Rich Simpson, owner of Game Xcape, still remembers his first system: an original Atari. He and his brothers played Pong on it religiously. Little did they know that they were architects of the machine’s demise.
"We went outside and left the game on, and when my father came home the image had burned onto the TV. He bought a new TV and he told us, ‘If this happens again, [the Atari's] going bye bye.’ And I swear if we didn't do the same thing three weeks later. So he put it behind the rear wheels and backed the car over it." Thus, a gamer was born.
Simpson is a natural raconteur; simple questions turning into paragraph-long lectures on the nature of the games industry and the challenges independent stores face. It's easy to see why he's able to maintain an independent game store in a world where corporate interests see the indies as weeds to be pulled out.
"We don't get the pre-order bonuses, we don't get the special skin packs or weapons or extra levels," he says. "A lot of indie game stores used to break sales dates and start selling major titles early, but the big companies complained and so that was out the window too. It's harder and harder, but in today's buyer's mind, especially hardcore players, they want the bonus stuff. They don't necessarily trust the indies."
What sets him apart? "Definitely the personal touch. Weirdly enough, I love the personal touch, and I hate the retail. My favorite thing is like when a 7-year-old comes in here, and he knows more about games than I do, or collects retro games."
Something out there
The independent status allows Simpson to cut breaks to people where a national conglomerate can't or won't. Simpson says that many of his customers are in the lower income bracket, able to afford games at Game Xcape when they otherwise couldn’t. "I see a guy come in with his child, and you can tell the parent really wants to make the child happy so they're spending the last dime, I'll cut that parent a break,” Simpson says. “Does that create some problems? Sure. People start to get entitled, they start to demand different prices. I've even had to throw people out. But you have to balance what's best for the store and what's best for the customer."
Game Xcape offers many services for your average console junkie. There are the new games. There are the competitive prices. There's even the gaming lounge: 12 flat screen televisions lined up along the entrance wall where customers can play any game they choose for $4 an hour. But where Game Xcape finds its bread and butter is its eclectic inventory.
Walking into Game Xcape is like entering a kind of museum: Start at a corner of the long glass counter that spans the length of the opposite wall for a micro-education into the history of the medium. Atari, original Nintendo, N64, Gameboy, Gameboy Advance, Gamecube, Wii. In another corner, Playstation, Playstation 2, Playstation 3, Xbox and Xbox 360. There's an old, long-forgotten Intellivision console lurking like a time capsule from the ‘70s. At anytime, any game from any era might pop up in one of the cases.
"Lots of people, this stuff sits in the garage, the basement,” Simpson says. “[They] didn't play it for whatever reason and brought it in. I've got [Nintendo Entertainment Systems] that are basically brand new. Kid got it for Christmas or whatever, they played it for a weekend, decided it wasn't for them, put it in the basement and it just stayed there."
Simpson estimates only about one-third of his sales are from new games; the rest come from the trade-ins and re-buying of the classics.
The gaming gods
Gaming as a whole is the most successful case of nerd culture launching into mega-mainstream status, so much that many people seem to have forgotten its beginnings as a niche endeavor. What 30 years ago was the hobby of computer geeks is now a multibillion dollar industry, omnipresent in dorm rooms and living rooms and senior citizen centers the world over. Step onto the fiber-optic highway of Xbox Live, and you can be playing Call of Duty with a 7-year-old in India in less than 10 seconds. Hollywood stars line up to voice characters and soccer moms work off the morning's croissant on a Wii fit.
"It's escapism, but it's such a varied kind of escapism," says Simpson. "There's literally something out there for anyone's interests."
So if you like jumping puzzles, there are games for you. Shooting things, there are games for you. Playing sports, there are games for you. Enjoying a deep, compelling story — as in Simpson's personal favorite, Heavy Rain — there are games for you. And unlike a book or film where the story is experienced through an outside perspective, with modern video games it is you controlling, or the game offering you illusion of control.
It is you owning the Noob on the Highrise map in Call of Duty. It is you who decides when to time Mario's jump over the Venus Fire Trap. It's easy to see why it took such a strong hold, and as Simpson discovered, Asheville was the perfect place to spread the gospel.
"I honestly didn't even look at Asheville when I was deciding where to put the [original] store," he says. "But once I came through the city on the way to Virginia, and got caught in an ice storm. Had to stay at a friend’s house, liked the area, and did some research. The demographics were perfect. A lot of people don't realize how much of a hidden population there is in Buncombe and its surrounding counties, and there were only two game stores around at the time."
Sometimes even the gaming gods themselves intervene on behalf of our city.
There’s a sea change on the horizon in the industry, as the notion of gaming transitioning to a completely online distribution model has gone from pie-in-the-sky prospect to simple inevitability, and with it, eliminating the need for physical stores. It’s a paradigm shift that Simpson keeps in mind.
But while corporate behemoths like Gamestop seek to stem the tide of the transition, Simpson is oddly relaxed about a distribution change that might very well spell the end of his store. "I know it's going to happen. I told everyone that with this generation: ‘If Microsoft and Sony go all digital, we've got maybe two years.’ But they didn't, so I'll give it another eight.”
Until then, the game is on.