Sunday, November 15, 2009

Downloadable Gaming, Atari 2600 Style

There's no question that downloadable games have become a significant part of the console market in recent years.  But the enterprising folks at Control Video Corporation gave the idea a shot back in 1983, with the GameLine Service for the Atari 2600:

Apparently it used a modem to download games to temporary memory -- you would plug in the $59.95 GameLine Master Module to your phone line, pay $15 to get your one-time membership set up, and pay $1 for "about 10 plays," whatever that means; online reports indicate that it was really 8 plays, which is not nearly as "about 10" as, say, 10.

The ad indicates that a joystick-driven menu was used to pick and play a game, or "enter contests", though it's not clear whether the contests were online or just the entry mechanism.  The online connection was not persistent, as the telephone "will never be tied up for more than a minute," so live network gaming was not a possibility on GameLine.  Chances are the system was driven by a 300-baud modem, as Atari games were never more than 8 kilobytes in size -- a mere blip in the Internet age, but a considerable amount of data to transfer over an early modem.

This November 1983 ad, promising "over 100 video games," was an update of an earlier version promising only "a thumb-numbing number", so the service did survive long enough to grow its catalog. But note that the ad still mentions no specific games.  According to this informative article by Dan Skelton, GameLine was never able to sign up many of the major Atari 2600 publishers, and when the big videogame crash occurred, many of the games it essentially offered for rent could be picked up for a few bucks in the closeout bins.  And thus was another innovation stifled by the industry's major downturn.

At least the ad doesn't try to tie into the misguided "video addict" vibe with some kind of gag about gamelining Atari.  Probably because tying off with the phone cord would have been a little too graphic.

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