Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Game Over Videogames

Lots of gamers bag on GameStop, the world’s largest video game retailer, and sometimes with good reason. 

Boasting more than 6,600 company-operated stores in 15 countries worldwide, GameStop is a good place to pre-order the hottest titles, and you can frequently find current-gen games that have fallen out of favor on sale for super cheap. However, they often discard boxes and manuals for used games, they don’t have much in the way of fun swag (candy, collectibles, DVDs, T-shirts, plushies, and the like), and they don’t carry the classics, such as the Atari 2600, NES, Super NES, or Nintendo 64. The corporate giant has even relegated GameCube, PS2, and Xbox titles to online sales only.

In short, though their employees are typically quite helpful and knowledgeable (at least the one’s I’ve dealt with), GameStop can seem a little cold, corporate, and uncaring of gaming’s glorious past.  

Enter Game Over Videogames, an independent retail chain with an emphasis on retro. In addition to selling classic and modern games—from Atari to Xbox, as they like to say—Game Over buys and trades cartridges and discs for all systems, has free in-store tournaments, hosts the annual Classic Game Fest in Austin, Texas (the next one is Aug. 16-17), and carries more swag than you can shake a joystick at.
From day one, Game Over owner David Kaelin, who opened his first store in Austin in the fall of 2005 (like GameStop, Game Over is headquartered in Texas), made a conscious decision to make his business different the type of video game outlet he had worked for in the past.
“Before starting up Game Over, I was a store manager for Electronic Boutique,” he said. “In those days, however, EB had already begun the switch from the ‘cool’ alternative—the store that still carried, sold, traded, and loved ALL video games and merchandise—into the ‘GameStop model,’ which basically means no retro, no cool merch, and big pressure on selling magazines and memberships.”

Personally, I’m a big fan of Game Informer, GameStop’s in-house magazine (in part because it’s one of the few print video game magazines left), but I’m definitely with Kaelin when it comes to appreciating a video game store that focuses on older games. (To be fair, Kaelin didn’t say anything negative about Game Informer itself, just the pressure to sell the discount club memberships, which include a subscription to the magazine.)

Kaelin left Electronic Boutique when his daughter was born. When it was time to get back to work, he decided to open and run his own business: a store that focused on the “true love of video games,” the classics in particular.

“I know it seems common these days, but nine years ago, the thought of focusing your entire game store on selling retro games was almost a sure sign of a quick and painful death to your business,” he said. “Virtually every independent game store had already closed or been bought up by GameStop. Nobody really collected games, and most old games were considered ‘worthless’ by the majority of gamers and non-gamers alike.”

Despite the relatively small market for older games nearly a decade ago, Kaelin stuck to his (light) guns and made Game Over a reality.
“We were perfectly timed to ride the wave of retro gaming and game collecting that has greatly expanded over the past few years,” he said. “Now we have nine retail stores located all over Texas and do online sales and trade-ins nationwide and in Canada.”

Upon entering any of Game Over’s nine locations, you’ll immediately know you aren’t at a dusty old mom-and-pop shop (though those can have their charms). The stores are clean, neat, well-organized, well-stocked, and professionally run.
“Our mission was simple,” Kaelin said. “To create a HUGE oasis in the video game retail world where classic and vintage games would not only exist, but where they would be cleaned, merchandised, presented, and sold in a way that no other video game store has ever done. Old video games are not just a forgotten little shelf in the back of our stores—they fill our entire stores! We do realize that this concept is 100% opposite of the way most video game stores operate, but we like it that way.”
As such, you’re not going to be paying rock bottom prices on most of Game Over’s offerings, but this is hardly unusual for a specialty shop. After all, it’s not like you can get most of this stuff—factory sealed Atari Lynx games, TurboGrafx-16 consoles, imported Nintendo Famicom cartridges, and the like—at Target, Walmart, or, ahem, GameStop.

Not surprisingly, Kaelin’s interest in video games goes back to his childhood. He’s not entirely sure what title was his first, but he believes it was probably the coin-op classic Pac-Man (1980), which he played (and thoroughly enjoyed) while waiting on a table at Pizza Inn or Pizza Hut.
“Those types of restaurants all had an arcade machine or two in them during the late ’70s and early ’80s,” Kaelin said. “Nobody really went out to eat that often back in those days, at least in our neighborhood, so for most people, anytime they got to go out to eat was a great night. For me, the arcade machines were always the highlight.”

Shortly after Kaelin played Pac-Man in that pizza parlor almost three-and-a-half decades ago, his family splurged on a home gaming console.

“My first game system was a nice six-switch Atari 2600, which we got when I was about four or five around 1980,” he said.  “I LOVED the Atari!  My friends and siblings and I played it a lot. My favorite games were Pac-Man, Berzerk, Yars Revenge, Adventure, and Combat, which was basically the Twisted Metal of its day—a blast to play and trash-talk with your friends.

Despite his affinity for the Atari 2600, Kaelin is even fonder of a certain gray box and a short, pudgy, Italian plumber.

“My favorite all-time system has to be the Nintendo NES,” he said. “I think from what I’ve seen and heard from other fans, we all have the same story—our favorite tends to be whichever system you had around age 8 to 13. That’s when it just clicks in your head and the best memories are created.  I love the sound effects and music of those NES games…that awesome mix of beeps, sounds, and 8-bit techno type songs which have since become so iconic of retro video games.”

Like any gamer worth his or her weight in Air Raid cartridges, Kaelin enjoys games from a variety of genres and eras. And, like most of us, he has a hard time nailing down an all-time favorite, seeming a little uncomfortable with the notion of boiling down more than 40 years of industry into a single title.

 “That is an awful question to ask anyone that loves video games!”, he said, laughing at my quandary-inducing query, but ultimately picking a familiar favorite: “I like a handful of awesome games for each system, but if I had to pick only one, I’d say Super Mario Bros. 3 for NES. When that game came out, it was just SO MUCH bigger than any game I’d ever seen: the music, the worlds, the maps, the power-ups, etc.  That game took my existing love of the NES and really brought it to a new level. Even today, I still love playing that game!”

In addition to console gaming and playing the occasional coin-op when he’d go out to eat with his family, Kaelin was an arcade rat during the Golden Age of Video Games.

“Back in those days, parents, including mine, actually DID let their kids go hang out at the malls on weekends without fearing for their lives. My sister and I would do this often, and we always made it over to our local mall arcade called the Gold Mine.”

Unlike most of today’s arcades, which are brightly light, squeaky clean, and filled with ticket redemption games, Gold Mine was “dark, dirty, noisy, and awesome!”

Nowadays, Kaelin is a devoted family man with two kids of his own. Familial commitments, along with running a successful retail chain, hasn’t left much time for gaming over the past decade (he has been content “providing ‘awesome-nes’ to other gamers through Game Over”), but that has started to change of late.

“My kids have been getting a bit older and more into games, and I get to share in that love with them which is great,” he said with a smile. “The game we play most in our house right now is Skylanders, but I will bring out the NES or Genesis too for some retro fun, and my kids honestly get a kick out of playing classics, too!”

Kaelin believes retro gaming is popular for a variety of reasons, including nostalgia and the fact that many of the better titles have held up “amazingly well.”

“They look just as cool and are just as hard as they were back in the day,” he said.  “Then, you add in nostalgia, cell phone games (most of which are very retro-like or 8-bit like), parents who grew up with games (like me) now having kids who are getting into gaming, the average age of gamers keeps going up…that is just the perfect storm for retro games to be making such a huge comeback.  Now, parents and kids can play together and have an activity that both can share on a very special level with each other.”

As mentioned earlier, Game Over stacks its shelves deep, but some of the more popular cartridges and discs sell almost as quickly as they come in.

“The demand is huge for lots of retro titles,” Kaelin said. “Anything Mario-, Zelda-, or Final Fantasy-related goes very quickly. So do ANY of the classic RPG-style games. Plus, with some many collectors out there, many great games are simply being removed from circulation. No more are being made, and cities are being cleaned out by ‘game hunters,’ so essentially every year that goes by, the demand keeps going up, and the supply keeps going down. That means the games that many people want sometimes just don’t come in too often, and when they do, they often sell often in less than 24 hours.”

Predictably, all of the classic Nintendo consoles, such as the Nintendo NES, Super Nintendo, and Nintendo 64, sell well for Kaelin. And, when they do come in, such relatively obscure systems as the Philips CD-I, Panasonic 3DO, and Sega Saturn tend to not hang around for very long as they are getting harder and harder to find.

Throughout its history, Game Over has sold far more classic games than modern titles, but, despite the wave of nostalgia for retro gaming, that trend has started to change.

“At our stores, we always have sold much more of the PS1 and prior types of games, but it’s evening up much more now,” Kaelin said. “These days, we’ll often sell everything across the gaming spectrum in a single day: Atari, NES, PS2, even Xbox360. Our stores have such a wide assortment, and gamers’ tastes are so varied, that we tend to sell some of everything on a daily basis.”

In short, Game Over is a more well-rounded, more up-to-date establishment than when it began, but the classics are still king.

With an expansion rate of a store per year, Game Over is experiencing growth that most small businesses would envy, especially those in the physical media entertainment industry. Kaelin attributes his success to hard work, professionalism, and treating his business like a business, not a hobby.

“I think we have a lot going for us,” he said. “We have solid leadership, great employees, and everything we do and aspire to be is to support retro gaming. Even though we now have locations all over Texas, we are still very community-focused and support gamers and families at the local level. Our stores often feature special fan sections, too, such as in-store video game museums, art galleries, author appearances, consignment art from local artists, monthly retro tournaments, live music, meet and greets, etc.”

Kaelin knows that without people darkening the doors of his burgeoning business, he’d have to fine another line of work.

 “The main thing is customer support,” he said. “We have fantastic and supportive customers. Without that from the beginning, we’d be dead in the water, just like most other independent game stores.”

Independent video game retailers are often compared to old-school comic book store owners in the pejorative sense, such as the rude, price-gouging Comic Book Guy on The Simpsons and the pathetic, socially inept Stuart Bloom on The Big Bang Theory. These stereotypes are funny, but they don’t translate to success in today’s competitive market, which is something Kaelin clearly understands.

“Our entire team is specially hired and trained to be friendly and knowledgeable so all customers will feel welcome in our stores,” he said.  “Also, our stores are always kept clean, and merchandise is always organized and priced clearly and fairly. It’s a fact that not old games are cheap anymore, but we always do our best to keep our prices fair and competitive with market rates.”

As a shopper himself, Kaelin “hates the kind of indie stores that are dirty little shacks with no price tags on anything. If you can find something worth buying, they have to quote you a price at the register—which sometimes is great (if you’re their buddy) and sometimes awful (for most other people), depending on who’s working that day or just how gullible they think you are.  Those stores give me the creeps and give independent game stores in general a bad name.”

Kaelin continued: “We’re not just out to make a buck; we really reach out to gamers to be their friends and their favorite place to shop and hang out. Plus, we support tons of local schools, hospitals, festivals, events, etc. to support the communities in which we operate.”

When Kaelin opened that first store in Austin—a hipster, but business-friendly town known for, among other things, quirky retail enterprises—not everyone was sold on the idea, including James Renovitch of The Austin Chronicle. In an article published May 15, 2012, Renovitch wrote, “I'll admit, when I interviewed the owner of Game Over Videogames, David Kaelin, back in 2006 I wasn’t sold on the store's profitability even if I was rooting for him. Over the years, and much to my happiness, he has proven me wrong repeatedly.”
Kaelin believes that running a video game store is an “awesome job,” but he does want to dispel the myth that opening and running an entertainment-related business is an easy and fun thing to do.

“Quite the opposite is true,” he said. “Unless you have lots of money and are willing to work six to seven day weeks for zero pay for a few years to get it off the ground, it just won’t make it. The ones that actually do succeed all share one thing in common: an experienced and business-minded owner who sinks tons of his/her personal time, money, and effort into it.  The others all quickly burn out and run out of money or energy or both, and they just can’t keep it going any longer after a year or two.”

Despite the long hours and ample sacrifice, Kaelin is grateful for everything he and his staff have achieved.

“I am so thankful every day to have such an amazing job and company to work for,” he said.  “I really love my job, and starting and growing Game Over into what it is today has been a truly awesome experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything.”

And the “fun” has only begun.

“It is my hope to continue to slowly, but surely expand into new territories and give more retro gamers around the country a chance to see what a great and unique classic game store experience we offer.”

The newest Game Over retail outlet opened in December of 2013 in Arlington, Texas (home of the Texas Rangers and Dallas Cowboys), which is located between the twin cities of Dallas and Fort Worth.

Friday, April 11, 2014

KISS -- Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Yesterday's induction of KISS into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame reminds me of how cool my parents are/were.

When I was a kid, my mom, who kept an immaculate household, let me plaster KISS posters and magazine photos all over my room.

After going to Baskin-Robbins one night, we went to a shop next door, and they bought me a KISS T-shirt (pictured in the photo). Back then, you had to pick out your T-shirt color and style, and then select an iron-on transfer for the store employee to put on the shirt. I was so excited to get the shirt and even wore it for my school photo that year.
And coolest of all, my dad would take KISS magazines to his work and make copies of the pictures so I could hand them out at school (this was fifth and sixth grade). He would also let me play "Love Gun" and "Destroyer" on the 8-track player in his Ford pickup while we were running errands in "town." I'm sure he hated the music, but he never said a word about it.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Super! Bitcon Panel

Hosted by the Retro Gamers Society, Super! Bitcon took place at the Oklahoma State Fair Park March 29. It was an awesome gathering of fans celebrating their favorite hobby. Almost 2,000 people were in attendance, an amazing total for a first-time show. One of the highlights for me was appearing on a panel with video game media personality Patrick Scott Patterson and super collector and historian Jeff Cooper. Here's that panel, in its entirety. I was a little nervous (hence the fidgeting and over-drinking--not sure why I didn't just put the cup on the table), but I thought it went pretty well overall. You can judge for yourself.