Sega, In Channel Form
How the Sega Channel, a game-download service in the 1990s, helped redefine what was possible with cable lines before they became fast internet workhorses.
If you’re a fan of Nintendo today, odds are you’ve been getting a bit of an earful about the company’s botched voice chat, which is a key element of the company’s online service for the Switch.
But video game companies failing to properly roll out online features is a problem that’s anything but new—in fact, it’s been happening for decades, a mixture of failing to understand the audience and failing to properly use the technology in the right context.
On the other hand, it’s not always the problem. Sometimes, it comes down to timing. Sega had perhaps the first online service for homes that went mainstream to any degree, and it offered something incredibly cool for the ‘90s—the ability to quickly download games to your console through coaxial cable, through its Sega Channel.
Sega famously struggled with strategy during this era of its history, but much of its strategy for the device was sound. It was taking advantage of a technology already commonly in homes—cable television—in a new way, utilizing the digital capabilities to deliver games to its customers. And though it experimented with a rental-style model, it eventually landed on a Netflix-style unlimited model, more than a decade before Netflix streamed its way into our hearts.
And they already knew what was possibly coming next. Stan Thomas, the channel’s president, had a corporate history that included long stints with HBO and Time Warner Entertainment, and he seemed like he was speaking in terms that suggested the real opportunity wasn’t games.
“The reality is that through the game and The Sega Channel, we’re supplying data. Right now, the data is games. But it’s not inconceivable that we could supply other kinds of data,” Thomas told the Ganett News Service in an interview.
So what wasn’t there to love about Sega Channel? The main thing, really, is that the company didn’t put it on the market until late 1994, at which point the Genesis had been on the market for five years and Sega was about to release the Saturn. (It probably didn’t help, either, that Thomas died just four months after the Sega Channel had its official launch.) All the standard Genesis-era stuff, like an over-reliance on AC adapters, also applied. In the end, the service held on until mid-1998, outliving the Sega Saturn by a couple of months.
Sega Channel wasn’t the first online service for a video game console, though it had pioneered the concept nearly five years earlier in Japan with Sega Meganet, a dial-up service. Sega Channel, really, set the stage for fast internet. Even though the service wasn’t internet-enabled and was download-only, it unwittingly helped later cable modems because it highlighted how much “noise” there was on the cable lines. Sega was in a place to help.
“At the time, all cable services were analog and would therefore pick up noise, potentially disrupting transmissions,” SegaRetro explains. “The signal would therefore need to be cleaned by the providers as much as possible. Sega's assistance in these matters meant that despite being a gaming company, they had a major influence in the cable television infrastructure across the world.”
Soon, those cable wires would be distributing far more than just 4-megabit games.