Coming as a surprise to pretty much everyone, two of the primary players in the very first video game console war have both announced their intention to release a brand new console to market in the coming months. Atari Interactive plans to release their new Atari VCS to market in 2019, and have carefully shared limited bits of information with the gaming public. Intellivision Entertainment also recently came out of the woodwork to announce that they also plan to release a new Intellivision console to market, but details so far are scarce, and a release date is unknown. Given the relative maturity of the market, I thought I’d take a look at where these companies came from, and why they think now might be the right time to join in the festivities. I’ll also look at whether or not either is likely to be successful…
The first console war
Everyone knows about the major console wars – Sega vs Nintendo, Sony vs everyone, and now Sony vs Microsoft (with some Nintendo on the side for flavour), but the very first console war actually happened way back in the early ‘80s.
Kicking off in the final years of the 1970s with the release of Atari’s 2600 (initially referred to as the VCS – Video Computer System, which itself was released to compete with the very first cartridge-based system, the Magnavox Odyssey), the second generation of video game consoles was where video games as we know them today first came into being.
Essentially, Magnavox came up with the idea to release a console that could play multiple video games on cartridges (the first generation of consoles had inbuilt games) – an idea that Atari latched onto as a means to distribute their widely successful arcade games. Atari launched to (virtually) immediate success.
Soon after, Mattel Electronics released their home console, the Intellivision, with a number of unique functions – the controllers themselves were the most original and set the machine apart from Atari’s beast. In later years, Coleco also jumped on the bandwagon, releasing their ColecoVision to market, a machine that boasted technical superiority to the other machines of the generation, and as a result, managed to win some share by virtue of its arcade ports being more accurate representations.
Long story short, Atari managed to secure the majority of the console business in the late 70s and early 80s, but a number of other parties managed to jump on for the ride, all to varying degrees of success – although it wouldn’t be wrong of me to suggest that the biggest players here were Mattel’s Intellivision and Atari’s 2600.
The Great Video Game Crash of 1983
Unfortunately, the “me too” attitude of technology manufacturers in the early 1980s lead to a number of issues – firstly, apart from the big four, there were many other manufacturers making consoles of inferior quality. Many of these were similar to the consoles of the first generation (with in-built games), and this put a bad taste in consumers mouths. Add to this the greed of various video game developers rushing as many titles to market as possible, and the market was soon flooded with poorly developed video games – everyone fighting for their share of this new, booming market.
Unfortunately for everyone involved at the time, consumers weren’t dumb… And while there were still great games being released, there were too many duds, and people began to see the machines as a fad that was soon to be over – nobody was all that interested to play these games anymore, they’d seen it all before.
This led to a drop in sales not seen before or since (a decrease of over 90% in sales between 1983 and 1985). As a result, several manufacturers and video game developers met their commercial demise, some never to be seen again, and others (like Mattel) simply left the industry and focused on other things.
Of course, the issue was deeper than I’ve outlined above, with a newly burgeoning home computer market proving more competition than expected, as well as the effects of inflation, but the results were clear – the market died a big death and stayed that way for some time.
What happened to the major players?
Mattel moved away from developing its own hardware and focused back on toys. In later years, they partnered with Nintendo and distributed their Nintendo Entertainment System hardware under licence for certain global regions. Since this relationship ended, Mattel has not had any major impact on the gaming market (to my knowledge, at least).
Intellivision, a trademark of Mattel at the time, was sold to a former Mattel executive who formed INTV, who then managed the Intellivision business until the unit was discontinued in 1990. I’m not sure what happened to the rights between then and now, but more recently, Tommy Tallarico (of Video Games Live! fame) purchased the rights from one of the Intellivision founders and relaunched the business as Intellivision Entertainment.
Coleco acted very similarly to Mattel, opting to leave the video game market in 1985 when the ColecoVision was discontinued. Where Mattel continued to play minor roles in the industry, Coleco kept steadfastly away, and ultimately filed for bankruptcy in 1988. The brand has been owned by multiple entities over the years, most recently being revived for a failed console re-launch in 2015. At present, whoever it is that owns the brand has kept quiet while Atari and Intellivision have made their noise.
Magnavox has undergone a fairly major transformation, and it’s unclear if the current owners (Philips) has any desire to revive the Magnavox name to bring a new console to market. Following the crash, they moved into video players, laserdiscs, televisions, and many more things besides, never again to have anything to do with video games, although they still hold the rights to Magnavox. That said, the Magnavox name has been used for certain products over the years (mainly televisions, I believe), but I’m not sure as to how successful that was.
Which brings us to Atari. I’m not going to go into the history and development of the Atari brand, as it is long, tumultuous, and exceedingly complex. Suffice it to say that Atari, as it was in the early 1980s, ceased to be in 1984, as it was split into multiple entities, continuing mainly as Atari Corporation into the late ‘80s. This business initially focused on home computers (with the Atari ST), but on the success of Nintendo’s NES, they rejoined the console market initially with the Atari 7800, then with the handheld Atari Lynx (a sad story in itself) and finally with the Atari Jaguar, the failure of which was, unfortunately, the final nail in the coffin.
The rights to the brand then changed hands a number of times, filing for bankruptcy in 2013. Atari exited bankruptcy in 2014 and remained relatively quiet ever since – until the announcement of the Atari VCS.
This is where things get interesting – why now, indeed? Consider the fact that only 2 or 3 years ago as of writing this article, the company that owns the Coleco branding tried (and failed) to kickstart a new ColecoVision. At the time, they had an (almost) USD $1.2 million target, and they only managed to raise interest to the tune of USD $65k. So why does anyone else think this is a viable market?
Well, there are a couple of reasons why the Coleco attempt failed (probably more, but the following are my personal opinions). For one, Coleco came out of the blue and asked people for money. There was no warning. There was no drumming up of interest. Was interest there? Definitely – I follow a number of gaming websites, modern and retro-inspired alike, and the device managed to get coverage on most, if not all, of them. However, they didn’t allow themselves time to build interest.
Today’s modern marketing campaigns require a number of things, and if you want to reach a larger audience, then you need to understand social media. Now I wouldn’t call myself a social media expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I do think anyone can see that Coleco went about things the wrong way. Just launching on Kickstarter and then retroactively chasing business is the wrong approach.
Secondly, and the much larger problem, was the lack of information and “proof”. For one, the system was announced as a means to play modern games in the style of 8-, 16- and 32-bit games of old. However, the unit itself was never on display, and the one time it was, it was the subject of much negativity, as it did not contain any working componentry and seemed only to be passing through information that was being processed on a computer separate to the device.
In my opinion, Atari and Intellivision Entertainment have both approached this in the right way – first, they targeted social media. Neither has provided much of anything in the way of information – although that changed recently when Atari released their Kickstarter for the VCS. What people fail to realise is that information isn’t required – just interest. Announce. Reinforce. That’s all Atari did.
And they smashed their own expectations, exceeding 2 million dollars in backing in only one day.
Intellivision Entertainment is going about things in a similar manner – by releasing small bits of information piecemeal. Tommy Tallarico has done a few interviews where he has expressed his REASONING, but not much information. They did an AMA on Facebook live. And they’ve announced that there won’t really be any REAL information until October, but they’ve already got the interest.
So why now? It’s simple, really – all the kids that played Atari 2600 and Intellivision back in the early 80s are in their late 30s and early 40s now. Many of them still play games. Many of them have kids. Many have kids that play games. Nostalgia is a big thing – not just because people want to relive what they had as kids, but also because they want THEIR KIDS to experience what they had as kids. It’s the same reason Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have seen a revival. The same as My Little Pony. We want our kids to enjoy what we enjoyed when we were kids. It’s weird, I agree, but it’s true.
In addition to that? Many of us older, nostalgic gamers will buy anything that has any kind of relationship to retrogaming – no matter how tenuous. Slap an Atari logo on it, and we’ll buy it. It’s something I’ve personally tried to lean away from in recent years, but it’s there to be exploited.
Will it work?
In the long term… probably not. At least, that’s my opinion. But it will probably work initially – I think we’re seeing already that it will. Atari’s VCS has already got enough backers for it to be realised, and I’m sure there’ll be more people jumping on the bandwagon as time marches on. And when the machine releases to retail? Who knows what will happen then. I’ve got a feeling that the Intellivision will see the same kind of initial success (I was a big fan of Intellivision as a child, so I’m keen for more info, although I remain hesitant to get too excited).
The biggest issue that both Atari and Intellivision will face is that the market is already mature. The current war is between Sony and Microsoft, and Nintendo is off on the side servicing those consumers that the first two are unable to satisfy. By the time the Intellivision comes to market, consumers will likely already be considering the next-generation PlayStation and Xbox. Where will these devices sit?
Some might suggest that the Atari and Intellivision might suit a gap in the market that hasn’t been filled yet – the indie and emulator space. Raspberry Pie already sits in that space, but it’s too fiddly and geeky to go mainstream – perhaps these units can meet that need? I guess the bigger questions to ask… is there really a need?
Xbox, PlayStation, Nintendo – their systems already play indie games. PCs play pretty much everything, including emulators. The issue then, is the connectivity between the PC and the TV, but is this an issue? Are “ordinary” consumers going to care about the ability to play indie games or emulators on their TV? If you’ve ever heard of the Ouya, you may know how this might all play out. If you haven’t heard of the Ouya, perhaps that speaks louder.
How can they win?
Win is a strong term – I don’t think they can beat Sony or Microsoft, by any stretch of the imagination. But “win” in terms of succeeding on their own terms? It’s possible – in some ways, perhaps Atari already has “won”, based on the initial backing. Maybe the biggest obstacle for both will be pricing. Atari’s Kickstarter suggests that the final retail pricing will be USD $300 – that’s a lot if you ask me, and it’s the reason I didn’t put my hand up for one… yet. If it has a whole bunch of retro Atari games on it, and you can buy indie games at $20 a pop? Well, $300 is still probably too much. To be honest, there’s a lot we still don’t know about the machine, and perhaps it will do some things that will offset the cost. We’ll see.
But Intellivision is still an unknown. Tommy Tallarico has been around the industry for a long time. I have a feeling he knows what has worked in the past and what hasn’t. He specifically mentioned he wants it to be cost-effective (I believe he even used the word “cheap”). At a low price, a unit like this might just work. Again, it all depends on exactly what is on offer, and the price of games, etc., but a low-cost unit to play retro games as well as low-cost indie titles? That could find a place in consumer’s homes… but the point is “low cost”.
There won’t be another video game crash – games are far too deeply ingrained in modern society for that to happen again, but the only other possibility is that these new systems carve themselves a new niche (low-priced retro and indie games) or that they initially succeed, and then slowly die away. Let’s hope it’s the former.