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Do not pass GO

Atari's Thom Kozik on the publisher's new social gaming venture

Atari's announcement of its GO initiative today marks a new direction for the company: attempting to carve out a space in the lucrative field of casual and social gaming. Moving in this direction might seem like a logical move for any publisher, but Atari now joins an increasingly crowded market, where established players have already built a strong brand

The company has also made some stuttering advances in the area before, so what makes this project any different? In an interview with GamesIndustry.biz, the man in charge of the project, Thom Kozik, goes into detail.

EurogamerCould you just give us a quick précis of what the GO project is all about?
Thom Kozik

Well, the big thing for us is, what we've got is an opportunity to take an approach which has worked well historically for Atari, bring it to the next step in our evolution and expand what we're doing in online gaming out to a broader audience.

Most people don't traditionally associate Atari with online gaming, however if you think about the casual games in the company's long history, where we've had some of the greatest titles out there - not only things that came from Atari, but things that came from Infogrames, all the way through the company's evolution to where we are today, this really was the smartest business move we could make.

What we've got is a large number of games which we're fielding in the online, casual, social and mobile space, using both our legacy intellectual property, and re-imagining it, not just continuing emulation of those old games, although that's popular too, and we're going to serve that market as well, but adding to that - taking a bunch of complimentary, original IP that studios have been coming to us with, then opening that program up to the entire world, where we have open arms to indie developers, studios who've perhaps being trying to self publish, or those which have self published in the past, and are looking to leverage the scale of services and capability that we can bring to the table.

Particularly, on the far side of that, is the entire suite of distribution services which we can bring for folks. Not just independent little affiliate sites, who want to host our games, and right up, of course to the Facebooks of the world, but also being able to handle distribution to the larger gaming portals and not only manage those deals and the day-to-day relationships, but to federate the namespaces and the economies and all that hand-holding that needs to be done when you're working with portals on a day to day basis, that a lot of these developers really aren't, one; situated to do themselves, and two; shouldn't be focusing on that, they should be focusing on creating great games.

EurogamerWhat's prompted this decision now? Social gaming has been big for a few years now, what makes you think that this is the right time for Atari to get involved, and how much market space do you think is left for you?
Thom Kozik

Well the market is certainly nowhere near full. When you look at any of the stats related to gameplay and the number of people playing online, it's ever increasing. We've seen this type of gameplay, particularly browser-based and mobile, eclipsing console. So of course it's a natural evolution for Atari, we've had decades now of console experience, and of PC experience, to move into this space and take advantage of where the audience is also spending their time playing games, and by no means is that market full.

In terms of our entry to it, you've got to look at the last few years of our evolution, particularly the acquisition of Cryptic studios, back in late 2008, which was our first foray into online gaming on a large scale, with Champions Online and the Star Trek MMO. Take that to the next evolution and you can see where we took exactly the same approach with the platform that supports those games, and all the infrastructure which surrounds that both from a technology infrastructure as well as a manpower and services infrastructure that we have as a publisher, and then add on top of that as a platform, the ability to service these social, casual, browser-based and mobile games.

EurogamerWhere are you going to be marketing these games? You've given some sense of the scale, in terms of individual games all the way up to Facebook, but what sort of portals are you aiming at?
Thom Kozik

There are two ways to do this. First, we can use the horsepower that we have as a global publisher at the scale of Atari to have a direct relationship with the large scale portals. Of course our games are going to be on Facebook, and we have some up there today that you can take a look at. Of course we're going to have our games up on other social destinations like Hi-5, Orchid and elsewhere, of course we're going to continue to push our games to other major play destinations like Yahoo, MSN, all the way down to Kongregate or Miniclip, you'll see us putting our games everywhere we can reach.

But the fun part of the story is all the way at the other end of the spectrum, which is the affiliates. If you think about Atari's classic old arcade IP, Asteroids, Missile Command, Battlezone - what's interesting is that a lot of those games were somebody's first programming project. How many graduates come out of school, and the first thing they make is a Flash version of Asteroids, or Missile Command or something.

To be honest, the internet has been littered with those, you can find websites anywhere that have somebody's homegrown version of those games, and some very professional versions of those games. What we're doing as part of the GO initiative is reaching out to those sites and saying, "please stop running the infringing intellectual property, here we have the have the official version of the game you're running". Not only can you replace it with the official version, simply, here's the embed code, plug it into your site, but we'll also share the revenue with you, which is something that you're probably not getting from that homegrown version.

Now, to your point about distribution, what that offers us now is the ability to drop these games into literally tens and tens of thousands of sites, almost instantaneously, and bring with that the tens of millions of monthly players which are already being attracted to Atari's brand - they're already out there playing these games. Of course you can imagine that within those games I can cross-promote you, I can incentivise you with virtual currency and virtual goods, make you part of a meta-game for playing more Atari games and introduce you to all the other games we're introducing as part of the GO initiative.