Atari lives

When Atari’s new CEO David Gardner and president Phil Harrison this summer told MCV that they were planning to rebuild the company around online games and not boxed product, there must have been a large contingent of readers who thought that this effectively meant the restructuring publisher was cutting its losses and turning its back on retail.

But last week, the Atari Live event for retailers and the media made one thing clear: retail is still a priority for the firm.
In fact, the event may as well have been called ‘Atari Lives,’ so intent were proceedings on reminding those invited along that the company not only has an enviable global distribution network co-owned with Namco Bandai, but also that it is still very much an active force in retail.

We want people to understand that Atari does have plans for retail – it’s not the only thing we’ll be doing, some of our stuff won’t be for retail – but to compensate for that we’re bringing in products that were online that didn’t previously have a retail component,” explains Gardner to MCV after an hour-long showcase of around 15 games, two-thirds of which will be launched between January and June 09.

These include a number of ‘first for retail’ products, such as the first boxed release of MMO EVE Online, a compilation of episodic Sam & Max adventures, and a bargain price point €30 disc called Q3 (or Qubed) that contains three former Xbox Live Arcade hits – Rez HD, Lumines and Every Extend Extra Extreme.

Gardner adds: We want to be the online specialist for retail. And as we create this new distribution company with Namco Bandai we think that one of the things we can do to give it a good future is independence, strong product flow, and some higher technology skills – such as helping retail deal with the way that the market is changing

EVE, even though it is not that well known, represents a perfect crossover of what retail is great at. It’s not just distributing a game digitally, it can create cash into retail through things like hint books and time cards.”

Harrison says that games like EVE and Qubed take the best of online and package it for our retail partners, creating evergreen products – not ones which have just a 30 to 60-day cycle on store shelves”. So rather than choose online and use that as an excuse to overlook retail, Atari is in fact using online as a way to give new products to retailers. But that’s just half the story for ‘new Atari’, as the publisher is also pushing a number of new signings as its headline titles for 2009.

These include Ghostbusters, a new Riddick game, The Witcher’s debut on consoles, and the sixth Tekken game, which sees the fighter going multiplatform for the first time. They join releases like RACE Pro, Ready 2 Rumble, three Namco Bandai-developed games Afro Samurai, Family Ski & Snowboard and Eternal Sonata and others (for a full overview of the product range, turn the page).

This variety of SKUs is an interesting mix – different from the range the Atari of old boasted, and indicative of the wider changes going on at the company, which has seen Gardner and Harrison breeze in and, in their words dare to take away the bureaucracy”. This has meant stripping out various offices that overlapped, for instance.

Explains Gardner: We’ve had a lot of cleaning up to do – we knew that going in to it and that at some point it would come to a head. And a lot of time that means changing people.

Our approach has been to correct the sins of the past. Atari was a very decentralised company.

We also had to clean up the product portfolio,” he adds. Gardner characterises Harrison’s first reaction to the games Atari did have in the works when he began as akin to the sword-wielding Afro Samurai. (There was certainly blood on the carpet.”)

Those canned games have been replaced by an almost EA Partners-flavoured line-up. A great portion of the games are appearing via distribution deals with established developers.
It’s also possible that much of the new Atari isn’t just Gardner and Harrison’s reaction to the sins of the old Atari – which also, lets not forget, included crimes like shipping out unfinished games like Enter The Matrix and Driv3r just to satisfy financial deadlines – but a move to redress the frustrations they probably encountered at former corporate employers.

Adds Harrison: Atari bought a lot of things and integrated none of them – there were all these duplicated overheads. David came in and said ‘Why is it like this?’ and it turned out no-one had asked that before. We’ve removed a huge layer of that management bureaucracy, simplified the structure, reduced costs and increased communication.”

But, he adds, stripping away the fat of the business doesn’t mean that individual regions like UK are now less important.” Indeed, as we report on page 4 this week, Atari has appointed an MD  of its Atlantic region – which includes the UK plus Spain, Nordic and Latin America – and is planning to rebuild its team in the UK as a recruitment drive kicks off.

There’s a lot of opportunities to grow our business in the UK,” adds Gardner. I’m not sure we had the right product mix in the past. What we’ve shown at Atari Live is much healthier line-up for both North America and Europe. And that will help us attract the right team. But we’re not looking for a UK GM – I don’t want to run an individual country manager-style operation.”

In fact, Gardner says he’s so committed to the UK business that he hasn’t given up” on the old Atari dream of having a distribution label in Britain.

I think the UK industry is not particularly healthy right now. There are way too many small players and not enough big players – that’s on both sides of the table, from a retail perspective and a publishing one,” says Gardner. He stops short of spelling out his exact plans, only confirming that Atari is looking at ways it can inspire co-operation in the industry in a healthy and helpful” way to make the UK industry stronger.

However, Gardner and Harrison’s new Atari strategy isn’t entirely built on a rejection of what went before, both at Atari and in their previous jobs. Indeed, last week’s showcase was as much about reminding the world about the company’s associations and alliances as anything else.

So Harrison is as happy to talk about his big aspirations for Ghostbusters – including to prove wrong Activision CEO Bobby Kotick, who rejected the game due to supposed low sequel potential – as he is the fact that Atari distributes GTA IV in Taiwan for Rockstar Games.

Of course, the championing of Ghostbusters does beg one last question – isn’t the new Atari just building its portfolio on games that no one else wants? What is Atari seeing in the likes of Riddick which Activision isn’t? Although he doesn’t say it outright, Gardner hints that it’s an ability to see the bigger picture.

We evaluated those games and just because they aren’t a good fit for Activision doesn’t mean they aren’t a good fit for us.”

Adds Harrison: What Bobby, perhaps unhelpfully said, was that those games were franchises which wouldn’t make $100m of revenue and generate sequels. If that’s his benchmark, then fine – and we’d love to aspire to the same benchmarks. But you know what? I would love to turn Ghostbusters into a $100m franchise, just to prove him wrong.” (And sell it back to him!” quips Gardner.)

Most importantly, says Gardner, each game represents a key opportunity for Atari to make money from cutting-edge products in an very old fashioned w

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