Time Capsule: The NES Network

July 16, 2007 by · Leave a Comment 

NESBack when I subscribed to gaming magazines, I always liked to hold onto them and look through them a few years later.  It was always fun to read the old articles in a new light with the knowledge of what came true and what didn’t.  It seems I’m not the only one with that interest, as magazine scans seem quite popular in the retro gaming community.  Unfortunately, I threw away all my old magazines while I was in college, so I can’t partake in that pastime any longer.

But thanks to the internet, there’s actually a whole new world of old game-related articles to explore — ones outside the gaming press.  A lot of people look through old game magazines, but what about old newspaper articles, press releases, and trade magazines?  All of them cover video gaming in some way, and I find them incredibly interesting to read through.  What was the press saying about the release of the Game Boy?  What were they saying about the heady days of the mid-90s when the market was flooded with various game platforms?  What products and projects were announced but never saw the light of day?  There are an interesting number of parallels between the industry of 15-20 years ago and the industry of today.

I’d like to kick this feature off with an article about a project that Nintendo and AT&T announced in 1989 that seemingly disappeared immediately afterwards: the NES Network.

Nintendo, AT&T to plug into the interactive field – Nintendo of America Inc. and American Telephone and Telegraph Co. form joint venture to enter computer shopping field

Discount Store News,  Sept 4, 1989 by Arthur Markowitz
Nintendo, AT&T to Plug Into the Interactive Field

Two major corporations, American Telephone & Telegraph and Nintendo of America, last month charged up the interactive computer shopping and information service field when they announced plans to enter the nascent business.

The two companies are expected to form a joint venture to originate and deliver shopping, entertainment and information services, as well as pursuing separate endeavors in the interactive business.

This seems like it was a common concept, back in the day.  But ultimately, the PC and the web proved to be the breakthrough technologies for electronic shopping and information services.  Still, devices like the modern consoles are starting to realize this original vision — the Wii’s news and weather channels, the Xbox 360’s movie downloads, and the PlayStation Network’s upcoming music service are all reminiscent of this old goal.

Nintendo, meanwhile, has set up an NES Network division to develop and market an information service by next year. It has named Jerry Ruttenbur, previously a senior vice president with Home Box Office, to the newly created post of vice president of network products to head up the NES Network.

The NES Network?  Jerry Ruttenbur?  What?  Who?

Nintendo will use its game system now in about 20 million households as the base for the NES Network.

The control deck used to run the Nintendo game–which sells for about $100 in discount stores–will be the processor for the projected information system, with a keyboard, modem and a device that combines a computer disk reader and a facsimile machine as the other hardware. The other hardware together is expected to cost about another $300 to $400.

I can definitely see the logic behind Nintendo’s strategy here.  It was an era where PCs were still incredibly expensive and not many people owned them.  But millions had NESes.  Why not turn those millions of little gray boxes into networking capable machines for a fraction of the cost?  It certainly seems to make sense.  But then again, the WebTV probably made sense, too…

A Nintendo spokesman said the company was considering several different configurations for its system and hadn’t decided on the exact technology or even marketing plan for the NES Network.

Ruttenbur is responsible for design, marketing and sales of products for the system. The company won’t detail its plan until after he joins Nintendo in October, he said.

Hmm, now maybe we’re getting some hints about why this never came to pass.  Did the plan for Ruttenbur to join Nintendo fall through?  Did he join but fail to design a compelling product?  Actually, a little additional reading indicates that he did join Nintendo of America but wasn’t given adequate support for designing the network and hardware.  He ultimately resigned shortly thereafter, in 1991.  It seems NOA was not that enthusiastic about the project, despite the existence of a similar service in Japan.

Nintendo’s thrust into interactive information services is part of the company’s efforts to change its game system from a toy into a computer, a move that will blur the merchandising distinction between toys, consumer electronics and computers.

The spokesman said Nintendo’s strategy was to get its technology and basic system into as many households as possible and then provide other hardware that will turn what was first viewed as a toy into a multi-function device.

This is probably the most compelling section of the article.  Convergence devices have been a hot topic for years, and apparently even Nintendo was on the bandwagon at one point.  In fact, people in the tech industry are still talking about blurring the line between game systems, PCs, and other electronic devices.  You don’t need to look any further than the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 to see it.  Interestingly, Nintendo seems to be the least ambitious of the modern game companies in this regard, despite their attitudes 18 years ago.

Nintendo strived to first “offer a non-intimidating and affordable device to consumers and bit by bit build into a computer.” The NES Network’s success would be based on the huge installed user base of the Nintendo game, he said.

But while their strategy to turn game systems into computers is long gone, their goal to create “non-intimidating” devices is as strong as ever with the DS and Wii…

I think this article leaves us with plenty to think about.  What could have been?  What would the internet look like today if efforts by Nintendo and others had succeeded in getting the masses online in the early 90s?  What would game systems look like today if these project were actually seen through?  Would the notion of a “game system” be completely obsolete?  I kind of like the niche that game systems have established for themselves, but it’s no doubt that a lot of people had much bigger ideas.

If you’re interested in more details on AT&T’s role or more information on what Nintendo’s Japanese service was like, I’d recommend reading the full article.

About Tim
My name is Tim. I live in Madison, WI. I'm a retro gamer.

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