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Welcome to the great Atari reboot

Published May 1st, 2015 10:45AM EDT
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Fred Chesnais has plenty of ideas about how to rebuild a once-great video game company. Among the most important to the chairman and CEO of Atari – the gaming brand whose cartridges, consoles and classic titles dominated the industry more than 40 years ago before it slowly slid into irrelevance – is his belief that getting players to see you as cool again starts with this rule:

Don’t do the obvious thing.

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“There’s no point in trying to compete against the big companies or in trying to do the next Call of Duty,” says Chesnais, who bought Atari out of bankruptcy in 2013 and has been iterating a turnaround plan since then, which the company continues to pursue today.

“That’s an uphill battle. The only thing you can do is try to think forward two, three and four years down the road – to try to catch the next wave, if you will.”

That, for example, is why Chesnais says the company synonymous with retro classics like Pong and Asteroids isn’t gearing its new releases mostly to teens or only focusing on a limited geography in an attempt to reinvent itself. Rather, Atari’s top executive says he has a more expansive view of where he wants to take the company – admittedly, a company that’s a shell of its former self, employing 12 people today compared to a staff that numbered in the thousands in Atari’s heyday – and of how he wants to get there.

It involves things like releasing the LGBT-themed game Pridefest in the coming weeks, a “social-sim” game for tablets and mobile devices in which players will create and launch their own personalized “pride parades” in cities of their choosing. In the game, players will customize parade flotillas with decorations, in addition to keeping their town attractive and happy. To unlock new parade and festival supplies, as well as receiving other bonuses, players will solve a variety of challenges and complete quests.

“It’s a very colorful game, and it’s part of our new DNA as a company of trying to push the envelope,” Chesnais said, adding that the game should be out by June.

Meanwhile, the Atari comeback he lays out also entails expanding the brand to other markets around the world like Brazil, which Chesnais says is a “very significant” gaming market today in terms of revenue. (“They love their games there.”) And the plan also calls for taking a broader view of the player community, with Chesnais pointing to opportunities to expand the company’s audience by gearing some titles toward non-traditional players, like those between the ages of 40 and 60.

A critic might dismiss Atari’s plan as too scattershot to make a difference. But thinking big is the point for the Atari of today – in fact, Chesnais doesn’t even refer to it as a video game company so much as an “interactive entertainment production company,” to use his phrase.

“We’ve also started the launch of a casino platform in Europe,” he says.

Teaming up with gaming technology company Pariplay, in the fall Atari announced the release of Atari Casino, a real-money gaming website including Atari-themed games across a variety of platforms.

In recent weeks, Atari also released “Atari Fit” for iOS and Android devices, a fitness app that offers workout plans and rewards users with coins that can be used to unlock classic Atari games Centipede, Pong and Super Breakout. The company also re-introduced its RollerCoaster Tycoon game last year, and in February Atari announced the upcoming release of “Asteroids: Outpost” for PC, a re-imagining of Atari’s renowned 1979 arcade shooter.

“We’ve also licensed some of our IP to Hollywood,” Chesnais says. “Our vision is very simple. It’s to keep expanding the brand in the entertainment space and on a worldwide scale.”

It helps, of course, when yours is a brand that touches a deep undercurrent of nostalgia among gamers of a certain vintage. Indeed, Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell tells BGR there was something special about Atari from the beginning, and that it still has a path toward relevancy today.

“Anytime you have an iconic brand, that helps,” said Bushnell, who sold Atari to Warner Communications in 1976 – the first in a long and tortuously complicated chain of ownership that would result in the Atari that Chesnais leads today.

“To the extent they do good engineering, good design – they have every opportunity to be a good success. Will they be another Microsoft or Sony? Probably not. But they could easily be a Zynga, capturing good games with the right dynamics.”

One thing that won’t be part of the company’s future, Chesnais says, is a console. But that’s not to say Atari doesn’t see a future in hardware. Not wanting to spill too much, Chesnais points to a device like the Apple Watch – it’s not a console, but it is hardware along the lines of where Atari envisions its efforts possibly going.

“We’re just trying to do the right thing for the brand,” Chesnais says. “We’re making mistakes. We’re trying to be very humble, trying and testing the market. We’ve had a great success with RollerCoaster Tycoon, less success with other games. As long as we’re humble and try to listen to the community and change things when they need to change – that’s how we work. It just takes time, that’s all.”

Andy Meek Trending News Editor

Andy Meek is a reporter based in Memphis who has covered media, entertainment, and culture for over 20 years. His work has appeared in outlets including The Guardian, Forbes, and The Financial Times, and he’s written for BGR since 2015. Andy's coverage includes technology and entertainment, and he has a particular interest in all things streaming.

Over the years, he’s interviewed legendary figures in entertainment and tech that range from Stan Lee to John McAfee, Peter Thiel, and Reed Hastings.


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