XBAND (stylized as XB∀ND) was an unofficial online console gaming network for SNES and Sega Genesis systems. It was produced by Catapult Entertainment, a Cupertino, California based software company. It debuted in various areas of the United States in late 1994 and 1995. It is one of several precursors to modern online gaming networks as was eventually stabilized in the sixth and later generations of video games, such as Xbox Live, PlayStation Network, and Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection.
The Genesis version of the XBAND was released in late 1994, with the SNES version following in the first quarter of 1995.
Initially, Catapult Entertainment had a limited staff and virtually no advertising. By January 1996, XBAND network playability had reached practically every metropolitan area and several rural areas in the U.S. The actual XBAND modems were carried by a handful of software and video rental chains across the United States. Internationally, the XBAND saw some limited expansion in the Japanese market, and Catapult was working on PC- and Saturn-based versions of the platform, though they were acquired by Mpath Interactive, and the focus shifted to the online PC gaming service, Mplayer.com.
The concept of playing online was fairly new at the time. Arcades were still quite popular, and online gaming was not yet a household idea.
The XBAND modem was widely available at Blockbuster Video branches during its time. Two pricing plans were available. One had a monthly fee of $4.95 and allowed the user to connect to the service up to 50 times a month with each additional connection costing 15 cents. The other had a monthly fee of $7.95 and granted the subscriber an unlimited number of connections per month. Activities that consumed a player's monthly allowance of connections included dialing in to the XBAND service for matchmaking, downloading mail (called "XMAIL"), and downloading the daily edition of the two XBAND newsletters, one containing generic news and the other containing platform-specific information such as leaderboards and contest announcements. Players were also assessed a fee of $3.95/hour for connecting to opponents outside their local calling area; player-to-player connections inside their local calling area were free.
The modem features built-in storage for up to four users ("codenames"). It stores user friend lists, which can contain the codenames of up to ten of the user's friends; the users' XMAIL boxes, storing up to ten incoming and ten outgoing messages for each user; the users' rankings, win/loss records, and accumulated scores; a short profile section; and the user's avatar (chosen from 40 preset avatars). Text entry is done either through an on-screen keyboard or an optional XBAND keyboard add-on.
A problem of most online services of the time was that the connection would be lost whenever a phone on the same line was picked up. The XBand operating system was designed to ensure that connections are not lost due to phone activity; in the case of call waiting, the system would alert the user to the call and allow the game to be resumed.
XBAND had an official website where a member could check any other player's statistics, along with other information and updates that were not available to view on consoles.
At its height, XBAND had 700,000 subscribed members.
||This section possibly contains original research. (August 2008)|
Due to the limits of dial-up, many of the games were high in latency, and the company only improved this based on the demand of the games. For example, in January 1996, Mortal Kombat 3 for the SNES was nearly unplayable, due to the complexity and speed of the game. Although the game's playability improved over time, it still retained a large number of exploitable glitches. Simpler games such as Super Mario Kart or NBA Jam rarely experienced such trouble. The Sega Genesis counterpart was often regarded as being much simpler and had far fewer complaints about synchronization problems with its games.
When connecting to play, unless a player specified a particular user from their friend list, players would be matched with a random player elsewhere in the country (or the player's local area code depending on their preference settings) who was also connecting to play the same game. When the network matched two players up, one player's telephone would ring once and the XBAND modem would answer. At that point the players would see the XBAND logo slide together, followed by the matchup screen, which displayed each player's codenames, avatars, locations, and a pre-typed "taunt".
During the last few months of service, several users discovered a way to use a Game Genie to hack the icons of XBAND players. This enabled players to use icons that were otherwise restricted, such as unreleased icons or icons reserved for matches between XBAND team members. Icon hacking resulted in complaints from other users. Rumors about XBAND icon hackers often claimed they were part of elite hacking organizations or members of Catapult Entertainment. Eventually, the method used by the hackers was leaked and inevitably spread throughout the community.
By March 16, 1997, people could only play within their local area code. On April 30, 1997, the entire network was removed.
XBAND had announced in their previous monthly newsletter that they were shutting down, with the newsletter writers citing the service's lack of popularity as the cause. During XBAND's existence, only a handful of advertisements were ever made, and only one game, Weaponlord, had the XBAND logo on its box. XBAND stated in their newsletter that players were their best form of advertising, and offered the "XBAND 6 pack", where members could order six modems at a discounted rate and receive a month of free gaming in exchange for signing up a certain number of people to the service.
Heavy contributors to XBAND's demise were the lack of support from game developers and limited internal resources. With the exception of Weaponlord, Catapult had to individually reverse engineer each game's code, then develop a hack to intercept two-player activity so the game could be shared over a high-latency (slow response time), 2400-baud modem connection.
Catapult's second generation attempts were blocked by the hardware manufacturers. The XBAND was tested in Japan (using a 14,400 baud modem) for a short time for the Sega Saturn, but met competition from Sega's own Sega NetLink service, which also used XBAND technology. An expansion into the PC market didn't pan out either, as developers frequently opted to include their own network linking rather than deal with Catapult's subscription-based service.
A major issue for the XBAND service was free long-distance phone calls. It was discovered that a user could record the tones sent from an XBAND modem and then receive the long-distance service number, the authentication code, and phone number of the player you were connecting to. This information allowed anyone to access long-distance phone calls that were charged to Catapult.
Paging company SkyTel faced similar problems from both XBAND users and their own customers. XBAND users performed brute-force attacks against SkyTel's mobile paging system in order to discover voicemail boxes using the same number as the login and password, using these to extend their communication with each other. Most messages consisted simply of shout-outs with music playing in the background.
A common complaint was that if a player was losing a match, they could simply pull their phone cord out or turn off their system. This tactic, known as "plug-pulling" among XBAND users, prevented the XBAND service from crediting either player with the win or loss. In response to complaints, the company was unable to develop a means to detect such forced disconnections.
Catapult was also unable to prevent harassment; there were no filters or privacy controls to prevent vulgar language and obscene mail.
Despite poor marketing success, the XBAND team did manage some publicity gains when they joined forces with a number of gaming magazines, starting on the web with Game Zero magazine and later in Tips & Tricks Magazine. Daily stats were accessible via 'XBAND News' on the modem, although they were not visible to the general public. Publishing stats added a "cool" factor to brag about in the early forefronts of online gaming. The top-ranked gamers of the previous month were published starting in January 1996 in Game Zero and, starting in early 1996, in Tips & Tricks magazine as well.
The following games have been analyzed, and online compatibility provided, by XBAND.
(Japan XBAND branded releases only)
- GameLine, a third party dialup service for the Atari 2600
- Famicom Modem
- Intellivision's PlayCable
- Teleplay Modem, a third party modem made for the NES, Super NES, and Sega Genesis
- Sega Genesis's Sega Channel
- Sega Meganet - Sega's own online gaming service for the Mega Drive
- Satellaview - A satellite modem for the Super Famicom with non-interactive online gaming
- Sega NetLink - Sega's Online service for the Sega Saturn
- Xband (fan) facebook page
- Some archived pages of Catapult's "XBAND XClusive" on GameZero.com
- A write-up of the service from Sega-16
- Gamer's Graveyard Article
- Handling Unsportsmanlike Conduct Online by Andy McFadden — XBAND is an example
- Popular "Blog of the Day" entry on 1up.com about one gamer's look back on his XBand obsession