Every game has a story to tell.

Scott Adams' Adventureland was nearly lost forever when Scott's wife, Alexis, got fed up with all the time he was spending on it and one day put the disks in the oven, threatening to bake them. (Contrary to popular belief, she did not actually turn it on.) He later let her help design one of his games, and the result was Voodoo Castle.

Datamost's The Bilestoad, a two-person death-combat game with large, detailed characters, was harshly criticized and even snubbed by magazine reviewers for its violence, but it was such a well-liked game by the Apple II public that it was actually the rampant piracy of the game that ended up making it a commercial failure.

During the long and delayed development of Ultima: Ascension, there was a major shift in the dominant 3D accelerator chipset technology, forcing massive and hasty recoding when Origin demanded a Christmas release, and the initial version of the game was essentially unplayable.

Every copy of every game has a story to tell.

My Leisure Suit Larry titles were mailed to Al Lowe for autographs, but in exchange for the favor he asked that I also send him something "unique to [my] part of the country". My trade to him? A bottle of secret sauce from a legendary local barbeque restaurant. (He liked it a lot, too.)

My shrinked PC copy of Sentient's Cyborg, currently the only known copy in existence, was discovered in a warehouse full of old software owned by a guy who'd been selling since the 1980s, whom I first met at a computer liquidation sale right here in Peoria. He'd brought along a bunch of old games just to see if anybody would want them, and upon learning of my interest he invited me to drive up and dig through some of it, and I found the Cyborg completely by surprise. Its cost to me? One dollar. I've since turned down people offering me $100 to break the shrinkwrap and copy the disk for them.

I got my Gateway by Pryority Software from a Swedish collector who used a really obscure courier to ship it to me. They were closed Saturdays and it was a long weekend so I went to pick it up Friday night, but was already pissed off when I got there because I'd been driving back and forth for about 20 minutes looking for the place. It was dark, clear out in the sticks by the airport, there was no sign, no number on the building, and it wasn't located where logic dictated it should be. They were still open, but no one was at the front desk to help me. So after waiting another 15 minutes and becoming increasingly impatient, I started snooping around the office, located my package, and was about to just walk out with it when a guy caught me and made me sign for it. I told him if they were still serving customers this late, they ought to have somebody at the customer service desk, or anybody could just waltz in and out with an armload of other people's property. I don't think he liked me too much.

Inevitably whenever I get together with other collectors in person, at some point the talk will turn to tales about collecting. Everybody has at least one really good one, and this is a great time of year for campfire stories, so let's make this Shoppe column our campfire. I invite you to pick out a game in your collection that you feel has the best story behind how you got it, and tell me. It can be an unusual trade, a legendarily lucky find, or any other unique experience acquiring it, or meeting the author, or anything really. All I'm asking is that they be true (I'm trusting everybody here), and in enough detail to be interesting, but not long enough to be a novel. One to three paragraphs is good. Send them to me at the usual address.

Deadline is the end of August. After that I'll post everyone's stories on a separate page, set up some kind of voting system so everyone can choose their favorites, then I'll select the winner from your top 5. Entries will be judged on the enjoyability of the story as well as writing style and structure. Readability (punctuation, caps, spellcheck, etc.) always helps. I'll take multiple entries, but they will be judged individually, not grouped by author, so don't spread your votes too thin. You don't need to be registered with the Shoppe to enter, but you will to vote. Known ripoff artists and package counterfeiters are not eligible. (That means you, Eyal.)

The prize? Let's see... Okay, got one! The prize is a 4x5 film of the prototype cover art for Zork Grand Inquisitor, which I got in the large lot of stuff from Ken Love at Activision so you won't find it anywhere else. I'll put it in a nice frame, too.

And speaking of stories...


Summer Reading

Old-school computer gaming is becoming a hot topic in the publishing world, slowly gaining momentum to catch up with console games. In the past couple of years there have been a number of books published that are relevant to collectors and players of vintage software, with more undoubtedly awaiting the press. This is my personal recommended reading list, both old and new:

This seems as appropriate a time as any to unveil my latest project (as always, in progress). For some time now I've been working to compile a list of books of interest to software collectors, and I finally knuckled down and got the first draft into a readable state. Digital Press publishes one for arcade and console games in their collector's guide, this is my attempt to do the same for computers.

The current version is available on its own page.

As always, everyone owns or knows of something I don't, so if you have time and are bored any submissions or discrepancies are welcome. If submitting a new book please include the title, author(s), publication year (month if it gives it), whether it's hardcover or paperback, number of pages, and ISBN if one exists.


In the Bag

One question I get every now and then is what's the best way to store your games, or at least, how do I personally do it? Most collectors have a set of game shelves for storage, but how do you protect games from environmental damage, and from normal wear when you move them on and off said shelves, or slide them down to make room when inserting new acquisitions?

This topic crops up on SWCollect every now and again, though I'm not sure we've hit upon an ideal solution yet. The general cosensus is that a vintage game collection should be kept in a cool, dry place with a consistent temperature (attics are definitely out), away from direct sunlight, in a place that isn't vulnerable to flooding. Keeping off dust and other airborne contaminants is another primary concern. I remember looking at air filters when I first bought the house and was putting up game shelves. At the old apartment I was using Ziploc resealable bags for the longest time (the outdated vault pics still show these), but they aren't acid-free and there's a risk of damage years down the road if one "leaks".

For awhile last year there was talk on SWCollect about the possibility of us all getting together and ordering a large quantity of clear, molded plastic clamshell boxes specifically designed for collectible games. My cousin, at the time, was a plastics engineer, so we talked about getting the exact specs for some various case sizes and asking him to do a production run.

The problem is that the games of yore came in all kinds of shapes and sizes, with no industry standards like today, which could lead to a lot of shelf space being wasted. There are always oddities like the Starcross saucer or the Dragon Edition of Ultima: Ascension that will never fit a standard box. And considering the sheer number of games some of us have, custom-made cases would be expensive, even at only $1 or $2 apiece. Further, airtight boxes tend to encourage mildew growth, and the experts at the Library of Congress recommend air flow for book preservation. (Thanks to the Origin Museum for the link.)

Other solutions you hear come up are vacuum-sealing -- no oxygen, no decay -- but this runs a risk of crushing flimsier packaging. (You've seen the infomercial where people put their sweaters in those bags and they're flattened to about a fifth of their normal space, but you probably don't want that happening to your prize items.) I know of a few other collectors who have glass-fronted cases as a solution to the dust problem, and this makes for a very attractive display, though they can be expensive and there's still the vulnerability to scuffing, from shuffling games around. I even know of a couple of people who use their own shrinkwrap machines. (Just make sure you keep track of what's original wrap and what's not, in case you ever swap in a better piece and decide to sell the old one!)

Ultimately the best solution I've personally found is comic book bags. At about $7.00 for a pack of 100, they're inexpensive. They're acid-free (unlike Ziplocs) and easy to tape shut and reopen when needed. They occupy minimal shelf space. The bottom corners can be snipped to solve the air circulation problem. And they come in several different sizes that will fit most vintage game boxes reasonably well. I've found modern bags work well for Adventure International styro packs, the magazine size is good for Infocom, and Silver or Golden Age are reasonably close for anything in-between. For larger packages such as Infocom folios and Sierra compilations, there are treasury bags, designed for action figures and other large collectibles. Adding coated backboards offers extra protection for hint books and thin, easily bent packaging such as paperboard folders.

That's me personally. If anyone has a different solution I (and the other members of SWCollect) would love to hear it.


Company Profile: Avalon Hill

(Thanks to Hugh Falk of GOTCHA for some of the game and package details.)

Between counterfeiters and conventions, it's been awhile since I've had the column space to profile a company and its collectible lineup, but here we go:

Avalon Hill became famous in the 1970s as a publisher of detailed and realistic board games. Toward the end of the decade, as home computers were coming into widespread use, the company formed a Microcomputer Games division. Its most prolific period lasted through the early to mid-1980s, though most of its games were somewhat inferior to other publishers of that era in terms of graphics and gameplay. The company made something of a comeback around the turn of the century, before Avalon Hill's parent corporation sold it to Hasbro. The publisher is best remembered, though, for their non-computerized games, still considered some of the finest ever sold. These are frequently more sought-after by board game collectors than Avalon's computer games are by their software-hoarding counterparts.

The Microcomputer Games division of Avalon Hill published a couple dozen strategy and war games and a fair number of arcade titles, mostly space shooters. In the adventure department, the company covered the most popular genres of fiction enjoyed by gamers, with five fantasy titles, two mystery, one literary adaption, and one sci-fi. Of these nine games, only five were command-driven text adventures, and none were bestsellers. Avalon's I-F downfall was their limited two-word parser. When Infocom burst onto the scene with Zork's full-sentence interpreter across multiple platforms, it pretty much killed them in that arena.

I-F Games Non-IF Games
Empire of the Overmind
GFS Sorceress
Lords of Karma
Macbeth
Ripper!
Fortress of the Witch King
Legends of the Lost Realm
Police Blotter
Telengard
Voyager I

The Games:

Empire of the Overmind
Fantasy I-F game, with a "destroy the Evil Bad Guy" plot. Released 1981, for Apple, Atari, and TRS-80. The cassette release has all three versions on a single tape. Has what's probably the best prop in an Avalon Hill game, the "Rhyme of Over-Mind" booklet, printed on fancy paper with a blue tassel.

Fortress of the Witch King
A combination of adventure, RPG and strategy. Infiltrate said Fortress, search for three magical treasures, and locate and defeat the Witch King. Sort of party-based, in that you control a number of characters, but it's not stats-driven, a la Wizardry or Bard's Tale.

GFS Sorceress
Avalon Hill's only sci-fi adventure (though they did tons of space shooters), featuring a spacefaring aliens-and-blasters setting reminiscent of 1950s pulp. The manual includes a short story to set up the mood, and suggests that the game was the first in a planned series, which never materialized. Released 1982, for Apple, Atari, and TRS-80. The cassette package has all three platforms on one tape.

Legends of the Lost Realm
A non-IF fantasy role-playing game, in two parts, sold separately. The second chapter (Wilderland) was clearly not planned from the start, as its box has only a title sticker on the front to distinguish it from the first game. I've only ever seen this set for the Mac. Released 1988, Wilderland may have been 1989.

Lords of Karma
Typical of early adventure games, this one blends monster-slaying, some mythology, and a few anachronisms, but not a great deal of plot. Released 1980, Avalon's first I-F game and one of their earliest games period. For Apple, Atari, Commodore PET, and TRS-80. There are two cassette releases, one with the Apple, PET, and TRS-80 versions all on a single tape, and a later one adding the Atari data. I've seen disk versions for Apple and Atari.

Macbeth
The only I-F game not developed by Avalon Hill. Released 1986, for Commodore. This adaption of Shakespeare's work was the U.S. release of a game by a U.K. company, Oxford Digital Enterprises. The last of AH's I-F titles, the only one to use a full-sentence parser, and one of two (Ripper is the other) to have graphics. Consists of a half-dozen stand-alone adventures, each a scene from the play, with the player's role switching between multiple characters. The game package includes a copy of the play.

Police Blotter
A crime-solving mystery game with a lot of text output, though the interface is not I-F. Haven't seen this one myself, but it seems to have multiple cases to solve, a la Murder by the Dozen. Released 1988, one of the few golden-age Avalon Hill games on 3.5" disk (for the PC version).

Ripper!
Set in early 20th-century London, with you as a Scotland Yard detective on the trail of Jack the Ripper. Comes with a map and a sealed envelope containing optional hints. Released 1984.

Telengard
A non-IF dungeon crawl in the tradition of Rogue and the Temple of Apshai series. Uses one-key commands ("f"=fight, "e"=evade, etc) and employs real time: If you don't make a move within a few seconds, the computer will make one for you, and there's no pause feature. Probably the deepest Avalon Hill RPG, in terms of gameplay, with the most detailed manual, a full 20 pages. The TRS-80 version uses ASCII characters, other versions have graphics. Includes a fold-out poster of the cover art.

Voyager I
A primitive sci-fi adventure with a few RPG elements, but single-character and minimal stat-building. Destroy all the robots on a space station, then escape before the whole place blows.

Packaging:

The 1980s AH games came in one of three different box sizes, which grew smaller as the decade progressed. Each game exists in only one box size; they were not re-released as Avalon updated their packaging. The largest boxes (8-3/8" x 11-1/2") are the most common, used from 1980 - 1985. (As an additional variation, two of the non-IF games, Tanktics and Fredricksburg, are about three times as thick as a standard box.) The medium-sized box (7" x 10") was used for Macbeth (the only I-F game not in the large), and a few non-adventure titles from 1985 - 1987. Legends of the Lost Realm is the only title I've ever seen in the small box (5-7/8" x 8-5/8"), though I'm told Police Blotter is the same size, and a few non-adventures were published at about the same time. AH also had a series of educational games that came in even smaller boxes, though I have yet to come across any myself.

Avalon's earliest I-F titles had both a disk and cassette release. Empire of the Overmind has different box covers for the two media types. The earlier tan box (cassette version) has the wizard and princess cover and the later blue/white box (disk version) shows a castle window with a skull in it. GFS Sorceress and Lords of Karma have the same front cover for both releases, but the bottom box piece has a different layout, showing a picture of a floppy disk or a cassette tape, appropriately. I've only seen Ripper! and Macbeth on disk, and only for the Commodore 64 (though I have the U.K. Oxford Digital release of Macbeth on cassette). Police Blotter is unique in that it has both disk sizes, 5.25" for Apple, 3.5" for PC. Legends of the Lost Realm was, to the best of my knowledge, a Mac exclusive.


The Latest Form of Fraud

Okay, everyone please bear with me. I'm about to rant for a bit about something that has been boiling my blood for a few weeks now, and I'm probably going to make some people mad.

As you've probably noticed, this spring has seen a disproportionately large number of rare items showing up on eBay and closing at high prices. That's good, it means our hobby is alive and healthy. But I've also noticed a disproportionately large number of rare items showing up on eBay... and then suddenly going away. The auctions close early, any bids are cancelled, and there was either an "error in the listing" or the item is "no longer for sale".

We all know what's really going on here. People are contacting the sellers, trying to get them to sell the rare items privately, knowing they'll likely be outbid if they try to win the auction using the normal method. So they offer the seller a price that sounds high to them, but to most other collectors would be a bargain, to convince the seller to close the auction early and eliminate the competition. The eBay term for this is "auction interference". The buyer gets the item at a discount price without having to bid for it, the seller gets what he considers a premium, everybody wins. Right?

Well, except for the honest bidders who still try to win the old-fashioned way.

No doubt some of you who engage in this practice are reading this, thinking, "Ah, this has happened to Forman, so now he's having another hissy-fit because he hates to lose." Which I suppose is true to some extent. I mean, nobody likes losing auctions, but it's a fact of life. Nobody wins every single time, so we learn to deal with it. I lose items every week because people who are willing to pay more outbid me fair and square. But what's worse than losing is never getting the opportunity to win. When someone sneaks around working deals behind the scenes, it robs every honest collector of that chance. It is a form of cheating.

To the SELLERS who engage in this practice:

You are being TRICKED. The only reason someone would want you to end an auction early, the ONLY REASON, is because they think they can get the item for LESS than they or other people are really willing to pay. Think about it: If their maximum was really an "outrageous" price, they could just bid that amount normally and they'd win for sure. It's the ones who think they CAN'T win any other way who are trying to con you into accepting a lesser amount.

Don't fall for it! Leave the auction up, no matter how many off-eBay offers you get. Those bidders aren't going to ignore your item just because you declined to sell it to them privately. They want that game, and they're going to snipe their TRUE MAX for it (which is almost certainly going to be more than the "high" offer they make to you). How do you know some other bidder isn't lurking in the shadows, just waiting to go even higher in the last 10 seconds? If you end your auctions early, YOU ARE THROWING AWAY MONEY. Look at "hopey" and "swmoretp", two sellers who have listed a large number of highly desirable games lately. They never end early, and they're making an absolute killing!

And don't listen to the argument about "avoiding high eBay fees". The truth is, for big-ticket items, eBay fees are not that expensive. A $150 close only costs you $4.75 in final value fees. The level of exposure eBay brings and the extra money you'll get from snipers are almost certainly worth that. Further, eBay offers some small recourse if the winner doesn't follow through, allowing you to leave a negative comment and get those FVF's back. And when you sell on eBay you know when your auction ends. When the clock runs out, it's over. Whereas if you're negotiating privately with several people, you can get counter-offers dragging out for weeks, and people not responding, and now the second-highest doesn't want it anymore... Save yourself the trouble. (God, I never thought I'd hear myself advocate selling on eBay, but there you have it.)

To the BIDDERS who engage in this practice:

You may get a game or two at a bargain price now, but in the long run, you are just going to end up hurting yourselves, and the hobby overall. Don't think for a second that you're the only one who's thought of doing this. Someone else is bound to have seen that auction too, and when it ends unexpectedly they are going to realize what happened, and they will contact the seller and make their own offer. You've got to understand that the people who sell their rare stuff are "normal". They aren't used to the swarm mentality of us collectors. When they get ten or twenty e-mails offering amounts they never would have dreamed of, it freaks them out. They wonder just what they have that's so valuable, and how high it might go, which only leads to wiser sellers and higher prices: "This guy is offerring $100 for one game? Wow, that's great! I think I'll check completeds, ask around, research prices in a lot more detail now that I know old games can be worth this much!" Before we know it, we've got twenty rare items up, every one of them with a reserve so high nobody wants to meet it, because the sellers have got it in their head that the game is always worth that much, and they won't settle for less.

To BOTH the bidders and the sellers:

Here's what I'm going to start doing to combat this trend. From now on, every time I find a rare item that I plan to watch or snipe (and I have over a hundred automated searches running several times a week), I'm contacting the seller through eBay, telling them I'm planning to snipe the auction for a high amount, and cautioning them to resist the temptation to close early if they get what seems to be a good offer from someone else. If they do end the auction early, I will ask them why. Possibly from a different e-mail or eBay account, possibly making a counter-offer of my own, I'm a sneaky bastard. If they admit they sold out to a private offer, I will write them back and tell them I would have gone $100, $200, $500 higher. Even if I really wouldn't have, just to make them think they've just pissed away a boatload of money.

Then I will try to obtain the identity of the buyer from them. If they won't reveal it, I will forward their confession to eBay and add them to my blacklist. If I do get the buyer's ID, I will list and report them instead. And since I know a lot of fellow collectors sell on eBay, I plan to start offering Shoppe credit in exchange for forwarding e-mails from people who ask you to sell privately. I will no longer trade with any collectors I catch doing this, and will advise others against trading with you as well. Starting NOW. This is the warning, there won't be another. Doesn't matter who you are or how long we've known each other. I am SICK of this crap, and I'm doing everything in my power to stop it. I encourage everyone else who doesn't like getting screwed out of fair bidding to do the same.

So there.

Bring on the hate-mail.

Addendum:

Only a few hours after the column went up, I got some very intelligent comments on this article and thought I'd share them, and my responses, which clarify my intentions a little better. (Reader comments in italics, mine in regular text.)

You mentioned that you'd contact the seller and if they admitted a private sale, you'd forward their e-mail message to ebay. I guess the repercussions of gaining people's confidence only to keelhaul them aren't a concern.

I will only report the seller if they refuse to report the buyer. From my experience it's the buyers who are responsible for this, the sellers are partially victims (though I would like to discourage them from participating). According to eBay rules a seller can end an auction anytime they want, so I have no argument with that... as long as they leave the existing bids up, rather than cancelling them to sell to someone else entirely.

Consider when someone has sold a desirable item, they may have additional items, and not wish to sell them to you.

Yes, I'm aware of the fact that I might miss out by doing this, but if a seller is going to rob me of a fair chance to bid, I'm not sure I even want to deal with them anyway. (Would you buy a Mt Drash from Eyal Katz, even if it was proven to be genuine?)

Certainly "ignorance of the law is no excuse" and auction interference is certainly against the law. Its possible someone new to vintage games (buyer or seller) would stumble over this issue and be banned from your shoppe forever. Forever is a long time, but the only fair way to handle this is to be unconditional. No real point here, just that its a harsh way to learn.

True, but losing items with no advance warning is a harsh way to treat the other bidders. I'm not sure there's a fair way to handle this, since my little column is definitely not known by all, so I have to go with what I can do. Down the road I may have to consider reversing the zero-tolerance on people who admit their mistake and promise not to do it again. Will try not to be unreasonable, but I do want to send a message.

Back to proxies, were someone banned from your Shoppe, they could use almost anyone to make purchases on their behalf. For the anonymous collector, the impact is negligible.

Perhaps, but a lot of people have hit my blacklist, possibly sellers too. I'm hoping these anonymous collectors will someday go to snipe... and find out they're unable to because the seller has copied my blacklist, causing them to lose an item. I'm also counting on newbies and anonymous collectors of rare games (which are the kind of item this back-rooming tends to occur with) wanting to join the bigger names someday.

Proxies are definitely a workaround, but they exist for eBay as well. Anyone banned from eBay can create another account from a free e-mail (one eBay hasn't flagged yet), use an alternate address, and you're back on. Even so, screwing with a proxy can make for a lot of work that wouldn't be there if the honest method was used.

You mentioned you may make a private counter-offer of your own, from an alternate account or e-mail. You're engaging in the very practice you've unilaterally forbidden everyone else from doing.

But for a different reason. I guess I wasn't clear, but this wouldn't be a serious counter-offer. I would have no intention of actually purchasing the item (again, why deal with a seller who hasn't played fair?) but it would hopefully serve to point out to the seller why it's not a good idea to pull this kind of thing. They'd screw around wasting a lot of time with me, while I let the negotiations drag out for weeks beyond when they'd normally get their money.

I see nothing wrong convincing a seller to re-list bundles as individual items, though its unlikely most people would make the effort. Especially if they just want the stuff gone.

This is fine with me too, as long as EVERY item is relisted individually, not just the ones the person doing the convincing doesn't want. Do keep in mind, though, that a lot of interest in individual items is likely to get them relisted with higher starting bids, reserves, etc.

Last, what about privately negotiating for items that weren't yet listed?

If it hasn't been listed yet, then there is no wrongdoing, it's no different than any other private deal that doesn't involve eBay. But once that listing goes up, the seller has made a commitment to sell the item through eBay. It sends a message to me, "I the seller am giving you the opportunity to bid on this item." Ending early to sell privately tells me, "Now I am taking that opportunity away from you." But it's not a loss to me if I never had it in the first place.

Personally the only way to offset this is education. You've done a fine job leveraging your skills and resources to make things happen to the benefit of many. Perhaps gather a list of people (ebay id's) who will not trade with anyone on the blacklist, publish it, and add that to messages, auctions, etc. to add more weight than simply your own voice.

This is an excellent suggestion, as my voice (loud though it is) is as you say just one person yelling. How about it, Shoppers? Who out there wants to band together to help end this brand of cheating? This reader also suggested coming up with a logo of some kind that we could put on our websites and "About Me" pages. I suck as an artist, but anyone wanna give it a try? Also we'd need a catchy name.

I'm still doin' the stuff I mentioned though.

PS - I don't think this actually qualifies as "hate-mail".

No it doesn't. It was a very helpful and constructive response to my angry rant (but I'm glad to have gotten it anyway. B-) Thanks for the comments, Dan.


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