Before the turn of the century brought with it online communities, before the standard for monetary transactions became digital, and not to mention, before good old-fashioned globalism, being able to officially declare your super fandom for almost anything you can think of meant frequent trips to your letterbox.
Offbeat creators spanning decades have contributed to this practice; if you could mould plastic, no marketing technique bested having children mail-in cereal box tops or magazine pages in exchange for toys. For decades, star professional baseball players returned from their road trips to a bag full of fan mail, which they responded to with an autograph, or not (and as a fan, not knowing if they would respond was part of the fun). Perhaps you’re still a card-carrying member of the KISS Army, or an official Aquabats Cadet? Oh, and if you lived during the early 1990s and wanted to see Queen perform but didn’t live near a big city, not to worry; someone out there was available to sell you a VHS mixtape of (possibly) any song you wanted to see performed live, provided your check cleared. For motivated people with specific tastes, their flames didn’t need any extra help, they could fan themselves – pun intended.
Yet today, the aforementioned online oasis, debit cards, and globalism have supplanted the grind for these curios. Whatever you’re into these days, people can probably tell. The barrier to entry for finding a nook and spending on it has been lifted, and your weird thing, whether it’s Star Trek or monster trucks or porcelain dolls, has an outlet somewhere.
And through that journey into the throes of mass communication, virtually no entity better charts the niche-to-blimp evolution of modern-day fandom than Nintendo. Why? Because arguably no other “thing” has more picturesquely existed within both extreme ends of the fandom spectrum.
The Evolution of Nintendo Fandom
By the mid-1990s, after reinventing itself as a company and accomplishing the Herculean task of re-popularizing video games for the home, Nintendo was still largely a Japanese export. Even the company’s most-funded and concerted products – its video games – took additional months, if not years to leave the island before being localized into other markets like Latin America, Europe, and America, among others, often in turn. Leveraging its rapidly-growing market and mindshare during this global growth period meant intrepid but detached business endeavours carried out over an ocean.
The early to mid-1990s for Nintendo was a time following arcades-only and before Mario-everywhere. It was when supply and demand intersected with the just-plain-weird. Style guides were looser, as their forays into American cartoons and movies have permanently reminded us. But more than just to sit here and call it silly, this is to illustrate that unlike today, Nintendo’s product licensing was then not yet as intricately tied to their overall revenue. Nintendo’s bread-and-butter were cartridges and consoles, everything else was more closely the result of their marketing budget for promoting said cartridges and consoles.
Sure, there was an ever-increasing amount of Nintendo “stuff” coming in and out of the toy aisle, illustrating Nintendo’s eagerness to echo its olden toy-maker days. Mario was put on everything, from plush animals to lunchboxes to party favours. But the history of Nintendo merchandise is heavily littered with one-and-done folderol often made to promote a corresponding game.
The history of Nintendo merchandise is heavily littered with one-and-done folderol often made to promote a corresponding game
Did you want to celebrate your love of the relatively obscure Mario game, Mario Paint? Impress your friends with the official Mario Paint paintbrush, provided you collected the needed number of cereal box tops, while supplies lasted. Famously, for one month only, you could enjoy a McDonald’s hamburger with a bouncing Goomba (specifically from Super Mario Bros. 3, naturally), or any one of three other Happy Meal toys included in every box. And nobody can tell the time in style better than those wearing an LCD watch featuring not just any old Mario on the band, but Cape Mario from Super Mario World™. But there was one major exception. Among all this trial and error, none of these overseas marketing decisions cast a larger shadow of influence than the company’s invention of an official print magazine for English speakers. It aptly bore a name to match the company’s surging popularity: Nintendo Power.
Nintendo Power was a magazine not exactly for traditional news, nor was it for culture pieces. It was a means for communicating Donkey Kong’s latest high score, for delivering up-to-the-month press releases, and the only place to get, say, an official Ninja Gaiden poster. In all, it too was basically just marketing for its games. But as largely the only consistent, non-game product put out by Nintendo at the time, it bred its own culture of fanaticism. And like anything else back then, there were no shortcuts to being a fan. You needed a self-stamped envelope to most easily be a part of it, as anyone who mailed in their dues to join the Super Power Club can attest. Nintendo Power was still predominantly for the hobbyist, but increasingly wide-reaching and most importantly, consistent.
It was Nintendo right in the middle of where it was and where it is today.
Inside its pages were where the coup de grace of this spray-and-pray era lay, the (roughly) quarterly “World of Nintendo” catalogue which came packaged with Nintendo Power subscriptions during the 1990s, and which lasted until about the early 2000s. As with any turn-page catalogue of kitsch, it foreshadowed the coming of the internet’s catering to the hardcore enthusiast. Inside, fiercely bizarre products tantalized kids across the country in all their technicolour glory; for every t-shirt with a logo, there was an oddity for purchase like a kite with Mario and Luigi on it, an official Punch-Out!! trash bin, or a Nintendo-branded director’s chair. Later issues would add a toll-free hotline to streamline ordering and featured utterly unique things like full-fledged gaming soundtrack CDs in the shape of characters’ heads, or official dog tags and plushies for some of Nintendo’s most obscure titles. This stuff afforded a physical presence to intellectual properties probably unwise to mass-produce. Finally, an official Mario Kart 64 stopwatch!
And the vast majority of this stuff was not available in stores. It was an independent, non-wholesale warehouse. Before Mario and Pikachu plush toys were encircling us all, literally spilling off the shelves of convenience stores, Nintendo acted as a stern but gracious gatekeeper for fans of its growing brand. And this fan catalogue, hidden behind a subscription to a physical magazine that operated through a telephone hotline and the post office, was the ultimate reward to its loyalists.
And it turns out there was one fan in particular who would go on to take a pretty major page out of “middle-era Nintendo’s” playbook.
A Starman Is Born
When Reid Young was a young boy, he would ride inside his parents’ van and read (and re-read) Nintendo Power issue 70, which featured a video game on the Super Nintendo titled “EarthBound”. He had plenty of time to read it, given the 25-minute commute between his school and his home in Indiana, a state known for farmland and cornfields. All that open-air whizzed by the van windows as he filled his brain with terms like “PSI Magnet” and “Starman”. He did not yet own this strange video game, but this physical guide for mastering it, which he kept harboured inside his bookbag, would suffice.
The site kinda became a meeting place for anyone who played EarthBound... As they came, we just kept building more and more community around that
When Reid Young reached 14 years old, he began learning basic HTML, computers, and whatever else enriched his electronics enthusiast’s brain in the year 1997. His first passion-project to really stick was a website on the then barely available internet he named "Reidman's Strange Smileys, Sounds, Simpsons, Super Nintendo And Other Stuff". It was filled with many of the things he liked: The Simpsons, animated gifs, and naturally, EarthBound. Earthbound.net was his next venture, with a more overt focus on the game, which was then rechristened Starmen.net around 2000.
“A community kinda built up around that little website that I started,” says Reid Young, now CEO of Fangamer.com. “Because it was so early on the internet, there wasn’t a whole lot of other sites out there. The site kinda became a meeting place for anyone who played EarthBound... As they came, we just kept building more and more community around that.” The Simpsons and the emojis, well, those things receded into the site’s background. Given the site’s namesake, its traffic was mostly internet modem-owning fans who wanted to discuss Ness, Paula, Poo, Jeff, and the rest of the EarthBound cast.
The term “community” was not relegated to their online meeting space, either. The site’s administrators and biggest fans organized what they called yearly “staff conventions”, even though, as Young puts it, “the first was just me and four other people.” They’d rent out out a vacation home somewhere in the United States and get together for a week out of every year. In a way, these conventions remain a high-water mark for the country’s biggest EarthBound fanatics. “I ended up getting married to one of the four other people who came to that (first) convention, and went into business with three of the others,” says Young. It’s hard to imagine anyone bonding any harder than that over a Super Nintendo game.
As the years went on, the website and its community continued to grow while concurrently, its subject matter faded into the background. The franchise EarthBound, still an esoteric role-playing series known for its extremely eccentric writing and outlandish storyline – this from a time when neither techniques really existed within its genre – was more or less abandoned by Nintendo.
Known as Mother 2 in Japan, EarthBound did eventually receive a long-awaited numerical sequel 12 years after its release, but that game famously never saw release outside of Japan. Plans for a sequel on Nintendo’s N64 console in the late '90s never materialized. As cult followings go, EarthBound’s was particularly snakebitten, and Young’s dedicated online community had virtually nothing substantial to look forward to on the horizon.
That is, until it did.
From Nintendo’s Letter to the Creation of Fangamer
Right from the start of the Wii era, rumours began to circulate that EarthBound was to be released digitally on the console (Iwata name-dropping it during E3 2005 and an ESRB rating in 2008 only served to fuel this speculation). However, Reid Young and his small army of Ness loyalists had more than rumours – they had inside information and claim that an individual within Nintendo tipped them off regarding a release in 2007. For the team at Starmen.net, this was as an out-of-the-blue game-changer for their website. “We had actually created a whole campaign in anticipation of that. Because we really wanted EarthBound on Virtual Console to be a big thing that really showed up and hit hard on Nintendo’s radar, so they would have reason to bring Mother 3 over and other things like that,” Young explains.
The plan of attack, put together with both the passion and panache of a Scooby-Doo ghost wrangling, was for Starmen.net to campaign for the world at large to purchase EarthBound. After all, if sales exceeded expectations, Nintendo would have no choice but to weigh future EarthBound-related releases, right? “I started spending way too much time on Starmen.net stuff," Young says. "I did freelance website design, graphic design, I spent an entire summer not doing almost any work, surviving on sandwiches, trying to scrape by because I was so consumed with this EarthBound fansite stuff.”
As it happened, EarthBound never did hit the Wii; it wouldn't become available until 2013, when it launched on the Wii U's Virtual Console platform. Despite the good work done by Young and his team, there was no outward change in Nintendo's stance. This meant Starmen.net’s campaign had essentially failed. What then? Young turned to consulting.
“The original plan was to take what we’d done with EarthBound, because we had this really powerful community that was built up around [the campaign], and try and duplicate that for other communities like Chrono Trigger, Super Mario RPG, Phoenix Wright... a lot of games that we loved.” Why not see if other sites could try out something similar and prosper? Adds Young, “We kinda knew other fansites were out there and they were struggling at the time, (and) this was before the bomb had really dropped with social media.” But this, too, did not materialize into anything substantial. Low on hypothetical HP and facing death by neglect, Young’s tiny, mobilized team pivoted one final time. But this time, they tried something a little more tangible.
We didn’t take the EarthBound logo and just slap it on stuff. But we created the merchandise that Nintendo never made for us, as fans
“We had always had (an online) Cafe Press store where we sold EarthBound-inspired merchandise,” begins Young. “We didn’t take the EarthBound logo and just slap it on stuff. But we created the merchandise that Nintendo never made for us, as fans.” If Young’s team couldn’t bring any new EarthBound into existence, what if they just kept the perfectly good, old EarthBound alive? Young continues, “My co-founder Jon Kay and I talked about that for a bit and how to take that a little further. ‘What if we made higher quality stuff than just Cafe Press?’ So, like, I studied copyright, which is to say I just read the Wikipedia page on copyright!”
Derived from this, the plan was simple: launch a series of merch with no logos, no characters, or no names. They created original designs only a hardcore EarthBound fan could appreciate and designed two t-shirts, a pin set, and a mug. They made a new website to host it: “Fangamer.com”. Within hours of posting them, they were flooded with orders.
This instantly changed Young’s fortunes. In his mind, this logically proved the demand for EarthBound existed, if only Nintendo would listen. And in fact, this was the case he brought to Nintendo in 2008 while seeking to become an official vendor. He emailed Nintendo directly with his results and his request. Their response? “I got an email from Nintendo, it was like a one-line thing when we first started the company that said, ‘Sorry, we don’t focus on retro (intellectual properties), good luck!’
I took the ‘Good luck’ to mean ‘Go get ‘em tiger!’, rather than, ‘Don’t get sued!’”
The Dawn of Geek Merch
By the mid-2000s, fandom was catching on with a DIY aesthetic. Brand new websites like YouTube, eBay, Craigslist, and Etsy flourished, not only bridging fandoms together, but some even allowing them to resell not just their favourite, old stuff, but brand new, unlicensed stuff. That’s because, frankly, niche fandoms had no way to officially declare themselves, while small creative teams had no means for mass marketing their creations. In the video game world, mass-produced merchandise was by and large an afterthought, verging on non-existent... unless your game was called Super Mario Bros., Halo, or God of War.
On this time period for gaming-specific merchandise, Young recalls, “There was not much. Jinx existed, iam8bit existed, [though] they didn’t have the presence [yet], they just had a book they had made. ThinkGeek for sure. Companies would do individual stuff, but very, very few independent companies…”
Typically for a bootstrap funded, tiny independent team like Fangamer, the ultimate goal for their merchandise is to become much more like a typical wholesaler. However, "We actually never considered wholesale to be one of our goals," says Young. "We've always enjoyed selling direct to consumer, partly because it was our only choice, but also because we liked bringing people into our community via our merchandise."
Iam8bit is another independent game merch company beginning at this time, today appreciated for its celebratory vinyl releases of video game soundtracks. Speaking on behalf of the company, co-owners Amanda White and Jon M. Gibson characterize this exploratory time period to Nintendo Life by explaining how their art show of original video game-inspired art helped change their fortunes. “Our initial show generated a groundswell of interest, and paved the way for companies to understand that when you sway away from key art and style guides, favouring original interpretive pieces instead, you are, in turn, creating an even deeper mythology for your brand.”
These collectives of hardcore game enthusiasts were trying to make stuff they themselves actually wanted for the licenses they loved. As their own target demographic, they knew firsthand that typical style guides just weren’t as effective, as well as the fact that enough of an audience for smaller properties needed servicing. They could show their idols how it was done, if only they could get the keys to the franchises.
We've always enjoyed selling direct to consumer, partly because it was our only choice, but also because we liked bringing people into our community via our merchandise
But before swimming with the big fish, they had to prove themselves somehow. Many of these tiny fan ventures of the time remained forever grassroots and unlicensed. Some went to find their identity within a certain type of product, like iam8bit with vinyl records. ThinkGeek would go on to find a tremendous amount of success by expanding into licensing within other mediums, before being acquired by Gamestop in 2015. Fangamer, meanwhile, went its own way; it continued to focus on tailoring to the niche en route to its first big break. In 2010, among moving from a bedroom into an office, hiring a second full-time employee, and releasing more unlicensed products like The Mother 3 Handbook, Fangamer turned to Kickstarter.com. But not in the typical way one might imagine.
Fangamer scored a contract to fulfil stretch goal merchandise for 2 Player Productions’ Minecraft documentary, Minecraft: The Story of Mojang. Before Minecraft foam swords, Halloween costumes, and action figures were everywhere, Fangamer had an opportunity to create an official piece of merchandise for one of the hottest properties to ever exist, well before anything really existed for it. What they created was a wind-up action figure depicting a “Creeper”, the pixelated antagonist of the Minecraft universe. An officially-licensed Creeper, mind you.
Highlighting the perils of how hard it is to bring niche items to market, Fangamer ended up with, as Young describes it, “boxes and boxes” of leftover, wind-up Creepers, which they were unable to easily sell after Microsoft purchased Minecraft developer Mojang shortly thereafter. But while Fangamer was left with a pile of Creepers, what they mostly got out of the deal, besides a lesson, was notoriety.
“It became the springboard for Double Fine Adventure, which we did the fulfilment for, and that was a huge thing for us,” Young tells us. “And because we had done that, we got these other Kickstarter jobs. And then after that, we got Bloodstained. And Bloodstained was a massive event in our history.”
Mid-sized creators who were bigger than pure hobbyist, but smaller than Hollywood blockbusters, were turning to outlets like Kickstarter to find a way to make their things into a “thing”. And Fangamer, coincidentally enough, was there to help make it happen. Suddenly, Fangamer’s goal wasn’t to get into Target stores, but rather, they were slowly becoming their own target destination for indie-sized properties to turn their personal pixels into real-life objects.
“It’s Alive!” The Rise of Indie Games and Their Toys
During the years Reid Young helped host yearly “staff retreats” for Starmen.net administrators and intrepid forum posters, he once had to make a phone call to somebody’s parents.
The reason? One particularly dedicated EarthBound fan who posted on their forums wanted to come take part in the retreat – but he wasn’t old enough, nevermind the fact that the internet wasn’t quite so prolific at that time as to account for a young kid leaving to meet with a bunch of strangers in order to celebrate a decades-old game. With this in mind, Young decided to reach out to his parents in order to convince them their son should be allowed to travel to meet both him and the Starmen community at large. Young never got the chance, as his parents refused to take the call and stood their ground – until, that is, Young advised him to threaten to "smoke a cigarette" if he wasn't allowed to attend. Amazingly, the ploy proved to be successful.
These were the parents of a fan named Toby Fox. Fox would later in life go on to create a video game called Undertale, probably the singular most analogous video game to EarthBound ever created. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that Undertale, with its infamously ravenous fan base, have made Undertale the number-one selling property among all the franchises on Fangamers website. “It far surpasses anything else we’ve ever done, by a longshot,” says Young. As much as any singular anecdote can, this illustrates just how fortuitous Fangamer was to come up at a time when games created by individuals and small teams, not just corporations, were becoming mainstay attractions in the gaming industry.
By 2015, Fangamer.com had not only cornered the market on unlicensed EarthBound merchandise (a franchise still largely ignored by Nintendo, an entire seven years into Fangamer’s official existence at this point), but their savvy portfolio of gaming tributes appealed themselves to these smaller game developers all around the globe. These were the same developers who, seemingly overnight, were taking centre stage on digital platforms like Xbox Live, Nintendo’s Virtual Console, and Steam. And Fangamer, like a bunch of over-eager Christmas elves, leapt at the opportunity to make all of their toys.
“If there is a new game out on the horizon that we’re just really excited about, we like to discuss it internally, and see what we’re really into," says Noah Lane, Director of Licensing at Fangamer. "Because we want everyone at the company to have a passion about what we’re working on.” He describes the modern-day ratio of reaching out versus being contacted as roughly “70:30”, but during this time, Fangamer was making almost all of the calls in order to curate the ultimate indie game merchandise destination. “Fangamer just did everything for Celeste!” exclaims Heidy Motta, operations management game developer overseeing said game. “They sent some concepts of what they had in mind for the merch and we approved. It was as simple as that.”
Thanks to a wildly different internet than when they started the company – in large part due to social media and far more accessible online communities than Starmen.net ever was – Fangamer was able to head directly to the makers and accumulate officially-licensed, digital storefronts for then up-and-coming video games like Shovel Knight, Papers Please, FTL, and many more. What bureaucracy?
We’ll have internal brainstorms about what products we really wanna make... A good idea can come from anyone. We want to hear ideas that people think are ‘bad’
By the same token, these mid to small-sized creators had caught wind of a way to not only have physical merchandise, like their big-time counterparts, but to create an additional (and sometimes sorely needed) revenue source to aid their game making. And it could all look really cool, too.
“I really like the approach of creating merchandise that is either directly from the game world, or at least feels like it could belong in the game world,” Stardew Valley Eric Barone tells us. “I intended Stardew Valley to be a pretty immersive game and world, and I like seeing that extend to the merchandise as well. It allows players to further immerse themselves in the fantasy.”
Regarding tasks like making the town of Stardew Valley come alive, Lane elaborates on Fangamer’s product design workflow. “We’ll have internal brainstorms about what products we really wanna make, even if it’s just a t-shirt to start off.” He describes this brainstorming as being open to everyone at the company. “A good idea can come from anyone. We want to hear ideas that people think are ‘bad’. Usually, if its start off as, ‘This is probably a dumb idea’, it’s probably something we’re gonna be excited about and want to do.” Consequently, Stardew Valley’s Fangamer merch page has been filled with stuff like a cross-stitching book, tote bags designed as if they were from the in-game stores, and posters not for the game, but as if they existed for events in the game.
Lane on Fangamer’s creative war chest: “For things like t-shirts, we have a lot of incredible, internal artists who are always available to work… a lot of times we’ll also reach out to some freelancers. For a plush we have primarily one person who prototypes it for us and gets it to exactly how we want it... for figurines, we have 3D modellers, for accessories and pins, things like that, we have a lot of internal artists.” Fangamer fashions itself as a factory dedicated to making the most wildly-designed, hand-crafted merchandise fans of any game could imagine. Today it boasts over 55 employees.
To echo the ethos Young brought to their original Cafe Press page: create the merchandise that was never made for them. Following this ethos, it’s worth noting that as an independent entity not tethered to only promoting what’s brand new, Fangamer can afford to be artisanal not just with the products it makes, but also with what franchises it chooses to make merchandise for.
Tommy Refenes is a game developer best known for co-developing the 2010 game Super Meat Boy. Lately, he’s been working on its long-awaited sequel, Super Meat Boy Forever. “There was a while before 2017 where the way things were structured, we couldn’t really do any merch. But after 2017, Fangamer and merch creator Yetee both approached and said, ‘Hey, we wanna make stuff!' At that point, it had been seven years since the game came out and I was like, ‘Oh, really? You want to make stuff? Please, please do!” Refenes initially had visions of creating a Super Meat Boy figure, but as it turns out, creating and producing a figurine is extremely pricey and difficult to do.
On the prohibitive nature of figurines, Young explains, “If we do a figurine for something, it’s because we really believe in it, or the numbers... can support it. Figurines are just, boy, you’re gonna drop a lot of money on those no matter what.” It’s likely that this same obstacle to figurine creation is the very reason there wasn’t a steady line of Nintendo action figures in the mid-‘90s, back when Nintendo was still growing worldwide. Another thread comes full circle.
Young continues, “Because we do know [to make an officially licensed amiibo], you have to make a lot of amiibo. You can’t just make a couple thousand. You gotta make way more than that.” Adds Lane, “And you want to distribute them to stores like Gamestop, Best Buy, and Amazon.” For an indie developer to sign a contract to create and distribute an officially-licensed action figure through Nintendo, Young describes the price point as “almost insurmountable”' and a “six-digit” expenditure. To wit, only one indie developer has ever done it: Yacht Club for its game Shovel Knight.
And yet still, Refenes is able to hold his digital creation in the palm of his hand. Independent companies like Fangamer are scaled to allow for smaller shipments. This means more products can exist intended for smaller, yet sizable fandoms that want to show the world they support these smaller artists. And after seeing the success of smaller devs doing it, it’s not just indie developers who are going the independent distributor route, either.
Michael Quijano, Licensing Specialist at SEGA of America, discusses with Nintendo Life the process Fangamer underwent to create stateside merchandise for the game Persona 5. “They came to us with a variety of designs hand-drawn by their team of talented designers and, yes, they are required to keep in line with a style guide that was passed to them when they became a licensee, but they have a reasonable amount of freedom when creating product. And they are very good at producing product that both captures the IPs core feel and style.”
The opportunity to work on the Persona franchise springboarded Fangamer to tackle other Atlus licenses they personally wanted made, and it wasn’t just the big ones. Continues Quijano, “The rebirth of the Snowboard Kids merchandise line came when our contact, Noah, told us that their whole office was discussing ‘new’ IP to license.” Snowboard Kids is a relatively unknown cult classic racing game, released for the Nintendo 64 in 1997. Naturally, this is exactly the kind of thing Fangamer was born to make.
“Fangamer is a trusted licensee,” adds Quijano, “so it made sense to take a chance on them. Internally, we really didn’t see the demand for it but also recognized that this is a good opportunity overall. Is the fan base strong enough? This would be a great way to find out.” Some of the retro franchises that Fangamer has helped revive merchandise for include some heavy-hitting titles from all throughout gaming’s history, such as Banjo-Kazooie, Bomberman, Breath of Fire, and even game developer Cyan’s 26-year-old Myst franchise.
“Producing physical products used to be a gamble and often something a company could lose money with unless they were able to sell a lot of products,” Cyan’s Marketing and Brand Manager Jeff Lanctot tells us. “Today's fulfilment partners are much more nimble and willing to work with brands that don't require producing thousands of items upfront. We’re very excited to work with fulfilment partners like Fangamer. It's exciting to realize fans don't just want the ‘vintage’ items from us. They’re eager to have us produce new things for them.”
While literally holding a Meatboy in his hands, Refenes explains it this way, “If Fangamer says, ‘We want to make some stuff for you’, I would say, ‘Do it!’ Unless you really, really want to do it yourself, and that really sucks.”
The Future of Indie Game (Toy) Developers
Given that there appear to be no signs of smaller game publications slowing, this leaves the market for distributing all levels of gaming franchises wide open. Welcome to the year 2020. Game merchandising is officially open for business.
Yet as it sits right now, the current era of licensing for indie (and even AAA) video games may one day come to be known as the “middle-era game licensing” of its own. In other words, the marketplace is currently following a time just after smaller game merch existed for extreme hobbyists only, but ahead of the market becoming potentially overly saturated. We are right at the sweet spot.
“We’ve had like 40% growth for basically all 11 years of our existence. I mean, early on it was much lower than 40%, (but) it’s been steadily 40, 50% or more,” discloses Young. Even more impressive is that their growth comes at a time when Fangamer is no longer the only independent player on the field. One example of a trend in gaming merch is the emergence of vinyl soundtracks.
White and Gibson of iam8bit reflect on this market. “When iam8bit first started minting vinyl in 2010 (with Tron: Evolution), there wasn't really a video game vinyl marketplace beyond a handful of highly specialized releases. After the first iam8bit art show, companies like Capcom, Nintendo, Konami and many others started approaching us about celebrating their brands via interpretive swag and licensed merchandise.” With their artistic approaches to product design, companies like iam8bit and Fangamer have permanently altered the way even corporations think about their own merchandise.
On the landscape today, White and Gibson add, “iam8bit is about to hit a record 100 video game soundtracks released on vinyl, and continues to be a leader in the industry with well over 200,000 records sold, including several Billboard chart-toppers.” With this level of success to be had out in the gaming merch market, you might expect those in business to be cutthroat. And yet nothing could be further from the truth, at least if the current leaders are to be believed.
“We don't actually think iam8bit has core competitors,” explains White and Gibson, “At least not in the traditional sense. We're friends with the fine folks at Limited Run, because we really love what they contribute to the industry. It's symbiotic and healthy because we're fans of Limited Run. Fangamer, similarly, is a company we like and respect, partly because their director of licensing, Noah Lane, learned all the tricks of the trade during his tenure at iam8bit. When he left iam8bit for Fangamer, we collectively promised we'd help each other succeed rather than actively compete with one another.”
With Lane, the feeling is mutual. “I mean, we try to really stay friendly with everyone in this industry. It’s so small; life is too short.” Young agrees. “I definitely see competition as a healthy thing. In that sense, Sanshee, Iam8bit, and Limited Run have been doing a lot of merchandise, and having them as competitors keeps us sharp, keeps them sharp; it’s better for the consumers.”
I definitely see competition as a healthy thing. In that sense, Sanshee, Iam8bit, and Limited Run have been doing a lot of merchandise, and having them as competitors keeps us sharp, keeps them sharp; it’s better for the consumers
You might think exclusivity licensing deals might be one way to keep an edge over one another, especially in an industry where exclusivity deals are the backbone of major video game developers. But these game merchandisers want nothing to do with it. “That’s something that we’ve always try to avoid,” explains Young. “Especially early on, we were strict. ‘No exclusives.’”
Lane breaks down the thinking, “When we sign new licenses with our license agreement, we typically try to give them as much freedom as they want. We don’t say you’re locked in for five years, you can’t work with anyone else; there’s no term length. If someone wants out of it, it’s because we’re not doing the job that we should be doing. And we don’t want that to ever happen.”
All they ask in return? “The only thing that we ever ask for is courtesy. We never want cannibalization on any particular category. We just say, ‘If you’re gonna make something very similar to us, just give us a heads up.’” Adds Young, “It’s a small industry. Word gets around real fast, if you screw someone over, it’s gonna be over for you real quick.” In this way, Fangamer characterizes the entire industry as being run on something resembling the honour system.
This line of thinking may appear to be naive, but the gaming merchandise industry has just seen its first major deaths in the form of ThinkGeek’s dissolving at the hands of its parent company Gamestop’s financial woes, as well as the bankruptcy of Loot Crate, a fad game merchandising distribution model that Fangamer opted out of emulating. Instead of going for broke, Young’s hope for the current stable of merchandisers is that they all stick together.
While the opportunity to fill the space of ThinkGeek is there, it appears Young is cognizant of not losing the core values and mission statement of the company in any attempts to do so. This is not just out of principle, but because hyper-tailored versus wide-reaching seems to be the key to their success. “That’s the other thing: how big can we get before we are not doing the stuff that we’re used to, we’re not giving the attention that we need to for quality?” ponders Young. Remaining in that sweet spot and not falling prey to the oversaturation of their fallen competitors is a tricky balance.
To his credit, this commitment to quality over quantity and friendship over foes appears to be working. For all their efforts, they’re currently in the process of moving into their fourth office, this one twice the square footage of their previous one. The company is as big as ever, and it’s easy to believe Young when he says, “We really don’t know where the ceiling is.”
But no greater indicator of Fangamer’s true priorities exists than this one: ask Reid Young what his biggest dream for Fangamer is and the answer is not necessarily to scale better than ThinkGeek, nor is it related to other typical company metrics like KPIs, net growth, or whatever buzzword you might expect a typical CEO to unsheath. After over 10 years that saw Fangamer completely alter the indie game merchandising-sphere, cross over into AAA game merchandising, and create a friendly blueprint for other like-minded companies to follow, can you guess what Fangamer’s biggest aspiration remains, heading into the year 2020?
Here’s a hint: it involves being able to drop the prefix “un” from the word that describes any of their merchandise featuring a little psychic boy from the town of Onett. “I’m never not pursuing it. And even if we never get it, it’s something that I always ask about, something that I will always pursue. It’s always on my mind,” exclaims Young. Like the fans they still are, and always will be, Fangamer’s ultimate goal is unrelenting.
They just want to keep making the stuff their heroes never made for them.