Intellivision Entertainment has hired Xbox veteran J Allard as its global managing director. Allard will report to Intellivision CEO Tommy Tallarico, and he will take charge of a wide variety of operations that are critical in launching the company’s retro game console, the Intellivision Amico, which debuts on October 10 this year (10-10-20).
The original Intellivision was a game console from Mattel that gave Atari a run for its money in the early 1980s. Tallarico, the creator of the Video Games Live concert series, announced in 2018 that he had acquired the rights to the console and its original games, and he planned to relaunch Intellivision as a retro brand.
“We are so thrilled to add such an amazing industry legend to our team,” said Tallarico in an email to GamesBeat. “J’s experience, like-minded vision, and leadership in the technology and video game industries as a visionary, product designer, and gamer will further strengthen the executive leadership team and innovation legacy at Intellivision.”
Tallarico purchased a stake in Intellivision Productions from the estate of former owner and founder Keith Robinson, who passed away in 2017. Tallarico has relaunched the company as Intellivision Entertainment, and he is serving as president alongside some of the original team members.
The Intellivision console and its successors sold millions of units over three decades. Among the users was J Allard, who played on a machine with his brother.
“This week has me back on the field and not just cheering from the stands — it’s a great feeling,” Allard said in an email to GamesBeat. “There’s a need, an opportunity, and a terrific, scrappy team committed to take it on. I didn’t want to team up with Tommy, I had to.”
Allard’s Microsoft history
James Allard (he goes by J Allard) was recruited by Microsoft in 1991 and went on to deliver over 40 products, was awarded over 50 patents, and helped build four multibillion-dollar businesses. Allard spent more than two decades at Microsoft.
He made an impact early on in his career at the company when he wrote a memo entitled “Windows: The Next Killer Application on the Internet,” outlining why Microsoft needed to change its course and redefine itself with the Internet. The memo led Bill Gates, then CEO, to overhaul the company’s strategy, and Allard became known as “Microsoft’s Father of the Internet.”
After winning those web wars, he went on to become a leader of the Xbox division as Microsoft prepared to launch that console in 2001. The Xbox became the fastest $1 billion business in Microsoft’s history, but it also lost a lot of money at first. Allard led the development of Xbox Live, which has now become one of Microsoft’s key pillars in its video game business, and he also led the development of Xbox Live Arcade and the Xbox 360 game console that debuted in 2005.
During this time, I got to know Allard and see how the ambitious dreams of a small cadre of renegades became a huge business at Microsoft. Microsoft established its credibility and its business in games after a huge investment and many painful lessons. But it eventually began to make money and turned into Microsoft’s most-successful diversification beyond its core businesses of Windows and Office.
The risks of those times shouldn’t be forgotten (I wrote about them in my two books on the Xbox business). Microsoft lost around $4 billion at the outset and made a lot of people question whether Gates had lost his mind to allow that to happen. But now Microsoft can make billions of dollars from the Xbox business in a given quarter. And Microsoft can thank Allard for many of the key decisions, like creating Xbox Live, that made the difference.
Allard went on to be Microsoft’s chief experience officer and chief technology officer of the entertainment and devices division, the predecessor of the Xbox group.
But Allard and his boss, Robbie Bach, didn’t win every battle. Bach was responsible for managing the Xbox and PC game business, and he supervised Allard as the group tried to take on Apple head-on with the Zune music player, Windows Mobile, and Windows Phone. They tried to outdo first the iPod and later the iPhone, and they lost that battle. Both of them left Microsoft in 2010.
“It’s so great to see J back the games industry again. He’s always been a visionary and this is fantastic news for everyone who loves gaming,” said David Hufford, the general manager of communications at Microsoft and the former original head of Xbox PR, in an email.
For Allard, that began a time of reflection. He spent a lot of time outdoors, left the Seattle area, and went to live in Bellingham, Washington. And then he started working with startups. During the past decade, Allard said he engaged with too many projects to count, but the biggest one has been 529 Garage.
“It’s a service attacking the $1 billion bike theft epidemic in North America and has grown to be the biggest bike registry in the world in just six years,” Allard said.
The service is spreading across the U.S. and Canada, and it has seen a double-digit impact in cities that have really leaned in with it.
“When was the last time you heard of a government program that had a 40% impact on a problem in four years?” Allard said. “That’s what we did with the Vancouver police. 529 is just three of us and a lot of hustle, but [it] has been rewarding and a great learning experience. Working with the public sector has been eye-opening, and of course, trying to cut a billion-dollar problem in half with a tiny budget has really deepened my resourcefulness.”
But Allard also remembered his roots. He grew up with the original Intellivision and published his first game Lemonade Stand in the early ’80s for the TRS-80 Color Computer.
“I bet you could name 80%, maybe 90%, of all of the game console projects ever built off the top of your head in 3 minutes,” he said. “It’s not a long list, which means not a lot of people have been through it — especially from scratch.
“There are so many moving parts that need to converge all at the same time. One hand needs to coordinate everything from a schedule and budget perspective, while the other hand needs to make sure that everything that a customer sees is on brand and exceeds expectations. And if that’s not hard enough, you also need to hire, fund raise, and talk to the customer and media in parallel. Of course, when you pull that off, the make or break for the business is how well you deliver on the fun factor. And, the fun factor is art, not science.”
The challenge at Intellivision
Allard said he always had respect for Tallarico, though he never spent a lot of time with him in the past.
“I kept playing and following the industry after I left Microsoft. For the last year or so, I’ve been watching the Amico work with a combination of curiosity and anticipation,” Allard said. “When the founder edition dropped, I jumped right in (and so did my brother, Ed who is a game designer). This got us talking about the days growing up and how much Intellivision meant to us both (and the family) and started kicking around the idea that we’d team up after he ships his new Switch title this summer.”
Allard said he spent more time catching up with the content that the Amico team has been sharing on their progress, sketching out some game ideas, and he decided to reach out to Tallarico — just to tell him he was a fan.
“[I had] no agenda. I just decided that rather than lurking in the shadows, I’d give him a call,” Allard said. “I told him how I felt the vision was spot on, that I was a huge believer and that I appreciate how hard it is to do what they have set out to do and to ignore the doubt and snark out there. Shared that [Microsoft Game Studios veteran Ed Fries] and I were kicking around ideas and that we were thinking about doing a title for it, and he could call me anytime if my experience with Xbox could help.”
Tallarico laughed at that offer and asked Allard when he was starting.
“I had zero intention of taking on a new job, but no hesitation when asked. A few days later, I was on an all-hands Zoom call with the Amico family and infected by their passion as well,” Allard said. “So yeah, I called Tommy to tell him that Amico is something the world needs … he told me that I was someone Amico needed … and here we are.”
Asked why he came out of retirement, Allard said, “I think only the media ever said ‘retirement.’ No one around me has! I had a great two-decade run at Microsoft, and of course, Xbox was the highlight of my professional career, but it was time to do some independent projects and step away from a big company environment.”
In his new role at Intellivision Entertainment, Allard will provide insights to support the final development of Amico. His expertise and deep knowledge in user experience, operating systems, game certification, and building ecosystems will help Amico stay true to its mission.
As global managing director, his primary responsibilities include guiding user experience, user interface, operating system, game certification, developer support, anti-piracy, and final hardware manufacturing.
Allard said that the Amico family has incredible depth and multi-decade talent from the gaming world built-in. And the deep experience on the game side of the equation gives the organization incredible intuition and insight to realize this family fun first mission, Allard said.
“You know I have always been a huge proponent of multiplayer, affordable, family-friendly entertainment as a leader, but as a gamer — I’ve also really miss it,” Allard said. “We play Overcooked on Xbox on Thanksgiving. It’s a really fun, weapon-free collaborative multiplayer game. But, Mom doesn’t play. She watches and laughs and cheers on. She’s intimidated by the controllers, the menus and the pace. The non-gamers willing to try also struggle with all of those issues.”
On the most recent Mother’s Day, Allard showed her and his nephews an early build of Amico skiing.
“She volunteered to take the third run. On her first attempt, she only crashed three times and her biggest complaint was that she ‘could have gone faster if she figured out how to jump at the start of the race,'” Allard said. “She tried Fusion Frenzy in 2001 because she’s my Mom. But it’s been 35 years since she’s actually picked up and played a game with other people like this with absolutely zero help or stress. Watching her play games with my eight-year-old nephew for the first time was a terrific feeling. Thanks, Amico.”
He said that family couch gaming — “what started the whole console industry in the 70’s and 80’s — has been so overlooked by the games industry.”
In closing, Allard said, “Between Xbox and Sony, the 4K gaming crowd has lots to look forward to. The billions invested in VR and AR – we’ll see how that goes, but probably has a lot more effort going into it than warranted. The streaming thing is a super hard engineering problem (30 minutes on a Zoom call pretty much sums up how hard multiplayer twitch gaming is), and the big companies are leaning in hard. Nintendo and smartphones deliver a lot of options for solitary, portable fun — but not always affordable, or safe. No one is focused on bringing the family back together on the couch for shared big-screen fun.”