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Spotlight: Baton Teleplay Modem

In 1992, when the World Wide Web was still an ambitious dream and most people had not even heard the term “email,” Keith Rupp designed what was arguably the world’s first console gaming modem. The Baton Teleplay Modem, designed for the three leading consoles of the time, offered something that was then unheard-of to gamers: the ability to compete head-to-head against a real human player anywhere across the country. It was a revolutionary idea, far ahead of its time, that almost certainly would have changed the face of gaming as we know it. So why have you never heard of it? I caught up with Keith to find out.

-By Frank Cifaldi

Keith (as he prefers to be referred to for the duration of this article) first had the idea in 1990. A gamer himself, Keith recognized the nearly limitless potential of attaching online capability to the then-powerhouse gaming console, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). An early investor by the name of Albert Zlotnick introduced Keith to Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari, who took the idea under his wings. The initial modem, named the Ayota View (“A-Toy-A backwards,” as Keith explains it), was shown at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas with positive response.

Behind the scenes, things weren’t so good. In order to cut down costs, Bushnell insisted on knocking the modem speed down to a crawling 300 bits-per-second, nowhere near enough for any real-time action. At that speed, the Ayota View wouldn’t be able to offer much more than a leisurely game of chess. Bushnell continued his questionable business decisions by offering Keith a measly five percent of the company, and refused to allow him to meet with the investors. The final blow for the Ayota View project came when Bushnell pulled out of the “partnership” due to difficulties with an unrelated venture, killing what would have been the world’s first console modem.

Left to his own devices, Keith developed the first prototype of his Teleplay Modem in 1992, with the help of an outside expert. The modem ran at 2400 bits-per-second, more than adequate for any action-oriented gaming needs on the consoles of that time period. It even featured a standard AT keyboard connector for potential internet access.

Rather than focusing solely on the NES, the Teleplay Modem was a single unit designed to also be compatible with the other two leading consoles of the time, the Sega Genesis and the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Furthermore, games developed for the Teleplay Modem were to be cross-compatible between systems. What this meant was that a user playing BattleStorm, a tank combat simulation designed at the time by Keith, could compete on the NES against another user using a Sega Genesis. Cross-platform compatibility such as this was, and still is, unheard-of.

Braving the perils of corporate America, Keith formed Baton Technologies, Inc. in a small office in an industrial park near Skyharbor Airport in Phoenix. A breakdown of Baton's staff, at its peak, is as follows:

Although the entire crew was dedicated and talented, a lack of required venture capital from Baton’s investors forced Keith to put so much time into developing the Teleplay Modem that he literally lived at the office, sleeping on the office couch and showering in the men’s bathroom. “Many nights at least half of us were working past midnight, and as a break I’d take everyone out to a Denny’s a mile down the road for dinner. Kind of an impromptu status meeting would come out over the seasoned fries,” Keith recalled.

With all of the technological development it needed, the only real pitfall Baton had to face, other than financial difficulties, was that of obtaining an official license from Nintendo and/or Sega. Licensing was, and still is, practically mandatory for a video game developer on console and handheld gaming systems. Most major retailers refused to carry “unlicensed” video games, such as those developed by Color Dreams and American Video Entertainment for the NES, due to unwavering pressure from Nintendo of America.

Knowing that working without a license was practically suicide, Keith approached the industry giants with an impressive demonstration of a fully-functioning modem and early prototypes of Baton’s three compatible games.

“Their attitudes ranged from indifference to slight interest in perhaps stealing our ideas,” Keith said. “In some cases, I believe they were almost amused – here’s these upstart twenty-something kids with small-time investors thinking they can turn our insular empires upside-down.“

The influence of these “insular empires” spread all the way to third party developers interested in working with the Teleplay Modem. Developers such as Electronic Arts and Sierra Software showed interest in making modem-compatible games, and were in contact with Keith, discussing the possibilities.

“But then a suit would call higher up in the company and say they wouldn’t even consider making their games compatible with the Teleplay unless we were licensed, said Keith.“

As if the licensing woes weren’t enough, In July of 1993 AT&T announced their partnership with PF Magic and Sega of America to develop the Edge 16 Modem, compatible with the Sega Genesis and the ill-fated Panasonic 3DO. AT&T promised all of the capabilities and features already developed by Baton. In fact, there was only one minor detail to distinguish the two modems. The Edge 16 didn’t exist.

“Since they were AT&T, they convinced Sega to license them and not us; not based on any product they really had, but because of who they were,“ Will Rau, former director of quality assurance at Baton Technologies, said.

Whether it was because of Keith’s meetings with Sega, his conversations with third party developers, or perhaps a premature magazine interview done by one of Baton’s investors, it was fairly obvious that AT&T caught wind of Baton’s plans and took it upon themselves to capitalize on their ideas.

With licensing now out of the question, Keith made the brave decision to carry on without official approval from Nintendo or Sega. Keith figured that Baton could survive by releasing the Teleplay Modem well before the Edge 16 was ready for production. He even planned to make the two modems compatible, assuring success by competing on price.

“I wasn’t afraid of AT&T,” Keith said, “although my investors were.”

Despite having a huge order to fill, manufacturing set up and ready to go, and almost definite success ahead, Baton’s investors became intimidated by AT&T. They pulled out, taking their venture capital with them. Without the money necessary to manufacture the Teleplay Modem, the first order went unfulfilled.

“If we had just fulfilled our first order, we would have made back all the monies invested in Baton up to that point and made a small profit,” said Keith.

With a fully-functioning modem and three cross-compatible games completed and ready to be manufactured, Baton closed its doors, leaving behind a $40,000 payroll debt that Keith had to personally pay using his credit cards.

“With the benefit of a lot of time to look back, Baton was my personality amplified – had its technical face together, but was a little awkward socially, which led to the lack of money,” Keith said. “It was a great idea, far ahead of its time. We all learned a great deal from the experience, it’s just unfortunate we couldn’t make it go.”

AT&T’s Edge 16 Modem was never produced. In fact, as of this writing, this author has found no evidence to suggest that development was even begun. In May of 1995, a company called Catapult attempted to revive the idea with their XBAND Modem. Catapult had an official license from both Nintendo and Sega, and were able to actually produce and sell their product which was compatible with both the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo Entertainment System. They enjoyed marginal success, but ultimately failed. Any potential market for the XBAND Modem was diminished by the Internet explosion of the mid-90’s.

A web site called The Nintendo Information Repository (http://www.gamersgraveyard.com/repository) features a small article on the XBAND modem. “Five years previous to the XBAND’s original release, this idea would have no doubtedly [sic] been a smash hit.” Perhaps. Unfortunately, we’ll never know.


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