GameLine module links WCS with game bankby Deborah Burns
Video games "by telephone" are now available to Atari VCS game machine owners through an innovative new service called GameLine. Although currently limited to games, GameLine plans other services for the millions of game machine owners who may upgrade their units with programmable adaptors such as "My First Computer" (see ANTIC, April '83).
GameLine, a division of Control Video Corporation, was started by William von Meister, who also originated The SOURCE, a phone-in data service for computers. To attract customers, GameLine will sponsor national videogame competitions with substantial prizes. These contests, plus the relatively economical cost of the service, may significantly alter the purchasing habits of the video-game market, and further extend the useful life of the VCS machines.
The key to the GameLine service is the Master Module, costing about $50. This unit is a high-speed modem, with on-board memory, that automatically dials GameLine's toll-free number and receives the selected game program. A wide range of popular games have been licensed to GameLine, and more will be added as the service grows.
In addition to the Master Module, the player must buy a GameLine membership for $15. After that, games can be loaded for about $1 each, and each game can be played five to ten times per load. This enables a player to test-play games before purchasing them in cartridge form, or to just play at a cost less than at the arcades.
Proficient players may want to compete in GameLine tournaments. The Master Module can record and upload game scores to the central computer, where scores on specific games can be compared and winners determined. Competition costs an additional 50 cents per game-load, but promised prizes include college scholarships, sports cars and gold bullion.
Charges for GameLine service will be made automatically to a credit card account. Use limits may be established by customers to control game-playing by children or even to regulate their own habits.
Upon joining, GameLine members receive complete instructions and a subscription to GAMELINER magazine, that lists all currently available programs. So far, there are more than fifty game titles listed, including favorites such as Demon Attack, Miner 2049er, Atlantis, Frankenstein and Fast Food.
Depending on the game and the player's skill, a session could last from about 15 minutes to several hours. The number of plays of each game is determined in consultation with its manufacturer to ensure sufficient play value for the average player.
The Master Module consists of a modem, two memory devices and an automatic telephone dialer. The modem transmits and receives data at variable rates of speed (900-1800 baud) to overcome any problems with telephone line interference or delays. One memory unit (8K RAM) is used for temporary storage of video games data or up to six typewritten pages of textual information received from CVC's central computer.
An additional battery-powered memory stores the player's name, personal identification number, the serial number of the Master Module and best contest scores. The automatic telephone dialer remembers the local or toll-free numbers for CVC's central computer and whether to use tone or pulse dialing. Most modems with these features would cost many times more than the Master Module.
Basically, the Master Module is inserted into a game console like a cartridge and connects to a telephone outlet. When you choose a game, the Module will call the host computer arid load the game in less than a minute. You can either look up the game in the magazine or select it from the electronic menu that appears when you first hook up to GameLine. Once the game is transmitted and stored in your unit's memory (8K RAM in the Master Module), the phone is free to be used again and the game is played exactly as it would be with a conventional cartridge.
According to John Kerr, vice president for sales and marketing, CVC will have two contests a month which will give the players the chance to see how they measure up against other players. "Scores will be stored in our computer," he said. "If a player wants to enter his score, he will see immediately where he ranks locally, regionally and nationally. For competition purposes, we have divided the country into 20 geographic regions, each approximately equal in population.
Prizes for the winners of these competitions range from certificates and free game-plays on the GameLine system to the first "video game" college scholarship, world-class sports cars and ultimately to a World Video Game Championship award of an expected $100,000 in gold.
GameLine is just the first of a range of telecommunications services that Control Video Corporation plans to offer. William von Meister, founder, president and chief executive officer of CVC, and developer of The SOURCE, hopes to reach the 12 million VCS owners in the U.S. who may feel their unit has limited use. He envisions a number of services that include electronic mail, news and information, home banking and financial management -- all currently available for microcomputer users but yet to come for VCS owners.
"In effect, we are turning those dedicated game units into multi-purpose communications terminals and bringing the benefits of sophisticated computers within the reach of the average household," said von Meister. "A video game console can now be a real teaching machine.
"Several video game manufacturers have announced their intentions to develop add-on equipment which will turn game units into small computers," he continued. "Our system leaps ahead of those add-one to tie VCS and compatible units into a national telecommunications network fed by the power of a large central computer's data base."
So, home game players, take heart. The VCS is not dead yet. As Dan Gutman said in the last issue of ANTIC, "Video game designers, with an eye on those millions of units out there, have been forced to use their ingenuity to squeeze every last ounce of capability out the Atari VCS." Control Video Corporation is certainly one of those companies.