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Best of 08: Gardner and Harrison

The top two at Atari in one of the first interviews since the former Sony president joined the resurgent publisher

One of the biggest announcements of this year was the one that involved Phil Harrison leaving his role as president of Sony Worldwide Studios, where he'd overseen the creation of brands such as SingStar and EyeToy and was keeping a watchful eye on PlayStation Home, to join then ailing Infogrames/Atari - a company that looked like it only had one life left: Alone in the Dark.

But that decision to join David Gardner began to make more sense with talk of reinvigorating the brand and riding the new wave of casual users. Although we've since spoken more to the two top men, Gardner and Harrison, this was one of the first interviews to emerge following Harrison's arrival at the company as they took the first steps toward changing Atari's fortunes. What exactly do you mean when you talk about your online titles?
Phil Harrison

There are two things going on which I think will help. One is that the Flash technology is getting better all the time, so there is just a rising tide that means in-browser doesn't mean simple 2D any more. You can have 3D really immersive experiences.

Certainly from my analysis, the effect of Moore's Law on Flash games is far faster than the effect of chip evolution on game consoles.

Now, we're starting from a lower basis point on that, but already Flash games are delivering PlayStation 1 to PlayStation 2 levels of quality, but that trend is growing fast. So in-browser doesn't necessarily mean rubbish games forever.

The second thing is for downloads that actually, clicking and buying, or trying and buying, and downloading - you have the rising tide of broadband speeds and the ubiquity of connections in the home.

Both of those we can turn to our advantage. What are the biggest risks to the master plan?
David Gardner

Well there are always competitor threats, because we can't control the competition. I think the steps that we have to take have to deliver - we don't have a lot of room for mistakes, we're threading the needle a little bit.

When you're smaller it's just not as easy to recover when things don't sell. Do you plan to raise more funds further down the line?
David Gardner

We don't need to right now. What I really want to do is show the investors that we do what we say, and then we want to outline some more ambitious plans, so that when we do that - and tied to those plans is a business plan that they can believe in - they will invest. Is Alone in the Dark the last bit of the old Atari - the last, big, Hollywood-style USD 40 million production?
Phil Harrison

I think we have everything to be proud of about this title. In fact, it was on the Eurogamer forum that I was reading so much fan commentary, and there was a very extensive and actually very complimentary preview. There were pages and pages of very passionate and loyal support from the fans, and, as I well know, the site is pretty opinionated - and there's nothing wrong with that...well, unless you're on the receiving end which I have been on a few occasions...

But the point I'm making is that I think the game is very relevant to the market, and I think will do very, very well. Can we afford as a company to chase that up, to USD 80 million, without downstream revenue? The answer is no.

So can we take that kind of production value and smash it into an online community and social experience? I hope so, but it won't be Alone in the Dark. You consider one of your strengths your distribution network, so for online, does that mean you'd consider taking other publishers' games for distribution, like Steam?
Phil Harrison

Opening physical distribution online, or the equivalent in terms of delivery of games via broadband, isn't necessarily the business we need to be in. We don't own the trucks that take our games from the warehouse to the retailer, and it's a highly commoditised business.

What we would rather do is build a community that other people can then join, and gain community for our products.

David Gardner

We're not proprietary, I don't see any advantage to that - let the customer decide. If it doesn't add value, or doesn't work well... You two have known each other for quite a long time now?
David Gardner

Yeah, we've known each other since 1992 or 1993 And were you thinking about working together previously?
Phil Harrison

We had a very interesting series of dreams, of discussions, about if we were to create a company, what kind of company would it be, and what direction would it be headed in. We got quite a long way down that path, and then, out of leftfield, this opportunity came along.

When we were evaluating it, we thought about what we would want from a successful company. You'd want people, products, you'd want revenue and cashflow. You'd want some infrastructure, some offices around the world, and it'd be great to have a brand that was a global brand.

And I tell you, that was the hardest thing when I was trying to brainstorm this, when I was trying to come up with a brand that we could use worldwide - every time I came up with a new name for a games company, I'd Google it and find that somebody had already taken it.

So when we were looking at what we'd need to create a successful company, and then we evaluated what Infogrames has, it ticked all the boxes.

David Gardner

We like to think of Infogrames, instead of being the tired, old company, we like to think of it as the best-funded, best-branded, most energetic start-up in the history of computer gaming.

Phil Harrison

We are absolutely a start-up, we're just a start-up with 25 years of history. Will you lose the Infogrames name then, and just be Atari?
David Gardner

I'd like to consider that, I think that would be the final mark of the transformation from Infogrames to Atari. We have a new board of directors, a new management team that's less than a year old - so yes, it's really continuing.

David Gardner is the CEO and Phil Harrison is the president of Infogrames/Atari. Interview by Rupert Loman. Originally published in April 2008.

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