|Launch date||June 1993 (initial testing), December 1994 (North America)|
|Status||Discontinued by July 31, 1998|
Sega Channel was an online game service developed by Sega for the Sega Genesis video game console, serving as a content delivery system. Starting in June 1993 with test marketing, Sega Channel was provided to the public by Time Warner Cable and TCI through cable television services by way of coaxial cable. It was a pay to play service, through which customers could access Genesis games online, play game demos, and get cheat codes. Lasting until July 31, 1998, Sega Channel operated three years after the release of Sega's next generation console, the Sega Saturn. Though criticized for its poorly timed launch and high subscription fee, Sega Channel has been praised for its innovations in downloadable content, impacts on online services for video games, and effects on the cable television industry.
Released in Japan as the Mega Drive in 1988, North America in 1989, and Europe and other regions as the Mega Drive in 1990, the Sega Genesis was Sega's entry into the 16-bit era of video game consoles. In 1990, Sega started their first Internet-based service for the console, Sega Meganet, in Japan. Operating through a cartridge and a peripheral called the "Mega Modem", this system allowed Mega Drive owners to play seventeen games online. A North American version of this system, dubbed "Tele-Genesis", was announced but never released. Another phone-based system, the Mega Anser, turned the Japanese Mega Drive into an online banking terminal. Due to Meganet's low number of titles, prohibitively high price, and the Mega Drive's lack of success in Japan, the system proved to be a commercial failure. By 1992, the Mega Modem peripheral could be found in bargain bins at a reduced price, and a remodeled version of the console released in 1993 removed the EXT 9-pin port altogether, preventing the newer model from being connected to the Meganet service.
In April 1993, Sega announced the Sega Channel service, which would utilize cable television services to deliver content. National testing in the United States for the service began in June, and deployment across the United States began in December, with a complete release in North America in 1994. By June 1994, Sega Channel had gained a total of 21 cable companies signed up to carry the service. Fees in the United States for the service varied depending on location, but were approximately US$15 monthly, plus a $25 activation fee, which included the adapter. During the planning stages of the service, Sega looked to capitalize on the rental market, which had seen some success with the Sega CD being rented through Blockbuster, Inc., and was looking to base the service's offering of games and demos to help sell more cartridges.
In early 1995, Sega CEO Hayao Nakayama decided to end development on the Sega Genesis and its add-ons, the Sega CD and Sega 32X. This decision was made to support the Sega Saturn, which had been released in Japan already. This placed the release of the Sega Channel right at the height of the Genesis' decline from the market. At its peak, Sega Channel had over 250,000 subscribers, but by 1997, the number of subscribers had dropped to 230,000, two years after Nakayama made the decision to shift focus from the Genesis to the Saturn. Though Sega looked at options to bring the service to PCs, the service was eventually discontinued by July 31, 1998.
Technical aspects and specifications
After making the initial purchase and paying the activation fee, Genesis owners would receive an adapter that would be inserted into the cartridge slot of the console. The adapter connected the console to a cable television wire, doing so by the use of a coaxial cable output in the rear of the cartridge. Starting up a Genesis console with an active Sega Channel adapter installed would prompt for the service's main menu to be loaded, which was a process that took approximately 30 seconds. From there, gamers could access the content they wished to play and download it into their system, which could take up to a few minutes per game. This data would be downloaded into the adaptor's on-board 4 MB RAM, and would be erased when the system was powered off.
Programming and transmission of the Sega Channel's monthly services started with a production team at Sega, which would put together content every month and load it onto a CD-ROM. It was then sent to a satellite station, located in Denver, Colorado. From the station, the signal was transmitted via a Galaxy 7 satellite, which uploaded at 1.435 GHz and downloaded at 1.1 GHz, to the local cable providers. In Canada and across South America and Europe, however, the satellite transmission stage was bypassed altogether in favor of direct uploads of the Sega Channel CD-ROM via a cable television headend. In order for the signal to function properly, it had to be clear of noise in order to prevent download interruptions. To ensure no issues, cable providers had to "clean" their broadcast signal.
The Sega Channel service hosted up to 50 Genesis games at any one time. Titles would rotate monthly; however, some updates happened on a weekly basis. Games for the service included titles developed by Sega, such as Sonic & Knuckles, Eternal Champions, and Space Harrier II; as well as titles developed by licensees of Sega, such as Bubsy 2 and Aladdin. Some of these games had reduced content compared to their cartridge release so that they could fit the adapter's memory, such as Super Street Fighter II. Sega Channel also hosted games in some regions that would not receive a cartridge release, such as Pulseman and Alien Soldier, which were hosted on the service in North America. The service also offered demos of upcoming games, such as Primal Rage. Though games and demos rotated on a regular basis, categories into which games were placed remained static and did not change. With parental controls in mind, all games for the service received a rating from the Videogame Rating Council. The service also contained a lockout system which would allow parents to set a passcode in order to access mature rated content.
In addition to games and demos, Sega Channel also hosted other features. Cheat codes were directly accessible from the network, as well as game hints. The service also hosted contests, such as a promotion with Electronic Arts' Triple Play '96, and a 1995 event where players who completed Primal Rage during a brief 24-hour period where the full game was accessible were given a phone number to call, making them eligible to win prizes.
Reception and legacy
During its lifetime, Sega Channel won one of Popular Science's "Best of What's New" award for the year 1994. Likewise, in August 1995, a survey conducted by Sports Illustrated found that children between 9 and 13 years old were five times more likely to subscribe to Sega Channel than to purchase a Sega Saturn or the upcoming Nintendo 64 or PlayStation. The service would go on to garner as many as 250,000 subscribers; however, Sega had anticipated having over one million subscribers by the end of its first year, and had made the service available to over 20 million households.
Retrospective reception of Sega Channel praises its innovation and role in the development of online gaming, but criticizes its high subscription fees and timing into the market. IGN writer Adam Redsell notes how Sega Channel caused many cable companies to clean their broadcast signal and its role in the development of high-speed internet, stating "...the very fact that you’re enjoying broadband internet right now could well be thanks to SEGA." Levi Buchanan, also writing for IGN, credits Sega Channel with its role in the development of modern gaming and content delivery services, such as Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network, stating "SEGA and the entire industry learned important lessons from the SEGA Channel. SEGA was still committed to the idea of downloads and online, as evidenced by the Dreamcast's SegaNet... You can also see the DNA of early services like the SEGA Channel in modern portals like XBLA and PSN, where demos are now a staple." The staff of UGO Networks also credits Sega Channel with being an important step in the development of both services.
Ken Horowitz of Sega-16 criticizes Sega's poor timing of the launch of Sega Channel and the subscription's high price. According to Horowitz, "Who would spend $13 a month to play games for a dying system? This horrendous blunder (one of many by [Sega of Japan]) caused retailers to dump their inventory of systems, thereby sealing the fate of the Sega Channel once and for all." Buchanan echoes the same sentiments, stating, "Perhaps if the SEGA Channel had been released earlier in the console's lifecycle—the Genesis launched in 1989 in America—things might have turned out differently. After all, the service did gain notice for its advancement of gaming and technology." UGO also notes the potential Sega Channel could have had with some more development time in the field of competitive multiplayer, stating, "If the Sega Channel had come a little earlier in the life of the Genesis it would have seen much more exposure, and maybe online play would have been feasible for games that could have been developed directly for the service."
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