As is often the case with any over-orchestrated corporate announcement, Atari last week had a flurry of tech-oriented sites briefly light up, all illuminating the same point: Atari is back.
For the third time.
To recap, if you missed it amongst the run of identikit headlines built from corpro-speak: after what’s most politely described as a difficult transition, Atari has finally moved to make good on its promise to become an online publisher. It has launched Atari GO (which stands for Games Online), a new digital distribution service it hopes will connect content across all kinds of platforms, and help it reach out to the development community. The goal is to offer casual, social, browser and mobile games, plus console titles, all supported by a new technology platform.
Atari GO is a trade-only brand – it won’t be promoted to consumers – and is designed to draw a focus to the publisher’s efforts and desire to get developers on board to remake its classic IPs and offer up new ones.
Specifically, it consists of developer liaison to secure said games, an affiliate program to deter knock-off clones of classic Atari games, a distribution program to form deals with portals and social networks, plus marketing and analytics for developers.
In the company’s own words, Atari GO can “help game developers navigate the increasing complexities of reaching a fragmented casual and social audience”.
Can we really take such a claim from Atari seriously?
Remember, this was a brand untenable even for games geniuses Phil Harrison and David Gardner, a brand that had to sell itself out of collapse to Namco Bandai, a brand which in the space of a year launched two underachieving MMOs in Champions Online and Star Trek, and a brand which historically has changed hands more times than a pre-owned copy of GTA: San Andreas.
Dubbing the online frontier as fractured and complex, and offering a solution before you’ve proven yourself in it, doesn’t make much logical sense if Atari wants to become credible again.
But in Atari GO’s favour, the platform is live and exists now.
“It’s important for us to say this is live and running – it’s not just some future dream,” Thom Kozik, the man in charge of the Atari GO project tells MCV. Kozik is a veteran of Microsoft, Yahoo and Bigpoint, and as Atari’s EVP for online and mobile works from the firm’s NYC HQ.
“Many companies in the past have just come out of hiding and say ‘We’ll do this’. Some others were in the news last week, large scale publishers outsourcing an entire infrastructure to someone else,” he says, making an oblique reference to THQ’s decision to do the total opposite of Atari GO and use a third-party to handle a lot of the boring behind-the-scenes stuff for online sales so it can focus on content creation.
Atari GO hasn’t even started yet, and already Kozik is bloodying the nose of the industry big boys. But Kozik says distribution is key for digital – and that’s what the firm wants to offer that sets it apart from many other publishers as they embrace the online age.
Kozik claims that there is a ‘fallacy’ about the magic of self-publishing for developers – just because developers can publish their own games now doesn’t guarantee them success.
“It’s not as easy as some people want to believe. You don’t put a game up and instantly have the money truck back up to your front door with the cash,” he says.
“Take metrics and analytics for instance – knowing how to instrument a game, and then read all that data and telemetry and understand what you’re doing right. Well, not all developers have that skill, or can make it meaningful. Independent developers can’t build that stuff themselves - that’s something a lot of these publishing platforms offer.”
Atari GO included, of course.
Atari GO is ambitious beyond humdrum albeit important stats and analysis. Kozik says its underlying platform can reach from mobile to browser, from MMO to console.
Sounds too good to be true, but it’s purportedly built for scale and variety – and can encourage new kinds of gameplay to bubble up to the surface, and that should attract developers. The technology was bought by Atari as part of its acquisition of MMO firm Cryptic, developer of the Champions and Star Trek games, in 2008 – during the two years since the firm has built up and expanded the platform.
As a result Kozik talks of ‘mobile, browser and console games that are collaborative’: “The games become aware of each other and what you have done – through links like an Xbox Live, Atari GO, Facebook or Game iPhone Center account. You can transfer virtual goods or share them to another game – and that triggers another event or item which again links back to the console game. It’s a virtuous circle.
“You’ll see that in the games we are launching in 2011 – and from all the companies in games looking to grow the imprint of their titles.”
Atari games in 2011? Test Drive Unlimited 2, then?
“I can’t speak for Test Drive specifically, but in the case of a console game it’s easy to envisage the sharing of resources between something you’ve done in the console game to a mobile or browser game.”
But we have heard this so many times before. The ‘cross-screen dream’ is just that. No one has managed to realise it: Sony, Microsoft and many others have tried.
And if the advancement of online social and casual games has taught us anything, it’s that it’s not the place for old brands like Atari. It’s for the firms that are reshaping the battlefield now and tomorrow – Zynga, Bigpoint, Facebook, Apple, Google.
On mention of those companies, Kozik also mentions plans to launch an Atari in-game payments, called Atari Tokens, as part of the GO service.
Is that another string in the bow, or the same me-too over-ambition that has, time and again, derailed the Atari brand? Surely it just has to get some games out there first before ambitiously linking disparate platforms or introducing virtual currencies?
Kozik is optimistic: “This market is so fast moving, and the brightest ideas come from the independent developers. It makes sense for us to be the infrastructure for those people,” he says touching on how Atari GO finally sees the firm realise its promise of being an ‘online publisher’.
“Our service speaks a lot to what the changing role of a publisher is in an online world – it’s not about putting a box on a shelf, it’s about bringing people to your game.
“It is up to someone like Atari to smooth that out for content owners.”
He makes a good point.
But Atari GO has a long way to go before that point is proven.