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Digital distribution is par for the course these days — regardless of your platform of choice. Sure, the PC gamers have Steam and GOG, but the consoles are heavily entrenched in the world of digital distribution as well. With the Xbox 360 and PS3, these concepts finally made their way into the mainstream, and the current generation is even better in that respect. Even so, the concepts behind digital distribution have been around for decades — long before household internet connections were common.
Since 1981, the gaming industry has been actively trying to solve the problem of digital distribution. Custom cable services, direct connections over phone lines, and screwball modem accessories are all artifacts from the 1980s and 1990s. It was very much the wild west in terms of networking, and we owe much of our enjoyment to the toil these companies went through to deliver games over the wires. To pay homage, let’s take a look back to see just how downloadable content and digital distribution came to be.
For a short period of time in the early 1980s, Intellivision owners could buy a novel add-on device called the PlayCable. When connected to participating cable networks, this device actually allowed small titles to be downloaded directly to the system. For a monthly fee, the PlayCable allowed access to a cycling library of titles, and effectively introduced the idea of downloadable video games. Sadly, this expensive peripheral never saw widespread adoption, and it was discontinued only a few years after its release.
Designed to work with the Atari 2600, this third-party device was capable of downloading new games over a common telephone line. Using this unique modem accessory, users could dial directly into a server and access a selection of titles. By relying on the telephone network instead of custom cable systems, anyone with a reasonably clear telephone line could directly download new games. While this specific service only lasted for a short while, the company behind the GameLine eventually garnered success under the nameAmerica Online.
In 1990, Sega launched its Meganet service exclusively in Japan. With the use of an expensive modem accessory, Mega Drive owners could connect over phone lines to download small, simplistic games from Sega’s servers. Due to the limitations of the hardware itself, the downloadable games remained extremely simple, and the library had very little crossover with full retail games. In the end, the service didn’t gain enough traction among developers to make it outside of Japan, and it quickly died out. Meganet wasn’t much of a success, but that didn’t stop Sega from iterating on the concept over and over again.
Three years later, Sega announced a brand new service aimed at bringing downloadable games to the Mega Drive (better known as the Genesis in the US). Dubbed the Sega Channel, this add-on sat inside the cartridge port on the Mega Drive, and was wired into the household cable line via standard coaxial cable. With dozens of full-fledged games available to download at any given time, this implementation was substantially more robust than the failed Meganet service.
Despite significant support from its cable partners, the Sega Channel only maintained roughly a quarter-million subscribers during its peak. By the time the hardware rolled out to consumers, the next generation of game consoles was well on its way. In spite of its poor timing, the Sega Channel properly delivered on the promise of downloadable games until it was discontinued in 1998.
Sega continued tooling around with online connectivity with the NetLink modem for its Saturn Platform, but it wasn’t until the Dreamcast made its debut that Sega returned to the idea of downloadable games. With a built-in modem, and the ability to upgrade to a broadband adaptor, the Dreamcast was the first online-ready console released to the public. While complete games were never released digitally on the Dreamcast, it did offer downloadable content for a number of retail titles. For example, Phantasy Star Onlinereceived a number of new items and quests directly from the development team — a very novel idea at the time.
Sega constantly pushed the envelope with connectivity and downloadable content on its consoles, but its countless business mistakes eventually caught up with the Tokyo company. Less than three years later, Sega exited the hardware market completely. Thankfully, Microsoft picked up right where Sega left off.
Microsoft launched the original Xbox in 2001 with a prominently featured built-in hard drive and ethernet port. Not only could the Xbox easily connect to the internet, but it actually had the capacity to store a substantial amount of downloadable content. Titles such as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Halo 2 offered DLC, and Xbox Live Arcade offered dozens of small downloadable games like Ms. Pac-Man and Bejeweled.
While Sony’s PlayStation 2 had a vastly superior install base and software library, the Xbox led the way in terms of modern features. Without a doubt, Microsoft’s work with the original Xbox laid the foundation for the connectivity and digital distribution we enjoy with modern consoles.
Despite a bevy of truly compelling features, the original Xbox couldn’t stop the juggernaut that was the PS2. Content to put the Xbox out to pasture, Microsoft quickly launched theXbox 360 in 2005. Most of the concepts from the previous generation were left intact, but Microsoft failed to predict just how quickly digital distribution would take off.
Despite the best of intentions, Microsoft’s digital storefront architecture ended up causing a lot of problems as more developers began releasing games and DLC on the service. On the Xbox 360, 50MB was the original size limit for XBLA titles. Why so small? Microsoft built that platform expecting ports of older arcade titles and casual games. When developers started hitting the upper limits, Microsoft had to raise the size cap to 150MB. Not long after, the cap was raised to 350MB, and then 2GB.
In fact, the limitations of the architecture even caused problems with DLC. When BioWare went to release the last piece of DLC for Mass Effect 3, it actually had to be broken into two separate files for the 360 because it crossed the 2GB cap. As you can see, Microsoft was definitely headed in the right direction with downloadable games all along, but it continually tripped over technical issues for the entire lifespan of the 360.
When the PS3 launched in 2006, Steam and Xbox Live Arcade had already shown how digital distribution can succeed in the gaming market. Sony had a lot of ground to make up, so it took a couple of years for PSN to finally hit its stride. Eventually, Sony hit on the ideas of cross-buy, cross-play, and the instant game collection with PlayStation Plus. With those killer features on lockdown, PSN has swiftly grown from being a laughingstock to being a trendsetter.
Sony hasn’t always been on the cutting edge of downloadable content, but it has come a long way in the last few years — largely due to the increased competition. Truth be told,Sony has been very aggressive with day-one digital releases, and Microsoft has mostly maintained parity. Blockbuster releases like The Last of Us and Grand Theft Auto V were available on PSN on day-one, and that’s worth taking notice of.
With the PS4, Sony has finally made it feasible for console gamers to live a disc-free lifestyle. In fact, I’ve had my PS4 since launch, and I don’t own a single disc. Nigh-on every game is available for download over PSN, and the entire experience has been streamlined. Automatic patching is easy, your whole library is displayed on the homescreen, and some titles even allow you to begin playing before the whole game has finished downloading. The PS4 was clearly made with downloadable games in mind, and the user experience is miles ahead of the previous generation.
Infamously, Microsoft attempted to accelerate the all-digital future with the Xbox One. In its original configuration, the console would need to be connected to the internet at regular intervals, disc-based games would be treated like digital versions, and everyone would live happily ever after. That future didn’t come to pass, though. Instead, the Xbox One and PS4 have roughly the same set of rules and features. Games can be downloaded and played on other Xbox Ones while connected to the internet, but no connection is needed on your primary console. The Xbox One isn’t the online-only console we were threatened with, but its selection of downloadable games and add-ons is off to a relatively strong start.
While this move towards digital distribution is incredible for those of us with high-end cable and fiberoptic internet connections, the harsh reality is that many gamers still can’t take advantage of downloadable games. File sizes have continued to balloon, but the average internet connection speed simply can’t keep up with modern titles.
As you may have noticed, many of the devices and services on this list were undeniable flops. The audience has been very limited for downloadable games until recent years, and sparsely populated areas of the world still have a lot of catching up to do. While we’ve seen digital distribution grow immensely with the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, the unpleasant reality is that we’re still stuck with physical media for years to come. Even thirty years later, the gaming industry still hasn’t completely solved the problem of digital distribution.