Atari’s Leadership Says Future Includes More Than Licensing
Atari has been one of gaming’s most iconic and instantly recognized brands for over 40 years. One of the pioneers of home gaming, Atari defined the industry in the 1970s and early '80s with Pong and the Atari 2600. After the crash of 1983, however, Atari was split up into component parts, and the company’s name and identity have since been sold, resold, rebranded and repurposed by various owners, watering down the brand’s identity with every transaction. While the word Atari still engenders feelings of nostalgic joy for gamers of a certain age, its presence in the modern gaming world has been minimal. Last year, Atari Inc., Atari Interactive Inc., Humongous, Inc. and California US Holdings, Inc. (collectively the Atari company) filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, but all have emerged intact, and are now under new leadership. Frederic Chesnais, the new CEO of Atari, recently gave an interview with Venturebeat, explaining his plans to bring the once dominant brand back to prominence.
Chesnais acknowledged the negative impact the company’s tortuous history has had on the brand, stating, “Yeah … that is one of the challenges we face in the next five years and we need to reposition the brand … gear it more for the future.” He added, “You know, Hasbro got it in the ’90s. Then Infogrames bought it [at the] end of the ’90s. Infogrames renamed itself Atari, but there was kind of, uh … no ‘real’ Atari. Frankly, the best [known] Atari games were all released 30 years ago, right? So I think it is important that we reposition the brand with meaning, taking advantage of social features, online features — but this is not something that we can do in two months or three months.”
Despite the confusion around Atari’s brand-history, Chesnais still sees great value in the Atari name; “It’s a positive brand, because we show it to everyone and it reminds them of something positive and the appeal of the logo … so for me it’s synonymous with … it is positive. It is fun. It is entertainment. And it is something that we like. Even if we don’t know what [Atari is].”
In regards to publishing games, Atari has stuck with a traditional approach. Chesnais explained the company’s methods; “We pay attention to three things: the IP, the production, and the distribution. Everything else is not our part. We go to and select third-party studios who make very good games. They are not a part of the company at the moment. And then we go into production, like a movie studio. So we select the IP’s; we go one-by-one and select the best one. We pick the one we want to do. There’s no rush.” No specifics were mentioned, but Chesnais teased that, “There are more online games coming, but it’s super-simple, really. A team of producers paying attention to the game, the IP, doing … you know … the right game. Releasing strategically.”
Chesnais did not address publishing games based on the 200+ intellectual properties owned by Atari, but touted their value; “We have more than 220 IPs … games … most of them are really iconic. Look, we’re even in the MOMA, the Museum Of Metropolitan Arts in New York City. There’s an expo and we’re a part of the exposition on the video game side.”
Atari hasn’t produced a new console since 1993’s Atari Jaguar, but the CEO still sees Atari as a hardware company. Chesnais mentioned an upcoming Atari 2600 replica that will be announced over the next few years, but conceded that there are no plans to compete in the modern market against the likes of the PS4 and Xbox One. Instead, Atari will focus on other hardware, with Chesnais giving some odd examples of potential products. “I’m not talking about a new console … but, like, a watch. A gamified watch. It’s not what we are going to do, but think about [something like] that.” He added, “To give you another idea of something we could do, you have a jacket. We have a plug-in so you can power your iPhone or Android. You had a solar chip on your shoulder so that you power … so that you never run out of batteries,”
As an older gamer, I have a deep connection with Atari. It was the first console I owned, and a huge part of my childhood was spent in front of a wood-grain console and a 17 inch CRT TV. The properties owned by Atari, such as Centipede, Combat and Asteroids, made a huge impact on me and millions of other players, and are among the most iconic in the business. The fact that Chesnais did not mention any plans for the future of these IPs is disheartening. The purpose of the interview seemed to be to show that Atari will no longer exist as a mere licensing company, but producing Atari-branded watches and solar-powered jackets is barely a step-up. In my opinion, the best way to return Atari to relevance is not through gimmicky accessories, occasional third-party publishing deals or yet another plug-and-play retro console; it’s by utilizing their existing properties to create new gaming experiences that appeal to multiple generations of gamers. I root for Atari, but based on this interview, I’m not terribly hopeful.