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Atari has come back from the dead more than once. Under previous CEO Fred Chesnais, it moved into mobile games and struck gold with a popular Rollercoaster Tycoon title.
That bought the company some time, and it began to experiment with the Atari brand, getting it into everything from the Ready Player One film to a line of Atari-branded hotels. But Chesnais left during 2021 to pursue blockchain gaming passions, and Wade Rosen took over starting in April 2021.
And Rosen plans to take Atari back to its roots in premium PC, console, and mobile games. The company will attempt to bring Atari classic games to new audiences, with content reimagined for modern sensibilities. I spoke with Rosen about these plans. He was also excited to hear about AtariQuest, an interactive fan fiction title that weaves a narrative based on more than 400 Atari 2600 games. It’s an example of just how dedicated Atari fans are.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
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GamesBeat: What is the new games strategy at Atari?
Wade Rosen: It’s a return to Atari’s roots. The last few years have seen a focus on mobile games. Some, like RCT Touch, have been successful, and we’ll continue them. We’re not moving away from mobile games. But where do we put our new efforts? That’s a shift back to our roots and to premium gaming specifically.
We put those in three buckets. One, it’s bringing the classics to new audiences and new spaces. Two, it’s updating the classics like we do with our Recharged line. They maintain the original, classic gameplay and a lot of that core joy of classic games, but with updated and modern sensibilities. And then the last one is a reimagining of our original IP, which can have some tie to the classic, but is truly a different game altogether. That’s the new strategy, and that’s what we’ve been focused on since I came on board last year.
GamesBeat: Does that mean you’ll be working with more new development teams, different development teams, versus the ones that specialized in mobile?
Rosen: Right. We’re working with some teams we’ve worked with in the past, and we’re also working with a number of new teams. One of the great parts about this job — because these games meant so much to so many different people, we often have a lot of incredible studios reach out to us and pitch projects. As much as we go out and look for new studios to work with, we also have the luxury of being able to look through these projects and find ones that seem to resonate the most for us. A lot of 2022 is going to be about bringing those projects to market.
GamesBeat: What’s a good reason for the shift from mobile toward these PC and console games? It feels like it was right to give that a good run and see what was going to work, but shifting makes sense for what reason?
Rosen: The shift isn’t because we view, in totality, PC games or console games or premium games as better than mobile games, or that those types of games are better than casual games. It was more because we felt that was the best course for Atari. When we look at what Atari is and what people know it for, where its ethos is, what all of us at Atari like to wake up and work with on a daily basis, that’s what we kept coming back to.
The change, for us, was natural. We felt like we could make the best Atari games by focusing on PC and console rather than focusing on mobile-only titles. It doesn’t mean that these games aren’t accessible, or that they’re not joyful in nature. But it’s fundamentally different than if you build a game for a mobile audience. That was where it came from. It was more a reflection of what was best for Atari, rather than any large macro industry trends.
GamesBeat: It does seem like mobile has become a very tough, competitive environment, too. It’s hard to tell what’s going to succeed.
Rosen: Mobile, just given the nature of network externalities and how that works, is often kind of a binary outcome. You’re either Supercell and you’re incredibly successful and you knock it out of the park, or you don’t. That was another thing we liked about this move. Premium console and PC gaming, we can appeal to our fanbase. We can appeal to the people who already love Atari. At the same time, we can find new customers. It doesn’t have to be a massive, world-beating success to be a successful game. It can just be a successful game by being a good version of Centipede, a good version of Asteroids. That’s enough on that side of it. On the other side, you really have to break in. It’s a binary success. If you don’t reach this very large critical-mass audience, you end up fading away. That was one of the major things we wanted to avoid with these new titles.
GamesBeat: When it comes to dividing the company’s efforts between blockchain and games, what was the thinking there?
Rosen: The most important part of that was just, again, to focus on what the company is best at. What can these two business units focus on? The one side of the business focuses on games. That’s the historical and the legacy part of the business. It has a software component, a hardware component, and a licensing component. While we do think growth is possible there, rapid growth, it’s also much more predictable. It has a history and a track record.
The other side, it’s an entirely different animal. We do have a lot of confidence in what blockchain can be someday, but the growth curve of blockchain is rapidly different than the growth curve of games. When you mix those two up, you end up with a company that can get pulled in either direction. You don’t want a blockchain company trying to run itself like a game company, and you don’t want a game company trying to run itself like a blockchain company. At least not at Atari.
The idea of separating those two is so the blockchain division can focus on blockchain endeavors, on partnerships, on its own original content, on its own original platforms, on whatever is right for blockchain. It can do so along that hyper-growth curve that’s occurring in that industry. The games piece can make all the decisions to be a long-term, sustainable, constantly growing games division. By separating those two, it allows both to focus on what they’re best at and what each needs while still collaborating when possible.
GamesBeat: [Can you talk about Fred Chesnais’ role] at Atari?
Rosen: Fred is no longer with Atari. We work with Fred in a different capacity. He’s currently running a company called Crypto Blockchain Industries, which is a new venture for him. Atari is partnered with him. We’re doing certain projects with his new company. But as far as that blockchain division, Fred is not in charge of that anymore. There are different teams focused on each of those.
GamesBeat: The way this is structured, with a relatively small headcount at Atari versus working with a lot of outside developers, is that going to be your way of operating going forward?
Rosen: The way we’ve been operating has made sense for where Atari was and is currently. We haven’t done anything to fundamentally change that today. I do think that in the long term, as you look at the natural growth of a game company, that if you have titles that you know you’re going to be working on for an extended period of time, and you have some predictability there, it’s probably best to have a blend of both internal and external and resources you can rely on. But as of right now the plan is still to keep the tight, lean team and work with external developers. Over time, who knows how that could go? I don’t think it’s something that we’re completely devoted to as the company evolves.
GamesBeat: The other difficulty is always which franchises to focus on. If you’re going to tackle one first, or tackle one in a way that makes it the biggest project, how do you make that decision?
Rosen: On the Recharged titles, we listen to what people say. What people post on Twitter, what they write us. We collect a lot of feedback from the community and try hard to listen to what people want. One of the advantages of being Atari is you can get a lot of feedback from people. There’s a lot of signal there. Sometimes you have to cut through the noise, but if you want to find it, there’s a lot to look at. When we look at what we’re planning to do — we’re going to be announcing another four Recharged titles in early Q1. Of course we’ve been hearing a lot of talk about Yar’s Revenge or Gravitar. Those are things we keep in mind as we pick the next Recharged titles.
In terms of when we reimagine a game, a lot of it is down to — yes, it’s what people want. But with the Recharged you’re looking at the original gameplay and you’re updating it and bringing to modern sensibilities. You’re still maintaining the core. With the reimaginings, while the core elements are still there, they’re often so different that you need to step back and not necessarily look at what the audience is asking for exactly, but rather look at what the developer is passionate about. That’s the best change you’re going to have to get a great game. If the developer loves some really obscure game, then you’re most likely going to get a great product from that.
You also look at what else is going on in the market, where the industry trends are at. If you’re updating a game like Haunted House, what would that look like today? It probably wouldn’t look like the 2600 game. You need to combine the demands of the developer, what they’d like to make, with the industry and what seems to be resonating with the general public, what they would like, and then still find a way to marry in the classic title so that it can appeal to the original fans. That’s how we typically choose and handle the new games, when we settle on updating and doing entirely new titles with our old IP.
GamesBeat: How do you look at the VCS versus other platforms when you’re making games?
Rosen: The VCS — Atari has a history in hardware. That’s one of the fundamental pillars of Atari. It’s important, no matter what Atari does in the future, that there is this core hardware pillar to the company. The challenge with the VCS is that it often gets compared to other consoles when it’s not a console, but a home entertainment computer. That’s the real key. It’s a computer for your living room. It’s there to bridge the modern and the retro. It’s offering something entirely unique and different in the market that you wouldn’t find elsewhere. And now it’s up to us to show and articulate those differences for the end user.
A lot of that is going to be through focusing on the retro piece, on our roots, and on the roots of video games. We want to create a product that’s highly desirable for retro gamers and collectors like myself. That’s where there’s a very meaningful market that both fits Atari’s ethos and hasn’t been effectively addressed, where we can step in with the VCS.
GamesBeat: What’s the best place for a reimagined or original IP title versus a classic title? How does the thinking evolve there? I don’t know if you would spend more on marketing for a classic game on any particular platform. There seem to be so many possible platforms for the classics.
Rosen: It’s a good point. You have the re-releases, the original game without a lot of changes. You have the remasters, our Recharged line, which is still the core game, but updated. But then the final piece there are the ones where we’d say they’re inspired by a classic. Food Fight would be a good example of that. It still has Charlie Chuck. A lot of the character and the aesthetics come from the original game. At the same time, the gameplay is different. It has an entirely different play style. It’s looking at the source material and borrowing from that, but it’s something unique and new.
For those, because you have people — those are the ones that you probably have to work on the most, to market and emphasize a bit more. Even though it shares a name with an iconic game, a beloved game, it’s entirely new gameplay, so you have to go find a new market. You have to show people who loved the original game why they’ll love the new game, and then you have to find people who haven’t heard about this classic 7800 game and explain how it appeals to them in its current state. You would naturally spend more on the original ones, the games that are inspired by a classic, but have taken on a new tweak.
Even with those, though — you maybe even want to call that modernizing. It’s really about exploring the IP in a new, different, unexpected way. But even then, we make sure to incorporate the history of Atari and elements of Atari in those games. A game like Food Fight, those Easter eggs remain to be found, but there’s a lot of things we’ve done to loop in the history of Atari in a game like that, even though it’s an original and the gameplay is all new. It’s an original game that shares some commonalities and settings with the classic.
GamesBeat: There are platforms like the retro console, the new consoles, the game passes. You have lots of different opportunities there.
Rosen: Given our size and where we are as a company, we explore all of those opportunities. Each different type of game, whether it’s the classic games, the re-releases, the Recharged versions, and these reimagined new versions, each one has a different fit. On top of that we have the VCS, where we also try to release our games and put them out with exclusive content and make sure that if you’re playing a version of an Atari game, the one on the VCS is the definitive version that has extra levels or extra content, new things you can access only on that platform.
We do try to put things out for every platform and look at opportunities across the board. At the same time, we support our own computer platform too. We’re equal opportunity when it comes to that.
GamesBeat: Looking at the boom of the last couple of years, the pandemic effect, where do you think we are as far as competition in the industry?
Rosen: These things are cyclical. It’s been a bit of a boom for the industry, which would imply that — I don’t necessarily think that — the problem is we always associate booms with busts. After a boom, there’s this radical bust that can happen. But just as frequently, and I would argue even more frequently, it’s a period of level-setting. It doesn’t necessarily mean there’s this boom and we’ve shot up and now we’ll shoot back down. But I don’t think it’s feasible that the industry can continue to grow in the way that it did last year. That may have set a high point. Maybe it will go back to the way it was. Maybe we’ll have a few years of slower growth or relatively flat growth as the industry catches up with the hyper-growth it had in one year.
That’s common in businesses, where you’ll see a really rapid rise, and then it’ll plateau for a long period of time until things catch up with that. It’s normalized over time. You don’t necessarily have a crash and a reversion to where you were before, but reduced growth or slower momentum that helps to normalize that fast momentum. I don’t know if that’s the case here. It seems like that’s what we would most likely see. Maybe we maintain where we are and we keep that going, but it’s not quite the heady growth we had before.
GamesBeat: Looking at non-game opportunities, where do you stand on that right now?
Rosen: That’s one of the great things about Atari. It has a lot of non-game opportunities. As a company you have to look at those. However, what I can say is where in the past we’ve attempted to pursue a lot of those ourselves, we’ve looked at how we can pursue those non-game opportunities with licensing partners. Finding best-in-class people we can work with, people we trust as part of a strong partnership, and then we work with those partners on a specific opportunity.
We’re still very bullish in that area. We’re always looking and we’re always finding new partners to work with that we’re excited about. That’s one of the other exciting things in 2022. There will be a lot of new announcements on that side with some world-class partners.
GamesBeat: I know that you have the blockchain projects separate, but NFTs have come into the conversation around games in a big way. Is there still something to consider within the core games related to NFTs?
Rosen: Separate doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re siloed. The goal is to have them continue to operate in an autonomous fashion, but they still collaborate. The blockchain side still works with the Atari brand and a lot of the Atari IP. It makes just as much sense for the game side or the brand side to look at how it can work with the blockchain division to potentially incorporate those pieces into the core games.
Again, it’s early days. There are a lot of extreme opinions. Whatever you do, you have to do it slowly and thoughtfully. You have to accept that what’s done today will probably be different than what happens in six months, and that will probably be different from what happens in 12 months. As long as you’re comfortable with facing those extreme opinions and realize that it’s an iterative process, one that will always be changing, there is some opportunity in the present moment.
GamesBeat: How do you look at things like Atari Land and the Sandbox? That’s more like a metaverse project.
Rosen: We wanted to be early partners with Sandbox. That’s a good example of a great blockchain partner that we worked closely with, and we continue to work with. We recently made news by selling some of the land to Republic Realm, but even after that sale, we remain one of the biggest Sandbox landholders. We continue to have a large presence on the platform.
We have no plans to exit blockchain or to exit the Sandbox. We just had an opportunity to work with a company in Republic Realm that we’ve worked with in the past. We’re hoping that it’s more than just a land sale. We’re actively trying to find ways to work together on a deeper level, beyond just land sales. That was just a strategic decision to deepen a partnership with a team and a company that we respect. It doesn’t change the way we view Sandbox or the way we view the metaverse opportunities. We’re still bullish on all of that.
GamesBeat: How do you think about Atari’s place in culture and some of the best ways to take advantage of that?
Rosen: There’s a term I’ve heard used to describe Atari, which is “nostalgic futurism.” That captures the way that Atari is viewed properly. It’s both this brand that is often tied to nostalgia and retro and these things we have emotional connections to, and yet the way it looks, the logo, the icon, all of it is incredibly futuristic too. That’s why it works so well in a movie like Blade Runner 2049. It’s both tying back into this previous movie, into the past, while still representing the future in an interesting way.
Atari is one of those brands, maybe the best example of a brand that’s able to live in the past, for nostalgia purposes, but can also live in the future and be seen as this very futuristic, forward-looking brand. It’s also one of the most recognizable logos in the world. The brand is one of the most recognizable brands in the world. It’s a huge advantage for us, a huge opportunity as a platform for growth.
In terms of popular culture, it’s still very popular. It’s found a kind of new life. I wear Atari shirts probably half the days of the week, and it’s either Gen X or Gen Z that usually compliment them. Millennials, for whatever reason — I think they’re the Nintendo generation. But it’s cool with Gen Xers and it’s kind of cool with younger gamers, even though they may have never even played an Atari game. The brand itself has a presence and awareness. In pop culture it’s incredibly relevant.
But now the question becomes, how do you make it relevant again in terms of the quality of games we’re putting out? Not just a cultural touchstone that you can look back to and it resonates with people and they recognize it. How do we make it so that they have these memorable and joyful experiences of their own with the brand? That’s what we’re trying to do. That’s the next step. It’s improving the opinion of the brand in gaming culture, with gamers, and making it not just well-known in common culture, but actually something that inspires people in common culture to play a game.
The platform, as far as both tapping into the history and retro — you have amazing opportunities. It is the retro gaming company. But we can also use it as a launching pad to do futuristic and cool and innovative things. We have a broad, expansive opportunity as a brand. It’s our job to make great games now. That’s the beauty of this work. We have a pretty clear mandate. We just have to make good games. It doesn’t get much more complex than that.
GamesBeat: Atari a few years ago was always — it felt like, financially, it was a restart. It was just getting its feet wet. It feels like you’ve put some of that period of time behind you.
Rosen: Let me try speaking to that on a strategic level. Strategically, what we have as a goal right now — again, that’s part of the shift away from mobile and freemium gaming to premium console and PC gaming. It’s to focus on making one successful game after another. You don’t have to make the next Grand Theft Auto or the next Witcher. You can just make a great Centipede game and that’s enough. That success allows you to get to another success, which allows you to get to another success.
We’re building a pattern of releasing successful games and not trying to hit home runs. We’re trying to put out singles and doubles and slowly build the business. I can’t necessarily speak to where that puts us in relation to where we were in the past. But I think that strategy gives you an idea of how the company is growing and where its priorities are in terms of what it wants to put forward in the future.
GamesBeat: How do you personally connect to Atari? I feel like consumers might want to know what you’re like as a steward of Atari.
Rosen: It’s hard to talk about Atari without talking about video games. That’s how iconic the brand is. The early history of video games is in many ways the history of Atari. I love video games. I’m incredibly passionate about video games. This is not a plant. I have a little CRT television behind me there, and that’s where I keep the retro games. I keep the modern ones in the basement with the giant flatscreen.
But for me, video games were a constant in my life. They were a way to travel and see the world and explore the world long before I ever had opportunities to do those things. While I do think that there’s a meaningful business opportunity in the industry — this is not a passion project. This is a professional organization. We run it professionally. But this is also something I love. I feel grateful every day to be here and be a part of this.
In terms of Atari specifically, I was a little bit more in the Nintendo generation. That being said, I still had the opportunity to play the 2600 frequently at friends’ houses. I remember the first computer we had. It had Centipede and Asteroids. We played those continuously. Asteroids was my favorite of those titles. I had some other Atari favorites too. I have a weird attachment to Dodge ‘Em. I don’t know why. It’s such a simple, easy game.
But the thing I knew about Atari, even when I was a kid, and what I really liked, was how accessible it was. You could give that joystick to anybody and they just knew what to do. It was so approachable. When I look at what Atari means to me, it’s the gateway for video games. It’s one of the few companies besides Nintendo that can appeal to the entirety of the base. Making accessible games, but also games that are meaningful and memorable and joyful. It’s very different than making a mobile game, which is accessible, but it’s really there to entertain you while you’re at the airport. Anybody who’s played a two-player version of Centipede Recharged can tell you how great it is. That brings families together.
It’s deeply meaningful for me because I care deeply about video games. I care deeply about the history of video games. Atari was this beacon that I remember from my early days. It’s unique in the sense that it’s one of the few companies in the world that can make games that are accessible to almost anyone, but still memorable and still very joyful.
GamesBeat: Any other things to mention today?
Rosen: For the Recharged titles, I’d encourage anybody who wants to play them to try to play them in co-op. That’s one of the innovative things that’s been lost on those titles. The original Centipede was sequential. One person went, then the next person. You were really just playing solo. It’s the two-player mode that’s special. There’s something really cool — I play it with my nine-year-old daughter. She doesn’t need a 100-hour story arc behind it. She doesn’t know why you’re shooting at centipedes. She just gets it, and she loves it. It’s one of her favorite games.
It’s because it’s cooperative, because the game is made and balanced for that, but also because there’s this pure joy of gaming in it. As people look at the original Atari titles, I really believe that there will be a return to those, because they’re the most pure form of gaming. You’re just in it. The enjoyment you have — it’s you versus your high score. And now it’s you and this other person, which is very different than what we had in the market before. The two-player modes on the Recharged titles are what’s really special, and I do believe the industry — it could use a return to that pick-up-and-play, meaningful, joyful gaming experience.
I don’t want to speak for other people, but it’s nice to just have a game you can get into immediately. No training, no tutorial, no story. You’re just playing, and anyone, no matter how old or young, can jump right in and have a great time. There aren’t a lot of video games or anything that stands the test of time like that.