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Retro gaming fans make money from old tech



JOSEPH GALLIVAN - Claire  Cassidy makes a living selling nerdy jewellery and light up cat ears. Here she is at the Portland Retro Gaming Expo.

In the frictionless world of always-on, immersive digital content, is anyone making any money out of the old stuff?

The clunky LCD Game Boys, the Sega Genesis carts and slightly unhygienic Missile Command arcade machines?

At the 10th annual Portland Retro Gaming Expo on Oct. 17-18, a record 11,000 people showed up (at $27 a ticket) to play games for free, browse the merchants and listen to YouTube stars such as Brentalfloss, who makes funny songs out of old game theme music.

Claire Cassidy calls herself the Boss Lady, Manager and Overall God of GeekStar Costuming.

If you want to make money you have to focus it down to specific products. She makes laser tech jewelry, or what she calls “nerdy jewelry.” That is laser-cut, mirrored acrylic earrings depicting the likes of Space Invaders and other pop symbols.

And cat ears with LED lights.

The future’s so bright she has to wear day-glo

“They’re my biggest seller right now, if you Google ‘glowing cat ears’ I’m the whole first page. Because no body else is doing it.” (That was true for most of the year, until thousands of Ariana Grande fans adopted cat ears.)

Cassidy says it’s one thing to make things, but do it on a scale that they pop up on Google is really hard.

“I literally am making these things as fast as humanly possible.” Her after-show routine is to hit the craft table and make a few dozen more for the next day. They take a minimum of 30 minutes a pair. Couldn’t she outsource it to China?

“Textile and electronics manufacturing don't play well together," she says, meaning in the way she needs it for her unique and desired design. "So it makes way more sense to do it in house.”

She does them in batches of a few hundred at a time with her crew of two.

A pair sells for $45. The niche is nerdy conventions, but they’re also popular with the rave kids. Electric Daisy Carnival, Electric Forest, Burning Man, those communities could sustain me for a lifetime. Oh yeah! Are you kidding? Millions and millions of people!” For two years it’s been her full time job.

For the jewelry she vectors the design on a computer, her friend cuts them on his laser cutter, she cleans them up, assembles them and packages them. Most of her sales are online, both on geekstarcostuming.com and on her Etsy page.

She uses QuickBooks for her receipts, an accountant for the hard stuff.

“For the inventory, a huge part of it is in my head.”

Her peer across the way in artists alley, Chrystal Doucette, runs Digital Soaps.

She makes soaps shaped like game controllers and cartridges. A Poke Ball, is a small yellow ball with a toy in it, and goes for $16. It’s her best seller. A Genesis cartridge is $8.

Doucette made the silicon molds herself when she found out there weren’t any soaps shaped like she wanted. (She had no business background. Her Masters degree is in Communications.) Like the cat ears, Doucette suddenly hit on a winning formula that made her business take off. She started off making them shaped like calculators and cell phones.

“Then I made a game controller soap and it sold out instantly. The other things just fell by the way side.” Then she cautions, “There are copycats out there.”

JOSEPH GALLIVAN - Chrystal Doucette makes a living selling nerdy soap in the shape of game controllers.

Back across the alley, Cassidy says she moved from Bellingham, Wash., to Portland four months ago, bringing her business with her. “I wanted to be in a big city but I don’t like the vibe in Seattle.”

At age 14 she and her best friend started out selling practice poi for fire dancers, at festivals.

“It was like we’d invented the yo-yo, we couldn’t sell them fast enough. It gave me, very quickly, a street degree in business. I fly by the seat of my pants, but I’m really, really good at it by now.”

Now she does 12 big nerdy conventions a year, always taking a table in “artist alley.” Cassidy admits that if the owners of the intellectual property wanted to, they could come after lots of people at the show, but they don’t bother with small fry and fan art.

“All of it technically is illegal, there’s no grey area but they have to go after you. There’s a bunch of things I don’t do, out of respect. Like Welcome To Night Vale, the podcast, I would never do that.”

Those cat ears were $35, a pair but she couldn’t make them fast enough. When she gets a paper insert for the clear packaging, with her logo and story on it, only then will she charge $55, and be able to wholesale them to other retailers

SuperRetroMan

One of the show organizers, Chuck Van Pelt, is by day an IT analyst for a telecom company. (He’s an Asteroids fan, now getting into analog pinball.)

“The attraction is nostalgia,” says Van Pelt plainly. “We see a lot of people entering their 30s and 40s, who were children who had video game systems, and obviously a lot of time was spent in front of video game systems. It made an impression on their imagination and now that they have children they are seeking out connection with their kid, and memories from more happy times. A show like ours provides a lot of feedback like that in terms of sights sounds and smells.”

He points out that Pac-Man and SuperMario Bros. are still being made today. “Mario came out in 1985 and today it’s as hot as ever.”

The show started as hobbyists, just 200 or 300 people in a hotel ballroom gathering to trade games and have fun. “We formed a nonprofit corporation,” says Van Pelt. “We’re all volunteers, and we decided when it ceases to be fun for us that’s when we’ll stop doing it.”

Some people just want to play the game, some people want to complete a set and buy every game in its original packaging.

Most of the vendors are artists and collectors, people who do it on a part time basis.

The larger vendors are local video game stores, not national chains. “Portland has more classic video game stores than any city I can think of. Most big cities have three or four. I can name eight or nine mom and pop video stores in Portland.”

He says video game digital releases are taking over the industry. “If a video game is available for download then it’s not hard to figure why would I go to a store when I can put in my credit card and download it.”

“People have a physical connection to the games and want the media. They still blow on a Nintendo cartridge to make it work, we’ve all done that. But thanks to downloads a really immersive game is only as far away as the phone in your pocket.”

Nintendo adds download-only content, like a special Luigi level. Yet Van Pelt wonders what will happen when people have beaten a game and want to sell it or give it away. How will they feel about having bits and bites stuck in their machine?

“We don’t want to lose games, but we hope any intellectual property owner will realize the value of it. And in 20 years you’ll be able to buy today’s games again. Like on the Nintendo online store on the console, you can purchase old games for a few dollars.”

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