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Exclusive Interview with Intellivision Amico Game Developer, Pxl Pug Co-Founder Jeff Neet

The Intellivision Amico is a firestorm of controversy and a hot topic in certain corners of the internet. However, most of the conversation has strayed away from the games and onto the companies financial situation. I would like to shift some of the chatter back on to the games so I reached out to the team developing Back Talk Party, pictured above, and asked if they would answer a few questions about this mysterious new game coming to the Intellivision Amico. To my surprise, not only did they agree to answer my questions but one of the co-founders of Pxl Pug, the studio developing the game, was the one to converse with me. What follows is a reformatted transcript of that conversation.

TonyTGD: Is this connected to Back Talk by Gravid Engine?(A free mobile game)

Jeff: No, it's an original IP that my wife and I designed.
I did see that app pop up a few years ago and thought it was interesting that they chose the same name.  Their logo even looked similar to ours initially.  But, I mean it's 2 arrows, so.

TonyTGD: What was the inspiration for Back Talk Party?

Jeff: That's kind of a fun story. It started with my wife almost disrupting a concert. We were in the 3rd row and the artist did something with an effects pedal that got her so tickled she couldn't stop laughing. Every time she would almost get it under control she would think about it again and bust up in another roar laughter.

So on the drive home we were talking and I said I wonder if we could bottle that lightning as a gameplay mechanic and let other people experience that as well. So that's what we did. We prototyped that mechanic using a couple of phones and it worked.  So I wrote up a dedicated prototype in unity and threw it on my phone at Christmas in 2016. We worked through different rules and challenges at New Years and birthday parties and family gatherings for a few years.  We got to a point where we would run into friends and they would ask if they could buy our game somewhere yet.

We had trouble finding the right platform for it because one of the challenges was having a loud enough speaker to play back the audio. Not great on a phone.  We also had a mode that requires players to make a private vote, so we didn't want a shared device. We had considered partnering with the toy company to manufacture a custom device.  So when we came across the Amico and saw all of the hardware they were packing into the controllers it happened to perfectly support everything we wanted to do.  So we shared the idea with Tommy and he loved it and agreed that it would showcase the hardware well and demonstrate some of the unique gameplay capabilities of the console.

TonyTGD: Do you find it easier or harder to code for the Amico? Any unique challenges?

Jeff: Well, we're working in Unity, so if your architecture is solid, the game code itself isn't affected by the platform.  The design, obviously, takes advantage of the on-controller screen and microphone.  We were leaning into that because no other console supports that combination of play.  So there are some unique challenges that come along with designing for allowing a room of 8 people to be individually recording audio.  Keeping player's attention.  The actual sending of those recordings wirelessly etc.  The UX of teaching such a broad age range of players to interact with the controller in many different ways.  It's something you take for granted as a "hard-core" gamer.  To my surprise, when I hand a controller to most older players (say 50+) they grab it and hold it like a phone with the disc at the bottom.  I thought it was ridiculous to think players would want that at first, as many others voiced, but the actual play testing shows that's just what some people find more natural.

More to your point, the bigger challenge comes from coding for a new platform.  That 10% that serves as the glue between your game and the prototype hardware is constantly in flux.  So you write workarounds until those features exist, then you have to go back and rip out the workaround and wire up the official API.  But, on a new system, you're usually the first to hit bugs or missing use cases in a new release and need to have some back and forth with the publisher to get an extra option added or some edge case handled.  Our team has developing on new hardware like the Nook, Ouya, Google Daydream, etc. and there is always a risk and more pain that comes with a new platform.  But the trade off is getting to participate in a very small market for a time which solves the discoverability issue you would face releasing on Steam or the app stores.

One example would be that the controllers didn't exist when we started our project.  So we wrote virtual controllers as a unity app that we could run on tablets and join an online multiplayer session to the game so that we could begin working on the touch-screen interactions right away.  Then eventually when the software controller came out we transitioned to that, and then finally to the hardware controllers.  Each of those steps entered a more resource constrained environment so we had to optimize further.

TonyTGD: I just want to clarify something.... When you say the controllers didn't exist when you started the project you meant prior to signing with Amico correct? I know some developers had issues getting Amico controllers and was wondering if you had that issue too.

Jeff: So, when we were working on the game at that stage, the physical controllers and console just didn't exist yet the designs weren't finalized, there wasn't hardware to assemble.  I don't think that's really news, they were sharing updates on renderings etc.

So we just built our own system that would act as a mock for the controller that we would replace with the actual controller later that way we could keep developing.

Later once the dev kit software and hardware was available we just swapped it out.

We were at a point where we could have started using hardware controllers before the physical controllers were available. But that's sort of the nature of the beast when working with hardware in development.

Initially, when I built the schedule I didn't think it was going to be an issue, but the pandemic threw a wrench into the timeline for getting a hold of dev kits that would have been impossible to predict.

Then stacking a chip shortage, somewhat of an economic Cold war with China, and both Sony and Microsoft announcing and competing for manufacturing resources in the same window... I wholeheartedly believe that Tommy and now Phil have done everything in their power to make this project happen fighting, uphill odds the whole way. But that is basically the job description of a CEO in an environment like this. Carrying the vision and rallying the troops to try and achieve something that others think can't be done.

TonyTGD: Can you let me know the status of the 3 Amico games you're working on? Have they gone gold?(In addition to Back Talk Party, Pxl Pug is also developing Telestrations and Blank Slate for the Intellivision Amico.)

Jeff: That's an interesting question that could be a much bigger discussion all on its own. I hear lots of fist shaking in comment sections about the games that illustrates a lack of understanding in how development works and the challenges Intellivision is tackling bringing a new console to market. Two of the games have been playable for a LONG time. I mean, we showed Back Talk Party at E3 2019. We were playing Blank Slate with friends and family back in 2020. So, the best answer is probably that they are close to ready for launch, but not yet certified. The gap between almost and done is mainly what I mentioned before about chasing down those API bugs and features.  

Of all the games I'm aware of in the lineup, we probably use the mic most heavily, so we're the ones that are going to hit the rough edges first and have to wait for a fix before we're satisfied with the quality of interaction.  We also pushed the controller UI more in terms of animations and game feel, so we hit limitations faster.  The games have worked with our software controllers for a long time, it's the hardware that takes longer to see progress .  Initially, the loop was pretty tight on hardware adjustments and they could just overnight boards back and forth from China as they were iterating.  Maybe a 3 day turnaround?   

Covid inserted a 2 week quarantine each way which drastically slowed down the process there.  Not to mention much of their hardware team was in Southern CA, so you had the lockdowns going on too.  It just hit the breaks on everything and really dealt a tough blow to all the down-stream progress for the Amico. 

So when I read comments about people saying they can't believe these games aren't done yet etc or wondering if there are any games for the console. It's kind of silly because it just demonstrates that the process isn't clear. You would start making the games before creating the hardware, but you also can't technically finish the games until the hardware is done. So it's not strange to me that there are titles that were announced years ago that aren't finished yet. But it's not like you have a team of 50 people working on each of these games full-time across those years.  They're smaller in scope and the developers have to be flexible around the hardware delays as well. So they may go work on something else until the next firmware update is available.

But it's not the same kind of delay as when CD project red or Nintendo says they need another 6 months.  We're not actively working out bugs on a daily basis. You are waiting on upstream blockers to get resolved.

TonyTGD: Do you feel pressure to deliver since the Amico is a brand new entity?

Jeff: Our studio is focused on quality period.  One of the things my cofounder and I share is an appreciation for meticulous aesthetic design and beauty. That said, part of my job is to try and balance the pressure of budget against our desire for perfection.  For instance, we told Tommy early on that one of our goals was to have the best looking Amico controller screens because, as the contact point with the player, the UX of the controller is going to set the tone for the interaction with the players.

So, we've pushed right up and in some cases over the boundaries of what the controllers can handle.  Then whenever possible, we work with their hardware guys to make the interactions work rather than have to cut back on the design.

TonyTGD: Has it been a struggle to not talk about your game and its secret mechanics?

Jeff: Yes, that's probably been one of the hardest things. These games are not the scope and scale of a 3 year dev cycle. They're things that we've wanted to see others playing for a long time now. And they're SO close to the finish line.

TonyTGD: I saw that you said you were working on 3 Amico games and 2 games for other platforms, can you share a bit about these non Amico games?

Jeff: Ah, both are in pretty early stages. One is a Twitch-first social deduction game designed to invite viewers to engage directly with streamers and help foster community.

The other is a competitive silly sports couch/online co-op game that features ever changing play field, environment conditions and equipment.

If you want to know more about Pxl Pug you can find them here!