It’s actually kind of old news now, but Turner Broadcasting Systems has sold its GameTap service to France-based Metaboli and it will live on in some incarnation through that company. As a long and vocal supporter of GameTap (and a paid freelancer), I was an outsider who saw in through the window. Know that I don’t mean this as an exposé. I was working a thousand miles away from GameTap High Command and communicating with just a handful of actual Turner employees, and them by email. So it’s not like I was privy to anything big. What you read here is a reflection on my experiences, peppered with what I know or believe to be true, but authoritative it ain’t. I can’t claim to provide even a remotely comprehensive description of what happened to the service, but I can share the observations of one who’d been on GameTap’s periphery since before it had even been named.
I was contacted by Turner in 2004 regarding a new project they were working on: an online game center that would feature classic games from all the major platforms, emulated through a PC-based client. They were looking for freelance writers to complete game infocards – short descriptions plus basic instructions on how to play, tips & tricks, plus some interesting bonus material for each game. I’d actually been referred to Turner by my sister-in-law (hi GG!), who used to work at Turner, knew I wrote about games, and put two and two together. At the time, I imagined this would be a great short term gig that would help out a lot (they paid per infocard written, and they paid generously), and I was philosophically supportive of such a service because it allows the games of posterity to be enjoyed by a new generation.
I never imagined my toils with GameTap would grow into the largest freelance relationship I’ve ever had; quite probably the largest I ever will have. When I got started I figured I’d be asked to write infocards for maybe 20 or 30 games if I was lucky.
So I got started on my first assignment (they came in groups of ten). There’s a science to it, really; writers were constrained by very strict character limits for each section and had to write into a Word template that can kindly be described as “unwieldy,” and getting certain kinds of information could be extraordinarily difficult. More to the point, in those early years, GameTap didn’t exist in a functional form. We writers didn’t even know it was going to be called “GameTap.” We were working blind, aside from what we were being paid we had no real idea how much Turner was devoting, resources-wise, to the project; we had no idea how the technology was going to work. And it was often difficult or impossible to secure playable copies of the games assigned to us. Many of my infocards came from hours of research and not a minute of play. I tried to do ten a week.
I first saw the client in action at GDC 2005, where I also met the editor I’d worked with via email for many months. A great guy, we hit it off instantly, and I and the rest of the writers got to see an early beta of the program actually running. What we saw blew us away. I’d been expecting a web-based interface and fairly spartan trimmings, not a lavish standalone application that featured not only games but TV, cartoons, contests, and social networking. I was awed. What had been a great job for me had suddenly become something I was convinced could change the world of gaming.
Because let’s face it, there are a lot of games we miss, and don’t play any more simply because they don’t work on the systems we’ve got. Here with GameTap we could revisit old loves – King’s Quest, Zork, Pengo, Castlevania, X-COM… you name it, it might be there. And at the rate we writers were churning out infocards, GameTap’s library stood to become the most comprehensive imaginable.
There was a problem, one that lurked in the background. Discussed often, never solved, I believe it was one of the major contributing factors to GameTap’s ultimate disppointment: Nintendo refused to sign on. You see, Turner needed permission to emulate the platforms on which various games ran natively. SEGA signed on agreeably enough, and soon old DOS games were up and running too. But Nintendo steadfasty refused. That company is very protective of its IP, and of course in March of 2005 we didn’t realize that the console then codenamed Revolution would offer most classic Nintendo titles as a download itself. Nintendo simply didn’t want to compete with itself.
GameTap’s American launch came on October 3, 2005. At the time, the service boasted 300 games, with a promise to add more every week or so.
And its launch was a little rocky. The technology worked well enough, but the pricing – $14.95 a month – was higher than some wanted to pay. Turner also made the mistake of offering a free trial month, then automatically signing you up for the service if you didn’t cancel the trial within 30 days. In theory this is okay, but when it became apparent that it was easier to terminate a recurring-payment relationship with a porn site than with GameTap, people got a little irked.
Plus the launch games, while including many known classics from the Arcade and Sega Genesis eras, plus a few PC titles, were kind of underwhelming viewed as a whole. This part didn’t bother me, since I was still beavering through ten infocards a week and I knew how vast GameTap’s library would soon be. In fact, at least 50% of the games I wrote up still haven’t appeared on the service.
So all this contributed to a slow build for the service. Subscription numbers, I’m told, didn’t really match what Turner expected them to, but there was confidence things would improve over time. Technical updates to the client, the addition of new games, better support and many added features assured that. In fact, at one point in 2006 or 2007 I remember my editor (a new one by this point, the first – still a good friend – remains at Turner in a different capacity) telling me that the service was enjoying a 70% retention rate. Seven out of ten people who signed up for the free trial stayed on… and since Turner had made it easier to quit a long time ago, these people weren’t staying because they couldn’t figure out how to leave.
By this point I’d made so much money from GameTap I was actually feeling kind of guilty about it. What I felt good about, though, was that signs like a 70% retention rate pointed to the success of the service, and that was what I wanted more than anything. For people to have access to a library of all the old classics and newer stuff they might have missed, for quirky independent games that suddenly found an audience through GameTap’s publishing arm… even the resurrection of beloved experiences like Sam & Max, long thought vanished.
As a contributor I got a free lifetime subscription to GameTap, and I was in the beta program, which meants that I typically got games a little earlier than everyone else. And while I did spent time playing on GameTap, I also came to understand the fundamental problems with such a service.
Nostalgia, it transpires, is best left that way. I remember games of my childhood transporting me, carrying me away. Some of the earliest, most primitive games were the drivers of my lifelong passion for the medium. Here at 33 years old I’m still a child in many ways, standing on a stool in front of the Dig-Dug cabinet, aglow with joy and illuminated by the shifting colors and cheery sound. I thought that revisiting those games would strike an emotional chord in me. And they did… sort of. Whenever I found a game I remembered in GameTap’s library I’d fire it up and play for maybe five minutes before understanding that reality is never as good as memory. Our minds varnish past joys, polish them up. Experiences are stored in memory just as they are; the magic, it would seem, is added later. And that’s why you’re inevitably disappointed when you try to recreate the experience again.
The other problem I had was self-manufactured. In my line of work I play a lot of games, but some inevitably slip through the cracks. As GameTap started carrying more and more current stuff (things like Project Snowblind, Just Cause, Overlord, Tomb Raider Legend), I saw it as an opportunity to at least briefly experience games that had interested me, but not enough to wind up on my “must buy” list. And it worked… sort of. I never seemed to have much time to play those games. They’d gone past some imaginary boundary in my mind and become unreachable. Between all the things in my present-time life, between my job and my cat and my drinking habit and playing current games and freelance writing and buying a house and on and on and on, I barely had time to play the new stuff, let alone devote much to the ones that didn’t make first chair to begin with. So again, I’d usually play them for a couple of minutes and then drift off. I did this most recently with Kane & Lynch: Dead Men and Supreme Commander, both games I’d like to have explored more fully. But it was too late. The moment had passed, and it wasn’t coming back.
Several months ago, GameTap laid off its entire editorial staff – the first sign of things to come. This chopping action included my editor, and the last I heard from him was an understandably curt email indicating that he would not be involved with assignments to the writers any more.
In truth, I figured I was done too. Assignments had been pretty thin on the ground of late, with weeks or months going in between, and frankly, there’s a finite number of games in the world. Without Nintendo I really couldn’t see how many more titles GameTap was going to get… not to mention the enormous backlog of games they’d licensed and we’d written infocards for but that inexplicably still hadn’t turned up on the site. But to my surprise, yet another editor materialized and there was a brief flood of new assignments, but there was also the palpable sense that it was over – at least for us writers.
And end it did. The first title I wrote up for GameTap was Space Invaders, in November of 2004. The last was Al Emmo and the Lost Dutchman’s Mine. I submitted it at 6:53 p.m. on July 14, 2008. And like that it was over.
In the end, I wound up doing 554 infocards for GameTap… quite a far cry from the 20 or 30 I’d expected four years ago. All I could feel was a bittersweet sadness, not anger or even disappointment. The job had been so good to me that its end signified only a closure, not a hurt. When you have gotten so much from something, you can hardly feel bereft when it announces that there’s nothing left to give.
A couple weeks later, Kotaku and other news sites noted that Turner was writing off eighteen million dollars associated with its GameTap service. A few days beyond that, GameTap went on the auction block.
And this company Metaboli bought it. Turner retains control until the end of this year, at which time it will fully divest itself of all interest in the service. I have no idea what will happen to GameTap now that it’s in Metaboli’s hands (I’d never even heard of them until I heard they’d bought it), but the company promises to keep it going in some form or another. I wish it the best.
The sad truth is, GameTap proved that a service like this, for all its good intentions and all the seemingly obivous benefits, simply can’t work. GameTap did almost nothing wrong. You can’t accuse Turner of mishandling it, because management was always making the right decisions. The service was advertised aggressively, and all the time GameTap pushed to expand the scope of its service – signing more publishers, adding new games to the library, even publishing its own stuff with Sam & Max and American McGee’s Grimm. It was not through error or shortsightedness that GameTap came to fail. It came to fail because it was doomed from the start, a postulation I would never have agreed to that windy November in 2004.
And it does live on… S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl is promised in a few weeks; Red Faction II, Supreme Commander, the Fallouts, and Season Two of the Grimm games are there already. I think the library now contains over a thousand games, many of them top-shelf classics.
But despite the promise to live on under the Metaboli banner, it just can’t be the same for me. Like the memories of those old games I cherish, the GameTap I know is consigned to a beloved spot in sepia-toned memory. This grand experiment, of which I am so proud to have been part, is over. Whether or not the service itself carries on isn’t really the point.
In the end, GameTap was about memory – those fleeting, half-remembered moments of pure joy from the games now part of posterity. The smoky arcades and 8-bit soundtracks. What GameTap truly tried to be was a conduit to those special places. And for all that it tried so bravely, it taught us only that the substance of memory retains its magic only when it stays buried in our minds or dreams; if exposed again to the light of day, those precious memories shrivel, because there is no magic in the real world.