Video games have been a popular hobby for nearly half a century now, but their value as collectibles is still largely unknown to the general public. The collectible end of the hobby now has a grading and certification service all its own, with the debut of Wata Games earlier this year. Founded by longtime collector Deniz Kahn and his colleagues, Wata offers services for just about any type of game out there.

We spoke with Wata’s founder, Deniz Kahn, about the company and the services that they provide, as well as the future of video game collecting.

Scoop: Could you summarize for us how Wata Games got started? Obviously, you’re a longtime collector yourself, so at what point did you see the need for a grading service?
Deniz Kahn (DK): Well, it’s not a short answer. Wata didn’t come about overnight. It was an iterative process through discussions with collectors of all sorts of collectibles – not just video games – over the course of several years. I grew up exposed to the collectible world of comics through my dad, and the other founders all collectors various items before video games. Our chief grader, Kenneth [Thrower], he collected coins, Hot Wheels and die-cast cars, bottles, you name it. So, seeing mature markets like coins and comics, and comparing them to the infant hobby that we were most passionate about – video games – gave us tremendous insight as to what was lacking in video games that needed to take them to the next level as a collectible.

You take an industry like coins where there’s 15 books written on every type of coin, and you compare that to video games, which has such a rich history but is virtually uncharted territory. That’s what made it exciting for us. We, as collectors, we basically become archivers and historians in a way, revealing information that hasn’t been revealed yet. But at the same time, the collecting hobby to date has always been just that – a hobby based in nostalgia that sort of stagnated. We felt that it was time that the hobby got elevated to the level of coins and comics, where it became a legitimized appreciation of art and history.

But in order to get there, the marketplace needed the barriers to be removed that would allow everyone that grew up with video games to appreciate collecting them the way that we do, where we have spent 10-15 years each studying and learning every bit of information we could about them. To get there, we needed standards, the market needed protection against counterfeiters and the confidence in purchasing decisions. It needed the resources for education and, above all, it needed a healthy community. So, Wata was started to provide all of that so that video games could reach that level, because our vision is elevating the hobby to an appreciation of art and history.

Scoop: In terms of the history of gaming, mass-market home console games have really only been around since the 1970s. How are video games at large faring as a collectible in 2018?
DK: Every collectible hits its prime growth point when the item hits approximately 30 to 35 years after it was released. Naturally, that makes sense, because the people who grew up with them in the ’70s and ’80s are now adults with disposable income and they can recapture that nostalgic part of their childhood – just like with the comic market.

More importantly, a collectible gains a lot of value when it was initially made to be disposed of, or to become obsolete over time. Which is why video game boxes are often more desirable than the games themselves! People didn’t keep them, they threw them away. No one was like, oh I’m gonna keep this box, it’s gonna be valuable – that didn’t happen.

It’s funny, because people we meet who are not a part of collectible markets sometimes make comparisons with what they remember being “collectible,” like Beanie Babies. But if you look at those, right, and how they crashed – how some people lost their life savings with them – they had neither of those factors. They weren’t meant to be disposed of, they were meant to be collected as they were being shipped from the factory, and they also didn’t have the time to mature into a demanded item. And no one even remembers playing with Beanie Babies as a kid. Everyone remembers playing video games. And that’s maybe more true than even comic books or coins, in that people have those memories tied to them. That’s why video games have had so much growth, and more importantly why the future is so bright. They’ve created so many fond memories for all of us.

Scoop: Tell us a little bit about the grading process.
DK: Without sounding pretentious, I’d like to take a line from the Photo-Journal Guide to Comic Books here – “Grading is not a science, it’s an art.” And it really is. When we look at a game, we’re not using machines to analyze the surface of a game and detect what flaws exist and compare that against a database. We look at the overall item. Obviously we have standards that we spent a lot of time crafting and testing with the community, and we’ve taken what’s worked from other industries like comics and applied them to video games. We came up with a system that makes sense.

When we look at a game we’re looking at everything from the individual flaws to the overall item itself, why certain flaws exist – are they from actual wear that was from someone handling it, or are they flaws that exist at the factory level? That’s weighed differently; it’s kind of a holistic process. And that’s really the best answer I can give you – every time, it’s a unique process.

Scoop: With regards to video games specifically – every cartridge is different. An N64 cart is not the same as a Game Boy cart or a Genesis cart, and then of course you have discs as well. So how did you guys manage to come up with a grading scale that could be applied to both cartridges and discs?
DK: I mean even beyond comparing cartridges and discs, you can look at, for example, a complete-in-box NES game. We’re assessing the condition of three completely different mediums: cardboard for the boxes, paper for the manuals, and plastic for the cartridges. There are many factors that go into determining the condition of an item, and all of them were considered when applying standards. We talked with many different people in the community and experts in specific areas – whether they were versed in disc-based games or only certain consoles or only sealed copies – in developing these standards.

One of our founders was a huge help in creating that – Mark [Haspel], who has graded more than a million comic books on his own and probably understands grading standards better than just about anyone. We took what works for comics and coins and other mature markets and applied them to video games, and, more importantly, we tested them with experts in the community. It’s just a matter of taking what makes sense already in tried-and-true industries, catering them to the medium that we collect, and applying those standards in a way that makes sense for all kinds of video game collectors.

It took a long time! Before we launched, we were working on all of this for about a year and a half. We came up with standards, tested them – made sure we dotted all of our I’s and crossed all of our T’s, so that we didn’t leave anything out.

Scoop: How important was it for you guys to have a 10-point scale here?
DK: Our 10-point scale, we started on it by basing it on the comics grading scale, but removing the 1.8 and the 9.9 grade. Otherwise it’s the same scale. It makes sense for a collectible; it’s transparent, and that’s how people have just generally assessed things for forever. Long before grading, people buying and selling video games giving a personal assessment would use a 10-point scale. They didn’t use a five-point scale, they didn’t use a 100-point scale, and they surely didn’t use a 72-point scale like coins! It’s the most transparent, we felt, and there’s enough variance to consider the different conditions without being too much.

A 10-point scale with the intervals, which takes you to about 25 different points, it’s kind of the sweet spot. It allows other people to understand what we’re doing and it allows us to achieve consistency in our actual grading. Consistency is key. If we can’t be consistent in the grading then the number is meaningless.

Scoop: One of the biggest criticisms with regards to comic grading has always been that, once it’s slabbed, it’s no longer readable. Surely you have heard the same criticism with regards to video games – once a game is in a slab, it’s no longer playable. What has your response been to that?
DK: Well, it’s a great point. And you’re absolutely right when you say we’ve heard that, quite a bit – and we will continue to. Even today, some 20 years after certification has existed for comic books, people are still saying the same thing. There’s always going to be people saying that grading is stupid because you can’t read the book or play the game. But that exists for everything; you can’t spend the coin, you can’t play with the action figure. But people aren’t colleting these for the utility of the item or spending the kind of money they do – no one’s spending $3 million on Action Comics #1 to read the book.

Specifically, with video games, we don’t want to discount the people who play these games because we play old games! I have thousands of video games and I don’t play a single one of the ones that I collect, but thankfully with technology I have the ability to emulate them with a special cartridge and an SD card and play it on original hardware. So I have a single cartridge that has all of my games on it.

That’s what makes video games so unique. Take comics, for example – let’s talk Action #1. If you want to read it, you can go online and read it digitally, or you can buy a reprint. But the reprint is different, the page material’s not the same, it’s not the same exact experience as reading a comic book from the 1930s. But if you take a video game and you emulate it on original hardware with new technology, that experience is the exact same. There’s no difference in the gameplay. It’s software.

We’ll continue to hear the criticism of grading, and ultimately, it’s to each his own. Not every game is meant to be certified. We’ve said that since the beginning. Grading is very much in the eye of the beholder. Everyone’s experience with collecting and grading is their own and should be respected. Further, what we’re doing with our technology, is to try and cater to those people as best as we can. With the Matrix technology we have, if someone sends in a prototype, we dump the data and make it accessible through the Matrix, so you’re not just preserving the cartridge but also preserving the actual data. We’re working to do that for all games so that the argument is completely moot – if you send in your childhood copy of The Legend of Zelda, we can preserve that file that you have on the cartridge and make it accessible by scanning and downloading the ROM so that you can actually play your own file. Being able to offer that for any video game – not just NES, which is what we’re doing right now – is what we want to do, so that even if you send in your game and get it certified, you can still play it.

The argument has always been there and likely always will be, but that’s why we’re doing what we can in order to make the experience of collecting as rewarding for any collector. But you can’t please everyone!

Scoop: You guys launched earlier this year at C2E2 and you’ve been to various other conventions since then – what’s the response you’ve been getting from people at these shows?
DK: It’s been a mixed bag. The biggest thing is that people still don’t know this stuff is being collected. People don’t realize that games are going for four or five, sometimes even six figures, for individual games. It blows their mind. Obviously, as we just discussed, some people think that these games should be played – someone walked by our booth at TooManyGames and said we should be shot. So… yeah.

But we’re not in this to make money off of people and just be some sort of evil company that those kind of people think we are. And we get a lot of positivity too, and those people can see that we’re not out here preying on naïve collectors, but that we’re here to create more awareness and excitement within the industry, and to instill the confidence that’s been vanishing. People are getting scammed online from counterfeits or they just don’t know what they’re buying. A large part of what we’re actually providing isn’t just putting games in cases but providing the resources and education so that people know what they’re looking at. Many hardcore collectors aren’t even aware that there are 12 different variants of Super Mario Bros. and they each have vastly different rarities from one another. It’s our job, we feel, to reveal that and provide the resources, from pricing information to authentication and preservation, and maybe most importantly the information from us weirdos who have studied these games more than you’d ever like to know.

A lot people do see that and the positivity from that has been fantastic. At some of these shows people will sometimes scoff as they pass by but after they take the time to actually talk to us and hear what we have to say and what we’re trying to do in this industry, they get on board with us. That’s why these shows are so important to us – it allows us to show that we’re not just a grading company, we’re a certification company. I try to make that distinction. We’re also community members; this is our community, and we’re hardcore collectors and a company born from collectors, and we love this hobby and want to see it improve and grow.

Scoop: Where can collectors and gamers find out more information about Wata? Will you guys be attending any other shows soon?
DK: The best thing is to go to the website. But even better, if anyone has any questions or concerns, they can email or call us – we’re collectors and we love talking about this stuff, even if you’re not interested in grading or certification. We just live and breathe this stuff. But, most information can be found on our website, and that also lists what events we’re going to. There’s a lot we have planned.

We’ll be at New York Comic Con, we’re doing a panel at ACE in Chicago, we’ll be at Portland Retro Gaming Expo – arguably the largest retro video game show out there. And we’ve got plenty of events lined up for 2019. Our convention presence is important to us, and we’re trying to get to as much as we can without killing ourselves.

Subscribing to our newsletter is also a good idea. We’re launching that soon, and that’s where we’ll be publishing a lot of cool articles on collecting and variants and all sorts of things that we’ve been tracking forever. That’s where the education aspect comes in.

For more information about the history of video games and the collecting hobby, pick up The Overstreet Guide to Collecting Video Games, available now.