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The Stupid History Of Downloadable Games

Today we take downloadable content for granted. After all, rumors have been circulating that the next generation of hardware might not even have a disc drive, or at least will allow digital releases the same day as their retail counterparts. This has already begun - PSP titles can be downloaded straight to the Vita, which is probably great for the 12 people that own one. Many will lament this inevitable change and miss that new box/toxic plastic smell and the ability to display their game collection proudly. But how long has this trend been in the making? Let's look at some stupid game history.

The PlayCable worked liked this: Hook it up, view list of available games on screen, select one you want to play, and the code for the game was beamed to the device over the wire.

To start, we have to go all the way back to 1981. Hey, we get to see Raiders in theaters! And not that other piece of junk.

Back then, Intellivision released a contraption called the PlayCable. It was an adapter for your console that allowed you to play games through your Cable TV signal. Really.

It worked like this: hook up PlayCable, view list of available games on screen, select one you want to play, and the code for the game was beamed to the device over the wire. It promised to rotate all the games every month, so for the price of a cable subscription, you could enjoy endless gaming! Even Mickey Mantle liked it! Man, what could have gone wrong?

Unfortunately, everything. The most obvious problem brought down the PlayCable in less than 2 years. You see, the box only had 4k of internal RAM to store the game memory, which was fine at the time. Of course, when 8- and 16-bits became the cool new thing, the device became hilariously insufficient. I guess someone thought DigDug was going to be the epitome of good graphics forever.

Also, you had to rent the adapter from your cable company, and when you were done with it, give it back to them. So someone probably has a warehouse full of these things somewhere.

The industry tried again with the GameLine in 1983 for the Atari 2600.

This time, gamers purchased a cartridge that connected to the telephone line. The promise seemed awesome: over 75 games offered to download. That's a lot of games to choose from. Individual games were expensive back then, and this was an old-school version of GameFly for the price of a new game today. Or 60 Jr. Bacon Cheeseburgers, whichever way you measure things like that.

As if you didn't see this coming, there was a pretty big catch. In addition to the $15 subscription fee after the first year, each game download cost a dollar. That dollar paid for a limited time license of the game. This meant that if you wanted to play Adventure for an eleventh time, that'd be another dollar please.

Oh wait, you couldn't play Adventure ever, because none of the big publishers even agreed to release games for the service, including, you know, Atari. Considering that this was made for the Atari 2600, that's kind of a problem. That would be like if Xbox Live only let you play Alvin and The Chipmunks: Chipwrecked and then charged you extra for it.

Next up: The Sega Channel in 1994. Debuting on the Sega Genesis. this service was chock full of goodies. You got unlimited access to 50 games at a time, rotating every month, which only took less than a minute to start playing. The service featured dynamic menus (which you can see emulated here), demos for soon-to-be-released games, exclusives, full text-based manuals, cheats, tips, and contests in which you could win real prizes. At its peak, the service reached almost a quarter of a million customers. Really, this was miles ahead of its time. I'm actually at a loss for words, because the Sega Channel sounds totally awesome. How in the hell could they screw this up?


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