Intellivision president Tommy Tallarico explains his developer-centric approach and how he's not betting on nostalgia to sell the new Intellivision.
Nintendo found something special when they launched the Wii a dozen years ago: a video game system that appealed to people of almost any age and could be played together with friends and family. With over 100 million units sold, the Wii is unquestionably one of the most successful consoles of all time. In the years since the Wii, Nintendo has gone back to satisfying its base, while Microsoft and Sony continue to push out content geared mostly towards the hardcore.
Tommy Tallarico, 30-year games veteran and president of Intellivision Entertainment, believes this presents a unique market opportunity for someone to come in and recapture the family-friendly console business. In October 2020, nearly 40 years after the first Intellivision system was launched, Tallarico will bring a brand-new console to the market: the Intellivision Amico.
The goal is to bring back co-op gaming and a spirit of togetherness where parents, children, family and friends can all gather together in the living room, just as they might with a board game. The Amico will become the fourth game console company to be an active member of the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) and all game will be rated either E or E10+ by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB).
Nostalgia has been red hot in the games business (especially highlighted by sales of Nintendo’s NES Classic and SNES Classic), but Tallarico told GameDaily that he’s keenly aware that Amico will not sell on Nostalgia alone. There are simply too many people who may not remember the Intellivision name.
“I totally understand that no one knows the Intellivision brand unless you're over 40 or 50. I get that,” Tallarico said. “We're not thinking, 'Oh, I hope people remember Intellivision.' No way. It's going to be our job to reintroduce them so that they understand the history of our company, and that's why the trailer started the way it [did, with the Intellivision firsts]. We have a lot of amazing things that we're proud of that we've done. But it's up to us to educate young people. So I don't think for a second that oh, people are going to buy it because it says the Intellivision brand name. No, nobody knows what it is.”
Tallarico didn’t just purchase the rights to Intellivision -- he’s actually working with a number of the original team members. He originally pitched former president Keith Robinson on the Amico idea before he passed away, and he got Keith’s blessing.
“I said, 'Look, I think the play here is to create a new console, not a flashback, just put out a greatest hits like we've done in the past, I'm talking about rebranding everything.’ He of course loved the idea, and we talked about it for a couple years… So as soon as he passed away, I contacted the other owners [to move things forward],” he said.
“The true vision of why we wanted to all do this [is] I see a huge, gaping hole in the video game industry. And it's been like this for over a decade. When I walk around E3, every year I look at all the games that are being made, including the Nintendo area, and every single one of them is for hardcore gamers. I just feel like the industry has such tunnel vision.”
PC and console gaming revenue growth has slowed, while mobile gaming has exploded, accounting for over half of global gaming, according to Newzoo. Between the complexity of consoles and the pervasiveness of mobile devices being used as babysitters, the idea of family game time has taken a hit.
“I think if you look back and think about the greatest times you've ever had while playing video games, it's always been when you've been with a group of friends or a group of family,” Tallarico continued.
“When I think about the Intellivision system, I get tears in my eyes. I get goosebumps because I think about that time in the living room, with my mom and dad and my younger brother, and having a good time. There is a connection there to my childhood and to those times spending time with your family. I can also tell you… when GoldenEye came out, your friends would come over, you'd put tournament modes on paper, you'd have double eliminations and it was the greatest time. You're all sitting there giving each other crap. But what's happened with mobile gaming, this is all going away because mobile is a very solitary experience. It's you and your phone.
“The reality is there's no family of four sitting around the living room all playing the same game on their phone as a multiplayer. And so then you say, 'Well, yeah, but there's games for the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox and the Nintendo Switch that are family-oriented, take a Mario Party or whatever.' Well again, what people don't understand, the reason the console market is shrinking so much, is because it's getting more and more complex. You can't put a PlayStation 4 controller in my dad's hands and tell him to go play a freaking video game. You can't do it. Doesn't matter how simple it is.”
Discoverability remains a huge problem in both the PC and console worlds, too. It’s horrible for developers trying to make a living, but an overload of content can lead to choice paralysis for the audience as well, similar to how some people can spend far too long just browsing everything on Netflix.
“You go on the Nintendo Switch store right now, if you're a non-gamer, where do you even start?” Tallarico asked. “There's so much garbage. They're doing the same thing that mobile's doing, a thousand new games come out every week on iOS and across Android. You look at Steam, Steam's become a wasteland, cesspool of mediocrity. Whatever happened to that Nintendo gold seal of approval? They abandoned that by the end of the NES, in fact. I know because I worked on a lot of those crappy NES games.
“And so what we're selling here... I'm not trying to compete with the power of a PlayStation, the power of an Xbox, even the power of a Nintendo. I equate it to this: They're the Ferraris. And the Ferraris are super fast, they're amazing, they stand out, they're expensive, and they only got two seats. And we're not trying to create the Prius to the Ferrari. We're not trying to create a cheaper version of what a Ferrari is. We're not the Prius. What we are is the bicycle.
“See, a bicycle, you can have four or five friends, bring 'em along. Your family can go on a bike ride together. Each one of those things gets you from point A to point B, but on a bicycle, you're taking your time. You're enjoying the nature. You're communicating with your friends. You're having a family time together.”
Tallarico admires and talks about Nintendo a lot, and it’s worth noting that the Intellivision team has brought on some key people who used to work at Nintendo, including former Nintendo of America Marketing VP Perrin Kaplan, marketing/PR executive Beth Llewlyn (both now work together at PR firm Zebra Partners) and Scott Tsumura (Tozai Games, formerly co-founder and President of Nintendo Software Technology Corporation, and a pioneer in the early days of arcade game production). So the company’s leadership knows from first-hand experience what worked for the Wii and DS and what didn’t and can apply lessons learned.
“Nintendo proved one thing 12 years ago. They proved with the Wii that non-gamers are absolutely willing to buy a home video game system,” Tallarico noted. “My mom's bought two video game systems her entire life. Christmas 1980, she bought the Intellivision, and 12 years ago, 2006, she bought a Nintendo Wii for herself so she could go bowling and crack open a bottle of wine with my aunts and uncles. You probably have a lot of people in your life who did the same thing. They weren't gamers, but they went out and got the Wii.
“They probably also never bought another game after that. They spent $250 on a bowling simulator. Wii Sports wasn't even a real game. It was nothing more than a tech demo. And so people want this stuff so much because they want to play with their friends and family. And again, what we're going to have to do is we're going to have to reintroduce this type of gaming. We're going to have to reintroduce this to millennials and teenagers and kids, because they've never experienced it before... I want to be able to play games with my mom and dad again, and there's nothing out there that can do that right now.”
The Amico is expected to retail between $150 and $180 when it goes on sale in 2020. That’s not that much money for a new console, but it does seem on the high end for a device that’s not in the same league as Xbox or PlayStation. A lot of parents are also happy to use their existing phone or tablet to entertain their kids, so why would they want to spend hundreds more on another system and games?
“What we're selling is the ability to play games without guilt. You're spending quality time with your family. And again, that's not something you can do on a tablet,” Tallarico said.
In the spirit of family gaming, the Amico will come with two controllers (most consoles today only come with one) and the games will be a roughly 50/50 mix between reimagined classics and fresh IP. Every game that Amico hosts will be exclusive to the platform. That doesn’t mean that the Amico can’t offer some of the same franchises from indies on other consoles, but Tallarico stressed that they will need to make a special version just for Amico. That might make the system seems less appealing to some developers, but Intellivision is actually doing everything it can to be supportive of the indie crowd.
“We're focusing on creating the best 2D tools, technology and architecture. It'll be easier to create 2D games on our system than to create 2D games on the current platforms out there,” Tallarico said. “If you talk to the guys who created Cuphead, they'll tell you that they were maxing out the PlayStation, because when you have a 3D architecture, you have to approach games in a very, very different way. And the things that you have to pile on top like a system like Unity or an Unreal Engine, when you're developing a game for that, that's taking a lot of processing power that you don't even need when you're doing a 2D system.
“And that's why you'll see on our team [someone like] Mike Mika. He's a guy who's been developing 2D games more than anyone else across the last 20 years. The Street Fighter Anniversary that everyone was freaking out about at E3 this year, that's [from] Mike Mika and Other Ocean… These are the people that are helping to create our architecture, creating our demos, creating games for us. It's going to be pretty neat.”
Friendly architecture is one thing, but how will Amico solve the dreaded discoverability problem that turned platforms like Steam into a “cesspool?”
“When we all sat down to design this system… guys like me and David Perry and Jason Enos, because we're developers, we know all the things that are wrong with the video game industry. And so we went out to fix every single one of them. And so not only from an end user standpoint, but from a developer standpoint,” Tallarico said.
“[Most devs don’t] have millions of dollars in marketing. They don't have even a marketing or PR department. They're just trying to figure out how to create a game, and then once they get it up there, now they're scrambling to figure out, 'Oh, we got to get word of mouth out there. How can we be seen? Can we connect with a YouTuber? Maybe he'll talk about it.' It's all total guerrilla marketing at this point. But the reality is that a lot of artistic game developers don't necessarily have those big marketing chops. And so they fall short in that.
“The industry can't even sustain itself anymore. When a talented, smart guy like Cliff [Bleszinski] can't make it in the development world, then we got a problem. All those mid-sized developers are going away. So you're either owned by Ubisoft or Activision or EA, or you're part of that 500-person team, or you're a dorm room developer. It's like a middle class going away... we want to bring the middle class back.”
That’s a lofty ambition, but the solution to the problem isn’t that complex, according to Tallarico. It’s about limiting the offerings on Amico and ensuring quality as gatekeeper.
“We have complete strict quality control. We are not an open store that everybody's going to be able to upload their fart apps to,” Tallarico noted. “Again, the Nintendo Switch is a perfect example of something going downhill, and if you talk to any developer who's developing for the Switch, they have this hollow feeling in their chest right now. 'Oh my god, we just spent a year and a half of our life and no one's buying our stuff.'
“[For devs] we are with you 100 percent from the beginning. So we say to the developer, 'Look, here's the deal. We believe in your project or we believe in you as a company, so we're going to pay for everything.'
"That's the first thing that's unique on our system. We pay. So there's zero financial risk for developers. Zero."
“And then the amount that we pay goes toward an advancement of royalties. But here's where the big differentiator is… The Intellivision Amico will never, ever have two games come out at the same time, ever. So we're all about quality over quantity. And then when the game is released, it's like having the front page of EGM or the end-cap unit at Best Buy or Walmart or the front page of the Sunday circular. So you're going to be that exclusive front page game, brand new and you'll sit there for 10 days to 14 days.
“Every single person who turns on their Amico is going to know about your game, and of course we're going to be helping with marketing as well. So all of those things that the developers don't have access to and who nobody's helping them out with, that's what we are. We're helping with marketing, we're helping with PR, and we're helping more importantly with exposure, because you're going to be the star of the show for those 10 days to 14 days where everyone who turns on the console is going to see your title. You'll never, ever get lost.”
Intellivision has a long road ahead and a lot to prove. With nearly two years to go before launch, it’s going to be a marketing challenge to keep people interested. But why did Intellivision reveal Amico now? Wouldn’t it have been easier to make sure all their ducks are in a row and then announce with just a few months to build hype?
“I'm going to give you the real answer. I'm not going to make some shit up that I think you want to hear,” Tallarico assured me. “We had to hold back so much stuff. In the press release and the trailer, there's a lot of info in there and it's not even 20 percent of it… So every month or so there's going to be some big crazy ass announcement.
“We also wanted to make sure that Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo knew when we were coming and how we were coming. That's really important… not that I'm competing with them. But we also don't want to come out on the same day as the PlayStation 5. And by the way, they don't want to come out on the same day as us either.”
The biggest reason for the early reveal, however, is simply that Intellivision’s investors demanded it, Tallarico informed me.
“This isn't a Kickstarter. This isn't Indiegogo… We're not asking people to put down money before they get a chance to play it [but our investors] have to see that this is something that people are excited about,” he said.
Full disclosure: GameDaily parent company Greenlit Content does work with Intellivision as a client. GameDaily's coverage remains objective.
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