Best of The Escapist

Best of The Escapist
Obscurity Below the Radar

John Szczepaniak | 16 May 2006 12:08
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A little documented fact is that games journalists are actually a reliable source for underground goods. How do you think they manage to play gold copies of burned proprietary discs? Because the games companies supply them with specialist modified hardware.

The real action, though, is unreleased prototypes. We all know about 3DO, but what about it's cancelled M2 successor? Never made it public, though the technology was used in Japanese drink machines and Russian ATMs. So enamoured is the underground hardcore collective, there's jovial banter of trying to smuggle said ATMs across the border, just for the hardware.

As for modern dev kits and prototypes, ASSEMbler tells me: "Usually a developer does not own the console, and has to return all [proprietary] equipment when the lifespan is over. [They're] usually asked to be destroyed in the field. Unless more companies go bankrupt, you will see them either return the hardware or archive it for spares. You might see some on sale due to employee theft, but considering it took ten years for Saturn items to surface... They technically don't own it in some cases, just the right to make games on it."

Meaning Microsoft wants their recently stolen X360 development kits back. Merchandise so hot to handle, not even the underground traders are dealing? I'll wager the scene's best modders have these babies, trying to create X360 mod-chips.

And with owning such hardware, you will, of course, need games to play!

Scintillating Software
If such underground groups are like virtual societies, then unreleased software and rare data is their specialized currency. Games are often traded like-for-like. I spoke to one of the scene's most generous dealers, a Mr. L from England, who explained why: "Some people will only trade [rare items] for unreleased games - money you can come by any time and is easily spent on junk, but unreleased games are harder to acquire. You can offer someone a million and they still wouldn't take it, but if you offered them an unreleased game then they're more willing to part with their [rare items]."

It's this refined attitude that elevates proceedings to levels comparable with wine and antique collectors. Considering games such as the PAL version of Kizuna Encounter reach $12,000, the prices are also comparable. Lower down, the Nintendo World Championship cartridge still manages to clock over $6,000 on auction. If you can manage to find someone willing to sell, that is. The willingness to sell is, due to the fact they're already available digitally, buying them is purely for completeness' sake. Singular items which have not been duplicated command greater reverence, since there is no other way to experience them.

Of note, here, are the unwritten rules traders live by. When unreleased games are used as trading currency, it's accepted no one will leak them, unless everyone agrees. Some things are never allowed to be made public. A collector of unreleased PS1 titles, who amassed a staggering amount of games and dreams of collecting all such prototypes, offered to trade duplicates to further his goal. His rules were simple: trades only, strictly no community releases. He proved his ownership by showing watermarked images of his treasures, such as the fourth installment of Star Control. All attempts to contact him for further info proved fruitless; contact is obviously limited only to fellow aficionados. The lengths gone to acquiring these are immense. Said individual was later contemplating a trip to India to locate bootleg copies of the rare unreleased Clayfighter Extreme on the PS1.

Again, games journalists are a good source for unreleased games. They're sent early review copies, and if a game gets cancelled, it's instant money. Journalists live by a different code, and so once articles get published, there's no problem selling merchandise. An Australian I know made obscene amounts of profit selling unreleased review copies of DC games, while another from Belgium is holding onto his English Xbox copy of Rent-A-Hero, no matter how much money is rubbed in his face.

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