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The scourge of the retro re-seller

The dreaded re-sellers. Pirate scum or a natural part of the hobby life cycle?

Retro Re-sellers. From a dictionary definition standpoint, the term could be thought of as simply a label defining those who purchase vintage gaming gear with a mind to selling it onto others at profit, rather than retaining the goods for their personal use or collection.

Sounds innocuous enough, right?

If you’re a part of the vintage gaming community however, you may view the retro re-seller in a somewhat more sinister light.  Conjure up images of dirty, thieving cretins lurking in shadows and consumed by thoughts of ripping anyone and everyone off for their own gain. There are stories – should you believe them – of re-sellers purposefully duping fellow retro gamers out of rare games they didn’t know they had, or buying a console at a ridiculously low price off one member of a Facebook Buy/Sell/Swap page, only to turn around and sell it moments later to the same group at a crazy markup.  Even worse, there are hints of people buying things in bulk merely to hoard them until they increase in value enough they can turn around and dump them onto the hobby market for immense and tasty profits.

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This dark version of the re-seller cares not for the love of the machines, nor the games or fellow gamers. They care only for coin, for profit. Their behavior – particularly acquiring items and re-selling them at high markup via eBay, Gumtree and other avenues – is credited for the steady increase towards what some see as ludicrous pricing for games and systems from the 80s and 90s.

So, does this cruel and twisted version of the re-seller really exist? Are there people out there who are preying on genuine lovers of the hobby and steadily destroying the community economy?

Well, sort of. There’s no denying re-sellers exist and that some of them have zero interest in the hobby. There are people out there who see retro game collecting as a booming little hobby industry ripe for turning a profit from. What is up for debate however, is whether they are destroying the hobby or whether the hobby is simply fated to change due to its very nature, and that the re-sellers who hoard games and machines may eventually find themselves the ultimate losers in this saga.

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There are a number of factors at play here. First up, are the hobbyists themselves. Typically (generally) late 20s to mid 30s types, who actually grew up with the games and machines we now consider retro. These are the people whose childhood was defined by the Commodore 64 or Sega Master System.  As children, these machines were either prized and expensive possessions or in some cases completely out of reach.  Those children of the 80s and 90s are now adults, adults with disposable income and in may cases an income not yet soaked up by children or mortgages.

This timing phenomenon leaves the hobby with a glut of people with cash to burn and a desire to own all these beloved machines and games from their youth. With this in mind, the demand portion of the hobby economy goes up, and supply grows to match.  Eventually though, these people will acquire most or all of what they desire or develop other priorities and their spending will decrease.  New generations of gamers who grow up with a limited platform choice in the form of Microsoft/Sony/Nintendo will be missing this nostalgic attachment to the platforms of yesteryear, and demand will drop.  This may have the knock on effect of causing over-supply of games and systems onto all available markets without buyers at the other end.   Why an over supply? Because one of the biggest fallacies of retro game collecting is that we deal in a world of rarity.

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In 99% of cases, it’s a gross misnomer. Mass manufacturing is not a concept that bypassed the 1980s and 90s electronics world.  Between 1983 – 86, the Commodore 64 sold at a rate of 2 million units per year.  The famous NES title ‘Zelda’  sold over 6.5 million copies in its lifetime.  The Sega Saturn topped out at just shy of 10 million units sold worldwide.

For the most part vintage gaming gear is available, accessible, and far from rare.   So while the re-sellers hoard copies of Zelda and boxed Megadrives, they may well become victims of what we like to think of as “The Basketball Card Effect”.  You see, many years ago Basketball Cards were a big deal. Kids traded them ferociously and profitably at school, and entire hobbyist shop relied on the latest NBL super-stars to bring money into their stores via the latest Fleer, Tops or Upper Deck hologram series.  People were hoarding unopened card packs and slapping Michael Jordan ‘Through the hoop’ cards into massive slabs of perspex to protect their investments.

Fast forward to today, and a fun little factoid: Basketball cards aren’t worth jack. As the hobby grew, so did circulation and pricing. An economy was built around the trading and people dreamed of cashing in their cards at a later date to pay for early retirement and a three-story house run entirely from remote control.  Supply caught up with – and overran – demand, and even though new production of said cards long since stopped, so many people had hoarded away their favorite cards that when the nostalgia wore off or priorities changed, they dumped their cards onto a hobby market already awash with more of the same.

Nowadays you can walk into a hobby store with your much loved and guarded shoe box of mint condition basketball cards, only to find out their barely worth the cardboard they were printed on.

That’s the basketball card phenomenon, and there’s no reason to think that some version of it won’t occur to the retro gaming hobby at a point in time.  Who will this phenomenon most likely damage? It won’t be the passionate ones, the lovers of retro video games.  For them, the collecting is pure adoration, the goal to love, cherish and play. The more stuff available, the more easily accessible and reasonably priced the better.

The ones who will get hit hard will be the re-sellers and investment hoarders, left holding onto rooms full of gear that has immense emotional value to many, but financial value to few.  So while it might seem as though the retro video game hobby is under siege from re-sellers and price hikers, it could well be that it’s a finite condition, a limited phase that some hobbies have to go through at a certain point in time as generations age or the dynamic of supply and demand evolves.  The important thing to remember, is that the appeal of a system you’ve loved since your youth never has to change, and certainly isn’t tied to its monetary value. That Atari 2600Jr you spent so many hours on as a kid won’t ever change. The architecture will be the same, the games will look, feel and sound the same as they did when you were 10 years old.

As long as you bide your time, pick your buys and don’t give in too readily to the sometimes obscene prices in marketplaces like eBay, you’ll ensure that you can enjoy a treasured and unique hobby for years to come while the profit makers and pirates fade into obscurity.