A VIDEO GAME CONSOLE WHICH COINED THE TERM “Intelligent Television”: THE INTELLIVISION

The Intellivision was a home video game entertainment system launched by Mattel Electronics in 1979. The name Intellivision came from the sentence “intelligent television”. Development of the system started in 1978, few months after the introduction of its main competitor, the world famous Atari 2600. Games development started in 1978 and continued until the 90s when the Intellivision was discontinued. From 1980 to 1983 more than 3 million units were sold.

Mattel’s Design and Development team started the research of a home video game system by 1977. The main goal was a console which must have outstanding graphics and long lasting gameplay to distinguish vs. its competitors. Mattel identified a new but expensive chipset from National Semiconductor and negotiated better pricing for a simpler design. Their consultant, APh Technological Consulting, suggested a General Instrument chipset, listed as the Gimini programmable. The GI was “reprogrammed” by Mattel an updated the chipset by 1978.

A team at Mattel, headed by David Chandler began engineering the hardware, including the famous “differentiated” hand controllers. In 1978, David Rolfe of APh developed the executive control software and with a group of Caltech summer student hires, programmed the first games. Graphics were designed by artists at Mattel that included Dave James.

Despite Intellivision was not the first system to challenge Atari, it was the first to pose a serious threat to the market leader. An aggressive marketing campaign with a series of advertisements were produced addressing the superiority of Intellivision’s graphics and sound to those of the Atari 2600, using TV screen side-by-side game comparisons.  One of the value props of the advertisements stated that Intellivision was “the closest thing to the real thing”; one example in an advertisement compared golf games.

The other console’s games had a blip sound and basic graphics, while the Intellivision featured a realistic swing sound and striking of the ball, and graphics that suggested a 3D look. There was also an advertisement comparing the Atari 2600 to it, featuring the slogan “I didn’t know”. In its first year, Mattel sold out its initial 175,000 production run of Intellivision “Master Components”. In 1981, over 1 million Intellivision consoles were sold.

Regarding the software, every Intellivision was 4K of ROM which provide reusable code that can make a 4K cartridge an 8K game and a software infrastructure for new developers to make games more easily and faster. Under the supervision of David Rolfe (APh) and graphics supplied by Mattel artist Dave James, APh was able to quickly create the Intellivision launch title library using mostly summer students. The drawback is that to be flexible and handle many different types of games the Exec runs less efficiently than a dedicated program. Intellivision games that leverage the Exec run at a 20 Hz frame rate instead of the 60 Hz frame rate for which the Intellivision was designed. The disadvantage of the limited ROM not allowed room for computer artificial intelligence and many early games required two players.

In 1982 Mattel introduced a new peripheral for the Intellivision: the Intellivoice Voice Synthesis Module. A speech synthesizer which produces speech with compatible cartridges. The Intellivoice was original in two respects: human sounding male and female voices with distinct accents, and the speech-supporting games were designed with speech being an integral part of the game-play.

By 1982, Intellivision introduced “Intellivoice” which was a chip-set developed by General Instrument. The SP0256-012 orator chip has 2KB ROM inside, and is used to store the speech for numerical digits, some common words, and the phrase “Mattel Electronics presents”. 

Mattel Electronics built a voice processing lab to produce the phrases used in Intellivoice games. However, the amount of speech that could be compressed into an 8K or 12K cartridge and still leave room for a game was limited. Intellivoice cartridges Space Spartans and B-17 Bomber did sell about 300,000 copies each, priced a few dollars more than regular Intellivision cartridges. However, at $79 the Intellivoice did not sell as well as Mattel expected, and Intellivoices were later offered free with the purchase of a Master Component.

 In August 1983 the Intellivoice system was quietly phased out. A children’s title called Magic Carousel, and foreign language versions of Space Spartans were completed but shelved. Additional games Woody Woodpecker and Space Shuttle went unfinished with the voice recordings unused.

By 1982, sales were soaring. According to the company’s report, Mattel had staked out close to 20 percent of the domestic video-game market. Intellivision was in millions of homes. Third-party game developers Activision and Imagic began releasing games for the Intellivision, as did hardware rival Coleco then Mattel created “M Network” branded games for Atari’s system. The advertisement budget raised to over $20 million for the year. In its October 1982 stockholders’ report Mattel announced that Electronics had, so far that year, posted a nearly $100 million profit on nearly $500 million sales; a threefold increase over October 1981.

However, the same report predicted a loss for the upcoming quarter. Still hiring continued, and optimism that the investment in software and hardware development will payoff.           The M Network brand expanded to personal computers and an office in Taiwan was opened to handle Apple II programming. The original five-person Mattel game development team had grown to 110 people under new vice president Baum, while Daglow led Intellivision development and top engineer Minkoff directed all work on all other platforms. In February 1983, Mattel Electronics opened an office in the south of France also, to provide European input to Intellivision games and develop games for the ColecoVision. 

At its peak Mattel Electronics employed mote than 1,8k people.

Amid the flurry of new hardware and software development, there was trouble for the Intellivision. New game systems such as ColecoVision and Atari 5200 introduced in 1982, took advantage of falling RAM prices to offer graphics closer to arcade quality. In 1983 the price of home computers, particular the Commodore 64 came down drastically to compete with video game system sales. The market became flooded with hardware and software. In spring 1983 hiring at Mattel Electronics started to descent.

At the June 1983 Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago, Mattel Electronics had the opportunity to show off all their new products. The response was underwhelming.  Due to massive losses, Mattel Electronics top management was replaced. All new hardware development was stopped and 660 jobs were cut in August. The price of the Intellivision II which launched at $150 earlier that year was lowered to $69. However, by October 1983 losses were over $280 million and one third of the programming staff were laid off.  In November another third were gone, and on January 20, 1984 the remaining programming staff were laid-off. The Taiwan and French offices continued a little while longer due to contract and legal obligations. On February 4, Mattel sold the Intellivision business for $20 million. In 1983 750,000 Intellivision Master Components were sold, more than three million units from 1980 to 1983.

To make a list of the innovations Intellivision brought, those could be considered as the first 16-bit game console, as it has a 16-bit microprocessor, it was the first home console and one of the first video games to use a tile based playfield, it allowed for the display of detailed graphics and colour with very little RAM, was the first game console to provide real-time human voices in the middle of gameplay, courtesy of the IntelliVoice module, the first game controller with a directional thumb, the first to offer a musical synthesizer keyboard and World Series Major League Baseball (1983) is considered to be the first sports simulation video game with a number of specific innovations such as multiple views of a 3D calculated virtual play-field, statistical based game-play using real historical baseball player statistics, manager player substitutions, play-by-play speech, and save games or lineups to tape storage.

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Author: Jesus Padilla

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