The video game industry would very much like for you to believe that streaming/subscription services are the way of the future. Before long, buying individual video games will be a thing of the past! Everyone will travel to work in tubes, and our leisure time will be spent playing games delivered to us through the internet, on-demand, as part of a subscription package provided by any number of video game publishers.
Microsoft has Xbox Games Pass and its forthcoming xCloud service, Sony has PlayStation Plus and PlayStation Now, EA has EA Access, and Ubisoft just recently announced Uplay Plus during E3. Square Enix isn’t against the idea of its own service, and even Google is claiming territory in this brave new world with its Google Stadia initiative. But is our all-digital future as brave and/or new as it seems?
Not really, it turns out! Video game subscription services have existed on consoles for over 30 years, and while modern services are undoubtedly more sophisticated than early examples, the core ideas are almost identical. Come with me on this journey through time and history, as we plug coaxial cables and phone cords into consoles that were never designed for them.
PlayCable was the very first video game subscription service for a console, launching in select cities in 1979 and expanding to further markets in 1981. Available through cable companies that invested in special infrastructure, the PlayCable unit (seen above, right) plugged into an Intellivision’s cartridge port, as well as the cable line through a splitter. For the low cost of a subscription fee that I’ve been unable to verify (some sources report $4.95 in 1981 dollars, without citations), players had on-demand access to a rotating selection of 20 Intellivision games. Powering up the console treated subscribers to an interminable ragtime tune, after which their selected game was downloaded into the PlayCable’s on-board memory. From there, the Intellivision ran the code as it would any other cartridge. Incredible!
Cable operators were hesitant to adopt PlayCable into their stable of services, due in part to the cost of the computer that ran PlayCable on the back-end. The end-user PlayCable units weren’t cheap either, but despite these hurdles the service proved popular enough for Mattel to project 1 million users after five years. Unfortunately, due to tumultuous industry conditions at the time, the PlayCable was discontinued in 1983.
Meanwhile, the Atari 2600 and ColecoVision had a different service called GameLine. And folks? GameLine sucked. For $59.95 (plus a one-time $15 activation fee), users could purchase the GameLine Master Module, which was basically an enormous Atari 2600 cartridge with a 1,200 bps modem crammed into it. There was no subscription fee, and no games offered on rotation — rather, GameLine worked more like a rental service, allowing users to play any game in its catalogue for $1 per 10 plays. Purchasing a Master Module also got you a year subscription to Gameliner, the company’s in-house magazine.
GameLine’s primary downfall was in its selection of games, which lacked titles from the most prominent/popular publishers of the day, including Activision, Mattel, and Parker Brothers. It also had the bad fortune of existing in 1983, when the video game industry tried to do a sick jump off the monkey bars and totally beefed it. The resulting fallout flooded the market with extremely affordable used titles, which makes GameLine’s costly buy-in and pay-per-play system a bad value proposition.
Control Video Corporation, the company responsible for GameLine, folded in 1983, but theirs is not a sad story. Many founding members went on to start a new company called Quantum Computer Services, which provided basic internet services like email and news reports to Commodore 64 users through a new service called Quantum Link. In 1989, Quantum Link would rebrand itself as America Online, and expand its offerings to PC users.
Two years after the Mega Drive was introduced to Japan in 1988, Sega made an ambitious attempt at introducing home console users to online gaming. This new service, dubbed Meganet, allowed for online multiplayer over the internet, as well as access to a library of exclusive games not available in stores — provided that you purchased some extra hardware, of course. Online multiplayer required the Sega Mega Modem, whereas access to the exclusive games required Sega Game Toshokan (Sega Game Library), a special memory cartridge. Both items were sold as a bundle for ¥12,800 (approx. $80 in 1990), but the Mega Modem was also available on its own for ¥9,800 ($60).
Once you had all that, the world of online multiplayer gaming could be yours for ¥800/month, paid forward in six month increments. Well, theoretically. Fewer than 10 games were ever released with support for Meganet multiplayer, and most of them were strategy games or Go titles. The games available through the Sega Game Library cartridge didn’t support online multiplayer; they were just games you could download and play with the service.
Sega wasn’t foolin’ when it said those games were exclusive to Meganet. Of the 41 games available through Sega Game Library, only three received a normal retail release. Those games were Mega Drive classics Columns, Flicky, and Shi no Meikyuu: Labyrinth of Death, which Genesis kids would recognize as Fatal Labyrinth. Sega Meganet went offline in Japan in 1992, only to be resurrected as an email service in Brasil in 1995 by Sega’s regional distribution partner, Tectoy.
Also in 1995, Nintendo would enter the subscription-based streaming arena with Satellaview, a satellite-based add-on for the Super Famicom. Satellaview was easily the most complicated and expensive of all the nascent game streaming services of the era, but that didn’t stop it from becoming Japan’s most successful. But before we get to why it worked, we have to talk about how it worked, and that’s gonna take a minute.
For around $160 (in 1995 money), Super Famicom owners could purchase the Satellaview add-on, seen above, which allowed them to download and play games during special broadcast hours. In order to do so, however, players also needed to own a “BS (Broadcast Satellite) tuner,” which had to be purchased or rented from St.GIGA, a satellite radio company that provided back-end services for the Satellaview. This thing cost ¥33,000 (nearly $400) to buy outright, or ¥5,400/$65 to rent for six months. You also needed a subscription to St.GIGA’s normal satellite radio service and a subscription to Nintendo’s Satellaview service. So! Assuming that you weren’t already a St.GIGA subscriber, getting into the Satellaview was not an economical endeavor.
For your trouble (and yen), you gained access to a rotating daily schedule of Satellaview broadcasts, which often included special “Soundlink” games. Since the Satellaview was able to receive satellite radio audio at the same time as satellite radio data, this enabled certain games to have radio-quality voice acting and music at specific moments in the game, which were synced to live St.GIGA audio broadcasts.
Soundlink-enabled games included BS Dragon Quest I, BS F-Zero, BS Harvest Moon, and BS The Legend of Zelda, the last of which included live narration of specific story beats. In order to make sure that all players received the narration at the same time, BS The Legend of Zelda featured an in-game clock that represented “Zelda Time,” which kept running even when the game was paused. Players knew that certain events would happen at certain times in Zelda Time, and were meant to plan accordingly.
Satellaview broadcasts took place for a few afternoon hours every day between April 23, 1995 and June 30, 2000. In addition to games, Satellaview owners could also ready digital magazines during broadcast hours, which included information on upcoming games and various happenings in the lives of Japan’s many pop idols. Some magazines also supported Soundlink, and would include narration from celebrities of the time, including comedy troupe All Night Nippon. One could argue that Satellaview’s Soundlink magazines were one of (if not the) earliest forms of syndicated podcast distribution.
Finally, we arrive at what was undoubtedly the greatest game streaming service of yesteryear: Sega Channel. Launched in December of 1994, Sega Channel followed the PlayCable business model in almost every respect — users could subscribe through their cable provider for around $15 a month, and in return they gained on-demand access to a rotating library of new, classic, and unreleased Sega Genesis titles. I had Sega Channel in my youth and can personally verify that it worked flawlessly, that the games were totally great, and that it was super dope 100 percent of the time.
To be able to flick on my Model 2 Genesis and play any of the 50 games available that month was mind-blowing. I could play as many different games as I wanted, without having to drag my parents to the local Hastings. And if I didn’t like a game, I could just load up another, instead of having to sit out the rest of a 5-day Batman Forever rental. Sega Channel also lead to the discovery of some of my family’s all-time favorite games, including Mega Bomberman, which my mom still plays to this day.
Over the span of its four year lifetime, Sega Channel featured an approximate 325 games, including prototypes of unreleased titles, as well as exclusive localizations for Japanese games that weren’t available at North American retail. It was easily the best thing about owning a Sega Genesis; the ultimate ace in the hole for schoolyard Sega vs. Nintendo debates. I may not have had Super Mario World or Link to the Past, but I did have 50 new games every month, and sometimes they were future classics like Vectorman or Comix Zone.
Now, in 2019, I have a very young subscription to Xbox Games Pass on PC, and it’s basically the same thing. The user-side of technology has finally caught back up to where it was 25 years ago, and while consumers do need to be weary of a future where we don’t actually own anything, I’m happy to pay $5 a month to find out what I do want to own.