Streaming games to your TV really started in the 80s

This trio was not alone. Canada had its own network, Nabu, who rose to prominence with the slogan “Switch to smart TV! Warner Cable and American Express started a partnership to create a network based on QUBE, a two-way cable communications service that rolled out in select Midwestern cities until the late 1970s. John Lockton, President of Warner Amex , told the Wall Street Journal in early 1983 that “We believe that 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 TV. Today, cable networks have become the backbone of Internet access in the United States. The first networks like PlayCable laid the foundation for this expansion.

PlayCable was a joint venture between the Jerrold division of General Instrument, which designed cable TV converter boxes for growing cable networks, and Mattel Electronics. “General Instrument had actually worked on PlayCable prior to the launch of Mattel’s Intellivision,” Moskovtiz said in an interview with Zoom. “They were looking for other sources of income, and here is another company, Mattel Electronics, which seemed to offer a way to add another business element to their model.” Mattel’s Intellivision offered what all cable companies were looking for: popular TV entertainment that over-the-air TV couldn’t.

The PlayCable hardware was inserted into 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 available FM radio band over a cable that usually went unused.

Players starting PlayCable were greeted by a field of stars with the title “PlayCable Presents Intellivision Intelligent Television” printed on it. Unlike modern Xbox and PlayStation consoles, PlayCable was fast and offered few options. The service launched directly in an alphabetical catalog of games while a familiar tune played in the background.

PlayCable has also beaten modern consoles in terms of download times. Grab The Master Chief collection of Xbox Game Pass can take hours, but even the biggest games on PlayCable would load in under thirty seconds. Thank the incredibly small size of the games of the time. the Master Chief Collection takes up 800 million times more storage space than the largest game ever offered at PlayCable.

Fast downloads were important, as the physical device had one limitation shared with most gaming consoles of the time – it lacked long-term storage. Games weren’t loaded to hard drive but directly to RAM, so gamers had to re-download a game every time they launched it.

The Games Network offered its own version of the idea. Its physical box did not fit into an existing console, but was its own device called “The Window”. It had a built-in keyboard and could support peripherals such as disk drives, gamepads, and a printer. These devices may have helped The Games Network overcome RAM limitations, but I couldn’t find any evidence that 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 operator via a modem instead of a decoder. GameLine may have expanded beyond games by connecting to other computer networks that, at the time, also used phone lines instead of cable, but neither of those services would have much luck. to develop oneself.


PlayCable, GameLine, and The Games Network were incredibly modern, delivering a collection 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, commercial 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 did not exist in 1980, so each service provider had to install their own head-end computer. Game Pass probably wouldn’t be viable if Microsoft had to set up a data center in every city it wants to offer the service, but that’s how PlayCable and its competitors operated.

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