Xbox Game Pass, launched in 2017, has over 23 million subscribers, according to Windows Central editor Jez Corden. It gives players easy access to a large catalog of games, on multiple devices, for one monthly fee. Game Pass is modern in all the right ways. There’s no friction. The games are just there, waiting to be played.
But it’s not as unique as you’d think. Subscription gaming was among the first options available to players, selling alongside cartridges for Atari and Intellivision consoles. In some ways, these services outpace Game Pass: Players could download the largest games in under 30 seconds. Try doing that on your Xbox Series X.
These services, like so many early innovators in the game industry, couldn’t survive the crash of 1983, but they set in motion a craving for network entertainment that led to the world’s largest dotcom giant.
Mattel kicked off the subscription gaming boom with the 1980 release of PlayCable, a peripheral for the Intellivision home console. It connected households to a rotating roster of games for $12.95 per month. Games available on the service included popular titles like the real-time strategy game Utopia and smash-hit Burgertime.
PlayCable’s release was no small effort. It launched on 13 cable providers nationwide in 1980. Mattel paid baseball great Micky Mantle to promote it with a series of TV commercials that aired through 1982.
Gary Moskovitz, director of marketing at Mattel Electronics from 1981 to 1984, says the launch was part of a broader boom in Mattel’s electronics business. “I think between 1981 and 1982, [Mattel Electronics] went from $50 million to $550 million in sales,” Moskovitz says. “It was like drunken sailors.”
PlayCable was the leader, but it wasn’t alone. A competitor called GameLine hit the Atari 2600 in 1983. It offered an affordable $60 “Master Module,” paired with a $15 activation fee, and there was no monthly charge. Players instead paid $1 for up to an hour of playtime.
1983 also brought The Games Network, which didn’t connect to consoles through a peripheral but instead provided its own complete hardware solution similar to early PCs. In a sense, it was the world’s first consumer thin client computer: Like today’s Chromebooks, it was designed to supplement local computing with network-connected features. The Games Network hoped to take the service internationally through partners in Canada, the United Kingdom, and Germany.
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.
“The cable companies really resisted the specialized computer they would need to install at the head end,” said Moskovitz. “There were some sunk costs the cable companies had to eat.” PlayCable didn’t pay for the head-end unit itself, instead promising subscription fees from customers would make it a worthwhile investment for cable providers. Many were skeptical.
Customers also shouldered steep costs. PlayCable charged $12.95 per month, while The Games Network planned to charge $14.95. Adjusting for inflation, PlayCable’s fee works out to about $42 per month in today’s dollars. That’s almost three times the price of Game Pass Ultimate.
Difficulties piled up behind the scenes. “It was not a love affair between Mattel and General Instrument,” said Moskovitz. General Instrument wanted to maximize subscriptions, but Mattel realized that could hurt game cartridge sales if it became too successful. The toy company never updated the physical PlayCable hardware, so it couldn’t play later Intellivision titles.
The video game crash of 1983 sealed the fate of the service. “The season of 1982 was a terrible time for video games, and a lot of the retail partners were returning huge numbers of cartridges and products,” said Moskovitz. “1983 became a bloodbath.” Mattel sold the ailing Intellivision division in 1984. The Control Video Corporation, which created GameLine, also went out of business, and The Games Network’s plans for international expansion never went forward.
But a phoenix rose from the ashes. A squad of former GameLine talent—including Steve Case, Jim Kinsey, Marc Seriff, and founder William von Meister—spun up Quantum Computer Services in 1985 and entered an agreement to provide a network for Commodore systems. Quantum Link expanded rapidly and rebranded itself as America Online, the dominate online network of its era, in 1989. Quantum Link even debuted the world’s first graphical massively multiplayer game: Lucasfilm’s Habitat.