When it comes to video games, Oakmont man knows the score
It's been more than 30 years since Pac-Man became a sensation in the video game arcades of a bygone era and on consoles hooked up to home televisions.
But for Mark Bussler of Oakmont, there's still an air of mystery about the yellow guy who looks like a pizza with a slice missing, munching dots and chasing — and being chased by — ghosts around a maze.
“What's his motivation?” Bussler asks. “Is he hungry? Does he hate the ghosts?”
Bussler, 38, plays Pac-Man in his own “Intergalactic Space Arcade” set up in the corner of a warehouse at RIDC Park in O'Hara. It includes several full-size arcade games — rarely, if ever, seen anymore — and a towering collection of home video games and the systems to play them on dating from the 1970s to today.
Far from being the ultimate expression of the mancave or a hobby run amok, Bussler makes a living playing and reviewing video games.
With a staff of eight, Bussler is building a business and an online community at his website, Classic Game Room, where he is executive producer and hosts a show. There, visitors can hear what he thinks about classic and modern video games, watch game previews, give reviews of their own and chat with other video gamers.
“The website is meant to be the ultimate resource for fans and collectors,” he said. “It's more than just a series of shows. It's a tremendous source of information.”
The show, operating under the business Inecom Entertainment, has grown from a money-losing, early Internet effort to a website that has drawn millions of page views. Its videos have been watched more than a half-billion times.
A diverse following of fans from around the world have sent Bussler thousands of games and game systems to review.
“It's the Internet,” Bussler said. “The Internet is crazy.”
A native of the Squirrel Hill and Fox Chapel areas, Bussler graduated from Shady Side Academy in 1994. He earned a business degree with a concentration on marketing from Bucknell University in 1998.
Bussler is married, but despite his high-profile Internet presence prefers keeping details of his personal life private.
Bussler's interest in home video games began with Atari. His interests moved with the advance of technology, to the original Nintendo Entertainment System, the Sega Genesis and the Sony Playstation.
But he never lost an appreciation for the classics. It was the arcades of the early '80s he loves the most.
“I grew up with it,” he said. “My dad used to take me to the arcades. I remember arcades. I liked arcades. I'm sad to see arcades go away.”
From bust to boom
Classic Game Room is the successor of “The Game Room,” a low-budget Internet broadcasting effort Bussler began co-hosting with a partner in 1999 that never made money.
For a time, Bussler turned his attention to making DVDs of the early show.
He has produced and directed documentary films on subjects such as the Johnstown flood, Gettysburg, World War I and Pittsburgh inventor George Westinghouse. His narrators have included actors Richard Dreyfuss, Keith and David Carradine, and Gene Wilder.
By 2007, Bussler saw the DVD market changing, and not for the better. At the same time, the Internet was becoming interesting, with the rise of YouTube and making money on the video-sharing site owned by Google since late 2006.
Bussler started building a new following by putting his old reviews on YouTube. Seeing the potential, he began producing new ones in early 2008. Marketing manager Julie Halapchuck came on in 2009, developing contacts in the gaming industry to review games.
“It started turning into a real business,” he said.
Bussler's first move was from a home studio to storage lockers, which he turned into a studio and where he kept his growing collection. Needing more space — legitimate space — they moved to the RIDC Park last September, where Bussler's arcade serves as a backdrop for his videos.
The reviews moved off YouTube in December 2013 to their own website, www.classicgameroom.com. Bussler said copyright policies made YouTube “very difficult” to work with. Classic Game Room has transitioned to a website company that posts content every day. In addition to revenue from advertising, the site includes a store.
“The move to our own website has been a tremendous success,” Bussler said.
A ‘likable personality'
On a mission “to review everything,” Bussler has opined on close to 3,200 games, consoles and game-related accessories. Fans from 34 states and 23 countries so far have sent him nearly 4,000 items to review; Bussler figures he has a two-year backlog.
“The fans have an enormous role to play with this,” he said. “We would not be here without their support.”
Recently, Bussler was working on a review of an Atari XE Game System, a computer game console released in 1987. It was sent to him by Marc Marta, a viewer from Fresh Meadows, a New York City neighborhood in Queens.
Marta said Bussler's reviews are “head and shoulders” above anyone else's on the Internet.
“It's not often you see such well-produced stuff brimming with positivity, even when the reviews themselves are not favorable,” he said. “That's because of Mark's incredibly likable personality. He's obviously a man who loves what he does, and it shows in all his videos.”
Marta has donated more than 100 games for a variety of systems.
“It's a real hoot seeing your donation in a video and getting a thank you every time,” he said. “It actually brings the show a little closer to the viewer and encourages more interaction. It's a show with a great feel.”
Jon Samuels of Penn Hills has been a viewer for a couple of years, and says the site is one of the ways he's found games to add to his collection. He's donated a few Atari games for Bussler to review.
“I've found the forums incredibly useful and an inviting atmosphere,” Samuels said. “It's great to connect with others who have a similar passion for retro gaming and to be able to share my experiences.”
In January, Classic Game Room moved beyond reviewing games to making its own. It released “Space Gar,” a free-to-play, browser-based game in the style of classic space shooters like Asteroids.
More games and website features are coming, Bussler said. The company has openings for website and video game engine developers.
“I see it growing into a much larger website with community involvement, and the show will go on,” he said.
But just because Bussler reviews video games doesn't mean he's good at them.
“I'm not that good. None of my games go that long,” he said. “I'm much better at talking about games than playing them.”
Brian C. Rittmeyer is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4701 or firstname.lastname@example.org.