because if anyone in the city’s got a good idea of where video games are going, it’s the fellas who make a living from putting a price tag on their past.

“The reason today you are like this is because of your past,” Giulio explained. “If your past didn’t exist, you would be something else. So I came to say, ‘Okay, let’s apply this concept to video games, to New York, to the United States.‘” He led me around some massive shelves overstocked with games older than anyone writing for Local, and into a grotto filled with thousands of dollars worth of vintage gaming gear. He pointed out an original 1974 Odyssey system in one corner, then a PS3 signed by famous Japanese video game designer Hideo Kojima in another, waving his finger at relics from decades of history in between.

The place is a museum. Sure, you’ve got all your used XBox 360 and PS3 games behind the counter, but most of the store is packed with functional fossils perfect for nostalgic gamers. “There is something for everybody. There’s something that costs $1,000, and something that costs $3,” Giulio said, explaining that his clientele is made up of collectors, tourists, gamers, and even little kids who spend hours at the store looking for something worthy of their $10 allowance. But he also told me there are things he would never sell: secure in the safe is an original gray ‘Nintendo World Championships’ cartridge from 1990 that’s valued at around $11,500.

Giulio, who grew up in Noventa Padovana, a small city near Padua, Italy, loved playing Space Invaders and Galaga at the arcade as a kid (but not Pac-Man, he insisted). He was a “decently famous” fashion photographer in Spain and around Europe before moving to New York where eventually his girlfriend convinced him to invest in a used video game store in 2004. Initially, he and a friend ran St. Marks Games on St. Marks Place, but it moved to 6th St. in 2006 after their landlord lost the building in a lawsuit. Now, as the sole owner, he’s taking the business in a different direction — “People can learn, and people can see, and people can touch. That’s how it started as a museum.”

Chris Scott, one of the Co-owners of 8-Bit & Up, had a different experience with games growing up. He told me that one of his first memories of video gaming is sitting on his mom’s lap at three years old, playing Super Mario Bros. on the family’s NES. Ever since, he’s always had a console at home: “My progression went SNES, Genesis, TurboGrafx, N64, Playstation, Dreamcast, PS2, and now I’m just going back to recollect every single one of them.” Now, he plays Street Fighter professionally, freelances for IGN, and runs Chocolate Lemon while taking care of business at 8-Bit.

With the help of the in-store 8-Bit Dojo tournaments that Chris started when he came onboard, they’ve managed to build a tight-knit community of gamers and enthusiasts. “Our goal is not so much to be a store, but to be a place where people can come and hang out,” he explained, “We try to give people the same chances that, you know, I got. We want to give back.” The back section of the store is lined with arcade cabinets and consoles hooked up to HDTVs where customers can show off their deadly combos or test out a game before purchasing. The rest of the store is filled with consoles, controllers, cartridges, and all kinds of odds and ends arranged into crates, stacked on shelves or hanging off the ceiling. It looks like a nuclear bunker for people who live only for video games.

“We meet new people everyday who share the same passions,” Chris said, “And you can see it in their eyes. We get a lot of socially awkward people in here, and they won’t talk to each other out on the street but now when we’re in here they’re having conversations, they’re more engaged. And it’s good!” He described how patrons become more than customers, and become part of the store. Pointing to some video game characters made out of Perler Beads dangling from a beam, he explained that they only started selling them when an 8-Bit regular asked about them during a movie night at the store. And the courtesy goes both ways. “I’ve had a couple people thank me for doing the Dojo,” he added, “I get Christmas cards from these guys!”

So what about that other used games seller? The one with 222 locations throughout NYC: Gamestop. Now, Gamestop’s likely not getting any Christmas cards from anyone, and certainly not from the video game publishers who don’t see a dime of the profits they make from reselling their used products. Even the console developers are reacting. Sony just filed a patent on technology that would let them block used games from working on their upcoming platform, and Microsoft is also rumored to be taking similar steps. With all the hate, the era of used games just might end with the next generation of consoles.

The way Chris sees it, all the nuance and originality of video games are being slowly drained. “I just think, with the way the industry is going, we’re just going to see franchise after franchise,” he lamented, “We’ll probably see ‘Assassin’s Creed’ up until maybe… I’ll say the Civil War or Vietnam War.” Giulio, being pretty damn old-school, is not a fan of the cinematic style all the big titles spend millions on. Pointing to the rack of XBox 360 titles on the wall, he said, “This is the fast-food of video games”. He’s not even sympathetic towards the publishers going out of business. “The video game business now is a losing-money business. THQ went out of business, and Ubisoft bought them. Atari went to hell,” he said, “It’s not sad. It’s fair. Because it’s so bad what they do. Sony and Microsoft, they are the problems too. It’s really terrible.”

Giulio added, “Trust me, we’re very close to a crash of the video games business. This is going to be a wipeout very soon. The $60 games are going to be a wipeout.” But he took his prophecies beyond the crash of $60 corruption. “The trend is that they’re going to go digital. Then they’re going to die. Their arrogance tells them that, even if you go digital, you’re going to buy a PS5, or PS6 – but there’s no point. Just buy a computer and that’s it. They are really shooting themselves in the feet. They had a model that was working, and they can’t find a way to fix it.”

Chris’ outlook, on the other hand, isn’t as bleak. “The way the infrastructure is being built, there’s going to be a lot of digital distribution. And it’s a lot more practical to be honest with you, because more and more people are going to get higher speeds than just broadband. So companies are going to say, ‘You know, why don’t we just deliver directly to your console,‘ and there’s no overhead!”

The business model of the entire industry is changing up, and the transition is going to be turbulent for everyone in the market. We’re talking about a dicey future for used games, the mass standardization of lifeless franchises, and a complete digital revolution somewhere on the horizon. Retro gaming stores selling used games will be around as long as people demand a slice of history, but you just can’t fill the shelves with things you can’t touch.

How long is it going to take for them to go completely digital? Giulio offered this forecast, “It’s going to take at least a couple of other systems, so probably another 15 years.”

Before then, though, when you can no longer hold a new game in your hand and lend it to a friend or sell it to a store, what’s ahead for the retro gamers? Or the mom ‘n’ pop curators of retro gaming history? When I asked Chris what the 8-Bit team is looking forward to, he said, “Just getting through this year. If we can get through this year, I think we’ll be good. Honestly, the economy has been trash. It’s good in some cases, but no one’s really buying, people are holding onto their money because everyone is losing their jobs. No one’s really buying buying, you know.”

Insert coin(s) to continue.

Photos by Luis Landas