The timeline, history and facts of online console gaming goes back farther than most people realize, all of the way to the Atari 2600, over a quarter of a century ago in 1982. When online console gaming is mentioned today, Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 are conjured up in the mind, but they have their roots in the 1970’s, 80’s, and 90’s. Explore the history and the people that made modern online videogame consoles possible.
GameLine – Atari 2600 – January, 1982
In January, 1982, a man of little fame but of much significance in American pop-culture named was at the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas Nevada; his name is William “Bill” von Meister. For years, all new software, hardware and other innovations in the game industry were first revealed to the world at CES, long before the industry was truly global, long before E3.
Bill von Meister, President of Control Video Corp., better known as CVC, was at CES to show his company’s new product and service, the GameLine Master Module. The Master Module was a 1200 baud modem for the Atari 2600 which allowed users to download dozens of 2600 games from CVC’s centralized computer via a service called GameLine.
In June 1983 GameLine made its world debut. The GameLine Master Module was packaged with the following:
The Master Module itself, a long telephone cord, a subscription to a GameLine magazine called GameLiner (only two issues were released), a binder containing the rules to every game that available for download called the Master File.
Gamers would pay $49.95 for a one year subscription to the online service that allows users to dial into the GameLine library and enter in a three digit code (found in the MasterFile or in GameLiner) to download any of the dozens of games available on the service for an additional fee, which could be paid for via credit card. Once a player downloaded the game, it could only be played up to eight times or until the 2600 system was powered off.
GameLine was short lived for two reasons. First of all, it was released only months before the great crash of 1984 and secondly, no major game publisher was on board with the service. Powerhouses such as, Activision, Mattel, Parker Brothers and Atari themselves never signed on to the service.
Before the plug was finally pulled on GameLine, there were two expansions to the service which were ready to go. One was called StockLine and the other SportsLine. Respectively, they were services that would deliver stock prices and sports scores.
Also in the works – but not finished – were MailLine, a service similar to what we now know as email, OpinionLine, which was designed to be an open discussion forum, NewsLine, a service designed to deliver news headlines, InfoLine, a miscellaneous service that could be used for horoscopes, classified ads or even airline schedules, and finally BankLine, which was designed to be an online banking system from which electronic fund transfers could be made from home.
All of these services would see the light of day in one form or another, in part thanks to Bill von Meister, who eventually left CVC and founded The Source, which would eventually become America Online.
PlayCable – Mattel Intellivision – 1982
Today the concept of downloading information is quite simple. Every website visited on the internet is information that is downloaded. Programs, images, sounds, and other types of information are also available for download from the World Wide Web, including video games.
Companies like GameTap offer subscription-based game downloads; some games are now part of public domain and are free to download, some people download games illegally. Though GameTap might be a new service, the idea to download videogames online is not. In fact, it’s an idea that has been in use for over 25 years.
In 1982 the first console war was hot. Mattel’s Intellivision was squaring off against Atari’s VCS 2600 and Coleco’s ColecoVision. In 1978, when the Intellivision was still on the drawing board, Mattel had partnered with a company called General Instrument to create the chipset. It so happened to be that that General Instrument was involved in the cable industry through their Jerrold division.
In the 1980’s the Internet was not in every household, and phone lines were no means of sending data; cable was needed to send even small bits of data at reasonable speeds. Mattel cultivated their relationship with General Instrument and by 1982 they were ready to launch their game download service: PlayCable.
PlayCable was a service that was provided by local cable companies. The cable company would rent the subscriber the PlayCable modem. This unit was modeled after the Intellivision unit and attached to the cartridge slot. The service had available 20 games to download per month. This was saved on the PlayCable unit’s 4K of memory until the system was powered off. The monthly subscription fee for the service is reported to have been $4.95.
In 1983 the PlayCable service met its end. Games had simply outgrown the service; Mattel and their partners General Instrument and Jerrold were not forward thinking enough. At this point most new games were up to 8K in size, some more. With the unit limited to only 4K of internal memory, subscribers were left disappointed with their service. By this time cable companies were already dropping the service as more and more cable TV channels like MTV and CNN became nationally popular.
When the service was discontinued all subscribers returned their PlayCable units to the cable companies. This would be the last time that a game console would have an online component in the US for over a decade.
The Sega Channel – Sega Genesis – 1994
Sega, the premier pioneer in online console gaming, got its network feet wet in 1994 with the debut of the Sega Channel. Partnering with Time Warner, the largest media conglomerate in the world, as well as Telecommunications, Inc., which was then the largest cable company in the world, Sega launched the Sega Channel to the American public for a premium cost of only $12.95 per month.
Why a cable channel? Sega had an idea. It wanted to directly rent its Genesis games to consumers, making more profits from the company and eliminating the need for brick and mortar rental chains, such as Blockbuster Video.
With the technology of the time, it would have been near impossible to create a network that would satisfy consumers on phone line based modems. However, cable in 1993 reached 90% of the American public, and had enough bandwidth to deliver content in a timely manner.
Sega Channel subscribers would receive the service as well as a modem (it uploaded at1.435 GHz and downloaded at 1.1 GHz) which inserted into the cartridge slot of the Genesis console, much like the later released Genesis 32X expansion console.
Sega Channel subscribers had the ability to download several Genesis games for nearly free, (twenty-five cents apiece), and play them repeatedly until they powered off their system. About fifty games could be chosen from at a time and this list was altered from month to month.
The most popular feature was the “Test Drive” aspect of the Sega Channel, an innovation that allowed subscribers to play previews of upcoming games that were not yet released. Some “Test Drive” games were imports that were never released in America, and even a few were never released in cartridge form at all.
Sega advertised the channel heavily on both cable and public broadcast television. It received very favorable press, even being cited by Popular Science as being among 1994's most outstanding products.
However, Sega’s estimated subscriber base for the end of the first year of 1 million users fell painfully short. Only 150,000 households subscribed to the service. The primary downfall of the Sega Channel was availability. Though cable could reach nine out of ten homes in America, local cable providers were unsure that the concept could be a success. Consequently, few chose to carry the network. Only an estimated 30% of US consumers could have been reached by the Sega Channel, leaving hundreds of thousands of potential customers out of the picture.
On November 24th, 1997, with the impending end of the 16-bit era at hand, the Sega Channel was shut down. Neither it nor a similar service would ever return to the console world until Xbox Live arcade was launched with the Xbox 360 on November 15th, 2002.
X-Band – Catapult Entertainment – May, 1995
In the spring of 1995 Catapult Entertainment launched a product called the X-Band Modem and a service called the X-Band network. In a drastic change from prior online services that merely allowed gamers to virtually “rent” games via download, the X-Band modem allowed console gamers to do something that was only dreamed of before; that is to play games online against opponents anywhere in the United States.
The modem its self was sold for the two most popular systems of its day, the Sega Genesis and the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). Surprisingly cheap, it cost only $19.95 at retail. The service called the X-band Network, however, cost $4.95 for fifty connections per month in a local telephone area code. A second option was more expensive; for $9.95 per month users had unlimited local connections. One could even play gamers long distance for only $3.95 an hour, anywhere in the continental United States. These prices, shockingly, were relatively inexpensive for the era.
One of the most popular features of the X-Band Network was the ability to send and receive X-Mail, which is essentially e-mail. The only drawback is that since no keyboard existed for either the Genesis or SNES, gamers had to use a cumbersome on-screen keyboard. After a match users could also chat with opponents using a similar interface.
The X-Band also had a call waiting feature, which would show incoming calls, a feature which was not standard on PCs until years later. X-Band was parent friendly too. It offered the ability for parents to lock out their children from establishing a connection to the X-band Network during specified hours.
Unfortunately, Catapult Entertainment’s amazing device was met with only lukewarm support from both consumers and publishers alike. Its limited number of compatible games (thirteen on Genesis and fourteen on SNES) combined with the fact that it was unable to produce Genesis vs. SNES online competition were seen as major drawbacks by consumers.
Ultimately, the decline of the 16-bit era led to the end of X-Band. On April 30th, 1997, the X-Band Network shut down permanently.
Jaguar Voice/Data Communicator – Atari Jaguar – 1995
In 1984 when Jack Tramiel, former CEO at Commodore Computers, bought Atari from Warner Communications, no one knew that he would run into the ground the most successful console manufacture in history at that time, and do it in just over a decade.
After the 1994 release of the underpowered “64-bit” Atari Jaguar, the system soon suffered from poor first party software, poor third party support, and downright bad and ugly games. The expansion system, Jaguar CD, did even poorer in the market.
At the 1994 CES Atari announced that it had forged a partnership with a company called Phylon, Inc. to create a voice modem for its Jaguar product, which was about to be rolled out nationwide. The name was somewhat uninspiring, (Jaguar Voice/Data Communicator), but the potential was awesome.
Here’s an excerpt from the original press release:
Atari Corporation announced today that playing Jaguar games with opponents over a single telephone line will be a reality in the 4th quarter of 1994. New technology, developed by Phylon Communications Inc., leaders in advanced fax/modem/voice technology, permits two users to play Atari Jaguar video games against each other. Utilizing the same phone line, they may speak to each other as they play. The game experience is truly shared by the two gamers although they may be miles apart from each other.
The Jaguar Voice/Data Communicator uses headsets for the players to hear each other speak as well as listen to the stereo benefits of the game being played. Users will also have call waiting indications, both at local and remote ends, to pause and resume a game due to an interrupting call in the middle of a game. Thus, this product can be enjoyed by the players without being a nuisance to others in the home. “By offering our voice-plus-data technology to leading OEMs and systems manufacturers, like Atari, Phylon is pioneering multimedia communications technology on the dial-up network,” noted Dr. Hamdi El-Sassi, President and CEO of Phylon.
The first games planned to exploit the features of the Jaguar Voice/Data Communicator are Doom(TM), Club Drive(TM) and Iron Soldier(TM). “Reports I have been receiving from Jaguar owners is that they are ready for this technology. We have it and we are going to offer it this Christmas,” announced Sam Tramiel, President and CEO of Atari Corporation.
Alas, the Jaguar Voice Modem (JVM) was not to be release that Christmas, moreover, none of the games initially announced to support the device did so. In fact, the only game to support the device in the end was Ultra Vortek. It seems that Sam Tramiel just can’t just be trusted.
Eventually, in 1995, the decision was made not to mass produce the JVM. Today it is estimated that less than 100 JVM units have survived and are in the hands of collectors around the world.
Does it work? Yes, and it is reported that the 19.9kbps modem performs exceptionally well over dial up, and that while the voice chat isn’t the best in the world, it is always clear. JVM users also report that lag, though it only shows its self from time to time, occurs rarely and is minimal. As with similar technology from the era, users are required to directly dial their opponents.
Other features that it included are the ability to answer incoming phone calls and store up to 18 phone numbers. Those who are lucky enough to own it unanimously say that they love it. It’s a shame that so few were made. Then again, so few people bought a Jaguar in the first place!
[It is worth noting that in 1998 the existence of an adaptor for the Jaguar that allows for WebTV access was revealed, though only one prototype is known to exist.]
Net Link – Sega Saturn – November, 1996
In 1996, Sega Corporation, (which at the time still manufactured videogame consoles), had conceived a new product for its failing Sega Saturn. The product was called the Net Link. It was a 28.8kps modem which would allow Saturn owners to both surf the Internet and play games online against opponents across the country.
At the time there was no technology that could squeeze an internet browser into a system as limited as the Sega Saturn, which only had 500 bites of on board RAM to work with. So Sega found Ken Soohoo.
Soohoo had an interest in computer and video technology all of his life. At the age of 16 he programmed his first video game for the Atari 2600. He went on to graduate from the University of California at Berkley with a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science with an emphasis in computer graphics and splines. His first major role in the video game world was when he joined – and became Vice President of – a small video game developer called Digital Pictures, Inc.
Once Sega granted Soohoo the chance at a contract to create the first web browser for the Sega Saturn Net Link, he united with Kamran Elahain, and six others, and created a workable web browser for the Saturn.
The seven of the formed a company which they named “Planet Web,” which they later renamed “Planetweb” in 1998, (at which time Ken Soohoo CTO of Planet Web became Ken Soohoo President and CEO of Planetweb).
The resulting product was the Version 1 browser. The Version 1 proved to be so bug ridden that it was never released. The Planet Web Version 2 Net Link browser allowed for Saturn owners to send and receive email, browse the Internet, and eventually chat via Internet Relay Chat, better known as IRC.
Around the Net Link several online communities formed. For many, the Saturn was their first taste of the World Wide Web. Websites and forums sprung up everywhere that were created for Net Link users by Net Link users. The proud owners even dubbed themselves “Netlinkers.”
Sega even released a mouse, keyboard and a keyboard adaptor (to convert standard PC keyboards for Saturn use) to make the internet experience more authentic. However, later plans for the release of a floppy disc drive and a printer for the US market were never realized.
After the US launch of the Net Link, hopes for the device were extremely high. It was outselling its nearest rival, WebTV, by a margin greater than two to one. That was well and good, but where were the games?
It took Sega of America a while, perhaps too long of a while, to begin to get Net Link compatible games to the public that could be played online.
Finally, it happened. Planet Web released the Version 3.0 web browser for the Net Link and along with it were packaged Net Link editions of Sega Rally Championship and Virtual On: Cybertroopers.
With all Net Link enabled games, players would be given the option to play online or off. If they decide to play online they were connected to an IRC channel where they could meet and chat with other “Netlinkers.” It was preferred to find opponents in one’s local community, as Saturn online gaming required players to “direct dial” their fellow gamers. This meant that long distance charges could apply.
In the end, there were just five games produced for the Saturn that had Net Link compatibility: Virtual On: Cybertroopers, Sega Rally Championship, Daytona USA C.C.E., Duke Nukem 3D, and Saturn Bomberman. All but Saturn Bomberman supported only two players at a time, a limitation which prevented truly great frag-fests in Duke Nukem from ever occurring.
As the Saturn was on its way out in 1997, Planetweb had an advanced public beta test for a Version 4.0 browser. Sadly, it never saw the light of day. In the Saturn’s demise, Planetweb had their eye on other projects, including the soon-to-be Sega Dreamcast.
Vaporware: And all that could have been…
Throughout the 1990’s, there were three major attempts to market a modem for videogames consoles, and all three share an interwoven tale. They are the Ayota View, Baton Teleplay Modem, and AT&T’s Edge 16.
Our story begins in 1992 when a gamer named Keith Rupp had an epiphany. He realized that with the newfangled “World Wide Web” the videogame world can explore an entire new dimension in the realm of online gaming.
His plan was to create a modem, not like the ones that came before that merely allowed for downloads to take place, but one that would allow a gamer in one location to connect to a gamer in another and play games online. The unit was to be marketed for the most popular console of the time, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).
After securing investors, Rupp teamed up with the legendary Nolan Bushnell. Bushnell, who founded Atari and Chuck E Cheese pizza, had been looking for a way to repeat his success after selling both companies, followed by a string of failed business ventures.
Together, the two men developed the Ayota View modem. “Ayota” stands for “a toy a” spelled backwards.( I’m guessing it’s a name that Bushnell dreamed up.) The unit was shown at the 1992 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada, and it enjoyed a lukewarm reception.
Unfortunately for Keith Rupp, Bushnell’s business curse would strike again. Bushnell took over control of the project by force. His named still carried enormous weight in the game industry, and investors followed him, not Rupp. He crippled the modem by limiting its bandwidth to only 300 bps, a speed too slow to play a game running even NES graphics. The games would have been limited to Atari 2600 style games and graphics from a decade earlier – familiar ground for old Bushnell.
Due to the impending collapse of Bushnell’s Axlon, a toy company and videogame development studio that Bushnell owned, he pulled out of the Ayota Vision project, taking with him investor support, and left Rupp to pick of the pieces.
Keith Rupp did follow his vision, and his persistence culminated with the Baton Teleplay Modem. His new company was called Baton Technologies, and with it came even greater ambitions.
The Teleplay would not be limited to only NES owners, but it would be developed for the Sega Genesis as well, the best selling console of the day. Also, the 300 bps speed would be increase to 2400 bps, more than fast enough for games of the time.
What’s more is that, unlike the X-Band modem which was one day released, the Teleplay would have allowed for competitive or cooperative online place between NES and Genesis users, a feat that has never been accomplished, even in the age of Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. The modem also had a built-in keyboard port and potential for limited web access, chat, and email.
Everything was going well for the Baton team. They had investors, they had marketing, they had three games completed, and what Rupp describes as a “huge first order.” Unfortunately, they also had an elephant in the room, and its name was AT&T.
AT&T and Bell Labs had a developed a new technology called VoiceSpan, a technology that could allow a standard phone line to transmit data, faxes, and voice simultaneously. This new technology would be incorporated into a product called Edge-16, a 4.8 Kbps modem that would be marketed for the Sega Genesis.
Edge 16 was created out of a partnership with AT&T and game developer PF Magic, (Ballz 3-D, Petz). Gamers could connect online via directly dialing opponents (a la Net Link), or connect the ImagiNation Network (INN), which would incur a subscription fee. PF Magic essentially threw all of the bells and whistles, and everything else that was unnecessary, overboard to bring the unit down to a marketable cost.
The product would feature both a “soft” onscreen keyboard and a keyboard port for chat. It worked with existing games and new games were being developed with Edge 16 in mind. The modem had two slots for memory cards (called Edge Cards) that would allow players to save customized characters, profile information, or download new features.
At the 1993 Winter CES, Sega of America president Tom Kalinskie showed off the device along with his seven year old son and an executive from AT&T. The unit was well received and so was its low $150 price point.
GameTek, the ImagiNation Network, US Gold, and Sega itself, announced that they would be developing games for the Edge 16. Major developers such as Acclaim, Crystal Dynamics, EA Sports, Microprose, Spectrum Holobyte, and The Software Toolworks also announced their planned support.
When the Christmas 1994 launch date came, it left without an Edge 16 modem ever being sold. The project was abandoned due to the pending 32-bit console era. Sega was launching its 32X expansion for the Genesis while at the same time it was preparing to abandon the Genesis altogether in favor of its futuristic Saturn console, which would become the world’s first console to have Internet support.
In the meantime, the amazing technology and support that Edge 16 had killed off the Baton Teleplay project. Investors were unwilling to go toe to toe with AT&T, and Sega refused to license Baton’s product due to their partnership with AT&T.
The World of Today
On September 9th, 1999, Sega release its Dreamcast console in the United States; it was the first console to ship Internet-ready. It had a 56 Kbps modem as a standard feature, and a Planetweb made browser came in every box.
Though it took a while, Sega launched its own internet service called SegaNet, and a slew of online enabled games followed. The majority of games were completely free, including the revolutionary Phantasy Star Online.
In November, 2001, Microsoft made its entry into the videogame world with Xbox. Xbox would one up Sega with the advent of Xbox Live, a subscription based network that allowed all games to connect to the same central network. This was in contrast to the Dreamcast model, which typically relied on developers to provide server space.
Even Nintendo and Sony got into the action by releasing modems for their respective consoles.
Ever since Sega’s brave Dreamcast, all consoles released in the United States now have online capabilities that incorporate features from previous ventures, and they continue to add new innovations as technology improves.