The box PC game collecting community is in an uproar over the discovery that a prominent retailer has allegedly been selling fake copies of rare, expensive video games, some purchased for thousands of dollars.
According to a timeline published on Big Box PC Game Collectors (opens in new tab), a Facebook group with around 6,100 members (which I am a part of), the problem came to light when group administrator Kevin Ng released copies of Akalabeth, Ultima creator Richard Garriott’s first game, the 1979 dungeon crawler Temple of Apshai and the Japanese edition of Mystery House received from another well-known collector and now former group host, Enrico Ricciardi. A close examination of the games revealed that they were likely fakes. When confronted with this, Ricciardi reportedly “hinted” that Akalabeth was actually fake and suggested destroying it.
Ng contacted other members of the collection community and found that the problem was widespread: an “extensive investigation” revealed that a number of other group members had received what appeared to be counterfeit games from Ricciardi.
Ricciardi denies ever knowingly selling counterfeits.
Dominik R., one of the Big Box PC Game Collectors members who believes he was sold fakes, shared what are believed to be fake images of his Ultima collection on Twitter:
This used to be the centerpiece of my collection. Rare and expensive old games. Now it turns out that I was scammed and sold fakes by a well known figure in the Ultima and Tetrogames community. Along with many others #ultima #akalabeth @RichardGarriott pic.twitter.com/wuiAQPSuG2May 30, 2022
This is no small argument at a table at the local swap meet. Copies of rare games can sell for big bucks to deep-pocketed collectors. In a 2013 Kickstarter (opens in new tab) for example, for Shroud of the Avatar, Garriott offered up to 20 copies of Akalabeth as a reward for backers at the $10,000 tier. Nine were sold.
“[Pricing] depends on many factors,” explained a Big Box PC Game Collectors moderator, who requested anonymity. “Is this one of the original sets that Garriott released? Is it a current new version for the C64? Are all original components in good condition or just the hard drive? Is it signed? Does it have a proven provenance? The answer is 500 to infinity, depending on origin or conditions.”
Big Box PC Game Collectors administrators say they have so far identified at least €100,000 ($107,000) in suspected counterfeit transactions, including complete game boxes, manuals, registration cards, inserts, labels and more. Incidents of suspected counterfeiting date back to 2015, affecting early releases from Sierra and Origin Systems alongside Akalabeth, Temple of Apshai, and Mystery House.
Determining a counterfeit from an authentic game release is a tricky business that requires close inspection and comparison of minute details in the packaging and media. The group said one of the biggest challenges in determining the authenticity of old games is that production quality varied wildly in the early ’80s, when games were often shipped in ziplock bags with instructions on old dot matrix printers. “What looks like shoddy production methods or just photocopied paper in plastic bags was in fact the beginning of our industry,” the group said.
Garriott himself alluded to this difficulty on Twitter, saying that it’s possible the games were real, “but pirated.”
Before we all jump up and admonish a seller… let’s study the items. For example: My signature looks authentic. The “shareware” might be genuine… but pirated, not sold by Origin or EA. Some ziplock bags look too big, but the Akalabeth and Ultima insides look right. https://t.co/wCjZHe7ErKMay 31, 2022
The Big Box PC Game Collectors group broke down three “presumed tells” that all the games in question had in common:
- PRINTED PIECES: The halftone dots on printed materials do not appear to be consistent with the printing methods of the time. Sometimes dirt and wear appear to be printed on them. CMYK dot patterns appear in places where they shouldn’t print at all. The halftone patterns on Enrico’s materials often exhibit a moiré pattern that results from reproducing something that already has a halftone pattern. Things that are supposed to be one-color prints often appear as four-color prints, or they don’t have smooth edges upon closer inspection. Digital manipulation artifacts are present. Colors are often different in general.
- MEDIA: Discs were tested and many did not contain game data. Disk labels appear to be hand-cut, come in a variety of sizes, and are printed using modern technology. Cassettes didn’t have game data, real audio, or data patterns that weren’t what they were supposed to be. Cassettes often had glue residue from removing old labels. Some record labels had indentations from a corner template that looks a lot like someone is tracing the rounded corners at the top of the labels.
- PACKAGING: Packaging often had all four corners bent uniformly. Hanging tab holes appear to be hand cut. Decals appear hand cut or are not perfectly round. Packaging is often scratched in a way that seems to correspond to the roughening of objects. For boxes that were to be sealed, the hanging tabs were inserted into the slot. Boxes sealed with glue showed no traces of glue. The boxes appear to have hand punched holes that would normally have been machined (don’t know what to really call them). Certain safety features of games were missing or incorrectly simulated.
It also shared a range of visual evidence of the alleged counterfeits, comparing them to known legitimate copies and illustrating the various methods it used to investigate the suspected counterfeits. Some examples from the archive:
picture 1 from 9
Speaking to PC Gamer, Ricciardi denied knowingly selling fake copies of rare games to anyone. He says he’s been collecting since the late 1990s when rare games were relatively cheap, and while he’s amassed a significant collection of his own, he’s only sold a very small number of them. All of the allegedly counterfeit games he sold were acquired and passed on by other collectors, he added, although he no longer has their contact details.
“I have never sent games knowing they were fake,” said Ricciardi.
Ricciardi admitted that he had asked his buyers to keep their transactions secret, but said he did so because he was selling below market prices to help other collectors build their libraries and did not want to make a fuss.
“Many resellers asked for these items and I refused to sell them to them because I knew they would make money from it,” Riccardi said. “And I didn’t want them to know that I sold them for a lower price.”
A Big Box PC Game Collectors representative said that the group’s “first consideration” when the fakes surfaced was that Ricciardi was not directly involved, but that ultimately they could not accept his claims based on the evidence.
“Ricciardi states that he merely passed on what he received to others, seemingly without verification. We think this is extremely unlikely,” the spokesman said. “During negotiations for these products – most of which were in the $1,000+ range – pictures were exchanged, details discussed and notes shared showing the product in question.
“In practically all of the discussions, details of the condition of the materials were noted and photos exchanged. Buyers were assured that the pieces were authentic and were also shown photographic proof of the item in question – the one being sold – to reassure them as to why this was the case.”
The rep also claimed Ricciardi sent messages to several people claiming to have detailed records of the provenance of the games he sold to determine their provenance, adding that group admins have evidence of much more recent transactions. A member of the group is said to have received suspected fakes of two Ricciardi games just two weeks ago.
“All of the cases we have investigated have occurred in the last five years, the last two weeks ago,” the spokesman said. “There are over 20 items in just the initial investigation by three people, not counting those we’ve since learned about. That sum is growing fast.”
Whether legal action will be taken against the fakes is not yet clear: The Big Box PC Game Collectors group said individual members would determine their next steps and would not comment further. The group also released a new guide on how to avoid being scammed by unscrupulous salespeople and denied any official connection to Ricciardo, who was removed from the group.
“Enrico was acting as a private entity and happened to be a member/moderator,” said one admin. “Big Box PC Game Collectors accepts no responsibility for transactions between members. We don’t allow that. We are just a forum for talks.”
Ominously, the group also hinted in its Facebook statement that the investigation could grow to show that the harm caused by these fakes is even more widespread than currently known: “Others have come forward investigating the same thing, but since we dealing with a slew of suspected fraud likely to involve the police and litigation have asked to be kept confidential at this time. Their evidence corroborates our own.
Collectors who suspect they have received counterfeit copies of games are asked to contact an admin of the Big Box PC Game Collectors group on Facebook or by email at [email protected]