In the Key of Atari
A few companies also try to make good on the “computer” part of the name Video Computer System, developing prototype computer add-ons with keyboards and storage devices. In 1983, Atari announces an under-$90 attachment that fits easily into the 2600 cartridge slot, offering users a 56-key, chiclet-style keyboard and 8K of RAM, expandable to 32K with add-on modules. Inside the add-on is the vaunted 6502 microprocessor, also seen in Atari’s 8-bit computer line. The system will output a 192×160 graphics resolution and a text screen format of 32 columns by 24 rows. It also has two sound generators. Initially called My First Computer, built into the system is the Microsoft BASIC programming language, combined with specialized graphics and sound statements from Atari BASIC. There is also a connection for any regular cassette tape recorder to allow data storage. The unit can also accept standard 2600 game cartridges through a slot on its side, as well as a planned new library of around 20 new cartridges at launch, featuring entertainment and educational programs. some enhanced to take advantage of the keyboard. In addition, the expansion module will also be able to accept Atari’s planned storage system utilizing high-speed, 1/16 ” wafer-tape ‘stringy floppy’ cassettes holding 128K of data. Eventually renamed The Graduate, other peripherals are announced for the keyboard, such as a 40-column thermal printer, as well as a modem. Instructional software such as Introduction to Programming and Typo Attack, as well as home productivity programs The Home Filing Manager and Family Finances are announced with the add-on. It’s not all serious stuff though; adaptations of Donkey Kong, Robotron: 2084 and Caverns of Mars are also touted for the system. The whole shebang is promised by Atari for September of 1983 but is ultimately postponed indefinitely that month by the company after the introduction of their XL computer line, and also “in light of the turmoil in the under-$100 home computer market”, according to the Atari. At $150, the 600XL is priced only slightly higher than the projected cost of the Graduate.
Other keyboard attachments for the 2600 are announced, such as Unitronics’ Expander (16K RAM), but only Spectravideo’s membrane keyboard Compumate (2K RAM), with its included music composition and Magic Easel drawing programs, makes it past the prototype stage and onto store shelves in 1983, only to disappear along with the videogame market by the end of the year.
Reach Out and Play Someone
What would eventually become Gameline had originally been developed for Home Music Store, which had hoped to offer song selections to cable services via satellite. Audio music channels later become standard offerings on Cable TV, but at the time music retailers balked at the idea of this kind of distribution and lobbied the music industry to refuse participation in such a scheme. Von Meister and company then head back to the drawing board and turn to video games as a venue for their technology. Gameline offers downloadable games for the VCS over conventional phone lines through a modem which operates from between 900 – 1200 baud, in order to compensate for varying connection quality. This versatile yet inexpensive-to-make modem was the key to a viable dial-in video game service, and a large part of CVC’s $2 million R&D budget is devoted to building it, developed by vice president of engineering Ray Heinrich, as well as Hartsville, AL-based consultants Seven Systems. The games are stored on the 8K memory bank inside a special, $49.95 cartridge called the Master Module, which connects to the phone line. After dialing into the system via a local or toll-free number, the phone line is typically tied up for about a minute while retrieving a choice from the rotating roster of 30 games to be offered each month. Customers get a free subscription to Gameliner magazine, where currently available games are listed. There is a one-time hook-up fee for the service of $15, with a $10-$12 annual fee coming into play in the second year of membership. Charges are approximately $1 for up to an hour of play, and the system offers on-screen instructions for the chosen game, as well as a library of instructions for other games on the system. Parents can also set a weekly or daily limit, to prevent kids from overindulging.
GameLine is the first stage of a planned comprehensive online BBS type of system for the VCS including MailLine, offering text messages pecked off an onscreen keyboard with a joystick at 15 cents per 8,000 characters, sports news and scores via SportsLine, and home banking and financial management through StockLine. The two-way nature of the data connection also allows large, nation-wide video game tournaments. High scores are recorded by the system if the customer pays an additional 50 cents, and tournament prizes such as college scholarships, sports-cars cars and $100,000 in gold bullion are promised for the winners of the system’s World Video Game Championship. Downloading of games also comes to the Intellivision via PlayCable, and Coleco also announces a partnership with AT&T to deliver games over the phone lines to the ColecoVision. Also touted is The Games Network, where players would rent a special box from their cable providers with a $20 deposit. With this equipment, an initial catalog of 20 games from various manufacturers would be available to gamers.
Gameline launches wide by mid-1983, but licensing disagreements with most of the big cartridge makers such as Atari, Mattel and Coleco prevent many of the biggest 2600 hits from appearing on the system. At launch, Imagic is the sole major manufacturer of games available on the system, although product from Fox, TigerVision and Spectravision are also planned. In a repeat of what had happened at The Source, CVC President Von Meister again is relieved of his duties, but not before he brings Marc Seriff and Jim Kimsey into the company. Steve Case, another key member, had been lured over to CVC in 1982 from PepsiCo Inc. When the Gameline system is eventually shut down in early 1985, these three reform CVC into Quantum Computer Services. The company develops a telecommunications network package dedicated to the Commodore C64/128 computers, based on tech licensed from an already existing online entity called PlayNET. QuantumLink is set for launch on October 1, 1985, and the system is operated jointly with Commodore International, who bundle QuantumLink products with their computers and modems. QuantumLink offers connectivity for a flat fee of $9.95 a month, a registration charge of $25 is put into place at the beginning of 1986. A disk drive is needed to load the system software, and if you already have a modem for your 64/128, you get a month of free service. If you need a modem, you are provided one free if you sign up for a four-month term. Users are also billed six cents a minute for “Plus” features such as online chat, email, head-to-head games like Chess and Hangman, and the ability to download demo programs and public-domain software. You do get an hour of “Plus” time free every month, however. Operating hours for the service are 6pm to 7am on weekdays and 24 hours a day through the weekend. Users, or Q-Linkers as they’re called, can use up to five different accounts; great for parents, who can set time limited profiles for their kids. Or perhaps for those who want to juggle a few different online personalities. Q-Link eventually adds support for Apple computers under the AppleLink banner, and PC Link for IBM compatibles in a partnership with Tandy. An online service for IBM’s PS/1 operating system is also made by Quantum and called Promenade.
As an alternative to the delivery of videogames through a phone line like with Gameline, Atari and Activision join forces with an experiment to stream games via FM radio. Via a FM receiver cartridge with circuitry designed by Larry Karr of SCA Data Systems, Inc., an FM subcarrier signal of 12 kbits/s sending game data would originate from a local radio station and be received by either the 2600 console or an Atari computer. Tests in the field were successful, but the scheme to send Atari and Activision games over radio waves never takes off.
End of the Line
Atari itself milks the VCS for all it’s worth, trying to stave off the obvious obsolescence of the console by redesigning the same basic technology into smaller or more gimmicky versions, as well as sundry peripherals to “improve” gameplay. One such attempt is the CX-2700 Remote Control VCS, sporting wireless hand units with a radio connection to the game console, allowing gamers to control the onscreen action as well as pause or reset games without getting off the couch. The controllers also feature a combination joystick and paddle configuration similar to what will show up on the later 5200 Supersystem, along with heat sensitive, finger-touch buttons. The 2700 is unveiled at the 1981 Winter CES, and then quietly shelved by Atari. Voice recognition and voice synthesis for the 2600 is also dabbled with, via a device called the Voice Controller, manufactured for Atari by Milton Bradley. Surfacing at the Summer CES in 1983, the module plugs into the controller port of the 2600, with a headset attached to it. With this headset, players will then be able to speak commands and hear voice prompts in supported games such as RealSports Baseball, Star Raiders, Battlezone and Berzerk. Sporting a proposed retail price of $100, the system only supports one player; the other must use a regular joystick in the other port, and hopefully will refrain from shouting false commands and screwing his more technically advanced “friend”. Perhaps because of this fatal flaw in human gamesmanship, the Voice Controller does not make it to store shelves in October as planned. Even a system positioned that it could allow players to control games by mind-control is prototyped, called Mindlink, but never released.