When looking at the contrast between the Atari 2600 and Colecovision launch titles, Mattel’s initial lineup of four Intellivision launch titles gives some insight into their thinking. Since they had to build a new market, they produced a mix of two traditional games, an action/combat video game, and an educational title in an effort to appeal to a fairly broad audience. Not to mention each title competed directly with a title in Atari’s library.
Why no arcade titles? Space Invaders’ landmark release for the Atari 2600 was still a year off, so licensing arcade titles was still an unproven concept. Arguably, Mattel waited a bit too long to start licensing arcade titles and didn’t license enough of them, but in 1979, there weren’t a lot of arcade hits to license.
Programmed by Kevin Miller, Backgammon may seem like a curious choice for a launch title today. And the relative scarcity of this title compared to the other launch titles and the launch titles of the two competing consoles makes it easy to question the choice in retrospect.
But in 1979, it probably seemed like a good idea. First, being a traditional game, it was something many people would already know how to play. They would just have to learn the controls, but they already knew the rules and the concept. Second, Atari had its own Backgammon game, so Mattel could use their implementation to show how the Intellivision was a more advanced console.
So even if this game didn’t set any sales records, it helped to sell the console by demonstrating what it could do. Also, licensing the title from the APBA demonstrated that Mattel was willing to open its checkbook. Why not license a hot arcade title then? Licensing arcade titles was still an unproven idea in 1979. Licensing a familiar game probably seemed like a safer bet at the time, especially a game familiar to the people who would be purchasing the console.
Programmed by Chris Kingsley, Armor Battle just sounds like it would be one of the more successful titles in this lineup. It made sense for Mattel to have an answer to Atari’s Combat title, and this launch title played well to the strengths of the Intellivision console.
Where Combat could be described as Pong with tanks or airplanes, Armor Battle was strictly a tank game, but with an objective and more strategy and more complex playfields. Whoever destroyed their opponent’s 50 tanks first would win.
Indeed, of the initial four launch titles, Armor Battle is the second most common title behind Las Vegas Poker & Blackjack, which had the advantage of being the pack-in game much of the time. It’s hard to outsell the pack-in. But it’s easy to imagine early purchasers who’d seen Combat on an Atari VCS picking up this title as their second purchase. And it’s easy to imagine a salesperson tasked with selling Intellivisions to set up the two consoles side by side, with Combat on the Atari and Armor Battle on the Intellivision, to highlight the differences.
Las Vegas Poker & Blackjack
For the third launch title, Mattel again went with a traditional game, or a pair of games. Card games, to be specific. And card games proved to be and enduring theme, at least for computer games, for decades.
Programmed by David Wolfe, Las Vegas Poker & Blackjack proved to be a good choice, as it ended up selling 1.9 million copies and became the most popular Intellivision game of all time.
This title also played to the strengths of the console, offering a pair of traditional games that many people would already know how to play, and going a step beyond Atari’s Blackjack launch title. Essentially it bundled Atari’s Blackjack and Casino titles into a single title, offering a better value in addition to better gameplay.
Mattel frequently used Las Vegas Poker & Blackjack as the pack-in title with the Intellivision console.
For the fourth title, Mattel went with an educational theme, licensing the popular PBS children’s show the Electric Company. Programmed by Kimo Yap and Dave Warhol, the sales on this title may have been disappointing, as it is only slightly more common today as the Backgammon title. But I wouldn’t go so far as to call this title a mistake. Including an educational title would help blunt the argument that video games were just mindless entertainment, not to mention all of the other things Luddites said about video games and even computers throughout the 1980s. It’s hard to argue against teaching kids math.
So while to the launch titles were very successful and two of them were dramatically less successful than the others, not to mention less successful than the launch titles for the two main rival consoles, I would argue it was still a marketing success. It’s not like either title completely flopped, and both titles gave a strong indication of what was to come.
The Intellivision launch strategy
Mattel was cautious with the Intellivision launch, performing what we would today call a soft launch, rather than making a big splash. Mattel ended up canceling one of its regional launch events, although its partner, Sylvania, did run a launch of its own.
Three additional titles quickly followed the four Intellivision launch titles, all of them sports titles. Mattel produced licensed versions of baseball, basketball, and football, licensed from MLB, the NBA, and NFL, respectively. Sometimes the NFL Football cartridge replaced Las Vegas Poker & Blackjack as the pack-in.
Mattel was not opposed to opening up the checkbook and paying for licenses. And while none of the sports titles were as good as the sports titles for the third-generation consoles would be, for 1979, they were very good.
And the strategy didn’t do badly. Mattel sold 3 million consoles into a brand new market. The Coleco Vision outsold the Intellivision, but the second generation of game consoles was littered with competitors that didn’t sell a million units.