A video game introduced Reid Young to everything he cherishes. His friends. His wife. His job. Young stands a foot above the crowd at PAX East, manning the Fangamer store. His long arms come in handy as he plucks crumpled 20 dollar bills from a half-dozen out-reaching fists, filling the empty hands with t-shirts, poster tubes and little baggies full of buttons. The 20-something wears a boyish grin that could be spotted from anywhere in the conference hall, his thin lips surrounded by a dirty blonde beard. He’s in some zen-like retail state, the kind department store employees achieve on Black Friday. In front of Young: A squat middle-aged man, ecstatic to find a Mega-Man coffee mug, loses control of his limbs, dropping his bags. A rush of nostalgia paralyzes him. Young crouches to retrieve the bag, disappearing completely into the mass of fellow nerds. As I try to find Reid, the mob around the booth slurps me in, an amoeba consuming a smaller, helpless organism.
In the video game merchandise community, Fangamer is that rare success story, expanding from Young's apartment to a 2,400 sq. foot office space within five years. From one employee to nine. They ship an average of 60 orders a day, collaborate with million dollar partners and manage 25-50% growth year after year. But first, there was a generic fan site. The sort you'd find in the backwaters of Angelfire or Lycos, back when America Online was a service and not a punch line.
"I specifically remember the summer of 1996," says Young. "[It] was just the best summer because I had EarthBound and Chrono Trigger. I played those non-stop." Young says he was sociable in school, that he had no trouble finding friends. There just wasn't anyone who really liked the things he liked.
The following winter a 14-year-old Young purchased a copy of "HTML for Dummies" and began work on his first website, an online coterie of his favorite things. Emoticons. Video game fan art. Audio recordings from The Simpsons, which Young collected by squatting in front of the family television and holding a microphone up to the speakers.
"Standard Geocities material," Young says.
Young lost the site to an early crash. The smiley faces, the Nelson Muntz "Ha ha"s. Young had surreptitiously saved a folder of EarthBound art to the computer's hard drive. If you believe in signs, then the folder is the black floating monolith of Reid Young's life. A simple, single-minded thing that would set his future in motion.
The folder became the kernel of Eartbound.net, an online destination dedicated to the oddball Japanese role-playing game from Nintendo for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. EarthBound was (and still is) Young's favorite game. Unlike most JRPGS, EarthBound is set in the middle of America, and is inspired by American kitsch. It stars a gaggle of nerdy kids undertaking a surreal adventure across the country, and then the world, to defeat the mighty creature Giygas, a faceless entity with unparalleled power. Young could relate.
THE BROTHER AND SISTER TEAM WEREN'T PASSIVE READERS; THEY WERE PARTICIPANTS. TWO OF MANY
"I came onto the [EarthBound] scene around February of 1999," recalls Steve Campos, a scrappy and lean 20-something, who was a teenager at the time. "I spent a lot of my after school evenings and weekends hanging out in the #EarthBound IRC channel, and my sister Camille would often pull up a chair and read along with me."
Steve and Camille were serious fans. They knew EarthBoundwas actually called Mother 2 in Japan, a sequel to Mother, anNES game that was never released in the states. They had memorized dialogue and created art inspired by their favorite gamers. Earthbound.net was the digital home they'd been looking for.
The brother and sister team weren't passive readers; they were participants. Two of many. The unusual nature of EarthBoundseemed to attract a very obsessive, very computer savvy, very social individual to the fan site. What today we'd call bloggers or Redditors: These people loved to create and circulate cool stuff. Especially cool EarthBound stuff. Over the first couple of years, the site multiplied from a few likeminded teens to a hive of creative-types spawning fan fiction, fan art, and lengthy fan petitions demanding more EarthBound - now! The site, already struggling with the owner of its domain ("A whole 'nother story," says Young), changed its URL to something more representative of the group: Starmen.net, named after the game's powerful army of sleek space soldiers.
Guardians of their universe
Starmen.net had two agendas: Promote conversation between its growing member base and get more EarthBound.
Nintendo and American EarthBound fans have a tumultuous relationship. Nintendo being the father who leaves for a pack of cigarettes, never returns, but occasionally sends pictures of all the fun he's having in Japan without his breathless super fans.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE EARTHBOUND MOMENT?
"When you first reach Saturn Valley; the different font was just mind blowing at the time."
-Fangamer developer and co-founder Ryan Alyea
"When I was 11 years old, leaving Onett for the first time was both thrilling and terrifying. After spending hours walking around every inch of town, you really begin to feel a sense of belonging. It's where you grew up, where your family and friends live, and where your adventure started. Eventually you take a long walk into a whole new unexplored town, and you're not only disoriented by the change of scenery, you become literally disoriented by the mushrooms attached to your head. Suddenly you're all alone in a desperate struggle to find which way you're supposed to go while you're walking backwards, sideways, and hitting yourself. It's like being on your own for the first time in the world, and it was as scary as it was exciting. Many other video games may portray a similar narrative, but I've never experienced it the same way as I did inEarthBound."
-The first Fangamer mailroom employee, Steve Campos
"For me, there is a favorite part of EarthBound for individual feelings you like to experience in the game. Excitement, adventure, playfulness, reflection, etc., I think that is what makes the game great. One tune I constantly would hum would be Threed's song when the town was saved. It's the series of events when you return to Threed and go on a bus ride to Fourside. Something about that moment and the music resonated with me. It felt easily relatable to the real world and reminded me of good times with friends. That and the scratch and sniff cards."
-Fangamer designer and co-founder Jon Kay
"It's difficult to choose, but I always get a little teary at the end when the player's name pops up."
-Sculptor Camille Young
All of my favorite moments are music-related. The Runaway Five concerts are right up there, but I'd have to say the trip across Lake Tess is the greatest. The trumpet music always chokes me up."
-Founder Reid Young
You see, Nintendo has always had some sort of EarthBoundproject dangling just out of reach from American and European fans. Take for example, the never-released EarthBound sequel for the Nintendo 64. Nintendo slowly dripped out images, delaying the release year after year before unceremoniously nixing the project. Had Nintendo simply ignored EarthBoundentirely, Starmen.net might have quit spending hours every night online discussing the same game with the same people.
"They were kind of the bad guy in a weird way even though they were responsible for making EarthBound in the first place," says Young. "They neglected us so ferociously that it just really connected us so tightly. It really cultivated an independent spirit."
The massive Japanese company became a foil, a Gigiyas to the small band of enthusiasts. The Earthbound.net community wrote more petitions and launched phone call campaigns. You hear that soldiers never forget those who fight alongside them. Earthbound.net was constantly at war with Nintendo, and though the cause may have been trivial, their bond was serious.
YOU MAY BE PICTURING A BUNCH OF PETULANT KIDS. SOME MEMBERS WERE GROWN-UPS, MEN WITH JOBS AND BANK ACCOUNTS.
Holidays and school breaks were reasons to gather online. The group counted down to the new millennium together, across different time zones, gleefully watching their web home survive the impotent Y2K bug. They were a family with an Internet forum for a living room.
You may be picturing a bunch of petulant kids. Some members were grown-ups, men with jobs and bank accounts.
"One of the guys ["Giovanni"] who donated a lot of money to the website showed up around 2000. The first time he sent in a donation I got this envelope with a bunch of bills stuffed in it. We're talking 1s, 5s, 10s. He sent like $200 dollars. My mom got to it before I did. I was 16 at the time and I came home and my mom was sitting at the kitchen table, and there was this envelope in front of her. And she looked at me and said "sit down," and I said "what's up," and she said "what's this?" And I look and ask where all this money came from and she says, "What are you doing online?" I had no idea this money was coming! [Giovanni] sent it out of the blue. He was the site's benefactor. He sent thousands of dollars over the years. Nobody knows where he got the money; he's like this weird shadowy figure."
With some financial support, Young had the opportunity to take the fan base into the real world. He, Steve and Camille Campos, and a couple teenagers converged on the Young family farm in Kokomo, Indiana in 2001 for the inauguralEarthBound convention, which would become what Young calls "an annual group vacation." (The most recent had 50 attendees.)
"The idea of running a fan site as a job never occurred to me when I was younger," says Young. "But after the conventions got rolling I found myself frequently daydreaming about building an offline Starmen.net community - instead of one convention every year, we could move near each other and hang out whenever."
Young's first offline relationship had already begun.
Love in the time of webrings
I first 'met' [Camille] when she submitted some fan art to Eartbound.net," says Young. "I was probably 15 at the time."
While I interview Young, Camille tidies up around the apartment kitchen. She's slim with a darling face and sharp bangs, wearing glasses that make her look like a "nerd" in the same way glasses made a "nerd" of Rachel Leigh Cook in She's All That. She smiles at practically everything Young says.
"[As kids], Steve convinced me to send in a Mr. Saturn that I cobbled together with Bryce 3D and Photoshop," says Camille. "After Reid put it up on the site, I checked it every day. The internet was still a mystery to me and I felt pretty special to have something I made online."
The two spoke regularly about EarthBound and art and seemingly trivial but super-important teenage stuff. "I'm sure everyone got tired of being kicked off the computer every night so I could talk to him," she laughs. Particularly Steve.
"THEY TALKED TO EACH OTHER AND SAID, 'OK, YOU DON'T SOUND LIKE A PEDOPHILE TRUCKER SO I GUESS WE CAN GIVE IT A SHOT!"
After a couple years, they decided to meet. "My mom was pretty nervous about it," says Young, "and we were kids at the time so we had our moms call each other on CallWave or some ancient dial up Internet voice thing. So they talked to each other and said, 'OK, you don't sound like a pedophile trucker so I guess we can give it a shot!'"
Young met Steve and Camille Campos in Phoenix, accompanied by supervising family members. Camille gave Young a Starman DX she had sculpted out of clay.
Camille remembers seeing Young again at the first convention: Visiting a stuffed old steer named Old Ben, riding a pig elevator in the Young family's barn, driving around town blasting pop punk music. "We had so much fun just hanging out and makingEarthBound jokes," she says, "and everyone got them!"
Young and Camille began dating shortly after.
"I went to Purdue in Indiana and she was at a local college in [Tucson, Arizona] and I would drive down every summer 18-1900 miles," says Young. "A lot of my family and friends didn't expect it to work out, and it was hard to explain that I met my girlfriend on the Internet. It was always a little awkward depending on who I was talking to."
He had two lives. Normal student by day, mega EarthBound fan and loyal boyfriend by night. Young says he'd spend an average of five hours each evening working on the site and talking with Camille and other community members.
TThe couple dated long distance for three and a half years. On December 30, 2004 they were married in the Hotel Congress in Tucson, Arizona. Both families were in attendance, delighted to see the relationship take shape in the real world -- a surprise to many of them who, at the time, were unfamiliar with the ways of digital romance.
Giovanni was there, unexpectedly. Like any mysterious benefactor, he entered the ceremony in a cape and a fedora.
The next day, the Youngs went on a gift card spending spree across Arizona.
A reception was held in Indiana, and members of the site were invited. Friends from California to Canada arrived. For a wedding gift, they brought a limited edition Mother 1+2 poster, its back signed by many members of the Starmen.net community, wishing the couple a bright future. Preferably one involving their favorite fan site.
"[The reception was held] in the middle of an ice storm," says Young, "and in spite of this awful weather we had probably a dozen people from the site show up. The roads were bad and they still made it out there. It was pretty heartwarming."
"My wife grew up [in Tucson]," says Young, "so when we got married we moved back down." Camille worked at a cookie bouquet shop, while her husband telecommuted for a small marketing and design firm back in Indiana. He did some time with a few start-ups, and was approached to move permanently to Silicon Valley, but he passed. None of the work felt quite right. The one thing that seemed consistently successful was Starmen.net, but by the mid-00s, most fan sites were old news, many swallowed by media groups like IGN and GameSpot.
Young had become close with Ryan Alyea, a college student who moonlit as a developer and Starmen.net link editor. The duo speculated about creating online community software inspired by Starmen.net that could be used by other fans to quickly construct similar webpages, but for other popular video games. In theory, the software would allow people like Young to compete with the giants.
"WE'VE NEVER TAKEN FUNDING ..."
They opted to self-fund the project. "We've never taken funding," says Young, "aside from the meager investment my Starmen.net friends made when I started the business." The newly married couple had a spare bedroom that could serve as an HQ. They brought on Jon Kay, another Starmen community member, to serve as designer.
".. ASIDE FROM THE MEAGER INVESTMENT MY STARMEN.NET FRIENDS MADE WHEN I STARTED THE BUSINESS. "
In 2007, Fangamer went online as the forum project initially imagined. The launch was a financial non-starter. Other fans weren't as organized or committed as they'd hoped.
The duo grew skeptical that Fangamer could make sustainable revenue off ads, so they pivoted their focus towards merchandising. If EarthBound fans wanted more EarthBoundstuff, then Fangamer would make it.
Young and Alyea put together an online storefront, Kay did some art and Fangamer hosted its first batch of EarthBoundinspired items: A couple of shirts, a mug and a pen. "Instantly the sales were through the roof," says Young. "We thought we were just going to keep the lights on, but [retail] became the entire business."
But what they were doing toed the line of legality. They didn't have a license to produce Nintendo merchandise.
Young tried to reach out to Nintendo by e-mail and phone, but the global business didn't get back to the bootstrap operation out of Arizona. It was months before a Nintendo employee and secret Starmen.net fan made a proper introduction.
"[The Nintendo employee] put us in direct contact with licensing and told them what we wanted to do," says Young, "and, verbatim, they sent me a one line reply and it said, 'We don't license retro games. Good luck.' And so I was like, 'Well, I'm going to take that as tacit approval.'"
Fangamer has internal rules to prevent serious legal trouble: respect IPs, don't use names, logos or stuff pulled directly from a game; be careful. Obeying these rules, and believing they had - in some capacity - Nintendo's go ahead, Fangamer became the unofficial Earthbound fan shop.
Gallery: Fangamer sculptures
So close, yet so far away
Oddly enough, Nintendo has benefited from this bizarre relationship. Fangamer has done the heavy lifting of localizing and promoting the brand in English speaking territories -- a process slow and expensive enough that Nintendo has chosen not to do it themselves.
In 2006, Nintendo finally released a follow-up to Earthbound, Mother 3, in Japan. "It wasn't long afterMother 3 came out that we realized that [Nintendo] was not going to release it [in America]," says Young. "And if it's going happen we'd have to do it ourselves. That became the mantra from then on. From 2007 on, everything was 'do it yourself.'"
Starmen.net members translated the game themselves, while Fangamer created an official unofficial English strategy guide, dubbed The Mother 3 Handbook. It bests the strategy guides being released today by major publishers, filled with creative, humorous writing; mounds of screenshots and maps; and photos of hand-sculpted figures. Camille, who had begun sculpting full time in 2007, volunteered to spearhead the latter.
The Mother 3 Handbook became the company's best seller. To date, Fangamer has sold 6,500 copies, often as part of a collection of Earthbound buttons, keychains, posters or t-shirts.
Business is nostalgia and nostalgia is good
"When I first started shipping from my bedroom," says Steve Campos, "the majority of my time was spent copy and pasting. Copy an address, paste it into the label software. Copy a tracking number, paste it into an email. Copy sales, paste them into Excel. As we've gotten bigger, Ryan [Alyea] has written programs to automate all of that stuff. A few years ago it was a full-time job to ship out 10 packages per day. Now we can handle 50 or 60 per day with just two or three people. If it weren't for Ryan's software, we'd need a lot more hands on deck."
Fangamer also licenses its forum software.
"We've maintained the [original] forum software," says Young, "and in 2010 ArenaNet contacted us about licensing it. We worked with them to launch the Guild Wars support forum last year and are currently working with them on another project."
Young pops up from the crowded PAX floor, and holds out the stranger's bag that had been lost amongst the rush of feet. The middle-aged man smiles and takes the bag, digs a hand inside, and recovers his wallet. Young collects money from the man's hand, and, without a moment of hesitation, fills the dangling fingers with a Mega Man mug. Another sale, another happy customer.
Fangamer now sells products inspired by many games, not just EarthBound. The Mega Man mug (officially called the E-Mug, as not to infringe on the Mega Man rights) is popular, as is the Legend of Zelda inspired pack of playing cards. Most of the items are bric-a-brac, stuff fans can keep around the house to remind them of the affection they have for a game or character.
The company is doing better than ever, he tells me, but they haven't forgotten their roots. Young presses a Mother 3 Handbook into my hands. "This is the hardbound edition," he says.
"PAX generates as much money as one month's worth of orders condensed into five very tiring days," says Young. "Obviously there are a lot of expenses involved - flights, hotels, shipping, booth, etc. - but it's totally worthwhile for the chance to meet our friends, fans, partners and even our competitors, all of whom are awesome."
Friends in high places
"I sometimes wonder if we contacted them again would things be different now that we're the size that we are," says Young.
"... DOUBLE FINE JUST HAPPENED AND WE WERE LIKE, 'OK, WE CAN DO THIS.'"
"I mean, we're not huge by any means but we've got a lot to show now. We've talked about it a lot and it would be such a change from what we're used to now because literally, we can go from nothing to having a run of shirts in our office ready to sell, in about three weeks flat. Because we've got it down. Jon can design so quickly and we've got the production that can figure it out so well. We're really flexible so if we have to do licensing ... I've heard horror stories about licensing and I don't think that we're ready to take that on."
Fangamer now has legitimate licensing deals, and legal agreements - though mostly with indie shops. On the website,Retro City Rampage shirts and Spelunky toys are for sale.
"We've been quietly branching out [distribution]," Young says. "We're now handling distribution for SEIBEI and I'm talking with one of my favorite non-gaming-related bands about handling their merchandise. All of the dozens of other partnerships we're working on are related to gaming in some way, like Zac Gorman's store and the fulfillment for the 2 Player Productions/Double Fine Kickstarter."
"WE'RE NOT WORKING TO GET THESE BIG CONTRACTS ..."
The company has been working with 2PP for years. The two have helped each other grow. I ask for details regarding any future projects. Young mentions 2PP's Minecraft documentary. He laughs, "We've got 2,000 creeper wind-up toys in the office waiting to ship out."
"We're not working to get these big contracts," says Young. "Double Fine just happened and we were like, 'OK, we can do this,' but we weren't actively pursuing this. If something comes along we're up for it."
One of use
As Ryan Alyea puts it: "Fangamer's competitive edge is respect. Respect for the games we represent, respect for the partners we work with and respect for our ultimate bosses: The customer."
Rather than dwell on Nintendo, Young now focuses on empowering the customers, broadly, and the EarthBound community, specifically. The people who gave him everything.
Members of Starmen.net compete to design new shirts and buttons, their creative output from a decade ago now monetized. It's tempting to look at this cynically, like Fangamer is the HuffPo of fan sites, but the community seems more earnestly involved. Eager to impress one another.
"EarthBound is a neat filter in that way," says Young. "The type of people who love the game generally enjoy each other's company. Since we all grew up talking to each other on the computer, it's been that much easier to stay in contact."
Camille and Reid Young aren't the only couple involved. "There are plenty of other couples," says Alyea. "Steve, our mailroom guy, and his girlfriend. Liz, an old podcast host, and Matt both met on the site."
The office keeps growing. Whenever Young needs to hire more employees, he turns to Starmen.net, recruiting friends, further blurring the line between his online friends and his offline friends. It's like Young has recreated that first convention. The group of guys getting the EarthBound in-jokes. The playful energy. The young couple in love.
Outside the PAX convention hall, I spot a young boy with an EarthBound-inspired poster. On his bedroom wall, it will serve as a reminder: There are people out there just like him.