Atari in transition
From Speakerhats and gambling to LGBT dating apps and movies, CEO Fred Chesnais has aspirations for the legacy brand far beyond games and T-shirts
When Atari CEO Fred Chesnais guided the company out of bankruptcy several years ago, he notably said he "didn't buy the company to make T-shirts." Well, not just T-shirts. While apparel and other licensing deals remain a significant part of Atari's business, Chesnais' designs for the company go beyond T-shirts, and now beyond games as well.
Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz at E3, Chesnais identified four major business lines Atari will focus on going forward: games, connected devices like the Ataribox or Speakerhat, real-money casino games, and media productions like TV shows and movies.
"We're in a kind of transition today," Chesnais said. "Games are still very important, but if we have this same conversation in one year, I'd say games are still very important, but media and connected devices are taking a very strong position as well. That's my goal. In nine months, I'll be able to better answer the question, but right now it's games and casino games, and of course licensing."
As for Atari's commitment to traditional games, Chesnais said it's "still a pretty decent business" for the company, but it sounds like the one-time titan of arcades and living rooms has shifted settings again.
"Right now, our focus is really on mobile," Chesnais said. "Mobile, mobile, mobile. We still have some PC games, but it's less of a priority. We were just porting some of our games onto consoles, but that is not a priority."
So why the emphasis on mobile?
"It's easier for us," Chesnais said. "We have more expertise on mobile than on PC. That's obvious. Also, each game has its own challenges. I'm not saying one is easier than the other; it's just that we're more comfortable on mobile."
That's why the company isn't working on shooting games, he said; nobody at the company has expertise or personal interest in the genre. It was the same situation with racing games, which was part of why the company sold the Test Drive franchise to BigBen.
"When you're 15, you have a certain way of life and way to allocate your free time. When you're 25 or 35, it's different. You have kids, you have a job. It's more difficult to spend five hours a day playing, so you have a different type of experience."
There's apparently more interest within the company for sim games like Rollercoaster Tycoon Touch, which Chesnais said topped 7 million downloads in a matter of weeks and has about 300,000 daily users. It's been successful enough that Atari is currently working on a number of additional sim games that they hope to announce later this year. A Switch port of Rollercoaster Tycoon Touch would also seem to make sense, he said, but console ports aren't a priority, especially with the still-limited installed base of Nintendo's latest hardware.
As odd as it might be to see Atari shifting focus so clearly away from consoles, we are several Ataris removed from the outfit behind Pong and the Atari 2600. And with its focus on mobile gaming, this Atari's audience is likewise different. Chesnais said the company's "brand story" is no longer centered on a hardcore audience of dedicated gamers, something he's reminded of regularly when he travels.
"I used to go through customs and I'd say I work for Atari," Chesnais said. "And they'd say 'Oh!' and always have a big smile. Then the second thing they always said was the question, 'Oh, you're still alive?' It was always these same two reactions. Everyone knows our brand. We just have to do it right, and we need to bring a different experience."
A couple decades ago, Chesnais said Atari's audience was only about 5% female. Today the company has more women playing Rollercoaster Tycoon than men. And of course, the audience for whom the Atari name resonates most strongly has gotten older as well, and is interested in different gaming experiences.
"When you're 15, you have a certain way of life and way to allocate your free time," Chesnais said. "When you're 25 or 35, it's different. You have kids, you have a job. It's more difficult to spend five hours a day playing, so you have a different type of experience. So we have to know where our core audience is."
While that older audience may not be able to marathon their way through a game over the course of a weekend, they might be able to make time to watch a movie or something on TV. Chesnais wants the Atari brand to reach them in those settings as well, and while he's quick to mention the company's prominence in the upcoming Blade Runner sequel, he says there's considerably more in the works.
"You should see a few things in TV, such as game shows," Chesnais said. "The other goal we have is to work on some scripted TV series based on our properties. I'm not saying in one year we'll be like Hasbro and what they've done with Transformers, with Battleship... but I think that's the way to go. We don't want to do it directly; we just want to team up with the best guys."
"When you look at the vault we have, I can sit down and browse through the IP and show you two games out of three where we could say in two years, that could be a TV series. That could be a movie. That could be a comic book."
Atari franchises like Centipede, Missile Command, and Asteroids all have projects in the works, but they aren't exactly imminent, with Chesnais stressing, "These things take time."
"Our corporate name is more than just a corporate name," Chesnais added. "It's also a brand. That's pretty cool. It takes time. It went up, down, down, up, down, down, down, lots of ups, more downs after that... [laughs] But when you look at the vault we have, I can sit down and browse through the IP and show you two games out of three where we could say in two years, that could be a TV series. That could be a movie. That could be a comic book. It's very, very broad. We have games like Pharoah Run, Dark Chambers. Everyone remembers Pong and Missile Command, but we have Asteroids, Centipede, Millipede. Look at Pixels. We were in the movie. We were part of the video game exhibition at the MOMA. We were the biggest contributor with four games."
Another part of Atari's initial push out of bankruptcy was a targeting of LGBT audiences. The company's Pridefest mobile game was the only major component of that, and it launched in September of 2015, but failed to gain significant traction and stopped updating in August the following year. Last week, the company announced a partnership with LGBT Media, creator of dating app LGBTQutie, that has already seen the app maker acquire the Pridefest game from Atari and relaunch it as QutieLife.
One could have interpreted the move as Atari dropping its interest in the LGBT market, but in a follow-up discussion with GamesIndustry.biz, Chesnais said it was anything but, and explained what happened with Pridefest.
"After a few months, we realized that to bring that to the next level and be really impactful in that segment of the market, we needed to team up with people who were coming from a different angle, but also had a deep knowledge of that segment of the market," Chesnais said.
He also clarified that Atari's partnership with LGBT Media included an investment giving Atari a significant minority stake in the app outfit.
"We are not exiting [the LGBT space]," Chesnais said. "On the other hand, we're doubling down, if not tripling."
He added that there are 5 or 10 additional products on the way with the LGBT audience in mind, including a LGBTQutie-branded Speakerhat to be designed with input from the dating app's community.
With all these businesses still in flux, it's clear that Atari's transition is not yet complete. But as Chesnais mentioned, when he took over the company in bankruptcy in 2013, it had revenues of €1 million. Today it's closer to €15 million, a profitable business with no outstanding debt. It's not what it was during his first stint with the publisher from 2001 to 2007, but at least it's headed in the right direction.
"Atari back in the day, when I left, we were making €800 million revenue," Chesnais said. "Still a long way to go."