Inside Atari’s plan to reinvent itself, again
In 2022, Atari will celebrate its 50th anniversary. In so doing, the company’s new boss, Wade Rosen, tells Polygon he is determined to turn a badly tarnished gaming icon into something relevant to the present, and to the future.
Rosen took the top position at the company in March, and soon announced a new focus for the business: modern versions of the classics that made Atari famous. In recent months, the company has released “Recharged” versions of Centipede, Black Widow, and Asteroids, all of which are lively and fast, with jaunty electronic soundtracks. Rosen says more revamped classics are planned for 2022.
His ambitions mark a shift away from Atari’s previous model of brand licensing, including a bizarre motley of partnerships and offshoots for hotel chains, casinos, movie productions, and cryptocurrency — though the company remains involved with many of those, leaving it with ill-fitting legacy deals and fans skeptical of the new direction.
Rosen’s immediate plan centers around upgraded retro games, and in the longer term, he says he wants to turn Atari back into a game publishing powerhouse. He’s frank about the limitations of a company that currently employs around 25 people, though: “It’s much easier for us to make [retro updates] than to make a massive open-world 100-hour gameplay experience.”
At 35 years of age, Rosen is too young to have experienced many of Atari’s original games when they were fresh and new. But he talks a good game. During our 90-minute interview, he spends at least half an hour reminiscing about his favorite games.
Raised in a small town in Minnesota, Rosen grew up with parents who believed that video games were a waste of time. Finally, and after much badgering, he says, “they compromised” and bought him a Game Boy. He went on to play a lot of 1990s RPGs like The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening and Final Fantasy Legend 2, which, he says, “blew my head off.”
He still has that Game Boy — though it’s now held together with duct tape — and he says his favorite console ever was the Dreamcast, followed by the PSP. In later years, he moved onto PC and PlayStation strategy games like StarCraft and Final Fantasy Tactics. He’s also a fan of FromSoftware games like Demon’s Souls, and he admires more recent games like Hades and Slay the Spire.
After college, Rosen planned to enter the world of banking, but the crash of 2008 steered him toward startup entrepreneurialism. He co-founded two successful companies (ThrivePass and Wishlist) that created employer-targeted software as a service.
He then decided he wanted a change of pace; he wanted to enter the game industry. He looked around for a way in, and opted for one of the biggest names in gaming history: Atari. Rosen bought enough Atari shares to install himself as CEO, taking over from former incumbent Fred Chesnais.
“When I was younger, I was told you shouldn’t go into what you’re passionate about,” he says, “because it will ruin your passion. So I went into more traditional tech and built several companies. Then, I stopped and sat back and said, ‘What am I passionate about? What do I really love?’ My whole life has been video games. They’ve always been there for me. So I made a choice to go into video games.
“I had this longer-term plan to step into it, but the Atari opportunity came up and it accelerated really quickly. [Chesnais] was the largest shareholder and I purchased most of his shares. He was ready to move onto something new. I was in the right place at the right time.”
Successful business people occasionally buy their way into glamorous industries, from airlines to movie studios to sports teams. But most gaming entrepreneurs earn their chops in the business, which is notoriously incomprehensible to outsiders.
“I didn’t target Atari because I saw it as this great financial opportunity,” says Rosen. “More, because it’s one of the iconic names in video games. I just looked at it and I thought, OK, that could bring me joy. Doing that could be an act of creativity and adventurousness and potentially love if it were successful, and it were done the right way.”
Apart from Atari’s stable of intellectual properties and its name recognition, Rosen sees emotive and financial value in its logo, sometimes called the Fuji because of its passing similarity to the mountain in Japan, and the Atari name’s connection to the famous game of Go, which is popular in East Asia (very roughly, it’s a bit like saying “checkmate” or “bullseye”).
“I would have said this before I ever got involved in Atari: I think the logo is one of the greatest logos ever made,” he says. “It’s perfect. It’s just perfect.”
Currently airing on Paramount Plus, Ghosts is a comedy series in which a young couple tries to renovate an old mansion populated by a gang of, well, ghosts. The young woman sees the ghosts and befriends them. The slightly dorky husband cannot see the ghosts. He is a likable, unemployed millennial, somewhat hapless, but with a good heart. A bit of a loser, he wears a T-shirt sporting the Atari logo. The same T-shirt is available to buy online.
Tim Lapetino, author of Art of Atari, tells Polygon: “The logo is a stand-in for that whole era of early video games. I think people smush together history, and Atari has become a standard for retro video games. So you see a 20-year-old walking down the street with an Atari T-shirt. Did they play those games? Probably not. Did they grow up in that era? Surely not. But that Atari logo has a retro connection to that whole era.”
In a 1983 interview with Video Games magazine (as quoted in Art of Atari), logo designer George Opperman talked about the Fuji’s origins: “Symbols are just visual nicknames that combine first letters and interpretive design elements. I kept trying to stylize the A, then I looked at Pong, their big game at the time. Pong had a center line and a force (the ball) that kept hitting its center from either side. I thought that (force) would bend the center outward. And that’s what I designed.”
“Logo design is often quite subjective,” says Olly Wright, who spent 15 years as head of graphic design at PlayStation, working on logos as well as game and hardware packaging. “But the Atari logo is objectively a real triumph of design. That design aesthetic, having bold, simple, color palettes and iconic diametric shapes, cuts through any surrounding visual noise. It has a pleasing geometric symmetry that seems to flow.”
Image: Tim Lapetino
Catherine DeSpiro is a historian and a collector of Atari arcade machines. She says the brand has an emotional pull, especially on those who experienced it the first time around. “The 1970s was a tough time to grow up,” she recalls. “Unemployment was crazy. Divorce rates were soaring, and the American family felt like it was breaking up. Kids found sanctuary in arcades, and later, in the Atari 2600 home console. It was a promise of hope at a time when there wasn’t much hope around.”
These days, Atari’s fall is as famous as its rise. The spectacular failure of a single game, E.T., stands as an object lesson in hubris, and how not to marshal a console platform. The 2600’s portfolio of later games was plagued by poor quality control, leading to a glut of low-quality releases.
After 1984, Atari ceased to be a major player in console gaming, and was rapidly superseded by Nintendo, which had watched and learned all the hard and expensive lessons that Atari had provided. Nintendo was independent, focused, controlling, slickly professional. The company’s leaders understood the future of gaming. None of these things were true of Atari.
Atari’s afterlife encompassed various also-ran products like the Atari ST home computer, the Jaguar console, and the Lynx handheld. The brand went through a dismal series of acquisitions, relaunches, partnerships, and consolidations, finally ending up at French games publisher Infogrames, which, in its own frenzied death throes, rebranded to Atari.
When that company declared bankruptcy, longtime Infogrames exec Fred Chesnais took control of the wreckage, and sought to extract as much value from the brand as possible, through a raft of licensing deals and offshoots including a planned hotel chain, cryptocurrency, a home computer, casinos, and movie production. Buzzy initiatives abounded concerning NFTs, blockchain, and Atari’s rightful place as a real estate giant in the metaverse. There were also a few game releases, mainly in the realm of free-to-play and mobile titles like the licensed Roller Coaster Tycoon Stories, and Atari Combat: Tank Fury.
In the media, each new announcement met with eye-rolling skepticism. The Verge described the company as a “restless ghost.” Writing in PC Gamer, journalist Rich Stanton called Atari “a zombie.”
Under Rosen, the company has made some money by selling NFTs, releasing digital 3D models of classic Atari 2600 cartridges. He is careful to stress that he’s standing by existing deals, like the hotels.
“We try to enable [licensing partners] to be successful. We’re not just like, OK, here it is — buy it, and we’re hands off. We’ll provide support, but we’re not hotel experts. I draw a parallel with Nintendo working with Universal to make amusement parks.”
For Atari, comparisons with Nintendo are useful. After all, that company’s obsession with brand integrity is a model for any gaming company. But Atari’s mess of extant licensing deals would likely make a Nintendo executive blanch, especially when things go awry. In December, an Atari branded pre-launch casino metaverse was accidently published by a licensing partner. A spokesperson for Atari proper said: “The content has not been approved or authorized for release by Atari” but would not be drawn on further details. Atari’s website includes a licensing page, featuring the logos of 20 partners, and adding that “we are always searching for new cool, innovative products that fit our vision for the brand.”
Still, Rosen says his focus is on the nitty-gritty of making games and publishing them. “I’m not trying to criticize the past,” he says, “but the first thing we did as a team was to say, ‘Yes, there’s licensing and other things that exist in the market, but we’ll be doing video games, because we’re a video game company.’ That’s what we do. That’s what we’re honing in on. And we’re really focusing and putting our energy into making great games.”
“It’s OK for us, right now, to appeal to the people who know Atari best, and to do the things that Atari did well,” says Rosen. “We want to make good games that don’t mess up the formula too much, but which are modernized with challenge modes, two-player modes, score tags, things like that.”
Recharged series producer Jason Polansky adds: “Anyone who’s tried to hook up a 2600 to HDMI television knows how challenging that is. Even then, you can boot up the game as it was played in the ’70s or ’80s and say, ‘Wow, OK, that’s not exactly how I remember playing it.’
“We modify the games so they give you the understanding that you’re playing what you remember, without fundamentally altering the experience. Anybody who’s not familiar with the games can still jump in and play them and have just as much fun with them as somebody who does get the nostalgic reference.”
He points to Black Widow Recharged, released in late October, as an example. In the original 1982 arcade game, players took on the role of a spider at the center of its web, moving along the tendrils and either pushing or shooting enemies and obstacles. The new game is the same, except everything moves much faster, with a greater variety of enemies, colors, and sound effects.
“Atari created these genres in the first place,” says Polansky. “But we have to step up to what the genre is now. We can’t ignore the fact that Geometry Wars exists. We have to compete, while retaining the DNA of the original.”
Polansky says sales of these games are “in line with expectations,” adding that classics generally continue to sell steadily long after their initial release. The advantage of brands like Asteroids is that people often search for the name rather than, say, “spaceship-shooting-rocks games,” of which there are hundreds.
Successful game companies like Nintendo take care to nurture their image. Fans trust Nintendo to deliver games that sit within an overall aura of Nintendo-ness. In contrast, corporate owners of the Atari name have historically focused instead on short-term goals.
The result is that many people who view themselves as keepers of the Atari flame stand outside the office walls. They are the fans, collectors, modders, and historians who gather at retro expos and on sites like AtariAge (slogan: “Have you played Atari today?”).
We interviewed a handful of them for this story. Sitting in their workspaces, they appear proudly in front of original arcade cabinets, which wink and tinkle in the background. Or they wear original Atari-branded clothing. They are all skeptical about this latest iteration of Atari.
Marty Goldberg worked with the Infogrames version of Atari and then-licensing partner AtGames back in the 2000s, helping to bring the Atari Flashback 2 to market. It was a mini console featuring original classic games.
“Re-releasing old games does nothing new [for Atari],” he says. “There’s a bunch of new versions already out there. Where are the new ideas? That’s what Atari was all about. That’s the Atari I want to see.”
“What would I do if it was me?” asks Cassandra Quirk, aka Vintage Arcade Gal, a blogger, collector, and historian. “I think it would be amazing if somebody went in and said, ‘We’re gonna reinvent arcade games. We’re gonna go back to our Atari heritage and create destination arcade games, with innovations in controls, screens, presentation. Something that can’t be replicated in the home.’ Atari needs to create something new.”
It doesn’t help Atari’s cause when the company stumbles along the way. In November, Atari launched three collectible Atari 2600 cartridges for Aquaventure, Saboteur, and Yars’ Return. Each included playable prototypes, hacks, and homebrew versions of the games, with limited editions including physical goods such as pins and posters. Unfortunately, some of the crediting details were wildly inaccurate, leading to frustration among game historians and the Atari faithful.
“In some ways, Atari’s history is a millstone around their neck,” says Tony Temple, who runs the website The Arcade Blogger. “When they are massively inaccurate about their own history, they’re going to get found out. You have to wonder what’s going on. You’re Atari. You’re supposed to know this stuff.”
Soon after that debacle, Atari announced plans to purchase retro streaming service Antstream Arcade with an option to buy respected video game database MobyGames. These could give the company’s rank and file the kind of historical expertise it needs.
The fans we spoke to are especially scornful of Atari’s latest venture into the hardware business, once again dating back to the Chesnais era. The new “Atari VCS” was crowdfunded to the tune of more than $3 million back in 2018. Final machines shipped out in the first half of 2021.
It’s a Linux box shaped like an Atari 2600 that runs emulated retro games. Its $299-$399 price was widely panned by hardware reviewers. IGN described it as “nothing more than a watered-down combination of a console and a PC,” adding that “it definitely doesn’t justify its price tag.”
“It’s extraordinarily expensive,” concurs Quirk. “It’s very clunky. There’s no kid on Christmas morning that’s going to open up a Christmas present, hoping they find an Atari VCS instead of a PlayStation 5 or a new Xbox. Creating a streaming box that looks like an Atari 2600 is not the answer. Nor is releasing cartridges stuffed with lost prototypes.”
When I suggest to Rosen that the VCS is not a great product, he visibly bristles, arguing that more support is coming. He says that the hardware team is currently struggling to source enough components to keep machines on retail shelves, part of the current shortage of parts that’s affecting manufacturers around the world.
“I feel really passionately about the VCS,” he says. “It was one of the main reasons I wanted to come into Atari. It’s an awesome opportunity.” He concedes that there is work to be done in order for others to appreciate its value. “It should never have been called a console. It’s a computer. It’s an open, out-of-the-box Linux computer that looks cool. What makes our Linux box better than other ones is really up to us. And that’s what we have to prove in the coming year.”
Rosen adds: “I just want to say that it’s wrong to compare us to PlayStation or Xbox. Those are closed ecosystems, while we’re trying to make something that’s flexible and open, with a ton of functionality. We have not done a good enough job really articulating that value.”
Time to celebrate
As well as updating and re-releasing the classics, trying to sell and support a Linux box, dabbling in NFTs and collectibles, and supporting an unusual array of licensing partners, the new Atari is also working on celebrations for the company’s 50th anniversary.
“Inadvertently, it’s taking up a lot of time and planning,” says Rosen. “It’s constantly on our mind, but you’ll see us tying it into the games we’re releasing in the next year that haven’t been announced yet. It’s a big, big year for us, but we also see it as a beginning, not as an end in itself. It’s the 50th anniversary of Pong [in 2022], but a lot of other games have their own anniversaries coming up, and we’re doing a lot of prepping around those.”
When I ask if Atari is looking to buy and release intellectual properties that weren’t originally from Atari, Rosen says: “Short answer is yes. If you want to be the retro company that’s really pushing retro gaming forward, I think you have to look at that era as a whole and see what makes sense. It’s definitely a part of the business, and we’re actively doing that.”
Atari isn’t the only company looking to turn old into gold. New versions or repackaged bundles of classics are a gaming staple. Taito recently announced a 10-game bundle for Nintendo Switch (via licensee Inin), and Bandai Namco’s Pac-Man Museum Plus is coming sometime in early 2022.
Rosen sees co-op couch play as a big opportunity. Like many parents, he says he enjoys the sensation of playing the classics with his child. In a way, Atari’s strategy now is not dissimilar to the way home consoles were marketed in the early ’80s, with the different generations enjoying games together. “We want to capture awesome family experiences,” he says. “We’re making games that people remember, that are approachable, and that connect parents with kids. It’s like, Oh, I used to play this. Let me show you how it works.”
For the moment, he says the company has to start delivering. “We know we can’t come out and say that we’re different [from previous efforts to relaunch Atari]. People are sick of hearing that. They’ve started to roll their eyes. When you get to that point, the answer isn’t to keep talking. It’s to make the things you do really count. We have to start showing it every day.”
Referring to the skepticism of Atari fans, Rosen says: “It’s a ton of pressure. They’re very vocal about what they want, and we have to earn their goodwill and rebuild those relationships. I’m here to help restore something that is fundamentally great, and it’s cool to see that so many other people want the same thing.”
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