Friday, September 20, 2019

The Intellivision Amico - Can a "Family Friendly" Console Succeed?

The Intellivision Amico in Metallic Pearl, courtesy of Intellivision Entertainment
Who remembers the Intellivision today?  Some readers with a sense of history will remember the console as the first console to seriously compete with Atari 2600 before the video game crash of 1983-84.  A few may even have had one when they were younger, have one in their collection or played one at some point in their lives.  To the general public, also-ran pre-crash consoles like the Intellivision barely register in its memory.  Intellivision is posed to make a comeback with the Amico console, a console built with the laudable goal of getting families to play video games together.  But it is a very different market that Intellivision is trying to make a splash compared to ten years ago, never mind forty.  Can the Amico become a success when it is scheduled to launch next year?  Let's explore its prospects in this article.


The Intellivision brand, the copyrights and trademarks established originally by Mattel Electronics, have bounced about over the years.  Compilations of the original games, emulated by far more advanced hardware, have been released for platforms such as the PlayStation, Windows 98, the GameCube and later for download services like Xbox Live.  The Intellivision Flashback, an emulator box in the shape of the original Master Component and using replica controllers, was sold in 2014.  There have been a few homebrew games and previously-unreleased games which have been given some form of release, reflecting that the Intellivision still has some measure of a devoted fan base.

Tommy Tallarico: The Man and His Mission

Among those devoted fans is a musician and businessman named Tommy Tallarico.  Tommy began his career in the video game industry by working on video game music for Virgin Interactive.  Among the most notable video games he composed for were Earthworm Jim (Uncredited), Earthworm Jim 2, MDK, Oddworld: Munch's Oddysee, Maximo, The Bards Tale (2004).  He and his eponymous Studios contributed substantially to the sound design for Metroid Prime, but were uncredited in the game.  Check out his wikipedia entry for his other activities and accomplishments.

The licensing entity for the Intellivision intellectual property was called Intellivision Productions until the death of Keith Robinson in 2017.  Tommy bought Keith Robinson's interest in Intellivision Productions and renamed it to Intellivision Entertainment.  Serving as President and CEO, he announced the Intellivision Amico back in May of 2018.  November of 2018 saw the first preview video and August of 2019 saw the second video.  Selected invitees were permitted to try out the console and the games contained in it at the 2019 E3 and Gamescom events.

Tommy has frequently and not without eloquence stated that families no longer play games together.  He wants to bring back the experience of getting families around the TV to play games cooperatively or in friendly competition.  Tommy has also complained that video games are too hardcore these days and that limits their appeal to the more casual gamer.  That is why he intends the Amico to have games to appeal to a wide variety of audiences, promising everything from card and board games to side scrollers and puzzle games.  He has also imposed a hard ESRB rating requirement, only games rated E or E10+ will be allowed on the system.

The Hardware - A Box o' Tricks

A good deal of information about the hardware has yet to be verified at this time.  There is RGB LED lighting around the center of the unit.  There will be multiple colors at launch.  Home game consoles tend to be released with only a single color-variant, two at most.  If successful, more colors may be released, but having a rainbow of console colors to choose from at launch suggests overconfidence.

The base unit comes with a storage and charging cradle for two Amico controllers.  The original Intellivision systems had storage spaces on their systems, but they used wired controllers.  The Amico looks like a foot bath machine with the cradle for the controllers.  The controllers are designed in a manner reminiscent of the original Intellivison, with a control disc and buttons on the edges of the controller.  A LCD touchpad takes the place of the 12-button keypad of the original controller.

Those are the facts as we have been able to verify them at this time.  We do not know for sure the what the CPU or SOC driving the system is or how much RAM it has.  It will be ARM-based, and Tommy at one point stated that the CPU was an 8-core part running at 2.1GHz.  A hardware developer friend of mine speculated that the Amico is likely using an Allwinner part from 2014-2015, a more powerful version of the chip used to power the NES and SNES Classics.

We have no shots of the system motherboard, not even a prototype or a demo unit.  Tommy says that he does not need to provide this information and there is no advantage to providing this information, the intended target market doesn't care about hardware specs.  I would agree with him that casual gamers neither understand nor care much about tech specs, but right now his audience is the hardcore and vintage gamers who often do.

This is where he and others begin to part ways.  It is important to know the specifications of new, unknown hardware, especially when so little information has been made available about the games made for it (more on that in the next section).  Hardware specifications give the more informed buyer an idea of what games the hardware can play.  The Amico intends to concentrate on 2D and 2.5D games, and while Tommy did not rule out 3D games being on the system he did state that there would be no free-roaming 3D games like Super Mario 64.

The Intellivision gamepad was one of the least well-loved features of the system.  It often can be found on lists of the Worst Controllers Ever Made.  It would probably be on a few more lists if their writers knew anything about pre-crash systems.  Following the original design so closely with the Amico's gamepad may please the relatively few people who hold nostalgia for the Intellivision, but it will likely turn off the far larger market which has no nostalgia for the Intellivision.

2D games, which are the focus of the Amico, need an accurate, precise controller.  The disc, regardless of what kind of technology is driving it, is not going to be nearly as accurate as a D-pad or a micro-switch joystick.  If players are too busy blaming the controller for unnecessary deaths and missed jumps, they may seek diversion elsewhere.  Also, with the buttons being on the edges or the sides, how is this controller going to be held?  I can't find any way that I could position my hands and feel like they will be in a comfortable position.  Controller buttons are primarily controlled by thumbs, not fingers.

The one good idea of the Amico controller is the LCD screen.  Having a screen which can be used to reconfigure controls and provide status is something that the Intellivision players could only have dreamed of back in the 1980s.  They had to insert keypad overlays to tell the player what the numberpad buttons did.  However, unless the games are carefully designed, drawing the eye away from the TV to often will be annoying.  Also, the original gamepad had raised bumps to guide the digits to the correct button, something a touch screen lacks.

Where's the Games?

We can expect from the Amico that there will be several remakes or reimagining of some of the more well-regarded games for the original Intellivision like Astro Smash and Shark! Shark!  Tommy Tallarico worked closely with Shiny Entertainment on the Earthworm Jim series, and a new Earthworm Jim game is in the works.  Other franchises which people may recognize which have been said to be receiving new life on the Amico include Ecco the Dolphin and R-Type.  The press release from October 22, 2018 identified other game series which they apparently have rights to, but almost no more information is available about any franchises someone under 34 was likely to encounter back in their youth except for Earthworm Jim.

13 months prior to launch, only a tiny amount of footage has been released showing the games vs. talking about them.  The August Youtube video shows about one second of over a dozen games, without sound.  We have had videos from Youtubers like John Riggs or comments from MetalJesusRocks who had favorable things to say about the games they were permitted to play at E3 or Gamescom.  And that's about it.

Games will be digitally downloadable and between $2.99 - $7.99.  There may be physical releases, but Tommy has been reticent to get into details because he is looking to patent the system by which external media connects to the console.  Games with such low prices are not likely to be very in depth or lengthy, so if you are looking for in-depth side scrolling games like Super Mario World, overhead exploration games like Legend of Zelda : A Link to the Past or intricate exploration games like Super Metroid, this may not he the console for you.

Most pre-crash games tend to be looked upon, by a younger crowd, as "ten-minute time wasters."  Intellivision's original games are no exception to this view, and many of the initial releases for the Amico will be be reimaginings of the original games. Unfortunately, the name recognition of such Intellivision classics like Astrosmash and Shark Shark! is not great among non-fans of the original console.

The games have promised to have no DLC, no In-App Purchases, Loot Boxes or Ads.  While that is a refreshing promise, and In-App Purchases, Loot Boxes and in-game Advertisements constitute a sad commentary on our times, they also make developers money.  They are present even in triple A releases for a reason, and it is hard to resist the extra money.  The E/E-10 ratings requirement will leave any game with bad language, realistic violence or adult themes off the Amico.  This seems a very heavy-handed requirement when consoles have parental locks on them.  Parents should be able to engage locks via the "Effortless Menu Screen System."  If the Amico is going to be successful, then there will have to be third party development for the system.  Requirements like no in-game purchases or no objectionable content or multiplayer modes required are going to discourage many developers from even considering the Amico as a development platform.

The focus on casual games is unsustainable.  "Casual games" have a connotation of being cheap and disposable, but a console with a $180 price tag is not cheap to most people and such a sum is not likely to be disposed of on a whim.  Casual gaming not done on a smartphone tends to be found down the bargain electronic aisles in Wal-mart or Target, but the Amico is not being sold for a bargain price.  I cannot see major retailers enthusiastically taking a chance on a console that claims to be for one market but does not have the attributes for it.

Marketing and Reception

The first video highlighted the experience of the team behind the Amico, and the credentials of the people listed were impressive.  However, if you may recall when the RetroVGS was renamed the Coleco Chameleon, the people and the branding attached to that cluster were impressive too.

In both these videos, the points are typically flashed with large text and epilepsy-unfriendly flashing.  The presentation is at odds with the market they are trying to reach, namely families.  This kind of marketing may appeal to teenage boys but little else.

Contrast Nintendo's marketing for the Wii.  The ads for the Wii and much of its software frequently showed families playing the games.  Tommy would like to recapture the success of the Wii, he believes the Wii targeted an underserved market of casual gamers and that they will show an interest in his console as well.  But the Wii was released before smartphones made casual games easily accessible to everyone.  In fact, there will be an Amico smartphone app that allows smartphones to behave as extra controllers.

So far, the product coverage of the Amico by the mainstream press has been somewhat limited.  Most of the major internet news sites may have made a perfunctory report about the console last May or October when it was launched, but since then gaming coverage has been very thin.  The press reception seems to have run the gamut from mild enthusiasm to bemusement to near indifference.  Many of these writers were babies and toddlers when the original Intellivision was on life support after the crash.

Not many youtubers or social media influencers have had anything to say about the Amico, and those who have so far have small followings.  Few people have played any games at the private-only showings of the Amico at the expensive industry gaming conventions where it has been displayed.  Gordon Ramsay once said something about a failed contestant on Hell's Kitchen which seems to be fairly analogous : "She should keep working as a private chef because her food is not good enough for the public."  Is it surprising that, so close to launch, the Amico has been discussed by so few?

Ultimately, the core problem with the Amico is that the market its targeting may just not be there anymore.  The Amico wants to replicate the success of the Wii, but the Wii was released during a very different time.  When the Wii was launched smartphones really didn't exist.  Responsive motion controls were a novelty in 2006 and the casual-friendly games had the appeal Nintendo was targeting.  But when smartphones finally began to play games like Angry Birds, the casual gaming market began to shift more and more away from game consoles to the smartphones and tablets.  Everyone has a tablet or a smartphone today that can play whatever games the Amico has shown, and one can usually find similar games to what the Amico has shown so far in the Play Store or the App Store.  I think it is going to be a tough sell to persuade casual gamers to buy a non-portable console which can play games so similar to the games they can play on devices they already own.

Of course, let's not forget that the company Tommy so desperately wants to emulate, Nintendo, brings on more competition to the Switch.  The Switch has been much more successful than the Wii U was, it is portable and it has an eShop infrastructure which allows access to many casual games.  The Switch Joy-Cons allow two player gaming on many games without an extra purchase.  Games like Mario Kart 8 Deluxe offer four-player split screen mode, so you and three other friends or family members can play the game in the same room at the same time, an experience the Amico is doing its best to sell.  Moreover, the Nintendo Switch Lite has just been released with a price point of $199, which is within the range of the Amico's under $200.

Tommy has said that he has the experience of industry veterans and the data from focus groups to show that the Amico can be successful.  Focus groups are like real estate appraisals, Made as Instructed as a friend of mine puts it.  If your focus group or surveys are not giving you the answers you are looking for, then you are either asking the wrong questions or using the wrong people.  A truly cynical view is that focus groups and industry veterans are a song and dance show put on to woo investors.  Arguments from Authority like these should be scrutinized with the greatest care.

Response to Critics

Information on the Amico has developed since it was first announced last May, but the press release of October and the information on the main page are the only sources which have summarized the changes in the product since its launch announcement in one place.  Tommy will talk about the Amico with almost anyone willing to give him a forum to talk about it.

Tommy began a thread on AtariAge where he posts frequently, responding to most comments whether positive or negative.  But negative comments are something of a rarity on that thread.  AtariAge mods, who seem emotionally invested in the success of the Amico have abandoned any pretense of neutrality by censoring and deleting posts and threads critical of the Amico.  This is not unlike what we have seen with the CollectorVision Phoenix, although this time its different moderators who are playing at censor.  I have been informed that AA moderators censored critical posts during the early days of the RetroVGS, but that was well before its scammy intent was proven, which culminated in the Coleco Chameleon.  The site owner is well-aware of his moderators' actions and presumably condones them because he continues to allow them to behave in this way.

A friend of mine, who had made some well-founded criticisms, was not only banned from participating in the AA thread but also any post he makes on that forum must be approved by a moderator.  Not only must his posts get approved before they are visible, regardless of subject matter, he cannot send or receive private messages to his AA account.  This status has been going on for two months and there appears to be no end in sight.

Pat Contri, a.ka. Pat the NES Punk and co-host of the Completely Unnecessary Podcast has been rather critical of the Amico. As Tommy can't rely on his AA guardians to censor a youtube video, he has gone on the offensive, frequently criticizing Pat and his co-host Ian Ferguson's views on the Amico via the AA forums and twitter.  He even posted a "short" 52-minute Youtube video response to their videos.  Tommy brings up, ad naseum, that Pat got the price of the Amico wrong on his first (of three) recent segments of the podcast devoted to the Amico.  Pat claimed the console would sell for between $200-$250, but the stated price on the webpage is "under $200."  Pat corrected himself in his second video and apologized to Tommy in the third.  However, I would note that the October press release gave a price range of $149-$179 and the main webpage, which is presumably updated more recently, says "under $200."  By the time the console is actually being sold, the price could climb higher.

If this is how Tommy is going to respond to critics going forward, this is an extremely troubling sign for the future of the Amico.  Surely the CEO overseeing the launch of a new video game console and the 20 or so exclusive games being developed with it has better things to do with his time than spend hours composing lengthy responses to critical views.  (I fully expect a lengthy response to this blog entry).  As the product comes closer to the announced launch date, October 10, 2019, there will be more critical voices.  Tommy may find it difficult to respond to every critic on console launch day and he may find fighting his critics like Hercules fighting the Hydra without fire.

Conclusion - The Long Wait

In terms of an ecosystem, the closest analogous console that the Amico can be compared to is the Ouya.  Ouya targeted casual gamers, used ARM/Android hardware and was not built by an established console maker.  Unlike the Amico, the Ouya had a huge amount of interest when it was announced, was an open system which encouraged development and had some support from major third-party software developers.  Yet with all that goodwill ($8.5 million raised via kickstarter), all those games (1,250 according to wikipedia) the console was discontinued within two years of launch and was not considered a general success.  If Amico is lucky, it might do similar business, but I predict a far more grim fate for the Amico than the Ouya had.

Tommy says that we should expect big things for 2020.  2018 and 2019 have not really shown us much, so if there are delays that push the console into 2021, that will seriously hurt the Amico's credibility.  In the meantime, we have Tommy to utter whatever vague platitudes suit the day.  But as a reward for getting those this slog of blog entry, I present you with this complimentary Amico Bingo card.  This bingo card was made by my developer friend using some of the most common of Tommy's marketing phrases and forum responses.  Hope you have some fun with it!


3 comments:

  1. I guess some people still hold on to the dream of a making their own console platform...

    I also found it funny that Earthworm Jim is one of the launch titles for this family friendly system with its gross-out and sometimes objectionable humor. Then again, it is more family friendly compared to stuff today, so...

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  2. I loved playing my friend's Intellivision back in the early 80's. Lock 'n Chase, Football & Astrosmash were particular favorites, and I have wonderful memories of those days. But I have absolutely no desire for those games again, especially if it means using that god-awful controller. If I want a 10-minute time waster, I'll use my phone. If I want a great game to play with family & friends, my XBox & PS4 have loads of amazing options.

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  3. I am not in the market for an Amico -- is there any word if they will even be sold at retail in Canada? -- but I really enjoyed this summary of the developments. Kudos!

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