Good Deal Games: An Interview with Michael Thomasson

Bill Loguidice's picture
Author and Interviewer: Bill Loguidice
Editing: Matt Barton
Online Layout: Bill Loguidice
Special Thanks and Notes: Michael Thomasson for being the subject of the feature and providing use of the images
Also see: Good Deal Games (Staff), Game Informer Magazine Interview by Matt Helgeson, Planet Dreamcast Interview by BenT and Totally Retro by Jim Lenhan

Good Deal Games (GDG) is a hard Website to classify. In fact, at first glance it can be rather overwhelming. GDG offers new games for sale for classic videogame systems, an online store featuring items that cater to orphaned consoles, articles, news, classified ads, an audio feed, online games and so much more, like helping hobbyist developers publish their creations. In short, GDG is a great destination for any classic gaming fan. Much of the site’s diversity can be directly attributed to GDG’s founder and president, Michael Thomasson, whose gaming involvement goes far beyond collecting. What follows is a partial listing of Michael’s background and accomplishments:

  • Owner, Web designer and content director for GDG
  • Teaches many classes for Canisius College in Buffalo, New York. These are mostly graphic-oriented courses like design and animation, but also teaches "The History of Videogames"
  • Owns all kind of unusual gaming items and just about every game ever made for the systems in his personal collection
  • Sponsor of Classic Gaming Expo (CGE), JagFest, Mid-Atlantic Game Festival, Philly Classic, Oklahoma Gaming Exhibition, Midwest Classic, The Videogame Summit, East Coast Gaming Expo and more
  • Column in Manci Games, a print classic gaming magazine and price guide
  • Caricature of Michael Thomasson

  • Syndicated Knight-Ridder ResN8 newspaper videogame journalist
  • Book cover designer for Phoenix: The Fall and Rise of Videogames 4th Ed.
  • Book cover designer for ABC to the VCS 2nd Ed.
  • Pixel and cover artist for Songbird Productions, an Atari Lynx and Jaguar game developer and publisher
  • Artist and cover designer for Classic Gamer Magazine (issues 2 - 7)
  • Station Manager of WGDG Videogame Radio
  • Committee member and contributor to the CinciClassic Videogame Expo
  • Beta tester and cover designer for Classic Game Creations’ Gravitrex (Vectrex)
  • Cover artist for Ralph Baer’s (“Father of Videogames”) autobiography
  • Logo designer and artist for Syzygy Magazine, which is focused on the coin-operated and console video beat
  • Cover Designer for Classic Game Creations’ Vectopia! (Vectrex)
  • Founding member of BETA (Beta EPROM Testing Association) Club
  • Volunteer for Bluegrass Electronics Center, a service organization
  • CES Software Analyst for “Video Supreme” chain stores

What follows is a partial listing of new games published through GDG for select classic and orphaned systems:

Sega CD
• Citizen X
• Star Strike
• Bug Blasters: The Exterminators
• MarkoCitizen X for the Sega CD
• Battle Frenzy

GCE Vectrex
Vec Sports Boxing

Philips CD-i
• Jack Sprite vs. the Crimson Ghost
• Go
• PlunderBall
• Space Ranger

Coleco ColecoVision
• Cosmo Fighter 2
• Cosmo Fighter 3
• ColecoVision Game Pack #1

At this point, we would like to welcome Michael Thomasson to Armchair Arcade…

Bill Loguidice from Armchair Arcade (AA): Can you tell us a little about your “The History of Videogames” course at Canisius College?
Michael Thomasson (MT): I taught this course for Canisius College in Buffalo, New York, for the first time last summer. I had previously been instructing animation and design courses for the college, and many students were asking the department for videogame content to be offered. The course deals with all the classic systems and covers material up to and including the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Canisius' facilities are top notch, and there is something truly remarkable about playing classic games on large projection screens larger than life. The "blips" of the 1970's and 1980's boom through modern day state-of-the-art sound systems and the Atari 2600's video pixel size is bigger than a human head!

AA: Can you tell us a little about your 3D animation profession? Surely between Good Deal Games, Canisius College, your full-time job and other types of freelance pursuits, you must find it a challenge to actually PLAY games while still having time for family and other pursuits?
MT: I actually retired from professional 3D animation just over a year ago when I relocated to Buffalo, New York. I do still do some freelance work. I currently teach for Canisius and manage a “GameStop” store, as I missed my old retail days with the seven games stores that I used to operate in Kentucky and Indiana known as “Let's Play” and “L.A. Videogames.” Personally, I am way behind on my game playing. I purchase games at a much faster rate than I can actually play them. I have a giant pile of Sega CD and Sega Saturn role-playing games that will take an enormous amount of time to catch up on... *sigh*

AA: I think purchasing more games than you can play is a common “complaint” among collectors, and as one myself, I’ll agree with that sigh.

You gave me a list of your “classic gaming involvement”, which I’ll include in the article. Is there anything on there you’d like to elaborate on?
MT: At one time last year, I had a classic gaming television show in the works with IBC Digital with some help from Tommy Tallarico of G4techTV's Judgment Day and Electric Playground, but it fell through the cracks and has yet (if it ever will) to debut.
Vec Sports Boxing for the GCE Vectrex
I am now a regular columnist for Manci Games, writing a coin-op (arcade-related) article each month for my column known as "Just 4 Qix." I'm also working on a feature story for issue three of Manci Games.

Good Deal Games also just released two new classic gaming products known as the Arcade Ambiance series (audio CD), with a 1986 volume in the works and more to come.

Back in March we went to Philly Classic 5 where we premiered Arcade Ambiance, autographed the premiere issue of Manci Games and showed off Ralph Baer’s original Brown Box (prototype for the first pong games)!

AA: Do you have your personal collection published anywhere for our readers to browse?
MT: Well, I do not have my personal collection listed anywhere, as I do not have a full and comprehensive list for myself. I certainly need to accomplish this, as often I come across a game or item that I'm not sure that I already own or not. Fortunately, I always make it a point to grab such items. If I find out that I already have the object, it simply becomes one more item up for sale or trade on the Good Deal Games Website.

I can state that I own the vast majority of games released on cartridge format, and most CD-based games. This encompasses videogame systems and not computer software, of which I have very little. I am a console player primarily.

AA: You mention you're a console game collector and player primarily, as opposed to computers. Can you tell us a little of your reasoning behind this, in particular what attracts you to one format over another?
MT: Well, it is primarily a reason of personal preference, I suppose. While I was very active in the early computer scene having access to a Commodore Pet, Commodore VIC-20, TRS-80, Atari 400, Texas Instruments 99/4A and others, I always seemed to have more fun with the console machines. This is perhaps because I prefer a joystick to a keyboard, or sitting on the couch instead of on a chair in front of a computer. Playing with a friend was always enjoyable side-by-side instead of fighting for space behind a computer desk. Simple as that, really.

AA: Anything you’d like to talk about in your personal collection? A photo of the real Michael Thomasson
MT: I do have some unique items, such as a leather jacket from Don Bluth Studios that was worn by the team during the production of Dragon's Lair and Space Ace; hand-painted art cels from the early 1980's Donkey Kong Jr. cereal commercials; Coke Wins for the Atari 2600; Aussie Rules Footy for the NES; promotional items such as a Sega Saturn Nights jester cap; and dozens of unreleased game prototypes such as a Tiger prototype for Command and Conquer, Sega Saturn Capcom titles like Werewolf and Major Damage, Sega CD Penn & Teller and many more. I even have the last copy of one game that was ordered to be destroyed by a court order and is so secretive that I cannot even mention the title...spooky!

AA: When did you start collecting?
MT: My collection started with my love for the ColecoVision. As a young teen I was obsessed with owning the entire ColecoVision library. My childhood friend, David Lewis, used to type up a silly little ColecoVision checklist on his mother's IBM Selectric typewriter for the task. A few years later I was old enough to drive, noticed girls and the ColecoVision was lowered on the priority scale. When Sega released the Sega Genesis, I sold the ColecoVision lot for a steal to get money to purchase the Genesis. I was then hooked on games again! I immediately started seriously collecting all the games I loved as a child and also games and systems that I had never previously owned to experience older games for the first time—better late than never!

AA: Can you tell us a little about how GDG came about?
Jack Sprite vs. The Crimson Ghost (Philips CD-I) screenshotMT: Well, I used to work as a consultant for a small video rental store called “Video Supreme.” I volunteered my time in exchange for passes to the Consumer Electronics Shows (CES), which was the place where new games and hardware premiered before E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) came about. It was held in the summers in Chicago, and was open only to those in the industry, so such an opportunity was very appealing to me. This store was the first and only rental store that I have heard that carried ColecoVision games for rental as well as purchase. The game rental business didn’t really take off until years later when the NES was introduced by Nintendo. I later operated a chain of videogame stores in the early 1990’s called “Let's Play” and “L.A. Videogames.” I met a great deal of fantastic people during this period and became friends with many of them. When I left the chain and entered into computer animation, I was constantly being contacted by old associates about trying to locate a certain game or two for them, since they knew that I had an extensive personal collection and many contacts. It became so time consuming and tiresome that I decided to teach myself Website programming with a copy of HTML for Dummies and placed my trade items online, which was just really starting to take off. The idea was to let others know what I had for trade, so that my phone would stop ringing so much. It was meant to save time, but instead it grew into Good Deal Games and now takes more time than ever!

AA: What do you see as the future of GDG?
MT: The future is never predictable, so I will not even speculate. I've been asked this question many times before and answered it, only to be proven wrong in time. Perhaps I'll answer with SNK's old slogan, "Bigger, Badder, Better!"

AA: It was great meeting you at Philly Classic 5 and purchasing some of your unique products, like Marko for the Sega CD. Certainly you’ve published some intriguing titles for systems like the Sega CD, Vectrex, Philips CD-I and ColecoVision; do you see this as something you’ll stick with? I understand publishing these games has not been as lucrative as some might think. Can you give your thoughts on why that might be?
MT: The real task is locating lost and unpublished games, obtaining the licensing rights to them, and getting them on the shelves. We've published every game that we can to date, regardless of the title or possible success. Our goal is first and foremost preservation. If we kept these games in our personal collections, then only I would be able to play them. Sure, I could sell some of these one-of-a-kind prototype games for huge sums of money, but the public would miss their opportunity to play them again, as most collectors would hoard them to keep their value high. If I were smart and profit-minded, this would be the thing to do. However, I operate GDG for the love of the hobby.

As a matter of fact, most of our retro-published titles have lost money after paying for licensing, royalties, printing costs, production and other expenses. However, when someone orders one of our titles, they often add another game from which we do profit a bit from, and that income goes to fund the next project. To further back up this claim, no one at GDG has ever taken a single penny from the organization. All income is used to operate the Website and release new classic gaming related products. Why are there not other companies doing what we are doing? Well, most organizations are in business to gain profit and not to actually lose money. For instance, two of our Sega CD games cost well over $70,000 to develop. Our best selling title has sold over 400 copies. At $19.99 each that is only $7,600, which is just the gross income. Again, it doesn't include any operating, licensing, production, manufacturing or other costs. Who would be crazy enough to do this but fans and hobbyists!

AA: If you plan on continuing this route, what types of new games for old systems are you most looking forward to or do you think would have the greatest chance at success? Or, to put it another way, what type of game, if anything specific, do you think would be most “accepted” by the typical classic gaming consumer?
MT: We do plan on releasing more titles in the future. However, it is getting harder and harder to locate lost titles as time goes by and formats change. At some point, the "well of unpublished games" will simply dry up.

We also create new games for classic systems, but this is very time consuming and few individuals have the skills to develop a new game. If anyone reading this has a game that they have finished, Good Deal Games would be happy to fund your project and get it out to those that would appreciate your time and work.

Sure, there is demand for games for certain platforms, but there are also obstacles. For instance, we wanted to release some Sega Saturn games, but their proprietary discs contain an information "ring" that is not available on modern day CD-ROM discs and cannot be duplicated. We have licensed two 3DO games for release, but they will only play on development units and we have yet to break the encryption. Fortunately, we have a record of releasing games for which there is not heavy consumer demand. There is a reason why we are the only Sega CD publisher left on the planet. Do you think that there are people screaming for new Philips CD-i titles to play? Absolutely not! Again, these actions are for the love of the hobby and definitely not for profit.

AA: I’ve personally noticed a fairly recent trend in England with a large influx of mainstream magazines (Edge Retro, Retro Gamer Magazine, etc.) and television specials covering classic gaming and computers. Certainly the US has a large classic gaming community (Internet, live events like Philly Classic and CGE) and potential market, but we’ve still not quite seen the same mainstream penetration as England has enjoyed. Considering what you teach, your involvement through Good Deal Games and other related interests, do you think the US market is quite ready, or will it EVER be ready, for a newsstand magazine and regular history programs? In other words, how much bigger do you think things can get in the US?
MT: Well, I was the cover artist and contributor to Classic Gaming Magazine a few years ago, and although the magazine was of high quality both visually and in written content, the magazine folded after just over a half a dozen issues. I was also involved with Syzygy Magazine, which unfortunately only lasted three issues.

I currently have my own column in the new classic gaming magazine and monthly price guide entitled Manci Games. If you’re reading this interview and love your hobby, then I encourage that you subscribe and not only promote the magazine, but get a healthy dose of classic gaming goodness in the process. Such magazines keep cropping up, so there is obviously demand. I believe that the inclusion of the price-guide will help promote the hobby to that of a more collectable status. Although you can't go to a K-Mart and purchase a classic system, there are still hundreds of millions of classic game playing machines in homes, which is a much larger number than Sony has PlayStation 2 units in homes, or ever will. So, is the market untapped? Definitely!

AA: I'm sure our readers would be very interested in how you get some of these previously unreleased games to market. Can you tell us a bit of the high-level process in finding previously unreleased games, procuring rights to these games if possible, the decision to manufacture, decision about when to publish (timing), etc.?
MT: Unreleased games have populated my collection through several sources over the years. I often attended trade shows such as the CES and E3 over the years, and in the process obtained many test or review copies of upcoming games.

Sometimes these games were never released for one reason or another, and I'm left with the game in hand. In some cases, an employee leaves a company and takes copies of their work with them. Years later they come across them and contact us stating that they would like for someone to be able to play their game that was never published. In these cases, we contact the developer and see if we can obtain the rights to license and release the title.

Bug Blasters: The Exterminators for Sega CDIn the case of releasing Star Strike and Bug Blasters: The Exterminators, when we contacted the original developer to license the games, we received a response something like, "We'd be interested, but we do not have the original files preserved to allow such a project to happen." It is at this time that already owning a copy of the unreleased games is an incredible advantage. Companies change, and during the course of such changes, cancelled projects are not always backed up as they should be. Others incorrectly assume that the work is properly preserved, computers and systems change, and company priorities change, so it is amazing how much work is lost over time.Scan of the CD label for Star Strike (Sega CD)

I find it very interesting that GDG actually supplied the games to the original developer almost a decade later. We also licensed a third game from Stargate Films, entitled Wing Nuts. Unfortunately, a copy of the game has yet to be located, so until it is we obviously can't release it. So, if anyone reading this has a demonstration or test copy of Wing Nuts for the Sega CD or 3DO, please contact us!

Since such games are not common, we release the games when we can tie up the loose ends. The nice thing about publishing classic games is that there is really no rush to get them to the market, as they just become more classic over time. We do what we do for the love of the hobby. As stated, contrary to what some may believe, there is not a huge demand for such releases and publishing for less popular systems of the past such as the Sega CD and Philips CD-i is done first and foremost for the pleasure and not for financial gain.

AA: With the previous question in mind, can you relate the same process to how you handle homebrew or 100% original titles?
MT: Homebrew games are much easier to publish, but require more work upfront. Obviously, when Good Deal Games releases a new original game, an unpublished game is not found, it is created...from scratch. This takes a great deal of time, not just in the engineering and programming, but also in the development of actually designing the game. Designing games for older consoles is a task that many programmers are unfamiliar with. For instance, they have to learn to program in a very limited and finite amount of space. 2K of memory is an absolutely tiny amount of room to work within, especially with the huge amount of data current modern-day programmers are accustomed to having at their disposal. It is difficult to find a programmer that can work within such constraints.
Cartridge for Comso Fighter 3 (Coleco ColecoVision)
There are also technical issues, such as hardware limitations. When an Atari 2600 game is being developed, the programmer must realize that the console itself can only speak to the television through certain processes. You have limited numbers of sprites, and only so many sprites can occupy certain horizontal rows. The programmer has to synchronize the screen refresh rate with that of the television, or else the results are not even legible. There are dozens of specifics that could be mentioned, but the truth is that such programming is very difficult. The good news is that now much of such information is documented and toolkits have been designed, so now game design for these classic systems are actually easier than they were during their original reign on the home market. If you go to the GDG Website through the following link, one can download a complete development suite for the ColecoVision. We chose to share these tools to help promote such development and hopefully offer the ability for those that may be interested in an opportunity to create a new title. If anyone reading this takes the time to use the tools, and they successfully make a game, Good Deal Games will gladly help you publish your title.

AA: With your stated console preference in mind, will GDG ever get into computer game publishing? I know I'd be interested in getting some re-released or even new computer software for systems like the C-64, Apple II and Atari 8-bit as an example...
MT: We have not yet published a computer title, but perhaps in time. It is certainly a much easier process to copy a file to a diskette than manufacturing new cartridges. Our sister company, Older Games (OG), has published a new text (Interactive Fiction) game titled Weird World for the Commodore 64 which we carry and promote.

AA: Actually, I was initially made aware of Weird World through Lik-Sang when it was first released, so it's fascinating that there's an association. What can you tell me about Older Games, in particular your and GDG's relationship to them? For instance what does it mean to be "GDG's Prime Minister To OlderGames?"
MT: The Older Games crew attended the GDG booth at CGE years ago, and was impressed with what we had accomplished. They were big CD-i fans and decided to form their own company, and we have since co-published several titles together. We help them out a lot, and they help us. Our mission of preservation is the same, so it is a natural fit. With OG on the West Coast in California and us on the East Coast in New York, it helps us serve classic gaming fans more efficiently.

Author’s final notes: I would like to thank Michael for taking the time to participate in such an in-depth and fascinating interview for us. We encourage everyone to check out the Good Deal Games Website.