Reprinted with permission from the Atari 2600 Connection
by Dan Skelton
AtariAge - Remembering the Gameline
As X-Band modems and cable channels begin to allow SNES and Genesis
owners to download video games "on call," it's an appropriate
moment to take a look back at the first brief experiment with downloaded
game delivery - in 1983, with the venerable Atari VCS leading the way,
as usual. The name of the service? GameLine.
I first heard of the GameLine in a feature article in the June, 1983,
issue of Electronic Games. Introduced to gamers as "The
Greatest Thing To Happen To Video Games Since The Joystick," GameLine
was the brainchild of Bill Von Meister, founder of GameLine parent Control
Video Corporation and a designer for one of the earliest online services,
The Electronic Games report stated that GameLine was itself the
remnants of the Home Music Store, a planned service which would have provided
music to cable companies via satellite. When audio retailers mounted a
campaign that discouraged major record companies from allowing their products
onto the service, Home Music Store was scrapped, and Von Meister was left
looking for a way to use his newly-developed sophisticated data transmission
But before we leave Home Music Store completely behind, we should credit
Von Meister for his forward thinking: "cable radio" is now a
standard service offered by major cable companies, over satellite, just
as he envisioned.
So Von Meister's newly-acquired data transmission expertise was coupled
with a then-cutting-edge 1200 baud modem, and GameLine was born. GameLine
would provide Atari VCS games via phone lines from a central computer
in Vienna VA, charging a fee per download. The downloaded games would
cease to function in a few plays, requiring the player to re-connect and
The eventual aim was to expand the services offered, with games being
only a small part of the comprehensive scope. Two additional services
were nearly ready to go online when GameLine ceased active operation.
Those services were StockLine (quotes, commodity prices, and portfolios)
and SportsLine (scores and more, from local to national.
Eventually, the GameLine would have encompassed a wide range of services,
MailLine - messages entered via joystick and fire button.
OpinionLine - open forums of messages which would be relayed to interested
NewsLine - news headlines and weather both local and worldwide.
BankLine - a highly secure home banking system featuring electronic fund
InfoLine - Airline schedules, travel tips, educational material, classified
ads, horoscopes, etc.
Sound ambitious? Well, believe it or not, all of this actually came to
pass, though not exactly as planned. I'll save that for later
in this article...
Electronic Games readers were permitted to enroll in the service
as charter members, at a slightly cheaper price than the usual cost of
$49.95 (which included one year's service). I did not enroll immediately,
but instead entered a drawing in which a few lucky entrants received complete
GameLine setups. I was one of the lucky entrants, though I never did find
out just how many people won, or whether my unit was more a promotional
giveaway than a prize.
Not looking this gift horse in the mouth, I was intrigued by the materials
I received. The complete setup consisted of a GameLine Master Module,
telephone cable, introductory poster, membership card, sign-up agreement,
premiere issue of Gameliner magazine, and a very attractive binder
containing summarized rules for all available games.
Over the years, as my game cartridge collection has expanded, those pages
have become more and more valuable to me as original rule booklets have
become more and more scarce. Through this binder, I have complete rules
for some of the most obscure cartridges in my collection.
The GameLine Master Module itself was a silvery gray box considerably
larger than even a Starpath Supercharger. It measured 1 1/3 by 4 2/3 by
9 1/2 inches. Its smaller end, which plugged into the 2600's cartridge
slot, was long enough to accommodate emulators such as Coleco Expansion
Module #1. The user plugged a standard modular phone cord into the side
of the GameLine unit, and plugged the other end into the wall.
I quickly hooked up the unit, read the sign-up agreement, pulled out a
credit card, and called to enroll. Unbeknownst to players who signed up
for the service, it was to their advantage to obtain a personal identification
number (PIN) for every member of their family, even if some family members
had no interest in playing games. Each member of the family received unlimited
free play on their birthday. I took advantage of this twice, once on my
birthday in 1984, and later that year on my wife's birthday. Sensing that
the GameLine was about to breathe its last, I videotaped short segments
of every game I could download until the 9V battery that powered the unit
finally gave out. I made it through the letter "P," or about
two-thirds of the game library.
Unfortunately, I was not successful in videotaping a segment of the most
unusual game to grace the GameLine, Steve Beck's Save The Whales.
What was so different about this game other than its unfamiliar title?
Well, it has never, to this day, been released in cartridge form. It was
available only from the GameLine, and following the demise of the service,
its fate is unknown.
One benefit for subscribing to GameLine was the members-only publication
Gameliner, which provided information on new games recently added
to the service, playing tips, questions and answers, and background articles.
The magazine was a glossy publication whose print quality and layout rivaled
any mainstream periodical. Unfortunately, this initial format lasted only
two issues. A later supplement featured typewritten instructions for the
last set of games, but included none of the glossy magazine's enjoyable
The first issue of Gameliner had a history of video games, and according
to GameLine, the earliest years of video games could be summed up as:
To be fair, the article did go on to give proper credit for other developments
(like Space Invaders), and was in fact pretty comprehensive; it was just
amusing to see them place themselves so prominently in the history of
electronic entertainment, since the article obviously had to be written
before service started.
The two issues of Gameliner featured interviews with game designers whose
titles could be sampled online. Intended to be a monthly recurring feature
of the publication, it is certainly a shame that only two issues, and
thus, two interviews, were published. The first issue's interview subject
was Dennis Koble of Imagic, whose titles included Atlantis and Shooting
Gallery, and the second issue spotlighted Irwin Gaines of CommaVid, whose
games included Mines of Minos and the excellent (and exceedingly rare)
Another feature of the service would be player contests, announced in
the magazine, in which players would compete for top scores on two titles
per month, using identical game selection and difficulty settings. Players
would be awarded prizes based on top scores achieved in their geographic
region (the U. S. was divided into 20 such regions) and nationally. The
first two titles chosen for competition were Imagic's Demon Attack and
The GameLine unit was capable of both tone and pulse dialing, and it had
a sophisticated method for trying several ways to reach the central CVC
computer. Once connected, it remembered how to reconnect later. This was
a very well-designed, easy to use system for such a complex process.
Once connected, the player entered one of the valid PINs assigned to the
family, and selected the desired game using a three-digit code. CVC's
scheme had enough potential code slots to accommodate nearly 1000 games
in its library, and, coincidentally, that is almost exactly the number
of different Atari VCS cartridges now known to exist.
The final number, 999, was reserved for a special "browse" menu,
through which a player could search for new games not yet announced in
the magazine, free of connect-time charges. By the second issue of the
magazine, the system operators were already warning that the system was
getting bogged down with too many "999" calls, and that the
browse menu was in danger of being removed. It's hard to imagine players
having a great deal of fun going through lists of game titles, but I guess
those were simpler times and we were all more easily amused.
Once a game was selected, the central computer would download the game
to your unit, and you would be able to play the game. The onscreen loading
process consisted of vertical bands of color progressing from the edges
of the screens toward the center, very similar to the Supercharger loading
sequence. The player would be permitted to play the downloaded game until
$1.00 of credit was used up, and this would be typically 8 plays for most
arcade-style games. Once the credit was used, the unit would thank you
politely and the game would no longer function. If you had done particularly
well on a game which was the subject of a player contest, you would be
permitted to enter the contest for a small processing fee.
And what games were available on the GameLine? (See sidebar) No X-rated
games were accessible via GameLine, whose focus was family-oriented play.
The companies present included many third-party publishers, the largest
of which was Imagic. However, there were some crucial omissions. Since
GameLine was unable to sign Atari, Activision, Coleco, Matttel, and Parker
Brothers, many of the industry's biggest hits never appeared on GameLine.
The management of GameLine knew that this was a real problem, and, in
the second issue of Gameliner magazine, they asked readers to write the
presidents of Atari, Activision, Mattel, and Parker Brothers. In case
the reader did not have the name of these companies' presidents or their
mailing addresses, Gameliner thoughtfully provided them.
The missing publishers may have hastened the system's downfall, since
many of the publishers whose products were available on GameLine were
also the first companies to fail when the Great Crash hit. How could a
player justify paying $1.00 for eight plays of a game, when that same
cartridge might be selling at the local toy store for $2.99?
A tiny hint of possible trouble came in the second issue of Gameliner,
which trumpeted the wonderful new GameLine balloon, named the "High
Score," which would carry the message of GameLine to the skies. Unfortunately,
this wonderful balloon provided nothing to the service's customers, and
this all seemed uncomfortably reminiscent of Games By Apollo's balloon,
a similarly misplaced allocation of funds.
But even beyond the bad timing and missing publishers, the individual
games were simply not deep enough to sustain the kind of rental market
that later developed for Nintendo cartridges and now is such a staple
of the video game industry. So perhaps the newer delivery services have
a chance to succeed where GameLine did not, since new games are designed
to take longer to complete, and cartridge prices have held steadier on
these systems. The possibility of multi-player games, with many players
in different cities competing directly against each other, is an additonal
lure that these new systems offer.
And what was the ultimate fate of GameLine, this initial foray into downloaded
video game entertainment? When the VCS faded as the nation's most popular
electronic toy, GameLine finally provided those long-promised extra services
when it became one of the most successful electronic subscription providers.
You may have heard of them: they're now called America Online.
Games Available on the GameLine:
Crypts of Chaos
The Earth Dies Screaming
Encounter At L-5
M. A. D.
Mines of Minos
Name This Game
Piece O' Cake
Revenge of the Beefsteak Tomatoes
Riddle of the Sphinx
Room Of Doom
Save The Whales
Sneak & Peek
Worm War I