To say that retro is a growing trend in the games industry would be an understatement. Since the launch of Nintendo’s NES Classic Mini on November 11th particularly, gaming websites have been filled with features about retro gaming, with headlines ranging from where to find a NES Classic Mini – since it’s sold out pretty much everywhere – to how to build your own retro console.
What went largely unnoticed, pretty much at the same time, was the launch of a Sega Classic Mega Drive with 80 built-in games, brought by retro gaming specialists PQube in the UK.
It’s far from Sega’s first foray into retro gaming though, as the firm launched its Sega Mega Drive Classics Hub on Steam last April and even allowed fans to modify its classics.
Sega’s digital distribution director James Schall then told MCV that mods were the perfect way to ‘reenergise’ older titles. We’re so happy with it, not only have we sold through an amazing number of downloads, but there’s well over 500 user generated mods on the workshop,” he says.
But Sega has yet to convince other publishers to add retro content to the hub. It’s still pootling along,” Schall says. The trouble is, this is much more of a PR drive for companies rather than a big revenue win, which is why it’s taking a little longer.”
The reason why retro gaming doesn’t generate big revenues is that, in order to be successful, retro content has to remain accessible. Contrary to current-gen titles, retro games can’t rely on visual or gameplay innovations to justify their price – the driving force behind retro is an entirely different one.
Nostalgia is a really strong push for people, always has been,” Schall says. In the 80s it was 50s toys and music, in the 90s the 60s and so on… The 90s seem to have come round now and games have been such a big part of people’s lives that a simple logo or sound can evoke memories that make people smile. We like to see things we loved, that we’ve not seen for a while.”
But, contrary to the 90s, when Sega and Nintendo went head-to-head in arguably the first real serious ‘console war’, there’s now enough room for retro content from each party, PQube’s head of marketing – and huge retro gaming enthusiast – Andy Pearson tells MCV.
I think if you look back to the early 90s and the console war, this definitely isn’t a one horse race and there’s plenty of room for all of these new retro consoles – and even more when you consider devices like the ZX Spectrum Vega+ which we just signed and the BlazeTab which we continue to produce.”
He continues: There are factions within the industry itself, with those who are super hardcore and passionate about their favourite brand and others who are happy to switch between brands and play both. It’s the wider audience who will be the deciding factor on these ranges and this will all come down to the games available.”
"It’s the sound and look of a game that stirs the passions, just like the recent Mad Max, Star Wars and Jurassic Park films did."
James Schall, Sega
One of the reasons behind the growth of retro gaming actually resides in its ability to reach a wider audience, making it appealing to both publishers and retailers, Pearson further says.
I think it’s interesting to see how and where it crosses over into the mainstream – especially if you take our recent announcement for the 25th Anniversary range of Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog as an example.
It was picked up across the internet by the gaming and tech sites you would expect, but ended up being as far reaching as Yahoo’s homepage and then even further afield with The Lad Bible and Playboy.
I think there’s a lot more people who are casual retro gamers and these plug-and-play ranges at competitive price points – especially during gifting season – give those casual gamers that incentive to get back into the games they grew up with.”
Schall adds: It’s the sound and look of a game that stirs the passions, just like the recent Mad Max, Star Wars and Jurassic Park movies pulled on the same emotions.”
Not only does retro gaming attract casual gamers and the mainstream, but it also appeals to core gamers, making it the meeting point between the two communities.
I love movies, and I don’t ignore a classic movie because I also like big CGI blockbusters,” Schall continues. Even if you say you only like hip-hop, I guarantee there’s another style or song you like. People like to compartmentalise themselves but we don’t really live that way. If you like games, you try good games.
Gaming has now evolved beyond the pretty pictures arms race,” Schall believes. Of course, we get lots of games that look incredible but people also enjoy games with different styles. Gaming is maturing, just like music did. Different styles for different moods.”
The fact that older titles focus more on gameplay than design also helps, Pearson adds. When we are looking at 8-bit and 16-bit era we are talking predominantly 2D graphics. This forced the developers at the time to be very creative with both their characters and gameplay elements that inevitably stood the test of time much better than a graphics-led approach which can become ‘dated’.”
But the retro gaming market doesn’t come without challenges. In terms of the retail side, there’s a need to plan ahead as there are some pretty significant lead times when dealing with hardware like this,” Pearson explains.
In terms of the products themselves, the biggest challenges are the games. For those out there focused on ‘original’ cartridges there’s obviously the availability of games and the reliance on sites such as eBay and smaller independent sellers selling used games. From a licensing point of view, there’s a lot of grey areas about who owns what and it makes it difficult to pull together all the products we would ideally like.”
But these issues didn’t prevent the market from booming, digital having helped a lot in this evolution, since most of the retro gaming content is now available though platform holders’ digital storefronts or via Steam.
At Sega we’re selling millions of copies of games that were made over ten