A month ago, Embracer Group, an increasingly large video game publisher that’s been on a spending spree for more than a decade and recently purchased both Crystal Dynamics and Eidos Montreal, announced a new and puzzling initiative: a complete video game archive. Embracer wanted to, in its own words, “have a copy of each physical game ever made,” and announced it had acquired 50,000 “games, consoles, and accessories” that were in the process of being moved to a huge underground vault near Karlstad, Sweden.
Okay, but why? The concept of “preservation” is without a strict definition. Texas is already home to the National Videogame Museum, which opened to the public in 2016 and has interactive exhibits related to gaming’s 50-year history. It’s also building an archive. Perhaps there’s merit in having a single location with a copy of every video game, but if it’s ultimately in control of a private company, who benefits? Then, there are competing initiatives by organizations like The Video Game History Foundation, focused on preserving digitally.
The concept is eye-catching, especially from a company best known for buying others, and whose CEO told the Financial Times “if you can make one game, you have a big business risk but if you make 200 games, like we do, the business risk is less.” (It recently defended a $1 billion investment from Saudi Arabia, despite calling it a “non-democratic country.”)
“A few years ago, I realized it would make much more sense to make an archive rather than a personal collection,” said Embracer Group CEO Lars Wingefors, who Forbes estimates to be worth $1.6 billion, in an interview with Waypoint. “I really like the concept of having an everyday organization around this that lives and breathes around building this archive.”
Professor Darren Wershler, who oversees a collection of consoles with an emphasis on modded hardware at Concordia University in Montreal, told Waypoint he thinks there are two reasons why the Embracer archive exists.
“First, as the kind of PR move that large corporations make to endear themselves with their client base; and second, but more significantly, as a research tool for expanding their holdings,” he said. “Generally, gamers like the idea of video game archives, but, as someone who maintains a research collection, I can tell you that few people ever visit them.”
Beyond stocking shelves and building a database, it’s not clear what the endgame is for Embracer’s enormous archive. According to Embracer’s website, the archive’s future is fuzzy, suggesting a potential world where the archive could be used by journalists and researchers, loaned to museums, and potentially explored by the public. Wingefors told me they want to “avoid promising too many specifics about the future” because it’s so far off.
“Embracer is in the intellectual property (IP) business,” said Wershler. “They buy other companies as a way of securing valuable titles. Not just new ones, but ‘evergreen’ and forgotten titles as well. Building an archive will allow Embracer to effectively research all the historical game IP out there in order to acquire and control potentially valuable but forgotten titles.”
In the 90s, Wingefors started collecting comics and at 13 years old, was selling to “a few thousand customers” through a mail order business. When video games drew his attention, Wingefors pivoted the business to cartridges. In the years after, Wingefors would turn his mail order business into the retail chain called Nordic Games (which many, many years later become part of the oddly titled THQ Nordic), but that later flamed out and Wingefors profitably pivoted towards buying and selling extra video game stock from big publishers.
Generally, gamers like the idea of video game archives, but, as someone who maintains a research collection, I can tell you that few people ever visit them.
Then, what we now know as the monolithic Embracer Group came out of the success of selling karaoke and dance games, which fueled the purchase of the dying publishers JoWood Entertainment and THQ, before it’d go onto keep buying: Koch Media, Coffee Stain Studios, 4A Games, Saber Interactive, Tarsier Studios, Gearbox, 3D Realms, Crystal Dynamics. The list goes on.
Embracer is now a sprawling worldwide company that’s valued at nearly $10 billion.
“I think there is a responsibility for all companies to care about their legacy and history,” said Wingefors. “The industry has in general not cared too much about this in the past, but I think we have seen a change in the past years that will grow stronger. The legacy is always part of each company's DNA; cherishing this is critical to building a strong culture at any company. Embracer has a duty to take care of their part, and the archive is one way of doing this.”
But Embracer is not a museum or a non-profit—it has a stock price and shareholders.
“This type of project should never be undertaken by a for-profit company,” said National Videogame Museum director Sean Kelly. “There are so many things that can go wrong there. I realize that Embracer is a very large company with practically endless resources but what happens if the powers that be suddenly and inexplicably decide their new passion is the history of fast food? Where do all the videogames they’ve acquired (many through donations from people who expected their wares to serve a ‘greater good’) go when they shift their focus? Being a for-profit company, they can literally do whatever they want with them.”
The National Videogame Museum—yes, it (and Kelly) spells video game as videogame—is a nonprofit and has been around in one form or another for decades, with parts now recently accessible to the public. Wingefors has more financial resources than Kelly, which means the two initiatives are now effectively competing for increasingly finite slices of history.
“This further fragments what is available to display to the public and research libraries,” said Kelly, who noted these criticisms were less specific to Embracer than other initiatives more broadly. “While there are plenty of copies of most any retail videogame title ever sold, there are many, many historically significant artifacts of which there may be only one available to be seen or studied. Ideally, we’d like to see as many of those items under one roof as possible as opposed to scattered amongst a dozen or a hundred different locations.”
Kelly said the origins of video games as American, and thus, “the” gaming museum—and coincidentally the one Kelly is currently running—should be where its prized possessions reside. Though it’s believed the first true video game was Spacewar!, developed by students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1962, it quickly became a worldwide medium. Following gaming’s near-death experience with the infamous 80s crash, the medium was re-popularized by the NES and Mario, both creations that came from Japan.
“Maybe I’m being simplistic but I just feel like ‘the’ videogame archive belongs in the USA,” said Kelly. “Videogames were born here and their ultimate historical archive should also be here. It would be like re-locating the first McDonald’s to Japan or the ABBA museum to the USA. They just don’t belong.”
Both The National Videogame Museum and the Embracer Group claim they want to have “every video game ever made,” but Kelly said that’s already impossible, because they have several items—like a prototype Sega Neptune, a version of the 16-bit Genesis that came with a built-in 32X add-on before Sega scrapped it—and “they aren’t going anywhere.”
The origins of what would become the Embracer archive go back more than a decade. Today, Thomas Sunhede is a retro gaming advisor for Embracer, traveling the world, speaking with collectors, and spending Wingefors’ fortunes to send pallets of games back to Sweden. But in 2010, Sunhede was an amateur video game collector who needed a job.
“So I got a job...didn't like the job,” said Sunhede in an interview. “I wanted to write a book instead, I wanted to be something. So I wrote a fantasy novel that nobody cared about. [laughs]”
That sent Sunhede back to the job market, before he felt the pull again, and he took another crack in 2001 at writing a book: NES-XX-SCN – Den oomkullrunkeliga handboken för den nordiska NES-samlaren, an exhaustive collection of every NES game released in Nordic countries. The book was well-liked and helped establish his name among the local community of retro enthusiasts…though it didn’t exactly make a ton of money, either.
Which is what led Sunhede to consider selling his collection of Nordic-released NES games. The book made it feel redundant. Sunhede didn’t want to sell them individually on eBay or other auction sites, and was looking for someone to just take the entire thing off his hands.
“I reached out to a guy in the book I interviewed,” said Sunhede, “just a small short guy.”
That “small short guy” was Lars Wingefors.
With a friend, Sunhede, who is very aware how much the collection would sell for now, drove the collection to Wingefors, who at the time was getting his retail business off the ground. Sunhede briefly became involved in that business, before the two went their separate ways, with Sunhede writing more retro books and, at one point, crushing rocks for a gold mine.
In 2018, Wingefors reached out to Sunhede and asked for help in building a collection.
“I said, ‘Okay, if you get me a low salary, I will work as a retro video game collector,’” said Sunhede. “I mean, sometimes you sit all day on eBay, sometimes you don't do nothing in half a year or something. So I worked for him in his private collectors company for three years, where he mostly had his comics and the [other] collections.”
Around this time the private collection became the Embracer Games Archive, requiring more people to become more involved. The company put out a call for a “CEO,” and though Sunhede and others interviewed several people, they had their eye on one person: David Boström, co-host of the longrunning Swedish gaming YouTube channel GamingGrannar.
“We are quite big here in Sweden, but we do it in Swedish, so we have no chance of making it outside of Sweden,” joked Boström. “But it's kind of famous here in Sweden—people know who I am.”
Boström has a unique skillset, a love of video games, one nurtured by his father, and years of experience managing warehouses of objects. Growing up, Boström’s father bought every game and console under the sun, including importing games that weren’t released natively in Sweden. He was bitten by the video game bug early, and this continued well into adulthood, prompting him, like many others these days, to start collecting. Unlike Sunhede, Boström didn’t sell his old games—his room-sized collection includes several from his childhood.
As of a few weeks ago, the collection, which fills his basement, featured 2,052 games.
In the year since Boström was hired, it’s mostly been about logistics, like moving the existing games from one location to another, assembling shelves for the games to be sorted into, and hiring people to help sketch out how an eventual database will work. At the moment, they haven’t even tested the games that are coming in. All that’s happening is sorting. In 2023, they’ll hopefully have a chance to open each individual game and try them in a console.
It’s a lot of time spent staring at pallets of boxes—more than 1,000—with treasures inside.
All of these acquisitions are happening during a unique moment in time, as aging video game fans with money to burn and a pandemic that’s caused a spike in the price of collectibles like retro games. It seems, at least, like a bad time to buy every video game.
“There is a huge difference between buying games as an ‘investment’-collector and buying games for the archive,” said Wingefors. “So far, I have been signing off all major collections purchases, just keen that we care about our shareholders' money and not go crazy.”
Wingefors estimates they’ve spent roughly two million on buying games so far.
“We are still in an early phase,” said Boström. “So it's kind of hard to have a budget and you never will know what Thomas [Sunhede] is finding. If tomorrow [he] finds this collection at this price that we maybe never will see again, we have to buy it, if you know what I mean.”
There are a lot of logistical (and existential) questions that remain unanswered. Does collecting every video game ever made mean from every region? Maybe, they told me. How do you even determine every game released on a platform like Xbox 360, which has different lists with different game counts? They’re not sure yet. What about digital, like the games you’d find on Steam? Yes, but the sheer size is daunting. Do you keep collecting every new game that comes out? No, because it’ll be cheaper to buy as a collection later.
“One of the frustrations with building game archives is that no one is really sure who a lot of old game IP belongs to,” said Wershler, whose research collection also includes guides to modding gaming hardware, “because of the industry’s history of back-of-napkin contracts, pre-digital filing systems, abandonware produced by companies that no longer exist, and so on. But if it had some smart librarians and IP lawyers on the case, an ambitious company could squeeze revenue out of such an archive very effectively.”
For now, they’re buying old games by the hundreds and thousands and they’re going on shelves. What happens next, and who enjoys those shelves, is a question for another day.