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How Atari is leveraging 50 years of nostalgia | Wade Rosen interview

Bynewsmagzines

Mar 4, 2023
How Atari is leveraging 50 years of nostalgia | Wade Rosen interview

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Wade Rosen wants Atari to come back as one of the most valuable gaming brands. After all, there aren’t many 50-year-old game companies.

Last year, the company started marking its anniversary with a collection of classic games, and it will likely have more as the original Atari 2600 console games all start turning 50. On top of that, the company has been making games and doing licensing deals to get the brand in front of new audiences.

For a small company with just 30 people, that’s a lot of work, Rosen said in an interview at the Dice Summit. Rosen took over as CEO in April 2021, after previous CEO Fred Chesnais moved on after taking Atarin into the mobile games market and blockchain. The company recently announced the launch of a new and improved MobyGames website, built from the ground up.

Atari also partnered with Utomik to publish games like RollerCoaster Tycoon 2: Triple Thrill Pack, Pong Quest, and Asteroids: Recharged on the cloud gaming service.

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And Atari handled the global launch of Jeff Minter’s frenzied tube shooter game Akka Arrh on the PC and consoles. Minter is a legendary arcade game designer who gave us classics like Tempest.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Wade Rosen is the CEO of Atari.

GamesBeat: It seems like a big year. You have Atari’s 50th anniversary. When did all the celebration start?

Wade Rosen: It started at the beginning of last year, but the challenge was that when I came on board, we didn’t have a tremendous amount of content. We had to start by rebuilding the content. I guess the celebration in earnest started in the second half of the year, and it continues today. We’re still doing things to celebrate the 50 years of Atari. The nice part is, in the coming years there will be 50-year anniversaries for a lot of major games and milestones. All the arcade games first, and then eventually Adventure and Yar’s and all the 2600 titles will follow behind. It’s nice. We’d like to do a rolling anniversary of Atari.

GamesBeat: Is there anything in particular that stands out to you as something you should pour development resources into for the anniversary?

Rosen: Atari 50 was our big project. But the nice thing about that project is—the response has been so universally positive. It’s something the team really loves. We probably want to do more with 50. We think there’s more that can be done there, more that can be built upon. As great of a collection as that is, it’s really just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the history of Atari. We’re continuing to build that and flesh that out. And then looking at whatever titles have something coming around the bend, trying to find unique and interesting ways to support that. Sometimes that’s software. Sometimes that could be hardware. Sometimes it’s a combination of those.

GamesBeat: How many people are at Atari now?

Rosen: We always joke that it’s a 50-year startup. It’s still pretty small. There are about 30 of us. But we also use only outsourced development, so it’s probably a bit larger than that. The 30 is just the core team. Then we have a lot of our outsourced development that we work with across a number of great companies. It’s very much a scrappy, nimble company. The nice part about that is we all get to wake up every day and have the opportunity to push things forward. Everybody can make a tangible difference in a company of that size.

GamesBeat: Are your remakes still in progress? Where you’re making use of the traditional IP.

Rosen: The Recharged titles? We kind of go down two paths. We like to have everything we do have that core element of easy to learn, difficult to master. We just had a release earlier this week, Akka Arrh, which is a game from Jeff Minter based on a famously unreleased Atari arcade game. That’s a great example of a very cool, innovative, beautiful title. You can pick it up and you’ll get it before too long. But as you’re playing it the mastery comes slowly. There’s no skill gating to it. You can pick it up and if you have the skill, you can do amazing things from jump. But it’s really building that up.

That’s something we’ve found is deeply satisfying. And then also finding ways to provide a universal narrative for all the Atari games. Or I shouldn’t say a universal narrative, but finding ways to loop them together. Even if you’re playing games that are traditionally narrative-light, having Centipede relate to Missile Command and Missile Command relate to Asteroids, that’s something we’ll do more of in the coming years too. Pulling it all together into one larger Atari universe.

Atari Centipede Recharged
Atari Centipede Recharged

GamesBeat: Is there anything that you’d say you’re making your biggest bet on? Something you’re doubling down on? Under Fred the company seemed to be going in many directions. More companies right now seem to be focusing on fewer things.

Rosen: Right, focusing rather than spreading to a lot of things. The question we often ask ourselves is, “What do we feel we can do better than anyone else?” Depending on what you look at, that changes. For software, it’s that easy to learn, difficult to master, holistic Atari universe—those are unique things that we think we can focus on. For hardware we think that there’s a strong place we can carve out in retro gaming. That’s an underserved market from a hardware standpoint. With licensing and what we do in pop culture, there’s a lot of opportunity to engage with fans in a bunch of new and interesting ways.

In terms of what we want to focus on, I think it is—we’re looking at some of the large games we can put out that will expand, that take what people love and grow it. If you look at the franchises that fall under that, there’s the big ones like Asteroids, Missile Command, Centipede, Breakout. But there’s also Rollercoaster Tycoon, which is something a lot of people love. It’s near and dear to our hearts. We’ll probably be focusing on some pretty cool, innovative ways to look at those series.

GamesBeat: On the licensing side, is there anything that’s especially interesting or seeing more focus as well? Things like the hotel licensing or other kinds of licensing opportunities. What is still out there for you?

Rosen: I think the biggest licensing opportunity that we haven’t pursued—we do have a lot of new licensing projects that we’re working on, but probably the largest is around media. Film, television, animation, documentaries, game shows, all of those things. We just announced a partnership with APA. They’ll be representing us in both scripted and non-scripted. Looking at opportunities in that space is probably the biggest piece of the licensing puzzle that we haven’t put in yet. They’ve been wonderful.

GamesBeat: Are some of the previous licensing projects like the hotels going forward?

Rosen: There is still a hotels license that’s active. The projects are still being pursued there. The group is based out of Phoenix. They’re amazing. They keep me updated on what they’re doing. Fingers crossed on that. I have to defer to them on where they are with their plans, but I do hope that something gets launched with that. It’s cool.

Jeff Minter’s latest title Akka Arrh on the PC.

GamesBeat: And the blockchain stuff is still a totally separate company?

Rosen: We do have blockchain initiatives. Some of the old initiatives are no longer part of Atari. They’re totally separate, completely apart from what we do. A lot of what we do now in web3 is focused on community-building and initiatives that allow people to engage and do fun things together. What that industry is moving away from very quickly is anything that felt—it’s moving toward more of a collaborative, community-driven, purpose-driven industry. Less of a financially-driven initiative. It has to in order for it to survive. More utility, more fleshed-out projects, deeper projects.

Gaming is one part of that. But I think where we’ve seen the biggest growth, and where we’re doing a lot of things, is just in ways to allow people to interact as a community. Often it feels like web2. To the user it actually doesn’t feel any different than web2. The deeper part is more about the partners you can integrate with. Web3 allows for a lot of interesting integrations with the larger community of partners. That’s probably the biggest shift I see. It’s a shift from web3 being very focused on, “Hey, here’s all the things that consumers would want,” to, “This allows us to integrate in a meaningful way with our partners. Let’s make it feel as simple and easy and user-friendly to people as we can.” Right now that’s often a web2 experience for the customer.

GamesBeat: Do you have more contact these days with Nolan Bushnell?

Rosen: Yeah, definitely. I see Nolan pretty regularly. He’s a strategic advisor at Atari now too. He was in the office. We were doing our all-hands a few weeks ago and he swung by for that. We get to work with and interact with Nolan. He’s a great guy. Anybody who meets Nolan, they always walk away deeply inspired and impressed with how genuine and interested he is.

GamesBeat: There was a partnership with one of his sons too, right?

Rosen: Yeah, Tyler Bushnell, with Polycade. That’s continuing. That’s an example of a really cool web3-based project. There’s a very strong, tangible, physical presence. The web3 piece is just additional functionality that people can use and engage with if they want, but they don’t have to. Tyler’s done a good job of showing what a new type of web3 utility looks like.

Polycade's arcade machine can hang on a wall. This is a special Polycade Limiteds black edition.
Polycade’s arcade machine can hang on a wall. This is a special Polycade Limiteds black edition.

GamesBeat: Is the board in some ways different than it used to be?

Rosen: The board has been relatively consistent. We had one change this past year, when Jessica joined. But the board is great. They’re deeply passionate about the turnaround of Atari, the renaissance story there. They’re an amazing board. I’m lucky to have them.

GamesBeat: Do you have more games coming this year than in previous years?

Rosen: Yeah, yeah. We’ve been increasing the amount of games every year quite a bit. The first year, because we were just putting most of our games in development, we only had a couple that we were able to get out. Last year I think we finished with seven. We’re shooting for 11 this year. Some are smaller titles, like the Recharged line, which are really for the fans, clear remasters of great games. There are a couple of surprises in the Recharged line, too. A few deep cuts and some fan favorites that aren’t necessarily thought of as Atari, but are now wrapping in. Those will be cool surprises. We have some larger games as well, across the whole spectrum. I think people can expect to see some pretty cool content from us that’s not just on consoles. We’re doing some innovative stuff on the game side.

One thing that people can look forward to is Atari doing things as a more unified brand going forward. Whether they’re interacting with us on the software side or on the hardware side or they’re just buying a T-shirt from Atari.com, really any of the initiatives we’re doing, we want it to feel like it comes from a single Atari. Not that these are just initiatives we decided to do because they were opportunistic in nature, but that they were strategic and part of a larger vision for the company.

Atari is live on the Utomik cloud gaming service.

The one that’s hard to describe, but that we do feel is going to begin this year, is pulling everything together and allowing it to live under a single banner, a “one Atari” type of program. That’s something for people to look forward to, especially deep Atari fans. Those are the kinds of things that they’re asking for. We want to provide that for them. Deeper community engagement overall. For Atari it just comes back to that. With any of these lasting brands, it’s about how you engage with the community. It’s not as headline-catching as a new game release, but it’s something we put a lot of time and energy into. We work on it every day.

The other thing would be some new hardware projects we’ll be announcing later in the year. One of those is going to be related to the VCS. As we looked at the VCS to provide more utility, one of the ways that we think that can be done effectively is to expand the hardware capabilities of the VCS. It’s a pretty cool hardware initiative that I think is unique for the industry. You can expect that, as well as several others we’ll be working on and introducing with partners.

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