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The first videogames I ever bought for a PC were the late 80s Microprose classics F19 Stealth Fighter and Gunship. They weren’t just amazing games, they were amazing objects: Big, sturdy cardboard boxes, instruction manuals that weighed about 12 pounds, keyboard overlays to assist with navigating the complex controls and glossy catalogs advertising the many other games produced by the late, lamented simulation company. Long after I stopped playing them, they remained in a place of prominence on a shelf near my computer, stacked side by side in the company of newer, although not necessarily better, games.

Inevitably, space on that shelf ran short, so I did what struck me as perfectly normal: I bought another shelf. And then another. It didn’t seem like particularly odd behavior to me. These were my games, and I had to do something with them, right? But it took the passage of more than ten years, and the release of Baldur’s Gate 2, for that poorly-defined “something” to crystallize into something.

Along with the standard version of Baldur’s Gate 2, you see, BioWare saw fit to release a limited Collector’s Edition, and given how enamored I was with the original game, I bought it. While fawning over the game’s bonus contents and staring at the holographic edition number on the back of the oversized box (56,135 of 62,000) I was suddenly hit with an epiphany. This is a collector’s edition. I’m a collector!

In that instant, a decade’s worth of games went from pack-rat crapola to evidence of a higher appreciation for the artistic medium of videogames. As a collector, I was legitimized; I was no longer an obsessive nerd, I was an early curator of an exciting, groundbreaking new form of expression, with a depth of commitment that would allow me to waste a significant amount of space (not to mention money) in the pursuit of ever-expanding digital creativity.

But one thing collectors of all stripes have in common is a burning need to catalog and track their collections, and in this, I always fell short. Keeping an inventory is half the fun, and my inability to find a satisfactory method of doing so gnawed at me. I tried freeware database software, commercial programs, half-assed spreadsheet setups and more, but nothing ever fit the bill quite perfectly enough to make me happy. There was always something missing, something not quite right, some little nit I had to pick, and as a result I would inevitably throw my hands up in frustration, sulk for a while and then forget about the whole thing – at least for a few months, after which I’d start the whole process all over again. And then I found RF Generation.

A website that caters to collectors of “classic and modern videogames,” RF Generation was launched in April 2004 by former members of the defunct Video Game Bible website. Despite experiencing steady growth since going online, RF Generation remains a small, closely-knit community, offering forums, blogs, online games and more. For all that, though, what really sets it apart from other gaming sites is a comprehensive suite of game-specific collecting tools and its beefy database of classic videogames.

“I would say the collection database attracts most of the new members we get,” said Eddie “St0rmTK421” Hermann, database programmer and one of four RF Generation administrators who joined with me recently for a bit of chit-chat. “But we’re trying to encourage people to see the rest of the site. We have a great community and lots of other cool features many people don’t even know about.”

It’s not just the cool features; RF Generation itself remains something of a hidden gem, flying largely under the radar even after four years of operation. Collectors are something of a rare breed to begin with, and despite the focus of the site, it’s a demographic the operators haven’t actively pursued. “We grow as people find and talk about us,” site director David “TraderJake” Murnan explained. “We’re not one to openly advertise. People tend to find us, rather than us finding them.”

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RF Generation currently boasts 1811 registered users, with 1026 collections listed online and 37,208 games listed in its database, but Keith “Tan” Brown, RF Generation’s standards director, claims the site has an appeal beyond just a list of games. “It’s more than a database collection tool to us, it’s a game reference and resource as well,” he said. “A member can find related games, or see what else that company has done they may be interested in. Also, it allows for user reviews so you get a real down-to-earth feel for what the average gamer thinks of a particular title.”

“We’re also always trying to stay on the bleeding edge of collecting, that’s why we’ve expanded into gaming hardware and tracking downloadable games,” he continued. “For hardware I daresay we’re unrivaled.”

“Anyone can list tens of thousands of titles, but to have good info on them is a different story,” added Scott “Tynstar” Williams, the site’s content director.

Database entries can be painstakingly detailed, ranging from mundane information like title, publisher and year of release to minutiae including media formats, control schemes, content ratings, UPC codes and much more. Consoles covered by the site range from mainstream Nintendo, PlayStation and Xbox systems to the Cougar Boy/MegaDuck, the RDI Halcyon, the Watara Supervision and dozens of others I’ve never heard of, while options to track the physical locations of games and create buy, sell and wish lists to facilitate transactions with other users are also available. The level of detail borders on obsessive, which of course makes it a perfect fit for collectors.

Gathering this much information is a big effort, and the admins are quick to credit the collector community for making it happen. The site runs entirely on donations and occasional cash infusions from the volunteer staff, and they’re unanimous in their determination to keep in that way, eschewing any possibility of a switch to fee-based operations. “Since the site has been so closely linked to the community we really can’t go commercial,” Hermann said. “We do this because we enjoy running the site and have a thriving gaming community.” He added that despite the expense of moving to a dedicated server, he’s hopeful that by the end of the year the cost of running the site will be covered entirely by user donations. “For the long term, we just want to keep the community alive and growing, and keep it free.”

At its own pace, RF Generation has plans for the future, including a couple of projects currently underway Williams describes as “Secret stuff, both big and small.” The voluntary nature of the site, however, means there is no carved-in-stone plan or schedule; things tend to happen when they happen. “Because we code as a labor of love, we’re not in a position to say what exactly we’re coding. But there are two projects going on,” Murnan said.

“One involves collections,” he continued. “The other is certainly going to be one that, when it’s finished, should be something new and, as far as I know, unseen.” That kind of seat-of-the-pants flying has served RF Generation well in its four years, and there are no plans to change. “We’re not a business, so we can get away with that,” Murnan added.

“We’re not ever going to charge people to use features, because that goes against everything we stand for. Donors might get little tools, but you’re not going to see something like the collection tools or ‘Project X’ be a pay tool,” he said. “Our community is very, very important to us.”

Videogame collecting isn’t for everyone, but if it’s for you, RF Generation is a tremendously useful tool. The site’s inventory and tracking tools are outstanding, and the admins are helpful, accommodating and friendly, sharing with their users a passion for games of days gone by. My own personal (and, as it turns out, relatively small) collection can be seen here for those who want to check out RF Generation in action; the site also maintains an IRC channel, #rfgeneration, on QuakeNet.org.

Andy Chalk still has F19 and Gunship sitting on the shelf, NM CIB.

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