While I am still a fan of what Atari was, I have not warmed up at all to the current iteration of the brand under the control of what used to be known as Infogrames and GT Interactive. Of course so many people have been shuffled in and out of the company since, that I don’t think it could be considered them anymore either. I suppose it could be worse but not much. Recently the current guy in charge of Atari mentioned how Atari was always a hardware company so that could be in the future. I immediately thought of what Sega and Bandai Namco have been doing in the arcade sector with getting Android tablets with their name on them. In the case of Sega they have been shy about it, calling them Tokio tablets and netbooks. I will get into those in a moment. I just caught something online of some Atari branded tablets, phablets and phones on Facebook, as shown at E32014. These were posted to the Atari Museum by Tim Trzepacz; my thoughts after the pics and post break:
This is not all of what was in the catalog but you get the idea. As this has come out, a small number of Atarians seem excited by it but they also will defend the lackluster, uninspired IP rehashes that Atari has done recently, like Breakout Boost or the Haunted House Auto Runner. There is little here that indicates that these are up to par on competing on a hardware level with similar devices, but no indication of price yet. There is no indication of any sort of Virtual Console type software where old games could be easily and legally installed onto the unit. It seems that the Game Tablet thing would be good for some Lynx games but likewise anything from the 2600-XE would work. But the vision isn’t there for that, it is just to get the brand name out there as though it still means what it used to.
The producer of the hardware is some Chinese company called AsiaKingston China Ltd. so Atari is just branding Android based hardware with their name. They really seem to be shotgunning it to see what sticks – a Game tablet!, Phablets!, Mini-tablets! Smartphones! Tablets! Headphones! It is like a microcosm of the Android hardware market at large – very jack-of-all-trades, lacking the ability to be actually good at any specific thing. Anyone thinking this means a game console to compete with the Big Three, I’m not sure why you would waste your time on that kind of hype. Yes Atari’s history has a lot to do with hardware but the hardware remembered the most was what they designed in-house or closely with a 2nd party and was afterwards supported with some fun games.
Not a lot of people know this but both Bandai Namco Amusements and Sega Amusements have recently taken a similar route. Namco calls their line NAM-GEAR; Sega calls their line Tokio Technology. The one thing I see Atari doing a little better is the brand name is far more prominent however Sega and Namco know what their markets are here. These products were actually done by the Amusement (i.e. arcade) divisions of those companies and were developed to sell to operators who want to stock prize merchandiser machines with product. They also can work as prizes for arcade owners to give away for tournaments. If current Atari even knows that this market exists, (I would be surprised) and they want the mobile portion to go anywhere, they should certainly look into it. Selling Atari branded stuff at an arcade where you might even have Atari machines may work out to a small degree. That is actually where I could get behind a few of these things, offering one of the items for reaching a certain score on Centipede or Crystal Castles. Currently I have a bunch of Namco branded stuff to give away as prizes but it doesn’t match up with Atari games.
Is there a chance that any of this will restore Atari to the glory of the 1981 days? No, not at all. Here is why. What makes companies like Atari from 1972-1984 or Nintendo or older Capcom, older Sega, older Konami, etc. successful? Was it because they had a brand name people recognized? Nope. No one had heard of them back then. It was because they created products that either the market wanted or people didn’t know that they wanted them until they saw them. The games were fresh, innovative, unique and fun. They couldn’t rely on past IPs to make money and grow the business because they didn’t exist. They had to make new IPs that were fun enough so people would buy them. For a while everyone made Pong-clones, even Atari but they knew that they had to be different to stand out. If they hadn’t released Tank in 1974, then the company would have gone under. So until the current Atari understands this concept deep down, getting it ingrained into their business culture, they are just going to tread water until they finish sinking. Slapping your brand name on an uninspired product is going to hurt that brand if people find that it isn’t fun or functions poorly or is already beat out by similarly priced but superior hardware that is out there. Yes this is a risk, and I’m all for risk taking but it’s the safest way to risk it. Without anything other than a brand name backing it up, like some unique games or the Virtual Console account idea, I don’t see how this will be successful. I sell arcade equipment on the side and I imagine it would be easier to sell people on a $7000 game than it would be on one of these if they are around $100. There is nothing compelling about them from what I can see at this point. I already have 3 Android powered devices in my home, it takes more than a stamp to get me to switch from what already works.
Now perhaps they could have some exclusive content made for these that is actually good. But the history of Atari over the past 10 years doesn’t indicate that will happen. The only game they currently have in queue that looks interesting is Minimum by Human Head Studios and published by Atari but that is not a mobile game (note I will be checking that out here soon and will share thoughts on it). I just don’t think that any of these Android products are going to nail it. When hyped up products like the Ouya or Amazon FireTV can’t change the market, I’m not sure what else will. Now there are reasons for that, one of which is a whole ocean of garbage software that is available on millions of devices.
Which is the point – Atari Mobile Gaming is not going to go anywhere when they have their games available on iOS/Android and even if they made those games exclusive software for the new hardware, none of it is any good so far, as can be seen via the software reviews.
Of course in my crazy view of the world, where I think Atari should go is into the arcade business again. Before you write that off as dumber than the idea of this hardware above, hear me out. Atari was an arcade company first. That inspired their original business culture (Business Is Fun) which in turn produced the ideas that gave us games like Asteroids and Centipede. Being an arcade company again would force them to design games in a very particular way that is much more fitting to their classic content. There is also much less competition to go around in that sector than in the mobile/home console space. If you want to tap into nostalgia, arcade owners still have fond memories of Atari and the money it made for them back in the day. Some of us still have Atari games sitting on the game room floor. I would be opposed to seeing a company like Atari come into the arcade market just to hawk their brand name, but it would be harder to survive by just hawking the brand name around since you have to create games that are fun, fast and also make use of innovative ideas on a hardware level – unique controls tailored to just that game concept. Much more life could be breathed into Atari’s old IPs from a coin-op arcade perspective than in the home space because those games came from that mindset to begin with. It was also noted that there is a legal issue with Warner holding the rights to do arcade hardware, although that is a hurdle that would probably be overcome rather quickly since WB seems to have zero interest in using their Midway/Atari names in the arcade sector these days.
The chances of that happening are about as high as this mobile stuff hitting it big (i.e. The day that Adam Patt becomes owner/CEO of Atari, which is anytime now! See facepalm pic above). So that’s what I think for the moment. If Atari suddenly changes their view on software design and gets some talent on board to go innovative, then we will see. Otherwise I expect this to go nowhere.