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Tommy Tallarico is a born salesman.
Throughout the majority of our 90-minute chat with the Intellivision CEO, it’s clear he has the gift of the gab and is all too happy to go off on lengthy speeches about the benefits of his upcoming system, the Intellivision Amico.
Even before our interview has properly started, as we’re still engaging in preliminary chit-chat, he’s already keen to bring up the recent addition of Amico branding in thousands of GameStop stores across North America.
“The important thing to know about that is that when you’ve walked into GameStop or any game store over the last 25 years, you see blue for PlayStation, green for Xbox, red for Nintendo and that’s it,” he says. “The last time I remember a fourth section was, like, orange and white for the Sega Dreamcast.
“Like seriously, think about it: when was the last time that they promoted a section of their store at retail – not online, anyone can put anything online – but at retail, for a fourth video game console? Right? It’s been almost 30 years! What an amazing accomplishment, right?”
We’ve been here before, of course. This is far from the first time we’ve seen a company try to break the ‘big three’ and establish itself as the fourth pillar in console gaming, and even though Intellivision is a brand steeped in history success is far from guaranteed.
There’s a lot here to suggest, however, that the Amico might just manage to do what the likes of the Ouya, OnLive and the Atari VCS have failed to accomplish.
Tallarico may be a newcomer to console development, but he’s been involved in the games industry for over three decades, mainly as a music composer. After joining Virgin Mastertronic’s game testing department at the age of 21, he offered to compose the music for the Game Boy version of Prince of Persia in his spare time for free.
Virgin was so impressed with his work that within six months he had been made head of the publisher’s audio division, and in the years that followed he created the soundtracks for games like Aladdin, Cool Spot, The Terminator and Earthworm Jim.
These days, Tallarico is better known as the creator of Video Games Live, a series of concerts that combine video presentations with live orchestras from around the world to turn game music into a rock concert. Naturally, being something of a showman, Tallarico hosts the show itself and is more than happy to grab his guitar and take centre stage (it clearly runs in the family: his cousin is Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler).
His confidence isn’t in question, then, but when Tallarico acquired the rights to the Intellivision name in 2018 and announced plans to launch the first new Intellivision-branded console in more than 40 years, it’s probably fair to suggest that not many people expected a revolution.
Because of a general lack of coverage in the games media, you’d be forgiven for not being fully aware of what the Amico does yet. You may not have even been aware that it existed until now.
Set for release this October, the Amico is specifically aimed at families: not just in the sense that Nintendo is considered a ‘family’ company, but a system whose entire ecosystem and game library revolves around safe, accessible gaming.
Mattel, Sesame Workshop and Usaopoly have committed to licensing games for the platform, with software set to range from between $2.99 and $9.99. 30 exclusive games will be available at launch, according to Intellivision. The platform will also be the exclusive home of Earthworm Jim 4, a new instalment in the 90s platformer series.
“I’ve been in the games industry for a long time now and, being a fan of video games my entire life and being in the industry for 30 years… I dunno, I just kinda found the industry was changing, especially over the last 10 years or so,” Tallarico explains.
“I couldn’t play games with my mom and dad anymore on a PlayStation, or Xbox or even a Nintendo Switch. You know? My wife and I couldn’t play games together: she would play games on her mobile, I’d play games on my PS4, in different rooms, and even when we were in the same room together, we’re playing different games on mobile and it’s just like… it seems like that’s where the industry has gone.
“With Amico, we want to bring people together, no matter what your skill level is. So all of our games are couch co-op and single-player. And then, we find today in the gaming industry, all of these games are $70, $80, $90, $100 for special editions, right?
“You have loot boxes, you have microtransactions, you have in-game advertising, in-game purchases, and that’s not the way it was when me and you were growing up, you know? So we wanted to take those kinda old-school retro sensibilities that we all loved and got us so involved.”
To ensure the Amico sticks to its principles, a number of rules have been established. Every game will cost $9.99 or less at launch. There will be no DLC, microtransactions or in-game ads. Every game will be rated E for Everyone (or PEGI 7 in Europe). There is no extreme violence, sexual content or swearing. Every game will include local co-op play, and every game will be exclusive to the Amico.
The aim is to create a console that families can play together without any fear whatsoever that they’ll encounter something that isn’t family friendly: a step further than the Switch, which may be considered a family console to some but still has the likes of Doom Eternal and Resident Evil in its eShop.
This philosophy extends to the Amico controller too, which looks more like a mobile phone with its large colour touchscreen, but also includes a large circular directional pad and contains other features like force feedback and LED lighting.
“The controllers for home consoles are so complex,” Tallarico complains. “I’m sorry, but people will say, ‘well, Switch, Switch, Switch, that’s the more simple, family-friendly thing’, and it is, but my mom – who bought a Wii just so she could go bowling – my mom didn’t buy a Switch. You know?
“There’s a whole bunch of people out there who are intimidated by dual analogue sticks and shoulder buttons and multiple face buttons, and the way the user interfaces are, and the way they have to set up parental controls, and the way they have to navigate through the store.
“Like, if I asked you, show me where my mom – and she’s 80 – can go to the Nintendo Switch store to find couch co-op games that she can play with her grandchildren. She would have to go on the internet, search around, try to find them.
“There’s a whole bunch of people out there who are intimidated by dual analogue sticks and shoulder buttons and multiple face buttons.”
“And again, I’m not trying to disparage Sony, Microsoft or Nintendo in any way, shape or form. I love them, and appreciate them all, and I honour them all, but when somebody asks: ‘What are the differences, why should you exist?’ I have to make these comparisons.”
One of the big things Tallarico is keen to stress is that the Amico is designed to let players of all skill levels play together and have a relatively even chance of winning.
“A non-gamer could sit down with you, and you might have had an Amico for a year and that person could sit down but – because of the way the games are designed and laid out and this and that – could beat you the first time you play with them. And isn’t that something? Isn’t that amazing?” he asks.
It certainly is on paper. But we ask him what this means for people who actually like the idea of mastering a game and being consistently better at it than their family and friends. Is this a hardcoded handicap system and is it optional?
It isn’t all down to handicapping, Tallarico explains, pointing out that some of the 35 games planned for launch will be board games, card games and party games that naturally level the playing field because of their rules. As for the other, more ‘core’ games, he stresses that Intellivision’s solution to multiplayer balancing won’t be as blatant as something like rubber-banding in Mario Kart.
“The Mario Kart thing is almost too predictable, right?” he laughs. “So for those ‘hardcore’ games we’ll give [players who are behind] hints on the controller screen, like the next area where a power-up is gonna be. So we don’t just give them stuff, but we might give them slight advantages.
“We call this kind of methodology of doing this our ‘karma gaming engine’. It’s not really an engine, but people know that term. It’s just an outlook. It’s not an actual code or anything, like a code that everybody puts in their game, it’s just the way they approach things.
“But, that being said, that’s for our hardcore games. For all the other ones, they’re just being designed like ‘oh, I can I can guess a word just as well as you can’. It’s just like sitting down and playing Monopoly with someone, or any board game – everyone has an equal chance at the beginning.”
We joke that he might want to “do a Warner Bros” and patent this karma gaming engine he’s telling us about.
“Well, we have,” he replies. “We have a patent pending on it, because there are some proprietary things that we’re approaching in a very unique way that no-one really does. You can’t patent rubber banding, right, but that’s not what we’re doing.
“We’re actually looking at player profiles and the way they play, and collecting that data in a unique way, in order to let our system or the game know that, hey, this is a person who may not be as good as the other person.”
As curious as we are to find out more about how this system is going to work, we’re more keen to know why he thinks the Amico has yet to get major coverage in the specialist gaming press.
Given that the branding now adorns GameStop’s shelves, it can’t be ignored that most major gaming sites (including this one) have only written one or two articles about the Amico to date.
We ask him if this is a failure of Intellivision to spread the word or a failure of the gaming press to give it enough coverage. His response is surprising: it’s all part of the plan.
“I don’t believe it is anyone’s fault or anything,” he tells us. “Sure, it would be easy for me to sit here and say, oh, I wish we were covered more in the gaming media. You know, all that stuff’s gonna come. We wanna put the Amico in people’s hands, and that’s when people will write about it and they’ll be excited about it.
“As you know, the games industry has… there’s a lot of failures that have washed up on shore, people that have tried to put out a fourth console to compete with Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo.
“In fact, even the biggest companies in the world, including Google spending a billion dollars on Stadia… I mean, how’s that working out for them? And they have the biggest infrastructure, and marketing, and bank account in the world, and they seem to be struggling out of the gate.
“Google spending a billion dollars on Stadia… I mean, how’s that working out for them? And they have the biggest infrastructure, and marketing, and bank account in the world, and they seem to be struggling out of the gate.”
“You know, people like to say to us: ‘Well, Intellivision, that’s not as big a name as Atari.’ Yet you see Atari coming out with a console, and even they did a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo to raise money, right? You see them stumbling out of the gate and quite frankly, Intellivision Amico has done way more pre-orders than Atari even though we only had 20% of the home console market in the early ‘80s to their 80%, right?
“So, am I bitter? Not at all, I completely, totally understand and get it. And the thing for us – the great thing to remember – is we haven’t started advertising yet. You know, you don’t want to start advertising your product until people are two or three weeks from being able to get one.
“And because of COVID and all of the issues that come because of that like component shortages, massive price hikes, difficulty in shipping from China to the shores, all of these things come into play. So we can’t pull the advertising trigger too early, we need to be 100% sure. Those consoles need to be on the boat, headed for the shores, before we start to spend real money in advertising.”
In fact, as far as Tallarico is concerned, the die-hard video game fans are near the bottom of his priority list. Even though more than 10,000 Amico consoles have already been pre-ordered and those customers are presumably regular video game players, he’s not convinced that’s where the big money will be at launch.
“The incredible thing is all of the pre-orders that have happened, all of the hype, this is all just kinda the retro [fans] being interested in it,” he tells me, “but that’s not even our target audience.
“Our target audience are moms, and families, and seniors, and casuals, and hyper-casuals and even non-gamers, similar to that big audience that propelled the Wii. Those are the folks we’re going for, we’re going for the 3.1 billion people that play mobile games every day, not the 200 million people that are considered ‘hardcore gamers’.
“Let Google and Atari and Microsoft and Sony and Nintendo… let them fight over those 200 million people. Do I think that ‘hardcore’ gamers will eventually pick up the machine? Absolutely. But we’re not marketing or targeting or advertising to them.
“I think they’ll pick it up as a second console, you know, they’re not gonna buy Amico instead of a PlayStation 5, but they might buy a Playstation 5 and an Amico for when their non-gamer friends come over, to pull it out like all these folks did with the Wii.”
He cites to us positive coverage in “mom communities” like Moms.com and Romper.com as evidence that this plan is going well, and argues that now the Amico is starting to get a presence in GameStop, ‘core’ players will eventually start taking notice.
We begin to ask him: “But do you ultimately feel that these ‘hardcore’ players are going to be crucial to building–”
“Well, at the same time, are you concerned that the audience that plays mobile games and bought the Wii back in the day are going to be a harder sell when it comes to getting them to spend $249 on a new console?”
He doesn’t appear to be, reminding us that the Wii cost $249 at launch and only had one controller and a “tech demo” – which, to be fair, was the iconic Wii Sports, which ended up in 82 million homes – whereas the Amico will have two controllers, the ability to connect mobile phones as additional controllers and six free games.
“My mom spent $249 [on the Wii]”, he says. “Families, especially moms, if they see something that will bring the family together and they can enjoy, price is not the big issue to them as it is to a typical gamer. So it’s a different dynamic.
“And I can also share with you that we’ve done a ton of market research and focus group testing with our target audience, with people who are not our target audience… I’ll tell you who our target audience is not: 12 to 30-year-old men and boys.
“I’ll tell you who our target audience is not: 12 to 30-year-old men and boys.”
“Those are the very bottom of the people who are the least interested in Amico. And that’s totally fine. We’re not going to try to change their minds, we take that data and we say ‘okay, now we know, let’s be smart about this, let’s not try to convince somebody who doesn’t [care yet]’.
“But who’s at the top? Here in the US we’d call it ‘middle America’. The middle America mom, Walmart shoppers, that kind of average household. You put a PS4 controller in my dad’s hand and it’s an absolute non-starter. You could give my dad a Switch for free. ‘Here you go, dad.’ And he would never play it. He would never even hook it up. Because it would be too complicated for him.”
He also seems certain that the Amico will gain some of the mobile market, despite the obvious arguments that everyone has a phone and free-to-play games are rife.
“Why are there 3.1 billion mobile players and only 200 million people playing on PC and the big three?” he asks me, before quickly answering anyway. “Well, it’s not just because of convenience. Some people say it’s because of price: no, in the US, the average person spends $93 per year on mobile, so it’s not just ‘oh, because it’s free’. No, that’s not it.
“Does convenience have something to do with it? Absolutely. But our games aren’t big seven-hour things. Consider us something more like a board game experience where a group of people get together: ‘Oh, we played this game for 15-20 minutes, then we switched to this game for a half hour, then we played this other one for 20 minutes’, then boom, you’re done.”
Tallarico undoubtedly talks a good game, and if it turns out he’s right and the ‘casual’ crowd (for want of a better term) flocks to the Amico then this thing could be very successful. But we put it to him that if it is, it’ll be because of the Amico name rather than the Intellivision one.
It may be a bit harsh to tell the CEO of a company that his 42-year-old brand name may not have much sway, but it’s also realistic. As impressive as the Intellivision console was for its time, it only sold 3 million units in its first four years on sale, compared to the 30 million of its competitor, the Atari VCS (later renamed the 2600).
Given that Atari is arguably a more popular name (especially in Europe), and the recent Atari VCS reboot has failed to even warm the gaming world’s seat, let alone set it alight, it stands to reason that Tallarico can’t rely on the Intellivision name to sell the console. Somewhat surprisingly, he agrees.
“Absolutely, you’re 100% correct,” he says. “Especially for the target audience that we’re going for. I don’t think that a 40-year-old mom knows the name Intellivision.
“Intellivision brings a legacy to the table, which is cool, and kind of like a cherry on top, but it’s certainly not the basis of what we’re doing. It’s up to us for people to find out about our legacy and history, but we’re certainly not thinking that’s what’s gonna bring us to the finish line here, and that people are gonna recognize what it is.
“I don’t think that a 40-year-old mom knows the name Intellivision.”
“We’re pretty sure that 90% of the people who will be purchasing Amico have never heard the name Intellivision, and again, that’s part of an uphill battle to climb, but I think that when those 90% do find out that “oh wow, this has been a brand that’s been around for 40+ years”, that becomes kind of a cool factor. So we’re proud of it, but we’re not resting on it.”
This is all well and good, but what happens if the Amico does become a success and its key principles experience pressure? If there’s money to be made, will Tallarico really stick to the Amico’s rules that no game on the system will ever feature loot boxes, DLC, or violence? After all, when the console was originally announced, the first trailer stated that no game would cost more than $7.99 and that figure has since changed to $9.99.
One of the most impressive looking launch titles for the Amico is a stylish reboot of Breakout being developed by Choice Provisions, the team previously responsible for the excellent Bit.Trip games.
We test the water by putting a situation to Tallarico: what happens if everyone falls in love with the game at launch and asks for more? Will he break his rule and allow DLC stages to be released?
“No, we just do Breakout 2,” he says. “I mean, that’s the great thing about our pricing, right? You know, as of this interview we’re doing now, all releases will be $9.99 or less on digital, and that’s gonna be on launch.
“And the reason I say is that I want to leave ourselves room so that, like, if Earthworm Jim 4 comes out, that might be a $14.99 digital title. We don’t want to limit ourselves to a certain budget just because ‘oh, well, all of our games are $9.99 or less’, that’s not the important thing.
“The important thing is a great, awesome game and there are gonna be some exceptions where we’re gonna want to spend a little bit more on an epic game. You know, everything is based around budget pricing, so we might bump the price of digital eventually. But on launch I can tell you that everything will be $9.99 or less.
“So because it’s such a great price point, doing a Breakout 2 makes more sense to us, as opposed to ‘oh, you want 15 more levels, well that’ll be £2.99’. I just don’t like the idea of it, and I just think it’s kind of… it’s hard for me to answer these questions because I don’t want to tear down people who are doing it. It’s just something that we’re not interested in doing, that’s all.”
A noble stance, to be sure, but we’ve finally found a crack in the seemingly perfect pitch: one of those principles – no game more than $9.99 – isn’t set in stone. Could the same be said for the others, then? We put another fantasy scenario to him:
“Is the price the only ‘pillar’ of Amico that could potentially change? Because another one is ‘no violence’, but what if one day Rockstar got in touch and said: ‘We love what you’re doing with the board game side of things, so we’d love to make a poker spin-off with Grand Theft Auto charact-‘”
“Never,” he interrupts firmly. “Will never happen. That’s one rule that we will never, ever break. Because my two biggest goals with our customers are trust and value. That’s the two biggest things.
“You know, so many video game companies are run by ‘how much money can we make off of people?’ That’s their number one. That’s how they design their games, that’s how they design their infrastructure, that’s how they design their ecosystems. ‘How much money can we grab from these people?’
“So many video game companies are run by ‘how much money can we make off of people?’ That’s their number one. That’s how they design their games, that’s how they design their infrastructure, that’s how they design their ecosystems. ‘How much money can we grab from these people?'”
“That is not how I approach Intellivision, Amico or anything else. I know for a fact that if you provide trust and value to people then the success will follow.
“And the second you break that trust now all of a sudden people aren’t willing to spend $7.99 on a game because ‘the last one I bought really sucked’ or ‘they said that every game was for the family but this one here, that wasn’t? Oh, now I have to go check every single game now?’ Boom, trust broken, you’re done.”
We’re glad he mentioned Earthworm Jim 4 and not us, because it does bring our attention to the elephant in the room. Over the past few years, Jim’s designer Doug TenNapel has been the subject of a string of controversies surrounding transphobic, homophobic and racist comments. Given that a new Earthworm Jim game could be the Amico’s first big marquee title, we ask if Tallarico is concerned that the coverage will be tainted.
“You know, it’s a totally fair question,” he says. “First of all, I think we’re gonna have a lot of interesting, big hits. We’re shooting for 35 games on launch, Earthworm Jim is not one of those. We’ll probably hold that back, maybe a year. We want to establish Amico as a great, family, fun, entertaining system without any controversy surrounding that.
“Even if this Earthworm Jim exclusive didn’t exist on Amico, we feel that the system in no way, shape or form needs that to succeed, we really don’t. And again, remember, let’s bring it back to one of my original statements: 90% of the people who’ll play this don’t know Intellivision’s name. Well, probably a good percentage of our audience have no idea what Earthworm Jim is, right? So that plays to our advantage as well.
“So yeah, we feel very confident that Amico will be established with our audience the way we want it to and need it to, and the way that they want it to be. And will Earthworm Jim cause controversy when it comes out? To the gaming crowd, it will. But, again, what’s the old expression…”
“Nah, I don’t even want to say that. But sometimes people find out about new products due to controversy, and while I’d prefer it not to be there it’s not necessarily the worst thing in the world that could happen to a brand new console entering the game industry.
“If I could add this: no matter what we do towards that situation, it’s going to upset people. I just want folks reading this to understand that it’s a no-win situation, right?
“So if Doug is removed from the product that’s going to upset just as many, if not more people than if he stays. And to be clear, he’s not an employee, he’s more like an advisor to the game when we need him. Most of the Earthworm Jim team are employees of Intellivision or are paid contractors of Intellivision. Doug TenNapel is not.
“But, the game Earthworm Jim was made by 10 people, and Doug was one of those people, and he brought fun things to the project. So I hope that our approach – which is that he’s not making any money off the game, he’s not being paid to work on the game – we hope that for the people who have a very strong difference of opinion with Doug, that that maybe helps in their minds.”
Our time is coming to an end, and it would be remiss of us not to ask the obligatory COVID question. While the pandemic has affected countless businesses, it also had a personal impact on Tallarico’s plans with the Amico, because the console’s original release date was supposed to be October 10: his late sister Karen’s birthday.
During a video presentation last August, a visibly emotional Tallarico explained that the date would no longer be met due to the pandemic, and was being pushed back to April 15, 2021. The date was recently pushed back again, and now the console is once again looking at an October 10 release, albeit one year later than planned.
We ask Tallarico if, allowing himself to be selfish for a minute, he’s secretly happy that he can meet that very personal release date again.
“No,” he laughs. “I wish you were playing it already now. You know, dates are nice, and that stuff, but at the end of the day I want this to be in the hands of folks, and I would’ve rather people had it in April than had it in October.
“And the other thing too, to be quite frank: look, we’re a smaller company startup with 55+ employees, with a 15,000 square foot building, four offices around the world: our overhead is huge and so every month that passes that this thing doesn’t come out is a financial strain on the company.
“So as CEO, we need to look at this and say ‘look, we have to get this thing out as soon as we can,’ but we also refuse to put out something that we’re not 100% happy with, and that’s the other thing.
“Again, you see things like the Atari VCS, as an example – and again, not to put them down because I know the struggles and how difficult this is – but… you know what, let’s use Atari, PlayStation 5 and Xbox, and Cyberpunk, let’s use those four things so I’m not singling somebody out. And let’s throw Stadia in there, right?
“Look at those projects. I just named five projects which are huge, huge projects by huge, huge companies, and look at the disaster that has caused, and the negativity that has caused, because a lot of people would say out there ‘you know what? I wish they would have waited’.
“We need to look at this and say ‘look, we have to get this thing out as soon as we can,’ but we also refuse to put out something that we’re not 100% happy with.”
“So it’s a tough balance, especially in the ‘hardcore gamer’ world where everybody wants it now, but they want it perfect. I think it was Miyamoto who had the famous line: ‘A delayed game is eventually good, a rushed game is bad forever.’ And that’s our thing.
“Our focus is on putting out a quality product, and if it takes longer because of what’s going on in the world, then so be it. We’re willing to continue to face challenges for as long as we have to until the product is right, and we’re happy and it’s something we’re proud of.”
Our conversation may be over and our questions may have been addressed, but the Amico itself remains one large unanswered question: will the general public buy into Tallarico’s vision of family-friendly gaming, and will it do so to the extent that the console will become a success?
Amico is currently advertised in GameStop alongside the major console platforms, but can that last?
Time will tell, of course. But while there will doubtless be debates over whether the Amico will be the next Wii or the next Ouya (or, far more likely, somewhere in between) one thing that’s less debatable is that the console’s main principles – no microtransactions, no loot boxes, no ads, cheap games and no questionable content – could be a boon for families if it’s handled properly.
There’s every chance that a few years from now the Amico will have joined the likes of the Ouya, the Virtual Boy and – at this rate – the Atari VCS as a system that promised big things but ultimately failed to deliver. At this point, though, Tallarico is extremely confident that this won’t be the case.
To his credit, being the born salesman that he is, he’s saying all the right things. And if those things come to fruition, people will certainly be paying more attention to the Amico before too long.