Even if you have no personal experience of working with the likes of Bruno Bonnell, there’s still fond gaming memories to fall back on – firing up an Atari 2600 for the first time back in the eighties remains, for many gamers, a defining moment.
But after a few lean years (to say the least), perhaps Atari is on its way back – and there’s no doubt that it is one man that can be the primary catalyst for Atari’s resurrection.
David Gardner’s time at EA saw him become one of the trade’s most well-respected figures – but the newly-installed Atari CEO could now top every one of his previous achievements in the games business by bringing the glory days back to Atari.
And he firmly believes that the business has bags of potential.
“Atari truly has some wonderful assets – first and foremost the brand,” he begins. “It’s a very powerful, emotional name. I’ve been amazed by the number of people that have sent me emails saying ‘make sure Atari does great things, I love that company’. It has incredible goodwill going for it. Think about some of the other giant brands in the world and you can’t say the same – unfortunately for poor Microsoft they have one of the largest brands in the world but nobody seems to like them. I think that gives us an immediate head start.”
Besides branding, what does Atari have to offer the modern games market? Gardner, as ever, remains confident in his new employer’s assets. “There’s a fantastic history and catalogue of products that are clearly suited to casual games,” he says. “My vision is to bring the coin-op arcade back home through the web. To me that’s not just re-hashing the old games but it’s re-interpreting them for audiences today. That’s our challenge.”
And while this might sound like a resounding vote of no confidence in more ‘traditional’ retail product, that element of the business will remain, insists Gardner.
“The retail product is well known,” says Gardner. “Alone In The Dark is the next major release. I think our products over the next year are pretty clear – the company has worked hard to get its finances in order so it can get back into publishing killer titles more or less once a quarter – and that will continue. That gives us a good base to really accelerate on doing things that will be directed at the consumer online and that’s where I think people are starting to play now.”
So what exactly will happen in this brave new online world? Gardner belives that Atari’s powerful distribution network will have a big part to play.
“This is a world class distribution organisation and our goal is to have that make money – and that’s a big asset for not just us but the industry. Atari products are in the minority of those that go through Atari distribution. That’s a good thing because it means we are very publisher-focused and we make sure we are doing a good job. All of our partners are super important.
“We needs to define fewer, bigger, longer term arrangements with external companies. We are now able to make commitments and longer-term arrangements. We are a more solid partner than ever before and we’ve got the distribution reach.
“And there are more territories in the world, like Eastern Europe, where we need to be opening new offices. We’re definitely looking at that. The way I would describe it is that we intend to use our money for web investments and we will use other people’s investments for packaged goods.”
Clearly, Gardner has picked his opportunity to return to the industry very carefully.
With new investment from BlueBay, a strong distribution operation and most importantly a world-famous brand, the foundations are there. Now Gardner needs to deliver on his promises and bring Atari back from the brink.
“The relationship we have with BlueBay is excellent and they are long term investors. They’re not just a ‘buying and flipping shares’ kind of company – how they make their money is transforming a company to become many times more valuable. That’s their core goal. Atari now has more cash than debt, so it’s great having a debt free company. We’ve got the cash, we’ve got the brand, and we’ll put our best people on working for the future.”
“From a business point of view, it hasn’t always proven to be ideal. We can’t just take the decisions we want to take and we have to respect what the team says. They have to sort out that problem, we can’t sort it for them. In the last six months they’ve got a new Board and a chief re-structuring officer and they’re looking for a new CEO as well. They’ve made a lot of progress. It’s moving in the right direction.”
“One of the things I’m really excited about in terms of being the CEO is that we get to re-define how we want to work with people. I’m not obsessed with owning people, I’m not in the people-trafficking business. I think the thing to do is to make sure that we build great products that people want to play. We need to work together with the creatives based here in Europe and some are going to like being employed by us and other are going to want total independence. I don’t have to be obsessed with this crazy empire-building approach.”
“My goal is not to go head-on with EA and Activision Blizzard – we’re the terrorist organisation. We’re going to go much faster into the future than anyone else because we’re small. We’re going to go from being a top 20 packaged goods player to a top five online player. That’s where the big guys are sleeping because they can’t move fast enough – they’re too busy on the treadmill trying to get to their next billion dollars. They have to and that’s great - we understand it - but that’s why we have new companies with a new focus.”
“Today the global gaming market is around 90 per cent packaged goods and 10 per cent online. I think over the next three years that will shift to about 75 per cent packaged goods to 25 per cent online. And I think in three years time Atari needs to lead the market and have more than 25 per cent online. We’re just not big enough to spend the time to repeat getting back into the packaged goods business as strongly as the company has been historically. The time and the money needs to be spent on the future and the future is moving much faster online so naturally we’re going to re-position the company.”