VC&G Interview: Aaron Ethridge, President of Console Classix

December 6th, 2006 by Benj Edwards

Aaron EthridgeFor those of you who don’t know, Console Classix (CC) is an online video game “rental service” of sorts that focuses on classic games. It beat GameTap to the punch by a number of years, and yet still remains relatively obscure. To go along with my VC&G review of that service, I recently conducted an interview with Console Classix’s President and co-founder, Aaron Ethridge, via email. He was generous in answering the many questions I posed to him, and I find his responses honest and fascinating. The following interview is long, but if you’re interested at all in CC, it’s well worth the read. His answers were edited for spelling, structure, and minor typos only; everything else is as he wrote it.

Console Classix

An Email Interview with Aaron Ethridge

VC&G: First, give us some background on you, if you could. Where do you live, how old are you, and what do you do for a living?

Aaron Ethridge: A direct question deserves a direct answer: I live in South Carolina, as I have all my life, and I am almost 30 (a few more months before I cross that dark milestone). What I do for a living now is manage Console Classix as well as handle a majority of the programming issues we have. I started my computer career as a hardware technician in Orangeburg, SC. After that I went on to become a network engineer and, thank the Lord, had the good fortune to land a job running an ISP. It was there that I learned the internet business you might say. From there I got a job working as a network technician at a plant. I had time in that setting to work on my programming. From there I went strait to my desk at CC.

VC&G: What’s your most popular game on Console Classix?

AE: The most popular game by far is Super Mario Brothers 3. The entire staff feels the explanation for this popularity is simple. SMB3 is the closest game to Super Mario World we have in our free section. As you know we work like a video rental store so we have to have as many copies of a game as we want to let people play. We have 28 copies of SMB3 up and still that doesn’t fill demand.

VC&G: Which system is the most popular on Console Classix?

AE: That depends on your point of view. With our free customers the NES is certainly the most popular, but our only free systems are the NES and Atari 2600 (Though we are adding the Colecovision at the end of the month, Lord willing). The SNES is the most popular system with our paying customers. It has a fair lead on all the other for-pay systems.

VC&G: Your service will probably remind many of GameTap. Did you start Console Classix first? What do you think about Gametap, and how do you feel about them doing something similar to CC?

AE: Console Classix was launched in June 2001, so we’ve been around a lot longer than GameTap. I feel that GameTap is a good company and I think they offer a good product. However, they aren’t as flexible as CC and I’m not sure they will be able to keep up with us in the future. Although the product they offer to the public is very similar to what CC offers they go about it a different way. Where as we simply buy the games we want to offer (just like a video rental place) GameTap has licensing agreements with the companies that made the games. This gives GameTap the advantage of not having to worry about how many copies of a game they own, but saddles them with the severe limitation of having to strike agreements with a large number of different parties. For instance Nintendo has not struck a deal with GameTap, until they do no Nintendo products will be offered by the service. As I mentioned before the NES and SNES are our two most popular systems. GameTap is an excellent service, I just feel that the limitations of their business model outweigh the advantages.

VC&G: Have you ever heard from GameTap about Console Classix, or had any communication with them?

AE: Not as of yet, but that is not at all surprising. GameTap may or may not know we even exist. We are a much smaller company and, for the time being, GameTap certainly doesn’t feel threatened by us. By the same token we are not threatened by them. Our sales have actually gone up since they opened their doors. They have brought a lot of attention to retro gaming.

VC&G: For the readers who don’t know, tell us about CC’s run-in with Nintendo.

AE: When we first opened our doors we submitted some news posts to several popular emulation communities. Many in those communities felt that what we were doing was illegal (in spite of our best explanations and the black and white letter of the law). We were told on more than one occasion that we wouldn’t last two weeks. Oddly enough at the two week mark we received a letter from NOA. We keep a copy of it on the site, which you can see here. Needless to say it was a little upsetting. I knew the law was on our side however and replied to the letter immediately. You can read my reply here. After sending this reply we heard nothing from them for about a week, so I called NOA. I was told that someone would contact me shortly. Two days later I called them again and pointed out that NOA had called me a pirate and that expected a response to my letter. I was assured someone would get back in touch with me. Several hours later NOA called to inform me that my letter had made it into the right hands and that they were still “considering” it. Since then we have had no other contact with Nintendo.

VC&G: Ever have any other video game companies contact you, good or bad (Say, Sega, for instance)?

AE: Not as of yet, nor do I expect any contact honestly. I feel the NOA is the most defensive of it’s copyright ownership when it comes to older software. Other than copyright issues I suppose they don’t have much reason to contact us.

VC&G: About how many subscribers do you have? Is CC as popular as you’d think it would be?

AE: We have over a hundred thousand free accounts and a couple of thousand paying customers. I think that we are fairly popular considering the fact that we haven’t done any advertising yet. We intend to change this next year. I feel that as we offer more games more of our free users will subscribe to the full package.

VC&G: How long have you been doing CC?

AE: You might say I was the first founder. Jonathan Cooper and myself were the two who started the business. My brother Joshua joined us very quickly. I have been working on CC since the beginning which was actually January 1, 2001. I guess the short answer is: a long time.

VC&G: What inspired you to start Console Classix? Where’d you get the idea?

AE: God. I’m sure there are those that would look at me as if I were insane, but that is the real answer. Our original concept for CC was more along the line of a ROM store. We wanted to buy game rights from parent companies and then sell them to customers passing most of the profit to the parent company. We e-mailed Sega trying to pitch the idea. They responded by telling us that emulation was completely illegal and so they couldn’t sell us their games in ROM format. This was obviously untrue, but it was equally obvious that they didn’t have to sell their games to us. I was very upset, but there didn’t seem to be much we could do. Jonthan and I worked on the problem all night and came up with nothing. I decided to call it a night and went to bed. As soon as my head touched the pillow the concept hit me, we wouldn’t sell, we would rent. The only explanation I can give is that the Lord inspired me. As soon as I had given up on figuring out the problem, he showed me the way to solve it.

VC&G: How did you decide which emulators to use with Console Classix?

AE: Two main factors: They had to be open source and they had to work well. It was merely a matter of looking over all the open source emulators for the system we were about to launch and picking the best one. We are working on being able to use any emulator with the system without modifying it. This will give our users much more flexibility.

VC&G: Do you have any relationships with the makers of the emulators you use? Do they mind CC using them?

AE: I admit we haven’t contacted all the authors of the emulators we use. However, we have contacted most. I’ll go through the list and explain what has happened with each one.

Z26 the Atari 2600 emulator I didn’t contact the authors. It’s one of our free systems and they offer the software to users for free so I felt certain thy would be glad to have us use it.

Gest the Gameboy emulator is rumored to be dead so I didn’t bother to contact anyone.

Meka is the Master System and Game Gear emulator and we did contact Omar who was more than glad to let us use it.

Gens is the Genesis emulator and the author actually helped us get it working with CC.

Nester is the NES emulator and we tried to contact the author, but never got a response.

ZSNES is the SNES emulator we use and _Demo_ and Pagefault helped us get it set up with CC. In fact is was _Demo_’s idea to allow our users to launch games from a website.

All in all I would say that authors support the use of their software with our service.

VC&G: What’s your favorite video game system? Favorite game on CC?

AE: That is a really hard question. The NES was the system I really cut my teeth on. The Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy will always have a special place in my heart. The SNES brought gaming to a whole new level and offered us RPG games that few games of today can compete with. In many ways new systems have lost the “game” in “Role Playing Game.” The Genesis offered unique Strategy/RPG games like Shining Force and Warsong. I could go on and on, the real point is that I couldn’t pick a favorite if I tried.

VC&G: What systems do you plan to add to the service in the future? Do you have a lot of new games in store?

AE: The Colecovison is the next one up to bat and should be out later this month. It will be available to our free customers as well. A bit of a Christmas present. After that we hope to add the N64. Lord willing we can add it before the end of the first quarter in 2007. We are working hard to get it together.

VC&G: Any plans for expansion or marketing?

AE: Indeed we do have. In the long run we intend to add arcade games and even PC and Mac games. Our business model works with any software and even music and moves. We also intend to start several ad campaigns after we have the N64 up and running. The N64 is going to bring younger gamers to CC and we feel the time will be right to really spread the word about us.

VC&G: Do you have a large collection of games yourself? Did you have a large collection before starting CC?

AE: I did have a large collection, but all of it was dumped into CC when we started. We have started setting aside consoles and games for a museum we eventually plan to build in our office. It’s still small, but in time we are going to have a “History of the video game” exhibit. I’m sure it sounds a bit geeky, but we’re all into that kind of thing. That’s why we work for CC.

VC&G: How hard was it researching the legal end of this? Did you do a lot of research on legal precedents and the like before starting CC?

AE: It wasn’t the easiest thing I’ve ever done, but it only took a few days of research really. I had some friends who owned a video rental place, so they were able to point me in the right direction. After that it was just a matter of reading bits of the copyright law.

VC&G: How hard was it to extract the games directly from the ROM chips with EPROM readers and reconstruct them for use with emulators?

AE: At first we didn’t know anything about it and it was difficult to say the least. We had to figure out how the chips work (which is amazingly simple once you understand it) and then build a wiring harness to link the chips to the EPROM reader. Once that was setup it was just a matter clicking a button, nothing to it really. Now it’s much easier. We built custom hardware for most of the systems and it’s just a matter of plugging the game in and clicking read.

VC&G: Can you tell us more about your ROM extraction process (i.e. Take us through, step by step, how a cartridge gets onto CC in playable form)?

AE: It depends on the system really. As I said before, most system we’ve built custom hardware for. We have a edge connector for the system wired to a DIP socket that we drop into our EPROM reader (We use a Chipmaster 5000 from logic devices). We pick a chipset to use on the reader that is the same size and format as the system that we are reading 32×8 or what have you and then cross wire it to the edge connector for the system we intend to read such as the SNES. Then we plug the game in and hit read. The EPROM reader does it’s thing and the data ends up on the workstation. With the NES and Gameboy we have to remove the chips, but the process is essentially the same.

VC&G: Do you ever modify ROMS to make sure they work with the emulators?

AE: Never. The law is very clear on that point. If you own a software package you can modify it and use it, but you may not distribute the modified software without the copyright owners permission. What you play on CC is the exact data each company put on the cart, nothing more, nothing less.

VC&G: Do you test every game and make sure it works OK with your software before making it available?

AE: Yes, to some extent. We have a small staff and can’t beat every game before we put it up. However, we do at least make sure they start and are playable. In most cases if you can beat the first level then the game is fine. We make sure to listen to customer complaints and if we get a bad game out there we take it down until we can fix it.

VC&G: Do you have any history or future ambitions in the video game industry?

AE: I assume you mean writing our own games. In the long run I would say the answer is yes. We have a few ideas we would like to see made into games. It will have to wait until we have a larger programming staff, but we will get there in time.

VC&G: Is there anything else you’d like us to know about Console Classix that we haven’t already covered?

AE: You’ve been very thorough and off the top of my head I can’t really think of anything. I would just like to tell your readers to keep an eye on us. We’ve accomplished a lot, but the truth is there’s much more to come.

VC&G: Thanks, Aaron, for the interview.

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