Atari embraces new era of gaming
By Larry Frum, Special to CNN
updated 1:02 PM EST, Mon January 16, 2012 | Filed under: Gaming and Gadgets
"The great thing about Atari and its very brand is that it is recognizable," Atari CEO Jim Wilson said.
Atari has been synonymous with games and gaming since its founding in 1972
About five years ago, Atari got away from developing to focus on publishing
Atari released "Atari's Greatest Hits" for the iOS last year
(CNN) -- To adapt to the new era of gaming, Atari is returning to its roots.
The gaming pioneer -- which spearheaded arcade games and home video-game consoles -- is reinventing itself to adapt to the era of mobile and social games.
Atari has been synonymous with games and gaming since Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney founded it in 1972. The company's products, such as "Pong" and the Atari 2600, helped define the computer entertainment industry from the 1970s to the mid-1980s.
About five years ago, the company got away from developing its own games to focus on publishing and distribution. Atari CEO Jim Wilson said it was a complicated time for the company and the brand.
"(Atari) got bought by this retail distribution company that focused primarily on building non-Atari brands and distributing third-party titles," Wilson said. "The Atari name was then being used as a corporate name on a retail distribution company. That didn't make any sense to me."
Wilson wanted to take Atari back to its casual-gaming roots and recognized the best way to do so was to embrace the social and mobile change in the gaming landscape. He said there are new business models in gaming and the company finally is ready to take advantage of them.
"What we're doing is we're going out to the best and the brightest of the developers in the mobile business," he said. "We're looking at different ways to reinterpret or reinvent our classic franchises in ways that people are playing games today in the business model that people are playing today."
Atari released "Atari's Greatest Hits" for the iOS in the spring of 2011 to a resounding cheer from fans. The game featured classic arcade games such as "Centipede" (Wilson's favorite as a kid), "Lunar Lander" and "Missile Command" as well as games from the Atari 2600 home console such as "Adventure," "Haunted House" and "Yars' Revenge."
The game in the Apple App Store has been downloaded more than 3.5 million times. It was recently made available in the Android Marketplace, further expanding the market for Atari products.
"The great thing about Atari and its very brand is that it is recognizable," Wilson said. "You understand what it is, and frankly, in the App Store or the Android Marketplace, discoverability is a big issue for people who are releasing their games. One of the benefits of Atari is that it creates instant recognition and discoverability in the App Store and the Android Marketplace."
Wilson then focused on re-imagining some of Atari's classic titles to make them more appealing to today's gaming audience. Men older than 30 make up the company's core audience, he said, so they've grown up with Atari, and they have the money to spend on games.
"What we're looking to do is build games. Some of our games are going to have a much more broad appeal and, for us, the ability to generate a community.
"However, we also (want) to address a larger audience and that's what it's going to come down to -- making games that appeal to a broader audience."
"Asteroids" was the first game to be reinterpreted as "Asteroids: Gunner," a top 10 best-seller in the App Store in its first two weeks in November. The free app game featured a new look and new weapons as well as the opportunity to purchase Space Bucks inside the game to enhance players' spaceships.
"We believe there are multiple ways to reinterpret 'Asteroids,' and 'Asteroids: Gunner' was a great opportunity for us to create a time-based, premium model that seemed to go over well with our core male audience," Wilson said.
In December, the company released "Breakout: Boost," which has garnered more than 2 million downloads in the App Store alone. The game offers five free levels and more than 200 others that can be purchased inside the game.
It would be easy for Atari to continue to re-imagine and rerelease its classic titles, but Wilson said to appeal to a broader audience, the company is also working with developers on original intellectual properties that fit the Atari brand.
The company expects to release 10 to 15 new titles in the next year, with about five of those coming from outside developers, he said. They will hold true to the Atari brand but could appeal to those gamers outside the male-dominated, core audience of traditional Atari games.
Wilson is counting on a blend of reinterpreted classics and original games for the social and mobile gaming arena to drive Atari's business for the near future. The company has slimmed down to 65 employees, most of whom are targeting the mobile gaming platform.
"If we stay true to the original brand ideas and we work with some of the best talent in the industry and we listen to our consumers, I think we have a very good opportunity to make a big statement and bring Atari to a new stage," he said. "We have an opportunity to bring back a powerful brand that consumers know and love."