Online functionality is an integral part of the modern gaming industry. Digital storefronts such as Xbox Live Marketplace and the Wii Shop Channel have revolutionised the way console software is distributed, while networking services like Sony's PSN have helped online multiplayer gaming reach lofty new heights. The online craze gained serious momentum at the start of the current hardware generation, but its roots stretch back much farther than most people realise. We delved into the annals of cyberspace and traced the movement back to its humble beginnings.
Many years before the behemoths of Nintendo and Sega ventured into online territory, an American entrepreneur named William von Meister unveiled pioneering modem transfer technology for the Atari 2600. Exhibited for the first time at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada in 1982, the CVC GameLine enabled users to download software via a telephone line. Resembling an oversized Atari cartridge, the device granted subscribers access to a fair selection of games from third-party developers, all of which could be played up to eight times or until the console was powered off. Those who signed up for the service received free games on their birthday, a subscription to a short-lived companion magazine and the chance to play competitively for prizes.
Despite being hailed as groundbreaking, GameLine failed to garner support from the major software houses of its day. Shunned by Activision, Mattel, Parker Brothers and even Atari itself, the service was dealt a killer blow by the infamous video game crash of 1983. Prior to its demise, several expansions to the platform were reportedly in the works. CVC was planning to add email, sports scores, stock quotes and other services to GameLine. The founding members of the company eventually incorporated these features into the platform's spiritual successor - Quantum Link for Commodore 64 and Commodore 128, which remained in operation until 1995.
CVC wasn't the only firm conquering online territory that decade. In 1981, toy giant Mattel - who had already entered the gaming arena with the Intellivision - partnered with tech company General Instrument to develop PlayCable, a game download service provided by local cable companies. Offering up to 20 downloads per month, PlayCable was innovative in its day, but Mattel's lack of foresight led to its demise. While the hardware's 4K of RAM was adequate for playing most Intellivision titles released that year, it wasn't long before more demanding software came along which the device could not handle. Scores of PlayCable adapters were handed back to cable providers when the service was discontinued in 1983. It would be the last internet-ready console to be released in the West for over a decade.
As the '80s gained momentum, Nintendo and Sony emerged as dominant forces in the industry. Although the former wouldn't make a significant contribution to the online sector for many years, the Big N first dabbled in cyberspace with the release of the Famicom Modem during the NES era. This little known device granted users access to cheats, news reports, weather updates and a limited amount of downloadable content. Unlike some of the third-party modems for the system that followed, the hardware did not offer online multiplayer support and failed to catch on. Subsequent networking devices for the console such as the Teleplay modem were more ambitious, but failed to get off the ground.
Fast forward several years to the 16-bit era when the SNES was at the peak of its popularity, and Nintendo was investing in satellite modem technology to bring online functionality to the console. The Satellaview was an add-on that enabled users to download games, news, voice acting and hints via satellite broadcast. Although the tech never made it outside of Japan, it was well supported and played host to some acclaimed exclusive software such as Zelda no Densetsu Kodai no Sekiban. Broadcasts did not cease until as late as 2000.
Sega also made a significant impact on the sector during the 16-bit generation with its Sega Channel service for the Genesis. Launched in conjunction with Time Warner and Telecommunications, Inc in 1994, the service was devised to rent games to its customers over a network. With mid-'90s technology it would have been incredibly difficult to provide a satisfactory service via phonelines, so cable was employed for its bandwidth capacity. For a monthly subscription fee and activation charge, subscribers could download and play a wide variety of games through an adapter that connected to the console's cartridge slot and hooked up to a cable television. In addition to renting existing Genesis games, players could take advantage of the Test Drive feature and sample upcoming releases. Titles that did not originally retail in the US market such as Pulseman, Alien Soldier, Golden Axe III and Mega Man: The Wily Wars were billed as Sega Channel exclusives.
Sega backed the service with an extensive marketing campaign, and it earned much critical acclaim during its lifecycle. However, the skepticism of cable providers was its downfall. As many companies failed to see the platform's potential, they neglected to carry it. At the end of its first year, the channel's user base stood at 150,000, far short of Sega's expectations. As the curtain came down over the 16-bit era, the plug was pulled on the Sega Channel.
In the mid-'90s, the concept of online multiplayer gaming was relatively new, and almost unheard of in the console world. A company called Catapult Entertainment was among the first to attempt to bring it to the masses. With the launch of the XBAND gaming network, the firm introduced SNES and Genesis owners to online play through a dial-up modem. The service broke new ground as the first of its kind, offering novel features like the option to send X-Mails and engage in online chat using a virtual keyboard. Unfortunately for Catapult, poor support from publishers resulted in an anaemic library of compatible games - 13 Genesis and 14 SNES - and thus, from a commercial standpoint, it performed modestly until its demise in 1997.
As next gen machines reared their heads, hardware developers made continued attempts to fulfil the potential of online console gaming. In 1995, Atari Corporation unveiled a 19.9 Kbps voice modem for its ill-fated Jaguar system. By all accounts, the device functioned well over a dial-up connection, though the console's lacklustre commercial performance meant that it would never be mass produced.
In 1996, Sega took another stab at internet gaming, releasing the NetLink modem for its Saturn console. The 28.8kps hardware enabled users to browse the internet via the Planetweb browser and take part in online games of Sega Rally, Duke Nukem 3D, Saturn Bomberman and others. The Saturn showed potential as an online gaming platform, and may have gone on to greater things had it remained on the market for longer. However, it was Sega's successor to the machine that would serve as many console gamers' introduction to online play.
Around the turn of the millennium, Sega's Dreamcast became the first internet-ready console to receive a worldwide release. The system shipped with a 56 Kbps modem (or 33.6 Kbps in Europe) and a copy of the latest Planetweb browser. Sega went on to launch a network service called SegaNet (Dreamarena in Europe) and online support for several Dreamcast titles followed. The platform provided DLC for games such as Skies of Arcadia and Jet Set Radio, while the launch of Sonic Team's Phantasy Star Online represented a giant leap for online console gaming. Despite its short lifecycle, Sega's last hardware release pioneered networked play and services like SegaNet paved the way for their modern equivalents.
After dipping their toes into online waters during the previous hardware generation, market leaders Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo have invested a great deal of their resources in online support for their current platforms. Debuting on the original Xbox in 2002, Xbox Live picked up where Sega's endeavours left off. An updated version of the service was launched in 2005 to coincide with the Xbox 360's arrival on the market. It has attracted over 30 million registered users to date. The following year, Sony launched the PlayStation Network to support its PS3 and PSP platforms. Bolstering the service with numerous updates, PSN has grown exponentially since its unveiling and currently boasts a user base of over 60 million subscribers.
Online console gaming has come a long way since the days of GameLine and PlayCable. It took time to gain momentum, with Sega and Nintendo's early attempts failing to make a significant impact, but the digital sector will only go from strength to strength from here. Digital distribution is booming, and Xbox Live and PSN have made networked multiplayer more accessible than ever. Looking toward the future, few things are a given in the gaming industry, but it's a safe bet that the digital sector will continue on its upward trend.
What was your first experience with online gaming through a console? Add a comment to the space below!