The Game Archaeologist: Gameline, the Atari 2600 digital storefront


Modern MMO gamers are blessed with plenty of conveniences that we take for granted. One such convenience is the ability to simply download any online game without having to deal with the hassle of discs or floppies (trust me, young people, one day your children will be dubious when you tell them how you’d have to swap in discs to load a game). Game trials, downloadable content, access to a large library of titles, and simply being online are facts of life for us, not cause to fall on our knees in total awe.

Yet before Steam was offering us loads of free-to-play MMOs, before Xbox Live Arcade was offering indie titles a platform for exposure, before CompuServe was making headway in online services, there was an odd artifact on the Atari 2600. Yes, that ancient console that has nary an “X” or “Play” in its name. The artifact was GameLine, and whether or not you’ve heard of it, it was one of the earliest pioneers of downloadable games services. When I found out about it, it just fascinated the crud out of me. I think it will impress you, too.

One console to rule them all

The Atari 2600 wasn’t the first video game console — or even the first with removable cartridges — but following its 1977 launch, it quickly became the top dog in the industry. It was my first console, and I remember my parents firing it up in the early ’80s to enjoy Ms. Pac-Man and Asteroids together as a family.

The 2600 wasn’t much of a powerhouse, especially when compared to the then-exploding home computer market, but it did offer quick and easy access to loads of popular games. Many of these titles would go on to heavily influence their respective genres, including platformers (Pitfall) and PvP (Warlords).

The one thing it didn’t have, however, was a modem. That wasn’t unexpected, of course. In the early ’80s, modems were only a step away from pure magic in the eyes of most consumers who couldn’t understand how information could travel over telephone lines without dark sorcery involved.

The ideas man

Then came the brainstorm of one William F. von Meister. Von Meister was truly ahead of his time, starting with the creation of a proto-BBS called The Source in 1979. The Source was a really early computer platform for users to access online services for extravagant hourly costs (routinely $10 to $20, which isn’t adjusted for inflation). He even developed technology to transmit music via satellite to cable companies, an idea that was shut down when audio retailers mounted a campaign against allowing such a travesty to occur (even in the early ’80s, the music industry was out to rob consumers of convenience).

Following the creation of The Source and the failure of the Home Music Store, von Meister tackled a more ambitious project: turning the stand-alone Atari 2600 into an online machine. He used the Home Music Store’s technology to easily handle variable transmission speeds over phone lines and adapted it for use in the (then) world’s most popular video game console. His idea wasn’t just to sell a game but to rent an entire library of games, one play at a time.

Games for sale, er, rent

The idea took shape as GameLine. Released in 1983, GameLine was an oversized cartridge that contained a 1200-baud modem. Players paid $60 for the kit and a year’s subscription to the GameLine service. They then plugged in the cartridge to a phone jack, called into a central computer, entered their PIN number, and were treated to a list of available games to play. The cartridge could handle both pulse and tone dialing and was sophisticated to remember how to dial back once everything was set up. An 8K memory chip would temporarily store the game once it was downloaded, and a battery-powered chip permanently stored user information.

Instead of purchasing these games outright, players paid a buck with a credit card for around 10 “plays” — early arcade parlance for a single life — or a limited-duration demo. If a player was really skilled, then he or she could stretch out that buck into a healthy game session. One cool perk was that if it was your birthday, you could play unlimited games for free.

The service also included video game contests between subscribers and a subscription to a tie-in magazine called GameLiner.

Electronic Games Magazine then announced GameLine as “the greatest thing to happen to video games since the joystick.” CVC had more ambitious plans than just game downloads; it wanted to use the technology to allow users to access stock tickers, email, and even message forums. Sadly, these plans would never come to fruition.

Failure to fly

As cool as all of this sounded, there’s a reason that GameLine has been relegated to the footnotes of video game history. Von Meister’s company, CVC, just could not get the major video game publishers on board with the concept. So while GameLine’s library was quite robust, it was full of piddly lesser-known titles. There was no Space Invaders, no Pac-Man, and no Pole Position.

Without the muscle of popular games behind it, GameLine floundered. The killing blow was the great video game crash of 1983, when the market became saturated by cheaply made titles and knock-off systems. GameLine crashed virtually overnight along with a majority of the industry.

And yet there’s a really interesting postscript to this story. Apart from helping to pioneer digital games distribution on consoles, GameLine’s parent company CVC gave birth to a new company following the crash of ’83: Quantum Computer Services, which operated a new digital platform called Quantum Link. QCS then became America Online (AOL) in the early ’90s, a powerhouse of a service that continued to expand the potential for online services and gaming. And, y’know, a little site called Massively. Which later became Massively Overpowered.

So once again we learn that even in failure, the seeds of future success are often planted. Who knows what that the industry would be like today if it hadn’t been for von Meister and his visionary ideas?

Believe it or not, MMOs did exist prior to World of Warcraft! Every two weeks, The Game Archaeologist looks back at classic online games and their history to learn a thing or two about where the industry came from… and where it might be heading.
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