Collectors’ Corner: The secrets of video game collecting

News & Insights

MoneyPlus Features Team

7th April 2016 at 12:00pm

Collecting video games might sound like the pursuit of nostalgic hobbyists looking to relive their pixelated pasts, but is there more to it than that? In 2014, Michael Thomasson sold his Guinness Book of World Record-holding collection of games on eBay for $750,250,[i] which sparked broader interest into the retro gaming hobby.

Retro gaming shops of the ‘80s and ‘90s have died a slow death, and eBay prices for mint condition Nintendo and Sega cartridges can often prove unpalatable, but it is possible to build up a valuable collection in today’s digital download world, where retro classics are readily available on new consoles such as the Wii U?

For this latest instalment of our Collectors’ Corner series, we spoke with eight influential retro collectors and bloggers – including Thomasson – to answer these questions and ultimately, find out if collecting retro video games can still be a viable pastime (or even profession) in this modern era.

Games collecting in a digital world

Close up of video games on a shelf

Copyright Brianna Blank/Michael Thomasson

Based in Hamburg, New York, Michael Thomasson is a respected video game historian, and the driving force behind enthusiast site Good Deal Games. His love of gaming began in 1978, when he saw his first Space Invaders arcade cabinet in his local Dairy Queen fast food restaurant, and that love turned into a record-breaking passion for the hobby.

Thomasson admits that in the ‘80s, he perhaps re-sold his games for far less than the asking price, because collectors didn’t have the internet or eBay to use as a yardstick. However, as online discussion around the hobby grew he was able to buy and sell titles wisely, and with greater returns, even making enough to buy an engagement ring for his wife JoAnn.

“I have watched the price of video games soar over the last five years especially,” Thomasson tells us. “I’m seeing games sell for 400% per cent more than they were just five years ago. It’s crazy. Frankly, I’m not sure how much longer it will last. I think the hobby is in a bubble that could likely pop at any moment.

“Modest investments into vintage games may still pay off,” he continues, “but I would not recommend mortgaging one’s home or selling off traditional stocks to invest in video games. With that said, I personally can’t stop and have started my fifth collection. It’s in my blood, I guess, and I have always collected for fun and to play the games themselves, [so] my intent was never to sell my personal collection or profit – it was my passion!”

Keith at retro reviews and feature site Arcade Attack cautions that those looking to start collecting will need patience and (initially) deep pockets. “Like most things in life, knowledge is power,” he stresses. “So if you’re starting from scratch, or only have residual knowledge from way back when you originally played these games, throw yourself headfirst into all the retro gaming resources you can find online.

“If you’re new to collecting, maybe choose your favourite console to start with, and slowly build up a small collection for that, concentrating on finding out as much as you can about the rare and valuable [titles] for that console. Then over time, you can expand your search to other consoles, manufacturers and generations.”

Beware of unreasonable prices

Collection of video game memorabilia

Copyright Heidi

Heidi at Retro Video Gaming agrees that games are often priced too highly online, but recommends looking beyond eBay for the best deals, “It’s still possible to find games to buy on eBay, online stores and other auctions sites.

“The prices are usually a bit higher than the market value though,” she adds, “I personally find a lot of games by interacting with the retro gaming communities online, either through forums or social media. It’s usually a lot cheaper buying games straight from other collectors or people who are not really into it.”

Heidi adds that the classic image of venturing into some dusty, long-forgotten attic and uncovering a treasure trove of forgotten gaming relics is often the reality of the retro community. Whether through game collector Facebook groups, or car boot sale vendors, you often do find someone who has stumbled across an old collection at home, and will sell at a reasonable price.

Steve at Classic Game Blog started collecting after uncovering a NES system in his old storage unit, and agrees that collectors don’t need to rely solely on eBay to find great collectibles. He adds, “My advice is to check thrift stores, flea markets and garage sales as you will usually get better deals if you are on a tight budget.

“Purchasing lots of games on eBay is a great way to acquire multiple games at once, and you are able to save on shipping as opposed to buying just one game at a time. You will more than likely get duplicates of games which you can use to trade to others for games they are looking for, or you can sell them yourself.”

It seems that in the case of retro games, a degree of patience is required in order to build a collection from multiple sources, but how can you tell if the game you have discovered will be sought after by high-paying purists?

What to look for in a valuable game

Retro pinball machine

Copyright Retro Gaming Roundup

Like many collectibles, there are certain hallmarks of quality that apply across the board. For example, fully boxed, pristine games with instruction booklets are worth far more than their unboxed counterparts. In the case of cartridge-based games, eagle-eyed collectors will look at the quality of connector pins, save state battery life and other factors.

Scott at Retro Gaming Roundup started gaming in the late ‘70s, starting out with an Atari system, before scooping up many discounted titles at low cost following the video game market crash of 1983.[ii] On what makes some games more valuable than others, he explains, “In this hobby rarity is a cruel master of value, and a rather merciless one at that.

“Some unremarkable games that exist in very low numbers can sell for tens of thousands of dollars and many collectors have purchased games in bulk hoping for a lottery ticket-like find of rare and valuable games. Condition follows rarity, boxed and complete systems command a premium price over loose systems and it is not uncommon to see a box selling for more than the system itself.”

Scott’s colleague Mike agrees, and continues, “You will also see people selling empty boxes. If a box is empty but contains all of the polystyrene inlays and manuals and warranties, somebody will buy it and combine it with a cheap system they bought unboxed for pennies, thus ending up with quite a valuable complete system.”

Mike cautions collectors to do their homework, as the hobby is awash with keen enthusiasts who really do know the true value of games out there in the wild. “There are of course exceptions and that is what eBay sellers are waiting for,” he closes, “the unsuspecting and unknowing buyer who will buy at the wrong price, but that is a minority. You don’t want to build a profitable business based on selling to a minority.”

Game collector events and community spirit

Retro gaming equipment

Left: Copyright North East Retro Gaming (NERG), Right: Copyright Heidi

Philip Murphy’s love of gaming blossomed throughout the ‘80s and early ‘90s thanks to local arcades. These dazzling hubs of neon lights and the sound of chiptune music are a distant memory, but there are several groups keeping the community spirit and nostalgia of the arcade alive through regular retro events.

Murphy is the founder of North East Retro Gaming (NERG), a yearly event dedicated to bringing hobbyists together under one roof, with many lovingly restored arcade cabinets and pinball machines to play, and collectibles to buy. He agrees that the spirit of retro gaming is very much alive in the popular subconscious today.

“Retro gaming has exploded over the last couple of years,” Murphy reveals, “and by holding events, it’s reaching out to new generations who would never have experienced [it], or would have never even been born in the last century.

“When I first started NERG, I was really surprised by the younger generation that loved playing the games and also buying and collecting the retro games and consoles. There is a market out there for it, and events such as NERG are making it more and more popular.”

Johnny Nieves created the Retro Dustbin podcast and blog as an outlet for game fans to share their nostalgic stories, and he himself is an avid collector of all things old school. Nieves doesn’t personally collect games to sell them, but he has nothing but praise for the helpful seller community.

“Let’s just say that I got into retro gaming for the games and stayed for the community,” Nieves explains. “The online community was very helpful and entertaining in encouraging me to continue the hobby. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of dedicated YouTube channels, forums, and blogs out there to discuss collecting and even trading.

“Some of my best deals have come from trading with other collectors across the globe. There is a sense of trust when you can get a fair deal from someone as enthusiastic about the hobby as you are, rather than someone just looking for a quick buck.”

Gaming: A hobby founded on fun 

Close up of Mario Artist video game cover

Copyright Brianna Blank/Michael Thomasson

As Nieves points out, the online community that has emerged around retro gaming very much embodies this fun atmosphere and togetherness, while at events like Murphy’s North East Retro Gaming, you can see gamers coming together in person to share experiences of games gone by, while passing this on to the next generation of players.

In closing, we ask Thomasson about his experience of game collecting, and he recalls, “When I first started collecting, I thought I was the only one. When the internet sprung up I realised that I was not alone and over the years have met many wonderful people and made many new friends with a similar interest.”

He adds, “When my mother’s medical bills started showing up, and in-home care was required, her cost of living went up substantially. That is when I decided to let the world know of my massive collection and alert The Guinness Book of World Records about all the games I had hidden away in my basement.”

Gaming as a medium is rooted in fun – as there is a tactile sense of enjoyment and control that doesn’t extend to other formats such as music or film. We can play together, co-operate to overcome challenges or puzzles, and thanks to the likes of Minecraft or LittleBigPlanet, create wonderful new worlds for others to explore.

So while collecting games does indeed take time, patience and a keen eye for smart deals, it can also unlock a world of fun and friendship you might not get by following other pursuits. This indeed, is a rare quality worth pursuing.

[i] World’s biggest video game collection sold for $750,000 – The Guardian

[ii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_American_video_game_crash_of_1983