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Video Games Go Back to Future as First Wave of Players Age

Keith Robinson has an unusual strategy to sell video games: staying several decades behind the competition.


Robinson, chief executive of Manhattan Beach-based Intellivision Productions Inc., bought up the video game portfolio of his old employer, Mattel Inc., after they faded from popularity. He’s using nostalgia to get people to revisit titles from their youth.


“For anyone under 35, video games have been a part of their life,” said Robinson, who is 49. “An old video game can have as much of an evocative experience as a TV show or an old song.”


The original Intellivision games such as “AstroSmash,” “Night Stalker” and “Snafu,” relied on simple, two-dimensional graphics. Games lasted five minutes or so they’re known as “quick games” today and don’t compare to the complex characters and rich graphics of the popular games such as Microsoft Corp.’s “Halo” or Activision Inc.’s “Call of Duty.”


Even so, Intellivision games generated $25 million in worldwide sales last year, through $20 CDs that run on the PC, Xbox and Playstation 2 formats, and the main product, a plug-and-play device that connects to a TV set.


“I wouldn’t say it’s huge, but there is a healthy market for the retro-gaming product,” said Daniel Morris, editor-in-chief of PC Gamer. The plug-and-play TV product, sold through Walgreen Co., Urban Outfitters Inc., Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Bed Bath & Beyond Inc. during Christmas, comes with a joystick and either 10 games ($9.99) or 25 games ($19.99).


Intellivision licenses the games to overseas manufacturers who keep most of the revenues. Intellivision took in about $475,000 in license fees last year, including the games and products such as baseball caps and T-shirts with the distinctive “running man” logo.


Though they have sold well, the plug-and-play units have critics. Amazon.com Inc.’s customer reviews logged 15 complaints out of 21 reviews, with comments about shoddy construction and inoperable controls. Many complained that the reprogrammed version of the games strip away the best features.


Robinson admitted that serious Intellivision fans will be disappointed by the plug-and-play product. “We tell the true fans to get the PS version, the Mac version, the Xbox version those are the true Intellivision experience,” he said. “The controller is designed for children. It is an inexpensive, battery-operated little device.”


Robinson joined Mattel in 1981 after majoring in computer science at UCLA. But by 1984, the toymaker had sold the rights to Intellivision and laid off all the programmers. The company that bought the brand filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1990.


Meanwhile, Robinson became a technical writer for video games and computers. A casual cartoonist, he also launched a weekly comic strip called “Making It,” which became syndicated in several newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune. He stayed in touch with his Intellivision past, meeting frequently with fellow colleagues to discuss business ideas.


In 1997, Robinson and another former colleague, Stephen Roney, bought back the Intellivision name for $50,000. Roney is now in charge of software.


“We wanted to get something out there immediately that said we were back,” Robinson said. So they started selling baseball caps emblazoned with the old logo, a purple graphic running man. They planned to license the game, but no one was interested. They decided to manufacture it themselves, selling a hybrid CD-ROM that would work on the Macintosh and PC format, Robinson said.


Their first product, the “Intellivision Lives!” compilation, was sold through the company’s Web site. They manufactured 2,000 CDs, bundling dozens of the classic games together. In its first two hours of sales, the site received 300 orders.


Then Santa Monica-based Activision Inc. licensed the games for Sony Corp.’s Playstation 1 format and sold 150,000 units during the 1999 Christmas season.


THQ Wireless Inc. was the next gaming company on board, making the quick-play games available for cell phones in 2001.


Intellivision’s success has been followed by other retro-gaming marketing efforts.


Atari Inc., with top-tier games such as “Pac-Man,” “Ms. Pac-Man” and “Space Invaders,” has resurged since its purchase by French video game conglomerate Infrogrames Entertainment SA in 2001. (The company took on the Atari name.)


Intellivision is now trying to expand beyond the nostalgia market. It is launching a clothing line this year, Intellivision Gear, which will combine the classic logos with hip urban wear. A line of earrings is on the way, made with iconic images from video games. Specialty video game stores already carry Intellivision merchandise. There’s also a record label, Intellivision Music.


“For hard core gamers who go back that far, Intellivision is a name that people really recognize,” Morris said.

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