Into the Light

The following is a casual account of what will serve as the basis of an article, possibly a series, to appear in the pages of Wired. Currently titled “Forging the Bleeding Edge,” this piece will investigate trends on the forefront of consumer technology. Here I examine a virtually unknown facet of the Japanese games market: shopping by appointment. Old news to luxury retailers in elite cities, this business model has begun to fly – perhaps by design – well under the radar of conventional games retail. Recognizing the market permeation of the moneyed classes, specialty retailers appear poised to capitalize as games evolve from mere entertainment to conspicuous affixtures of the social spectrum.

13:05 JST. September 14th, 2009. It’s early afternoon on a Monday in Tokyo. Jetlag and a conspicuous pre-flight email from a colleague lend a heady buzz to an otherwise routine trip. I’ve just returned to Japan well ahead of the TGS rush to pursue my own agenda, including quests to various haikyo. These myriad urban ruins stand in stark contrast to the location I will soon find myself en route to. Over a quick bite at MOS Burger, my colleague Kristophre Brunn offers a brief greeting and farewell; his expired work visa has finally caught up with him. As if specifically to add an elicit air to the meeting, he elaborates with hushed excitement upon his email from some 16 hours ago: he has procured a referral to Bit Atelier. This store – if it is in fact real – is quietly purported to be Tokyo’s (and thus, the world’s) most exclusive games retailer. With Kris’ de facto deportation just hours away, it’s now my task to meet the appointment. But first I’ll need to locate the elusive storefront. Kris quickly pulls loose a napkin from beneath his iced coffee and begins to scribble directions and what appears to be a confirmation code. The appointment is in two hours. I had better get moving.

13:58 JST. Self-consciously I glance to and from the napkin clutched in my hand. The sloppily written hiragana punctuated only by several viscous globules of what would appear to be yakiniku sauce has brought me to the familiar heart of Japan’s gaming scene, Akihabara. This, however, is not my destination. I am merely following the trail of Japan’s gaming diehards who have been pushed away from this once sacred Mecca of technology and entertainment. As Akihabara’s fame has grown internationally, so too have the throngs of revelers clogging its streets and shops daily. These ota-tourists, both domestic and foreign, increasingly add to the suffocating cacophony here in Electric Town. In the summer of 2008, crazed otaku Tomohiro Kato sunk what could have been the final nail in the coffin by similarly sinking a knife – repeatedly – into the backs of several victims here. Surely at this rate Akiba’s ultimate shark-jumping finale could only arrive in the form of, say, a 20-meter tall statue of Gwen Stefani erected like a flag upon Iwo Jima by a team of Kerberos Panzer Corps. As eagerly as I would strain to bare witness to that spectacle, it is not necessary; the otaku of the 70’s and 80’s have already left this place, taking with them their considerable purchasing power. Unencumbered by marriage, children, or the promise of meaningful personal relationships, these salarymen are left with effectively endless disposable income with which to fill their closets and empty souls with elite gaming paraphernalia. That is where Bit Atelier steps in.

14:30 JST. Now well away from Akihabara’s main Chuodori, I find myself almost shaken by the mundane calm of my surroundings. These plain city streets, unlike Akiba’s cadre of brightly festooned storefronts, offer a soothing sense of order. Immediately it is clear why Bit Atelier sits off the beaten path. And surely its wealthy but socially awkward clientele fully recognize and appreciate this facet of the store’s design. With my appointment drawing near, this calm soon succumbs once again to anxious zeal as I continue to search for the store’s thoroughly obscure address. My not-so-trusty map leads me down several dead ends and through at least one private garden. Lucky for me, there are no koban (police boxes) within view of my trespassing.

14:50 JST. With minutes to spare, I appear to have arrived at my destination. I think. This storefront looks just plain enough to arouse suspicion: no signage, windows coated from the inside with flat white paint, and a partition behind the door to steadfastly defend the interior from prying view of the street. JCB and Visa stickers on the door offer the only suggestion that a place of retail lurks within. This would appear suggestively shady if not for the knowledge that Japan’s many legalized houses of prostitution employ precisely the gaudy visual theatrics that Bit Atelier purports to avoid. I use my spare moments to straighten my collar and wipe a smudge from my Brioni loafers before taking a deep breath and pulling open the door with cautious determination.

14:55 JST. “Irasshaimase!” The familiar invitation rings out, just as it would in any other Japanese storefront. I am greeted by a man in carefully calculated business-casual attire. Tsukioka-san, as he would introduce himself, looked to be about 35 years old. His well groomed and lightly tanned appearance betrayed the aura of casual normalcy he clearly aimed to project, hinting ever so slightly at his true business ambitions. Breaking eye contact to retrieve my reservation from behind his tidy reception desk, he allowed me a moment to survey the surroundings. Or rather, lack thereof. This reception space, perhaps no more than an 8x8 foot cube, remained cut off from the main display space by yet another spartan gallery partition. The faint smell of polyurethane primer still lingered in the air, alluding to the store’s bleeding edge currency. He emerged from behind the desk clutching a fax – a manifesto of sorts – that “I” sent him earlier in the day. From what I could briefly surmise, the document contained a brief enquete, or questionnaire, surveying my shopping preferences and specific areas of interest. He then presented me with a black leather binder. Inside were laminated printouts including biographies and headshots of personal shopping assistants. Now we’re talking. Bit Atelier provides a character for every desperate taste: Francoise, a 23 year old café maid; Sayoko, 32, offers the more mature and businesslike persona of an OL, or Office Lady; “Sapphire,” a mahogany tanned kogal of undetermined age from Roppongi prefers arcade and rhythm games. During these moments of distraction, Tsukioka-san has begun to process my credit card with poorly restrained fervor to the tune of ¥36600, or roughly $400. This appointment fee, he informs me, is non-refundable. He also informs me that my shopping assistant, as requested in “my” fax, is ready to begin. And thus Sapphire emerges from the back room, eyes wide with the contrasting look of excitement and exhaustion usually seen only in the gaze of a corpse. Let the fun begin.

15:10 JST. Sapphire guides me into the main gallery. I am immediately taken by the ubiquity of the space – light wood flooring paired with plain white walls, like any gallery or shopping space in any worthwhile city. Recessed lighting shines down from chicly unfinished holes in the ceiling. The stark white walls are punctuated only occasionally by merchandise, displayed on block pedestals in heavily calculated arrangement. Atop these veritable altars sit commonly recognized trophies of the gaming elite: a Neo Geo AES console, copies of rare Sega Saturn and PC Engine titles, and a small assortment of Laserdiscs (remember them?). All sealed, naturally. After walking the displays for a moment, Sapphire offered me a seat. Specifically, a pair of black leather and chrome Mies van der Rohe barcelona chairs with matching table – all originals, Sapphire was quick to point out. These, too, were available for sale, but I’m afraid getting them back to my South San Francisco loft might be a tad difficult. Now recumbent in untold thousands of dollars worth of comfort, Sapphire handed me a personally tailored list of items to peruse. Before I could scan the columns of rare gaming miscellany, she returned to pour me a beverage – a glass of Pepsi Ice Cucumber. Naturally, my first question: how is a $400 shot of Pepsi Ice Cucumber different from one purchased at the 7 Eleven around the corner? The $400 one includes a garnish of fresh cucumber skewered with Marble Royal Pocky. Classy. I feigned enjoyment, nipping gingerly at the horrid sea foam green concoction before casually misplacing it. I combed the list, requesting to view several items. I thought this would give me a chance to photograph the pricelist with my iPhone, but attentive glances from Tsukioka-san in the reception room dissuaded me. What I saw, and what I requested to view: multi-hundred dollar copies of sealed 8-, 16-, and 32-bit classics, complete FM Towns Marty collections, a $4,000 Metal Slug AES cartride, a $10,000 Nintendo World Championships cartridge, an $11,000 Ultimate 11 AES cartridge, and countless other obscurities, including what purported to be a previously unknown tournament edition of Duck Tales for Famicom (price undisclosed). Then, in what would have triggered a spit-take had I still been suckling at the foul brew of Pepsi Ice Cucumber, I spotted the Holy Grail: Daikon III & IV on Laserdisc, sealed. The story of Daikon is an article in itself, but know simply that these two features, produced originally as 8mm films for the opening ceremonies of anime conventions, have been elevated to idol worship by a mixture of copyright violation, zealous otakuism, myth, and a little help from the cultural phenomenon Densha Otoko. My fingers digging into the cold black leather below me, I asked to view the merchandise.

15:30 JST. Sapphire emerged from the stock room carrying a thick gunmetal attaché, missing only a clichéd handcuff attached to the handle. Tsukioka-san abandoned his post at the reception to keep tabs on this tense transaction. The attaché slowly swung open like the mysterious case in Pulp Fiction. I may as well have been bathed in a similar golden light – there it was. Atop egg crate foam sat a legitimate, sealed, pristine copy of the Daikon Laserdisc. Distracted by the reality of the situation, I absentmindedly shrugged off Tsukioka-san’s prodding questions with a simple “hai, hai.” Several moments later, the crushing realization that a priceless Laserdisc was being charged to my Visa card set in like a metric ton of Pepsi Ice Cucumber. Terrified but not wanting to blow my cover, I quickly manufactured concerns of laser rot. With the disc still sealed, these fears were impossible to assuage. I’d found my out, though still managed to inflict a critical blow to my credibility. Indeed, what true high roller would care to open the shrink wrap at all? With my appointment time nearly expired, I quickly decided on a moderately priced item in hopes of restoring my reputation: a $400 sealed copy of Psychic Killer Taromaru, a highly vaunted slice of 2D sidescrolling goodness for Sega Saturn. Sapphire rang up my purchase and wished “Jürgensen-sama” a good day. Having infiltrated and escaped Bit Atelier with my credit rating intact, Jürgensen-sama had a better day than she could ever know.


Gaming's Junk Bonds Beat the Street

On this Monday, precisely one year since the first domino was dramatically felled in the great game of The Current Global Economic Slowdown (or to use another metaphor from table games, “flipped the man into the pan of indigence”) I have a glimmer of hope to share with would-be investors. This entry-level commodity has seen real gains with no leverage needed. But first, a brief journey back to the halcyon days of Q4, 2008.

It was northern California in the cool, early fall and we had been at war in Iraq for years. The bright protest marches – which had begun in self congratulation at City Hall and ended in heirloom produce and unpasteurized chèvre at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market – had faded from memory, and a great many people who might in another era have cared about illegal foreign wars or grave threats to civil liberties had been outraged into apathy by the unrelenting malevolent ineptitude of their government and had again become preoccupied with their live-work loft spaces and the vesting schedules of options and how best to “monetize eyeballs.” Then suddenly a new Opportunity Crisis presented itself: Lehman was dead. Stocks plummeted. The game had changed. But ever so curiously, one commodity stood not tall nor proud, but unscathed nonetheless.

Wan Chai Connection. If Moody’s rated games, this Sega Saturn launch title would be “junk.” The Japanese secondary market has bestowed it with an analogous de facto-official rating of gomi; trash. For ten years I have tracked its resale value in Akiba secondhand shops and online auctions. The results are curious to say the least. But first, let’s have a look at the stock value of Lehman Brothers (LEH)

Now Wan Chai Connection.

Prices, averaged to the nearest one hundred yen, show a distinct upward trend. In a period which Wall Street has lost 5% of its value, Wan Chai has gained 16%. I don’t foresee Berkshire Hathaway looking to get in on this action; bargain bin Japanese gaming miscellany is not an area of sound Buffetological investment principal. That said, these data offer a compelling window into the dynamic future of the games industry as a whole, in which – luckily – I am fully invested.

Note: in the interest of full disclosure I am required to state that the above pictured copies of Wan Chai Connection are my own personal holdings.



What is a man but a miserable pile of secrets?