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The Future of Atari - Part One

David Gardner and Phil Harrison on the London Studio, new experiences for gamers, Districo and the five-year plan

Earlier this week Atari held an event at the O2 Arena in London, inviting press, retailers and other business partners around the world, to take a closer look at the publisher's boxed product line-up for 2009.

Following a group Q&A session, GamesIndustry.biz sat down with CEO David Gardner and president Phil Harrison to fill in more details on the company's future plans, including some details on how Paulina Bozek's London Studio will grow and fit into the company, where new gaming experiences sit in the portfolio, and how the Namco Bandai distribution deal fits into the five-year plan. Part two will follow next week.

GamesIndustry.biz Where does the London Studio fit into Atari - how much of a priority does it take internally?
David Gardner

Well, it's brand new, it's an organically-run studio. I always think the reality is that studios have a certain level of gravitas based around the franchises they're responsible for, the number of people, etc.

So from that point of view, it doesn't have anything - but it does have awesome potential, not only because of Paulina Bozek's ability and experience, but because London is such an opportunity to recruit the right people.

There are so many companies chopping and getting our of product development, I don't quite know what's going on, but there's a huge amount of talent available, and we want to bring them to work with us - because I think we have a good vision about what games we want to build, how we want them to be network-centric, and a lot of people are excited by that.

So I think it'll grow a lot in importance. Phil works mainly from the Hammersmith office, and so I think it's always helpful having the studio near the leader, and I think that will help the focus.

But we have a big operation in Lyon, a lot of creative management in New York, so London's not the only place - we're not retreating to the UK, we're adding with the UK.

GamesIndustry.biz And how are you looking to grow London Studio? What will its future position be?
David Gardner

Well I certainly think it will be one of the most important studios, but I think it will have a different set of brands and feelings to it, because Paulina's aim is for more of a popular culture set of products and I think it will feel more mass market innovation in the way that we're thinking about web games, doing things that bring new consumers into the market - I think that's very important.

GamesIndustry.biz As part of an answer you gave in the group Q&A session as to what gamers are looking for today in games, you said "new experiences" - how do you see your 2009 product line-up providing that?
Phil Harrison

I think every product has its own qualities and merits, so it's hard to say in aggregate that the line-up does this, or it does that, but if you take an extreme of Ready 2 Rumble on the Wii you've got a very clearly-defined mass market product with parody characters clearly aimed at a family audience, that can be socialising as well as playing the game.

I think that is important for that product, but at the opposite end of the scale I'd say that The Witcher: Rise of the White Wolf on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 there's a developer in CD Projekt that really understands its consumer, and has dedicated huge amounts of time and effort to quality, story, and character development - those two games are not going to sell to the same people, but in their own market will definitely deliver on that vision.

And there's QJ [the working title for the forthcoming collaboration with Mizuguchi-san's Q Entertainment] - we were very scant on details, but we wanted to have an excuse to bring Mizuguchi-san over, and it was great of him to make the journey. When that ships I think it'll hopefully bring us one step closer towards that goal.

GamesIndustry.biz And we can assume that whatever Paulina's working on will further the vision too?
Phil Harrison

No, she's going to do first-person shooters. Soccer and first-person shooters would be perfect for her... [smiles]

GamesIndustry.biz Has she been given a fairly free creative role?
Phil Harrison

She's been given a broad canvass to paint on - she's obviously centred in the social entertainment and gaming sector, and that's what excites and interests her - building a team of like-minded innovators. So I think she's going to stay in that kind of space.

But what I think has changed in her approach is multiple platforms and new business models, and that can be a really amplifying effect to a team's creativity.

GamesIndustry.biz What's the headcount at the moment, and how will far will it grow?
David Gardner

The actual studio part of the headcount is only the initial half dozen people that are the architects of what the studio will be. However, we're looking for office space to put about 150 people in the London area, so that's our first practical limit. I don't think we'll have 150 people right away, but I don't think you want to hire quite that fast, because you can make a lot of mistakes.

GamesIndustry.biz And what sort of skills are you looking for?
David Gardner

Game designers, obviously engineers that will want to - in particular - have game experience but will want to add to that some network experience. That's a super-important part of what we're doing. And we'll also hire network engineers, that we want to give game experience.

So it's a hybrid collection of people - we don't want people that have just created web applications and don't know anything about games, nor do we want people who have only ever made boxed goods games, and don't really know anything about a web experience. We have to bring those two schools together.

GamesIndustry.biz The Atari event this week was focused on the product line-up for 2009, and you were keen to stress that you're not looking to bail out on retail right now. The Namco Bandai distribution deal gives them a third of the new joint venture company, but gives them an option to buy the remaining two thirds in the future - can we assume that you're therefore potentially looking to offload that remaining two-thirds?
David Gardner

Yeah, it does - because our business focus, our management team that we're assembling, is really going to be focused on building the Atari network brand, and we're assembling a different management team for - and right now our internal working name for the company is Districo - that will develop its own management team and will become an independent management team. It's chairman is Patrick Starr, we've just hired a new CEO of that, and we'll announce at the beginning of January who that is... it's an industry veteran.

We don't feel we need to own our own distribution. Where we're taking Atari network means we don't have to have direct distribution into retail - we have products that go into retail, but we're very happy being a shareholder and founding member of Districo to do that job for us.

GamesIndustry.biz Do you have any timescale on when you'd like to see that changeover take place?
David Gardner

It's a five-year plan.

David Gardner is CEO and Phil Harrison is president of Infogrames/Atari. Interview by Phil Elliott.