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The Man Who Now Leads Atari

Once a gaming juggernaut, Atari drifts into the future without an identity. Frédéric Chesnais is trying to help the company find one.

Atari isn't the company it used to be. Nowadays, it's sponsoring World Cup videos about soccer superstar Pelé, partnering with Denny's for breakfast items like "hashteroids," and getting involved with real-money gambling through its classic games. 10 years ago, the former giant had more than 3,000 employees. In 2014, 11 people are running Atari, and CEO Frédéric Chesnais at the top.

To say things have changed since 1972 is an understatement.

The company's history is a labyrinth. The short version is Atari was founded by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney in 1972, but the infamous video game crash of 1983 forced a major split that divided the company.

The arcade division became Atari Games, which was eventually sold to WMS Industries, who operated the popular Williams and Bally/Midway brands. But when Atari was separately resurrected as a brand on home consoles (which we'll get to soon), Atari Games became Midway Games West, and continued to make games before being shut down in 2003.

Everything from the Atari Consumer Electronics Division, the other half of the company, was sold to Commodore International founder Jack Tramiel and renamed Atari Corporation. Atari Corporation merged with JT Storage in 1996, but Hasbro Interactive stepped in and purchased the Atari parts in 1998, renaming the division Atari Interactive. Infogrames Entertainment, however, bought Hasbro in 2001, and slapped the Atari name on a few products before renaming its North American division Atari Inc. and its European division Atari Europe in 2003. Hasbro, weirdly, was renamed Atari Interactive.

The company did not do well in the years to come (remember when it acquired MMO developer Cryptic Studios?), and filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2013 and sold off many of its franchises. It did hold on to some of its creations, however, including Centipede, Alone in the Dark, Asteroids, and others.

Chesnais is not new to Atari, having worked in various executive roles, including CEO, from 2001 until 2007. He left the company to form his own production studio, and oversaw the development of Jillian Michael fitness games and online titles such as Infestation: Survivor Stories. (That game is bad.)

When Atari filed for bankruptcy, it called Chesnais. He advised the company to move through bankruptcy, and said he'd be waiting on the other side.

"I’m the largest shareholder of Atari," he told me recently. " [...] We’re rebooting. I don’t have a three month plan. [laughs] I know it’s going to be more [of a] ten-year exercise. But I like it. I like the brand. This is why I bought the company back."

There was a playful, carefree way Chesnais talked about Atari during our conversation. It's not to suggest Chesnais isn't serious about resurrecting Atari, but if that doesn't happen, he may not lose much sleep, either. Ideas about what will and won't work for the company are fluid, ongoing, and subject to change.

The initiatives that define Chesnais' vision are varied, including relaunching old franchises with modern flourishes, taking advantage of the cultural appreciation for the Atari brand through licensing, keeping the company small by outsourcing, and finding new audiences.

"First thing we do is make the properties relevant in the 21st century with online and social features," he said.

Atari recently launched RollerCoaster Tycoon 4 on iOS. Reviews have been mixed, but it's just the first step. More franchises, including Asteroids, will follow. With the classic brands the company still controls, Chesnais wants a modern touch. Players have heard this talk before, though, and most games don't end up like Pac-Man Championship Edition. Thing is, Chesnais' audience probably isn't reading this article.

"It’s true we have targeted hardcore bases of fans with video games," he said. "But the guys playing Pong today, I don’t think you’d classify them as a hardcore gamer. I would say it’s more casual gamers."

But recent evidence suggests it's not ignoring the company's history. Atari launched Alone in the Dark on iOS last month. Atari also re-published the cult classic shooters Blood and Blood II on Steam, a series the company controls because of past buyouts involving Infogrames and GT Interactive.

But Chesnais recognizes there are precious few gaming brands prominent in pop culture, but Atari is one of them. If someone at a party is wearing an Atari t-shirt, it's unlikely anyone in the room will bat an eye.

"It’s true we have targeted hardcore bases of fans with video games. But the guys playing Pong today, I don’t think you’d classify them as a hardcore gamer. I would say it’s more casual gamers."

"I see people with an Atari t-shirt," he said. "I don’t see people with an X, Y, Z t-shirt. You can [say the] name of any publisher. Maybe Sony, maybe Nintendo. But do you see people wearing a Ubisoft t-shirt? Not a lot. [laughs]"

A press release from June suggested Atari would remain in the hardware business, citing a corporate interest in "gamified hardware and wearable devices."

"Atari is a hardware company," he said. "That’s the Atari 2600. This is in the DNA in the company. It’s more hardware than software. Just my view."

Just outside the orbit of video games, Atari is making a push into online gambling with Atari Casino, the result of a partnership with Seattle-based FlowPlay. Details on Atari Casino haven't been revealed just yet, but it's based on FlowPlay's successful Vegas World, an MMO-like virtual space with interactive experiences like swimming and shopping. Playable arcade games wouldn't seem out of place.

"We have made a small step into gambling with Atari Casino because that’s a super easy for us, I think," he said. "At least, it’s natural to make a small step from gaming to gambling."

You could probably write an entire article about that last statement.

These initiatives underscore Chesnais' desire to let others handle the heavy lifting. Chesnais views modern Atari as a manager seeking partners, whether building virtual worlds, new games, or licensing t-shirts. There's no interest in making Atari a company managing thousands of employees again. The goal is to stay nimble. Another way to view this approach, of course, is that Chesnais doesn't know what Atari is quite yet.

"I just want to have a very solid team of executive producers," he said. "Think about the motion picture industry. If today someone would come to you and say 'hey, I’m doing movies, and I’m covering everything from stages to the theaters,' you would say it’s crazy. It’s the same. We don’t need developers in-house, we go to the best guys out there."

Atari's interest in the LGBT community seems largely focused on finding untapped communities looking for entertainment.

While Chesnais' pragmatic approach might rub some the wrong way, it means he's not shy about looking for new communities to engage with. To that end, Atari is looking towards the LGBT community. Chesnais namechecked San Francisco's recent GaymerX event as proof there was reason for Atari to be interested. The company is currently developing Pridefest, a riff on RollerCoaster Tycoon, in which players are managing their own pride parade.

"I look at trends," he said. "Is there something to be delivered? Is there is a production, entertainment, that could be delivered this group of people? Of course, we’re not a charity. I don’t run a charity. A charity is a different business. I’m here to run Atari and make it relevant, and making the brand relevant in that community, as well as other communities, that make sense."

Chesnais' pitch feels a bit like checking trend boxes. Reboot and revivals? Check. Social? Check. Gambling? Check. YouTube? Check. LGBT? Check. It's less vision and more of a shotgun blast.

"We’ll make mistakes, we’ll make great things," he said. "I’m not here for three months because I own 29% of the company. It’s fun. When I hear people say 'oh, you don’t know what you’re doing,' I don’t care. I don’t care. I think we know what we’re doing. I’m not managing quarters, I’m just reporting on a quarterly basis. If something has to be done right for the long term, [I’ll do it]."

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Posted by Biddy

Cool article!

Posted by Viking_Funeral

Doesn't Konami pull a lot if not most if their revenue from gambling?

Other thoughts:

I'm not sure the classic Atari library is much to fall back on. They have some neat gameplay mechanics, but they're super dated and so simple that they're many of the first games aspiring developers program over a weekend. I hope their somewhat newer library has some legs.

Atari is a brand name noted for its ironic obscurity outside certain demographics of people. Like Alf or Journey. It's certainly capable of making a comeback, but innovation would be key, not chasing trends.

Posted by DannyHibiki

I don't envy having to reinvent an old brand to make it relevant to audiences today.

Seems like a lot of the major video game businesses are all struggling with this lately to different degrees.

Edited by chilibean_3

Nice article. Huh. It doesn't give me any great hope for the future of the Atari name but at least now I know something is going on over there.

Posted by Video_Game_King

Wait, people are playing Pong today? Even giving him the benefit of the doubt, it still doesn't make a lot of sense. When was the last Pong release? The Next Level?

Posted by Ford_Dent

The most intriguing thing for me is seeing Atari's realization that there's a massive untapped market in creating content for an LGBT audience. I will be very interested in seeing how that works out for them, and whether or not some of the other companies will in turn begin to take some cues from them. I really would like to see that work out, I think it would be neat.

Posted by BigD145

Atari doesn't need yet another reboot. It needs new IP's. But it's a hardware company, apparently, so that isn't going to happen.

Posted by Mr_Creeper

Sounds like this guy is all over the place. Hope it all works out in the end.

Posted by whitegreyblack

As much as it pains me, it seems to me that where the Atari back-catalog actually has the most money-making potential is in gambling. The audience to whom you can peddle the nostalgia to at low risk and cost is in stuff like Asteroids-branded slot machines. Reinvigorating these old arcade games for a modern audience is difficult and high-risk, although simple iOS versions are no-brainers.

Posted by Thiago123

"but the infamous video game crash of 1983 forced a major split that divided the company"

Great to finally have some sense where all the different versions of Atari have come from, but I wish you had gone into some detail as to why exactly the crash would have caused a split.

I know you (Patrick) were trying to keep it lean, but to anyone who wants to take a deeper look at it, there is a whole lot more to the story particularly after the Infogrames buyout. I tried to make sense of it all, but there isn't any real point to it, and I went cross-eyed.. Infogrames bought out Atari Inc and made Atari Group private, including renaming all of Infogrames regional divisions into Atari (e.g. Atari Melbourne, Atari UK, Atari Nordic, etc), except for Atari europe which it sold to Namco Bandai. Yea, it's ridiculous.

Posted by patrickklepek

"but the infamous video game crash of 1983 forced a major split that divided the company"

Great to finally have some sense where all the different versions of Atari have come from, but I wish you had gone into some detail as to why exactly the crash would have caused a split.

I know you (Patrick) were trying to keep it lean, but to anyone who wants to take a deeper look at it, there is a whole lot more to the story particularly after the Infogrames buyout. I tried to make sense of it all, but there isn't any real point to it, and I went cross-eyed.. Infogrames bought out Atari Inc and made Atari Group private, including renaming all of Infogrames regional divisions into Atari (e.g. Atari Melbourne, Atari UK, Atari Nordic, etc), except for Atari europe which it sold to Namco Bandai. Yea, it's ridiculous.

I spent more than an hour trying to make sense of what happened to Atari after the crash. It easily could have been its own story! But I tried to keep it limited to a highlight real. The amount of buyouts is crazy, though.

Edited by I_Stay_Puft

Reading that short history of Atari in the beginning is like listening to people talk about Dota 2.

I just nod up and down.

Posted by Veektarius

My favorite Atari-produced game was Neverwinter Nights... I suppose that's probably not much use to them now.

Posted by GaspoweR

But I tried to keep it limited to a highlight real.

Reel! Oh, Scoops! 0_o

Posted by Brodehouse

That pride parade manager thing sounds awesome, but I know it'll be a tap-to-make-meters-grow phone game thing and that's a bummer.

I want drop-down menus..! I want affinity coefficients and terrain modifiers..! I want representation drama and a mediation submechanic!

Posted by Ramone
Posted by Corvak

@ramone said:

@video_game_king: I think he means games in the same vein as Pong.

Yeah, more of an 'if I made Pong today' thing. Referring to the fact that simple games like it are generally played by people on phones, instead of what we'd call a 'video game enthusiast'.

Posted by T_wester

@viking_funeral:

Doesn't Konami pull a lot if not most if their revenue from gambling?

Nah, its still games that pull in the most money for Konami and the gambling income is below their heath-club business.

Posted by bemusedchunk

#hashteroids

Edited by MB

I had to read that press release twice.

"Beyond re-launching its nostalgic gaming titles, the company will aim at capitalizing on other rapidly growing markets and reaching out to new audiences – including LGBT, social casinos, real-money gambling, and YouTube with exclusive video content."

Solely by how this press release reads, it seems like Atari's only real interest in the LGBT space is monetary, which I guess is one of their main responsibilities as a public company with shareholders. It's just a little unsettling for lack of a better term to see that lumped in with real money gambling and YouTube when Atari is discussing their business strategies.

The press release also got me wondering exactly how much money Atari is making from licensing out the rights to make inexpensive little LCD handheld versions of their classic games like Pong and Breakout.

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Posted by alyt9870

Rollercoaster Tycoon 4 was (for me) worse than the Dungeon Keeper mobile uproar (though the situations were quite similar). Both games missed everything that was good about each franchise and replaced it with free-to-play mobile rubbish, offending the actual fans of each series who were hoping for a proper sequel. The whole affair just made me sad. I genuinely hope Atari can get it together and start putting out quality products again, but I think they've already lost me with their first move.

Posted by Seeric

From this interview it sounds as though Chesnais is oddly disconnected with the current state of things; much of what he says seems to be in relation to the state of both Atari and video games from 30+ years ago instead of the modern day. To name the most prominent oddities:

1) "[I]t’s natural to make a small step from gaming to gambling" - This doesn't sound all that odd if you're thinking of back when arcades were still big and gaming was still fairly new as putting quarters into a machine in the hopes of winning and/or getting a high score does resemble gambling and buying a game in a store was a very big gamble indeed as all you had to go on was word of mouth at best and the box at worst. These days, consumers are decidedly more careful in screening games before putting money out for them and arcades are, for the most part, long dead; micropayments via DLC and mmorpg cash shop items certainly can be viewed as serving the same function as a slot machine as they are very good at taking away large amounts of money in small increments (and those cash shop items consist of more than a few 'mystery boxes' with a chance at various items), but this isn't remotely close to a positive comparison to be making.

2) "Atari is a hardware company" - Again, this was certainly true more than three decades ago and, while it may not be entirely untrue now, new hardware is not the primary thing Atari has been known for making for quite some time. Even Sega claiming to be a (video game) 'hardware company' at this point would be a bit of a stretch and, while I doubt we'll be seeing a new Atari console any time soon, this is such a bizarre perspective for the head of Atari to be viewing his company from.

3) "You can [say the] name of any publisher. Maybe Sony, maybe Nintendo. But do you see people wearing a Ubisoft t-shirt? Not a lot." - This last one seems to be an odd form of confusion as to why people wear Atari shirts. Yes, people wear Atari shirts and Nintendo shirts (though I can't say that I've seen many Sony shirts), but they usually wear ones specifically representing the past, ones which recognizably indicate a connection with the early days of console gaming. How many Mario shirts represent any one of the dozens upon dozens of powerups introduces in the series after the SNES? How many Space Invaders shirts even hint at anything other than the versions in arcades and on Atari consoles? Not many. Now, Nintendo doesn't have to worry about its merchandise largely referencing the past because they've kept a pretty good track record with their games into the present; people get excited at the announcement of a new Mario or Zelda game because new Mario and Zelda games still tend to be good. On the other side of things, Atari's brand is rooted very firmly in the past; the announcement of a new Space Invaders game may indeed raise some interest (and I do admit to a love for Infinity Gene), but it wouldn't generate much hype and excitement on brand-name alone regardless of how recognizable it is.

Overall, I feel like Chesnais may like Atari as a brand, but doesn't really have a good grasp on what to do with it nor on how video games have changed over the decades so he's planning to play it safe by targeting audiences which playing it safe has proven to work on. The issue here is that such safe play is going to slowly erode the very brand he seems to be building his strategy on and it will likely either lead to Atari simply fading away or on them putting their remaining funds into taking a risk on a big game (something playing it safe is meant to be an alternative to).

I don't see this interview as sad because it indicating Atari changing, I see it as sad because I don't see much hope for Atari getting out of this alive.

Posted by Cold_Wolven

Well I wish him good luck on his endeavours, the casino game might not be a bad idea as there are lots who like to gamble but how successful MMO gambling is I'm not aware.

Posted by AMyggen

Great article, Patrick.

Posted by divergence

I remember seeing this on the 3DS eShop, almost picked it up based on reviews.

Posted by andyboy

Stellar work on explaining the confusing path Atari has taken over the years. Thank you, @patrickklepek

Posted by drockus

He seems unashamed that Atari will be we "look[ing] at trends", following the dollar, and has no real interest in innovating.

Also: "At least, it’s natural to make a small step from gaming to gambling." --- having once lived in Nevada for ten years, this is a scary statement.

Posted by nofzac

I have to disagree with you on your point below. Have you been to a casino lately and walked thru the Slot area? If the machines don't have video gamey features - nobody will play them. Reel Em In has fishing components with a reel controller at each machine, there are Deal or No Deal machines, and all kinds of other random mini-games on slot machines. I think this is a huge untapped market - and would appeal to the 21-40 crowd that gambles (i dont play slots but I'd check out a Centipede machine). Can you imagine Donkey Kong with live wagering?

As for everything else this guy talked about - it sounds to me like he wants to just peddle the brand onto stuff that other people build or create....slap an Atari logo on it and take a royalty. Not sure if that can be successful or not, but i guess it beats doing nothing.

@seeric said:

1) "[I]t’s natural to make a small step from gaming to gambling" - This doesn't sound all that odd if you're thinking of back when arcades were still big and gaming was still fairly new as putting quarters into a machine in the hopes of winning and/or getting a high score does resemble gambling and buying a game in a store was a very big gamble indeed as all you had to go on was word of mouth at best and the box at worst. These days, consumers are decidedly more careful in screening games before putting money out for them and arcades are, for the most part, long dead; micropayments via DLC and mmorpg cash shop items certainly can be viewed as serving the same function as a slot machine as they are very good at taking away large amounts of money in small increments (and those cash shop items consist of more than a few 'mystery boxes' with a chance at various items), but this isn't remotely close to a positive comparison to be making.


Posted by President_Barackbar

@mb said:

I had to read that press release twice.

"Beyond re-launching its nostalgic gaming titles, the company will aim at capitalizing on other rapidly growing markets and reaching out to new audiences – including LGBT, social casinos, real-money gambling, and YouTube with exclusive video content."

Solely by how this press release reads, it seems like Atari's only real interest in the LGBT space is monetary, which I guess is one of their main responsibilities as a public company with shareholders. It's just a little unsettling for lack of a better term to see that lumped in with real money gambling and YouTube when Atari is discussing their business strategies.

Yeah I agree with you on that, its really unsettling to see LGBT trotted out as just another market to expand too. It also serves to turn a community into a commodity, which isn't going to benefit anyone.

Posted by Brashnir

Rollercoaster Tycoon 4 has "mixed" reviews now? That's a laugh.

Posted by Darek006

The old Atari games should definitely be in the public domain by now, honestly.

Posted by MattyFTM

So this is the guy behind the entire War Z fiasco? I'm not sure I feel great about the future of Atari knowing that.

Moderator
Posted by brainjury

It's Atari Z! Pull out your joysticks and fight for your lives!

Edited by Hassun

I guess I can't buy Blood on steam now, knowing it will only fund this...thing.

Posted by Chet_Rippo

"First thing we do is make the properties relevant in the 21st century with online and social features"

*vehemently throws up*

Posted by whur

This guy left a bad taste in my mouth. Is he genuine about these trends or are they exploitable means to an end? It sounds like the latter.

Posted by Babayaga

Well written article but like the June "hardware" article, it is difficult to tell exactly what Chesnais is thinking. Perhaps some comments are taken out of context but he comes across as so Laissez-faire and/or scatterbrained. Again, could be out of context. Best of luck to them tho.

Edited by LordAndrew

It seems he's just trying everything he can with little regard to whether those decisions make sense.

I don't see this going well.

Posted by Axel_IX

I reached immediately for this video upon finishing the article. Make of that what you will.

(It was a very good read, by the way.)

Posted by Pootpoot

thanks for the article, good read. it's length perfectly reflects how lean atari's current situation really is while also summarizing atris complex history without getting it too complicated. .

hope to see more of this stuff in the future!

Posted by ptys

Companies like this need to make moves that people will respect with something new and inventive. Rehashing old games isn't going to be enough. Atari as a names has a lot of weight in the mainstream so I'm surprised Apple, Nintendo or even Facebook haven't snapped them up already.

Posted by mrsmiley

It seems he's just trying everything he can with little regard to whether those decisions make sense.

I don't see this going well.

My exact thoughts. If anything, I came away from this article more worried for them than anything. Oh well, great read, Patrick!

Posted by ArbitraryWater

This is the Atari that just separated itself from its European parent, right? The things this guy is saying doesn't grant much confidence.

Edited by ZZoMBiE13

Every quote from that guy sounds like something the 80's Boneitis guy from Futurama might have said.

Is ATARI a Sheep? Or a Shark?

Posted by Vrikk

""First thing we do is make the properties relevant in the 21st century with online and social features," he said."

Mmmmm, no. Good luck with that, though. If all you do is free to play crap, you are doomed.

Posted by Bremaine

I thought Atari was already dead. It's nice to see them kicking, but I doubt they're going to go very far with what they're doing now.

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