When Turner Broadcasting Systems launched GameTap in October 2005, the gaming community took only cursory notice. Despite the fact the PC-based subscription service put a few hundred titles at gamers’ fingertips, GameTap was merely a curiosity, at least among the people I encountered. Its extensive collection of past PC releases and carefully emulated arcade and console classics made for a nice trip down memory lane, but it wasn’t embraced as an essential service.
A lot has changed since GameTap’s release, though. In the last few months I’ve seen and heard more mention of GameTap in gaming forums, podcasts and editorials than I have in its two-year lifespan. Although it doesn’t yet seem to garner the same attention as other high-profile content delivery services, like Nintendo’s Virtual Console or Valve’s Steam platform, GameTap looks to be gaining ground.
The service’s march toward widespread appreciation has been a slow one. Gamers took notice when GameTap landed a contract with Telltale Games that culminated in the October 2006 release of the first episode of Sam and Max: Season One. The move brought GameTap instant credibility, especially for Sam and Max fans still mourning LucasArts’ cancellation of the franchise’s previous sequel. GameTap scored further points by resurrecting the previously dead-in-beta Myst Online: Uru Live in February 2007.
GameTap needed a franchise whose reach extended beyond Sam and Max‘s cult status, though, so it smartly enlisted one of gaming’s most well-known icons: Lara Croft. GameTap acquired vintage Tomb Raider games early on and followed up by providing Tomb Raider: Legend to subscribers in May 2006, just over a month after its retail release.
GameTap’s monthly subscription fee, which had been reduced to $9.95 a month, offered an attractive proposition for Tomb Raider fans who would otherwise pay full retail price for Legend. And when Tomb Raider: Anniversary hit shelves in June 2007, GameTap launched the game the same day as retail and bookended the release with extensive complementary content. Anniversary’s release was preceded by an exclusive nine-part GameTap TV documentary on the history of the franchise and was followed by the Tomb Raider-themed debut season of Re\Visioned, an animated GameTap series devoted to exploring gaming icons from new perspectives. The first season of Re\Visioned, which is still underway, depicts the early exploits of a Minnie Driver-voiced Lara Croft, as imagined by a variety of animation luminaries, including Aeon Flux‘s Peter Chung.
Few gaming properties enjoy the name recognition of the Tomb Raider series, and GameTap has lavished more attention and bandwidth on the franchise than any other platform or service. Its Tomb Raider content is, in effect, its killer app. It’s the gateway media for new subscribers who, once they take a look around, realize GameTap has even more to offer.
Earlier this year GameTap broadened its sales model, attracting new customers with a free-to-play, ad-supported service that features a rotating menu of selections from its game library, as well as a sort of cafeteria plan that offers individual games for purchase. People lured to GameTap, whether by Lara Croft or other means, will find a service that has grown in leaps and bounds since its launch. Its gaming content has more than tripled to include nearly 1,000 games. More than a third of these are vintage console releases, including over 100 Atari 2600 games; scores of Neo-Geo, Commodore 64 and Sega Genesis games; and handfuls of releases from every other Sega console. There are also more than 130 arcade games, about 40 MS-DOS titles and nearly 400 Windows-based games.
GameTap’s library features more than a quarter century of on-demand, unlimited gaming for a nominal monthly fee. And it’s not outdated shovelware, either. There’s no shortage of memorable franchises: Zork, Sonic, Ultima, Wing Commander, Might & Magic,Silent Hill, SimCity and many more.
I’d be tempted to characterize GameTap’s game library as a Who’s Who of gaming history, were it not for several noticeable absences. Nintendo, id, Blizzard and Lucasarts are noticeably absent. Still, its vast catalog includes more games than most subscribers could play in a lifetime.
GameTap also continues to pursue new releases, expanding its horizons beyond vintage games. The recently released Overlord will soon hit the service as part of a long-term exclusivity agreement that will also bring previous Codemasters titles to GameTap customers. And the upcoming Clive Barker’s Jericho and Turning Point: Fall of Liberty will debut on GameTap simultaneously with their retail launches.
As if that weren’t enough, GameTap TV’s streaming video component (an updated version of GameTap’s former MediaPlex service) now boasts an impressive selection of regularly updated content. A huge variety of game-related video, including daily news clips, game trailers, reviews, interviews, event coverage and even full industry press conferences is available from the service. Unfortunately, the faux hip delivery that characterizes some of its original content can be grating, and the hype-heavy game coverage is often more advertising than editorial. Still, production values are uniformly high, and with a little digging, some real gems can be found. GameTap TV also hosts a comparable amount non-gaming entertainment content, including music videos and a ton of Cartoon Network and Anime Channel features.
GameTap’s interface is stylish, full-featured, and easy to navigate. The service now includes community features like user buddy lists, challenge lobbies for multiplayer games, instant messaging and seamlessly integrated AIM functionality. And, most importantly, everything works. Despite the occasional update or download glitch, GameTap’s overall reliability is impressive. I’ve downloaded and played dozens, maybe even hundreds of games since launch, and I’ve only encountered a handful of problems – an impressive feat for a service whose library spans more than a dozen platforms and more than two and a half decades of technology.
Considering the cost of modern games and even vintage game compilations, $9.95 per month seems like a bargain for access to so many games. When you take into account the breadth of content available, it’s plain to see GameTap provides one of the most comprehensive and economical gaming experiences available. It certainly deserves more attention than it’s getting.