This trio wasn’t alone. Canada had its own network, Nabu, which promoted itself with the slogan “Switch on to smart TV!”Warner Cable and American Express launched a partnership to create a network based on QUBE, a two-way cable communications service that rolled out in some midwestern cities through the late 1970s. John Lockton, president of Warner Amex, told the Wall Street Journal in early 1983 that “We feel a video-game channel is a concept whose time is about to come.”
The technology behind PlayCable is still used by millions of homes: cable television. Today, cable networks have consolidated into the backbone of Internet access in the United States. Early networks like PlayCable laid the foundations for that expansion.
PlayCable was a joint venture between General Instrument’s Jerrold Division, which designed cable TV converter boxes for growing cable networks, and Mattel Electronics. “General Instrument had actually been working on PlayCable prior to the launch of Mattel’s Intellivision,” said Moskovtiz in an interview over Zoom. “They were looking for other revenue streams, and here comes another company, Mattel Electronics, that seemed to offer a way to add another business element to their model.” Mattel’s Intellivision had what every cable provider craved: popular TV entertainment that over-the-air television couldn’t provide.
The PlayCable hardware slotted in the Intellivision console like any game but had a coaxial jack on the other end, which users connected to a cable box from their service provider. Once connected, it sent data over an FM radio band available on cable that typically went unused.
Gamers booting PlayCable were greeted by a starfield with the title “PlayCable presents Intellivision Intelligent Television” printed across it. Unlike modern Xbox and PlayStation consoles, PlayCable was fast and offered few options. The service launched directly into an alphabetical catalog of games while a familiar tune played in the background.
PlayCable also beat modern consoles in download times. Grabbing The Master Chief Collection from Xbox Game Pass can take hours, but even the largest games on PlayCable would load in less than thirty seconds. Thank the insanely small size of the era’s games. The Master Chief Collection takes up 800 million times more storage than the largest game ever brought to PlayCable.
Fast downloads were important, because the physical device had a limitation shared with most game consoles of the era: it lacked long-term storage. Games were loaded not to a hard drive but directly to RAM, so players had to redownload a game every time they launched it.
The Games Network offered its own spin on the idea. Its physical box didn’t slot into an existing console but was its own device called “The Window.” It had a keyboard built-in and could support peripherals like disc drives, joysticks, and a printer. These peripherals might have let The Games Network overcome RAM limitations, but I could find no evidence they ever reached customers.
GameLine used the Atari 2600’s game cartridge slot just as the PlayCable used the Intellivision’s, but it connected to a telephone provider through a modem instead of a cable box. GameLine might’ve expanded beyond games by connecting to other computer networks which, at the time, also used phone lines instead of cable–but none of these services would have much chance to grow.
PlayCable, GameLine, and The Games Network were shockingly modern, offering a bundle of games over a network more than a decade before the world wide web. Yet none survived beyond 1984. They were sunk by a perfect storm of technical, business, and cultural trends.
Today, anyone with Internet access can sign up for Xbox Game Pass and, once subscribed, download games directly from Microsoft’s servers. However, the Internet didn’t exist in 1980, so every service provider had to install its own head-end computer. Game Pass likely wouldn’t be viable if Microsoft had to install a data center in every city where it wants to offer the service, but that’s how PlayCable, and its competitors, worked.