New Leaf Entertainment Game Factory Development Cartridge For Sega Genesis

This has been relisted a couple times since last summer and is a prototype for a retail flash kiosk that a few companies tested back in the 90′s. It’s extremely rare and relatively unknown even within the Genesis collecting community. Only a couple of these have been confirmed to exist to date. It seems these were the precursor to the more well known Game Factory cartridges. In fact, it may be possible they are essentially the same except for the label.

In 1993, IBM and Blockbuster launched a joint endeavour called New Leaf Entertainment. Consumers would be able to stroll into a retailer and order up a CD or video game manufactured on the spot. Retailers would win because it would help with inventory control. Content companies (record labels, game publishers, etc.) would benefit from being able to have their products always available to any paying customer. The idea was pretty unique at the time.

Content developers would supply the company with the data for the medium to be used, along with the packaging design. The customer would walk up and order it. The machine would then flash the cart and produce the appropriate packaging and manual for the game.

This specific cart was a prototype for the idea.

In the Fall and Winter season of 1994 in Columbia, South Carolina; 10 local Blockbuster stores participated in a test where 16-bit game carts would be available to order. The game manufacturing machine was called Game Factory. The whole process would take only 45 seconds from order to completion. The test seemed to have gone over well, according to an article in Billboard’s January 1995 issue. Robert Carberry, acting CEO of New Leaf at the time, said the next step would be to adapt to 32-bit games.

The idea was abandoned in 1995, more than likely thanks to major record labels not wanting an even playing field along with indie publishers. With the way everything was setup, distribution would have been just as wide for any label.

A blogger named RetailGeek (real name Jason Goldberg) later offered some more insights:

Hey… I can tell you what New Leaf was.

Back in the early 90′s Blockbuster wanted to put databases of music in the stores and make CD’s on demand for customers. The music labels didn’t really want to sell their music that way (this was many years before iTunes), and so Blockbuster did a proof of concept for Sega video games. The company that developed the solution was called New Leaf Entertainment, and I used to work for them.

The idea was that stores could just carry one cartridge, and we’d burn whatever game you wanted to rent on it for the 3 days, then you returned the cartridge we could burn a different title on it for the next customer. We actually had to reverse engineer the cartridges (Sega didn’t agree to work with us until after we developed a proof of concept demo). The cartridge you found was from our test market in Columbia, South Carolina where the system was deployed in 10 stores. (By the way, someone owes some serious late fees for that cartridge, lol).

The in-store burner was expensive in 1992, but it just took a couple mins to burn a title. The problem with the system was that every new big title that came out back then would have some new feature in it (more memory, etc…) that previous titles didn’t have. So as soon as you made a standard blank cartridge, it was incompatible with the hottest most in demand titles. Then of course the whole world went to optical media. And Blockbuster gave up trying to get content owners to let is distribute it’s content digitally.

There was even a promotional video with Dennis Miller made.

Over on his blog, RetailGeek also wrote the following:

We got quite far actually. We built an extravagant demo center (to help persuade content owners and the media) that included high speed VHS Duplication, bleeding edge 4X CD-ROM burners, first generation digital color printers, and robotics to automate the fabrication and assembly of a complete piece of media with all its packaging. At the time we had research that indicated shoppers would still want the physical liner notes, etc… from a CD Jewell box. The demo center had motion sensors with theatrical lighting, the Dennis Miller video, etc… it was fun.

We did a live trial of video games in Columbia, South Carolina. We partnered with Sega, and had 10 Blockbuster stores carry single blank videogame SKU (a re-writable EPROM chip). The store could burn any Sega title on the EPROM, and then re-write it for the next customer. So we had perfect inventory for all Sega platform titles. It was well received and solved a lot of problems for the stores. (Although I think Blockbuster still thinks I have some overdue games from the trial).

Games were pretty rapidly evolving at that point, each new title required a bigger storage capacity EPROM than the last, etc… and of course the next gen consoles all went to optical media.

They are found memories, although it was too bad that content owners weren’t willing to provide their product the way their consumers wanted to use it.

Later, he emailed the following:

I ran the marketing group so wasn’t a core technical resource, but I’m pretty sure the system wasn’t using dial-up and I am certain that it didn’t intend to use dial-up if deployed. I think the test market had local servers, that were updated via leased lines. In deployment, we hoped not to have local content, but have a pretty fast (but expensive back then) pipe to the stores. Security was a major concern which is why we didn’t want a lot of local content sitting around. The theory was that leased lines to 4000 blockbuster stores would be practical long before the bandwidth was available to stream entertainment software direct to homes. (A major business objective of NewLeaf was to convince the stock market that Video on Demand wasn’t’ going to put Blockbuster out of business). Games were burned pretty quickly, so I’m guessing the comments in the forum that you linked about the system being slow were actually related to music or video. The common CD burners back then were 2X and (4X at the end) so a full CD could have taken 15-30 minutes to burn. We also bought a company that could make high-speed VHS tapes in store and even considered using the system to make rental tapes on VHS (which tool like 10 minutes).

Most of the technical resources were former IBM employees. Blockbuster and IBM actually formed a joint venture called Soundsational in 1990 to do the system for music and make a big public announcement. Unfortunately, they hadn’t talked to any music studios yet, who promptly all panned the idea and said that Soundsational must be planning to steal the music, etc… since no music company had agreed to work with the system. The original Soundsational concept was also going to let customers make custom CD’s sold per song, which the music studio’s particularly hated. So the Soundsational name was burned, and Blockbuster and IBM restarted the company as “New Leaf” (literally a play on the fact that they had to turn over a “new leaf” after the PR blunder). New Leaf was 50% owned by Blockbuster and 50% owned by IBM. New Leaf’s demo center was about 20 minutes from Blockbusters corporate HQ in Deerfield Beach, Florida. The office was on a street called Fairway Drive. Most of the engineers were ex-IBMers that worked for another startup company that was 50% owned by New Leaf and 50% owned by IBM, that company was named after the street our office was on, so they were called Fairway Technologies. In the pictures of the circuit board, you can see the Fairway Technology named silk-screened on the board. As I recall just as we were getting to launch with those 16 Meg cartridges, Maximum Carnage came out and required 32 Megs of RAM. That was the same year that Blockbuster launched it’s first annual video game tournament, and Maximum Carnage was the title, I think the slogan was “Practice or Parish”.

Sega USA was pretty open to working with us, but they were pretty much just a marketing firm. Sega Japan was open to the system but was very cautious. They were very impressed we were able to reverse engineer the cartridge, as at the time they felt their security would have prevented us from being able to do so.

It was sad that all the work never got used. When Viacom bought Blockbuster, the fear of video on demand kinda went away because Viacom owned so much content, so the appetite to keep spending on New Leaf went away. I left Blockbuster to move back to the West Coast, but I was led to believe that a firm called Digital On Demand bought some of the technology and patents from Blockbuster. Digital on Demand is still around and makes some retail kiosks called RedDotNet. I met them a few years ago, but no one knew anything about the old Blockbuster tech.

That’s pretty much all I remember.

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Credit to SegaFans for the original research, their page on the subject was offline until I emailed them about it. Thanks for putting it back up.

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