1. Computing

PlayCable for Intellivision – The First Video Game Portal

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Today the video game industry is going though a major transition, with the market moving from the brick and mortar retail model where you buy physical games, to online portals where you can purchase and download titles from expansive game libraries. While being able to download and share game data via computers dates all the way back to 1969 when Rick Bloomme invented a two-player version of Spacewar! for PLATO, the first public computer time-sharing system, it hasn’t always been so easy for video game consoles, but that's not for lack of trying.

While gamers are now constantly downloading classic and modern titles from Next-Gen console portals such as Xbox Live, PlayStation Network, and Wii Virtual Console, more than 21 years before any of these services existed, and eight years before the Internet was available to the public, the very first downloadable game portal launched: PlayCable for the Intellivision.

Basic Facts:

  • Name: PlayCable
  • Manufacturer: General Instrument
  • Platform: Intellivision
  • Type: Cable TV accessible Online Game Portal
  • Year: 1981

Soon after the Intellivision launched in 1979, the consoles manufacturer Mattel and electronics company General Instrument (GI) teamed up to create an all new way to distribute video games.

GI’s department in charge of cable TV components and devices, the Jerrold Division, came up with the technology to constantly broadcast the data for numerous video games within a cable channel signal, which could then be loaded and saved into ROM memory via a receiver connected to the Intellivision. The idea would clear the way to distribute games at a lower cost than having to manufacture, package, and distribute games for retail. Also using a subscription based model, it would maintain a continues revenue stream, even for the less popular games.

The technology was under development for two years and finally launched with a big television advertising campaign. Local cable companies who carried the service broadcast commercials featuring Mickey Mantle touting the benefits of the new concept in gaming. “For less than half the price of one game, you get twenty great games a month.”

The Hardware:

For a subscription fee added to their cable bill and rental charges for equipment, players who signed up for the service received a special PlayCable Intellivision/Cable TV Adaptor, and a stack of overlays for the Intellivision's unique controllers.

The PlayCable adaptor was about half the size of the Intellivision and had two ports, one that slid into the Intellivision cartridge slot on the side of the console, the other connecting the PlayCable adaptor directly to the cable TV line.

The cable signal constantly broadcast the game information along with a basic menu. When players plugged the adaptor in, they could pick out a game from the 20 titles available that month, and once they picked out the one they wanted the information would be saved onto the adaptor's local memory directly from the cable broadcast signal.

The Subscription Model:

The focus on the marketing push was the savings the consumer would receive by singing up for the service. As most Intellivision games sold for $25 new, PlayCable cost $12 a month, offering up a different selection of 20 games to chose from every month.

The Problem:

The service caught on quickly with those Intellivision customers whose cable system offered it up, however its success was short lived primarily due to technical issues. While PlayCable did indeed work it was not designed to keep up with the constantly growing video game market. Not only in trends, but the increasing memory needs to play bigger games.

The PlayCable adaptor held 4k of memory, which was the average size of Intellivision games in 1981, however over the next two years the games became more elaborate and expansive, and by 1983 memory requirements for most new games increased as high as 8k.

PlayCable Loses Its Signal:

Since the PlayCable adaptor couldn’t be expanded and the hardware was never upgraded or replaced, the service could no longer carry any of the newer games, causing subscribers to begin dropping off the service.

Then in the service's third year it took an enormous hit with the crash of the video game industry in 1983. Video games plummeted in popularity, causing many game companies to fold and systems to be discontinued, including the Intellivision, which Mattel ceased manufacturing that same year. Cable companies inevitably dropped the service and used the bandwidth to add more channels to their lineup.

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