Few brands in gaming have a past as long -- or as checkered -- as Atari. After kickstarting both the arcade and home gaming scenes in the 1970s and early 1980s, the Atari name has changed hands a number of times, with each new steward of the brand seeking to return it to its glory days. The fact that the goal remains unchanged from leadership team to leadership team speaks not only to the limited success they have had to date, but also the enduring value of the Atari name.
Currently, the person in charge of Atari is CEO Wade Rosen, who was named to that position in April and a few months later announced a strategic pivot for the company away from mobile and free-to-play games and toward premium PC and console titles. The first glimpse of that shift arrives today with the launch of Centipede: Recharged on multiple platforms. A remake of the original arcade game with revamped visuals, new challenges, and an original score by Megan McDuffee, Centipede: Recharged is intended to set the tone for a Recharged line that will see Black Widow, Asteroids, and Breakout given similar treatments.
In his first English-language interview since taking the reins, Rosen explains the reasoning behind the shift.
"Atari had become synonymous with doing a lot of things, but not really providing a lot of clarity on why they were doing those things"
"The need for it is because the market really wasn't sure, or clear, on what we were doing," Rosen says. "Atari had become synonymous with doing a lot of things, but not really providing a lot of clarity on why they were doing those things, what was their motivation, or where those reasons were coming from. So the intent of focusing back on games is because that's why people know us. Rather than trying to reinvent ourselves into a TV company, a casino operator, or all these other things that we're not, we're known as a video game company."
Internal TV production and casino operations were two of the businesses Atari dropped amid the shift. It remains involved in TV through licensing deals, however. It is also continuing with a new line of hotels, and still has an Atari Blockchain division working on an Atari-branded cryptocurrency, NFTs, and other such endeavors.
When we ask if all that doesn't dilute the brand anyway, Rosen says there are a couple of concerns the company addresses when considering those efforts.
"The first question is 'Does it make sense?' Is it supportive of the brand and does it provide clarity? If not, we probably won't do it. If it does, then the question becomes do you do it internally or not?"
On the first question, Rosen says Atari has turned down "a lot" of licensing deals that would have been dilutive. As for the second question, he emphasizes the cost of having a team's attention split.
"On the casino side, that didn't really make sense on a lot of levels because it was both brand dilutive, and it was absorbing a lot of time from the team," Rosen says.
As for hotels, Rosen says he was skeptical at first, but came around on it for similar reasons to Nintendo feeling that creating a Mario theme park with Universal Studios was a good idea.
"It's not just a regular hotel with the Atari logo slapped on it," Rosen says. "That would create a lot of brand dilution, but what they're hoping to build and construct and bring into the world is pretty unique and special, and will fit in really well to what Atari's trying to do."
After restructuring, Atari now has more siloed business lines. There's the gaming business, the Atari VCS hardware business, the blockchain business, and the licensing business (which not only handles the hotels and T-shirts but also licensed gaming products like the Atari Flashback microconsole or Arcade 1Up machines). Rosen says there's still collaboration between the teams but that each is more focused on their own areas instead of splitting time across the company's different endeavors.
He doesn't broach the subject at first, so we ask about the possible harm done to the nostalgia-driven Atari brand by associating it with unsavory businesses like real-money gambling and blockchain, which is not only a favorite tool of scammers and ransomware hackers but has incredible environmental costs and shown to have few practical applications beyond speculation. (GamesIndustry.biz decided to minimize its blockchain coverage earlier this year.)
"I think it's tough to wrap the two of those together," Rosen says. "But in either of those cases, you have to look at how it's done. We're not a casino company. It's not what we do. It's not what we're associated with... There is some desire to bring clarity to the brand but it also maybe wasn't something that painted the best light for Atari.
"I'm tempted to just kind of back out of [blockchain] entirely because I know how a lot of people feel"
"Blockchain is a little bit different. The environmental concerns with blockchain are real. I'm tempted to just kind of back out of that entirely because I know how a lot of people feel. I read your article on blockchain pitches and why that's not something you want to move forward with. I'm not trying to preach or sell anybody on blockchain or say it is the right thing. There are environmental concerns today, and there are some people using it in a way that lacks transparency, or is really designed to get around the transparency that's necessary in that industry. But there are also people that recognize the limitations of it and are working to move around that.
"The technology as it is today? If that's all the technology was ever going to be, it would be very limiting. But as it grows beyond what it was initially designed to do, I think it could become meaningful and interesting. So that's why we're still involved in blockchain. It's not just for the present state, but what it could be as it moves to gasless transactions, as it allows for carry-over between games... There's a lot of promise there and I think the applicability to gaming is very high."
Getting back to talk of the gaming side of Atari, we ask for a progress report on the VCS console. Rosen declines to comment on how it's selling, but acknowledges it has been "challenging from a supply standpoint," affected by the same bottlenecks and price increases that many other hardware makers have been dealing with.
On the software side of the equation, he says the VCS will be built around four pillars: indie games, streaming services like Stadia and Xbox Game Pass, retro games, and creative tools for people to make their own games and content. Rosen seems happy with the progress on the first two of those pillars, but adds that the last two have further to go.
As for the shift in software focus, Rosen explains why the company would step away from mobile and free-to-play despite the growing popularity of those two forms of gaming specifically.
"Free-to-play is getting more competitive. The returns for the winners continue to become more and more outsized, but the amount of winners are smaller and smaller every year"
"Free-to-play is getting more competitive," Rosen says. "The returns for the winners continue to become more and more outsized, but the amount of winners are smaller and smaller every year. If you look at the top ten free-to-play mobile games this year, probably nine out of the ten are the same as five years ago. It's an incumbent-dominant space. You can be really successful doing it, but it's an entirely different business model.
"When you look at premium, it aligns with us as a culture and what we want to provide to users and the type of gameplay we want to provide. And also it seems more open for a company that was going to revitalize itself and bring itself back into the modern era."
Rosen says there were two specific hurdles facing the company when it decided to focus on premium PC and console games.
"We were a mobile team," he says, "and we also didn't necessarily have the best reputation with development teams."
He didn't go into detail on the reputation part of that comment, but being sued by Frontier over RollerCoaster Tycoon royalties in 2017 and being sued by Tin Giant alleging unpaid design services on the VCS console last year have certainly not helped.
"One of the advantages of Atari is that people are constantly bringing ideas to you"
That's a particular problem considering Atari doesn't have any internal development teams. But the team was internally pushing toward this direction even before the strategy shift was set in stone, and here again is a place where the persistence of the Atari brand made the job easier.
"One of the advantages of Atari is that people are constantly bringing ideas to you," Rosen says. "So we got to sift through that and say, 'What do we really like? What interests us here? How can we build these relationships to have a really great working relationship with these developers?' And then that can be the start of a new story."
In addition to looking at new proposals, Rosen said the team sifted through pitches of the past few years that were turned down by the free-to-play mobile-focused Atari to see what could capture the "retro-futurism" feel they associate with the Atari name.
Another element Rosen sees as key to the new style of Atari game is that it feel meaningful. While mobile games often are designed to "absorb time," he wants Atari to be associated with games that leave players with more than a distraction.
"At the end of the day, you feel good about it," Rosen says. "You feel like you were really invested in that, that it added something to your day and it was contributive. I think people are demanding that of gaming, and they should demand that of gaming.
"That's probably the major reason why I'm doing this. I'd like to see more of that kind of gaming."