Though one of the most recognisable brands in gaming, Atari’s fortunes have taken a turn for the worse in recent times. Hemorrhaging hundreds of millions of dollars and appointing no fewer than four chief executives in the last five years, things have looked grim for the pioneering publisher which was once at the forefront of the industry.
Under new stewardship, Atari is taking steps to rebrand itself as a major player in online publishing, launching its new online and mobile platform, Atari Games Online – otherwise known as GO. We sat down with the man in charge of driving Atari’s bold new direction, executive vice president of online and mobile, Tom Kozik, to discuss what GO can offer independent developers, whether the retail market has a future and bringing Atari back to the cutting edge.
Atari’s executive vice president of online and mobile, Tom Kozik
Nolan Bushnell chose Atari’s name from the board game Go, in which context it means, "a state where a stone or group of stones is imminently in danger of being taken by one’s opponent". Is Games Online Atari’s way of remaining in play?
[laughs] Thank you for getting our oh-so-clever insinuation there. It is absolutely a way to reinforce our relevance and build on the strengths that we’ve got in this space. There’s a tremendous amount of underpinning that Atari has built up over the years, but hasn’t always done good a job of exploiting. This is really our opportunity to build on these strengths, and it’s the next evolution of the company. We’ve talked about online as an aspiration in the past, GO is a real set of services and is actually live running real games. We’re now opening up the kimono even further to a broader audience.
Do you see this move as a gradual transition away from boxed retail, or a supporting strategy to rescue that segment of Atari’s business?
It’s not about rescuing it; that section of the business is healthy for what it is. It’s not my side of the business, so I won’t go into it too deeply, but clearly the evolution into moving products through digital distribution is one that we’ve embraced. Retail is a healthy channel for us, but digital distribution is a big part of the future for consoles. If you look at any of the numbers, for mobile as well as browser-based players, they vastly eclipse the console business. So we’ve got to have a complimentary part of the business that services that audience just as much as we’ve served the traditional console audience.
Does retail figure in Atari’s long term plans?
I think it’s finding its proper space. There’s always going to be big annual, tent-pole releases in certain franchises – one of which, Test Drive Unlimited 2, is ours – that are going to occupy that position in the marketplace. They’re an event in of themselves. But that doesn’t tap into the breadth of gameplay on the part of the consumer who’s playing something else all year long in their browser.
There’s such a big appetite across the spectrum for gaming that relying on those event retail launches isn’t a successful strategy for any company, let alone Atari, and the retail side of the business is looking to partner with us on the online side. Obviously, there’s the easy things like gift cards, but there’s also bundling and branding opportunities with products at retail that tie into virtual goods or currency in online games. So there are a number of ways that retail will still have a hand in the games business even if the game is purely browser delivered.
For instance, Franklin Sports is a sponsor in our Backyard Sports franchise. While it’s been a cartridge and disc-based game, there’s no reason that the same sponsor shouldn’t be able to participate in online versions too, and brand the products inside the browser-based games. Or to take it one step further, imagine a future where you go to the store and buy a brand partner’s product at retail and receive currency or virtual goods in the game.