GDC 2018: Atari CEO Talks Returning to Hardware, Resurrecting Classic IPs

During GDC 2018, Hardcore Gamer had the chance to sit down with Atari CEO Fred Chesnais to see what their plans are for 2018 and beyond. Hot topics such as the upcoming Atari VCS, as well as their place in the modern video game market, took priority. Of course, the infamous Atari Speaker Hats also made their way into the conversation.

[Hardcore Gamer] There seems to be an emphasis on Atari bringing back old IPs. Is that an intentional move on your part to bring back some of the classics?

[Fred Chesnais] I don’t think it’s like only bringing back the old IPs. Each one is really an example of our relationship with other developers. With one developer we have a new Tempest. It’s not really the point to bring back some old IPs because at the same time we’re trying to innovate. I think it’s a blend of on the one hand making sure our brand stays relevant while staying true to the DNA of the brand. That’s why we have Tempest 4000 — for us it’s a great vibe.

So far we have rebooted the company with RollerCoaster Tycoon and the old, old IPs. We wanted to have a new game. I think this one is pretty cool. I think soon you’ll see some new initiatives, some zombie games. We’re going to have a soft launch of a transportation game. We’re tweaking it. You can’t just rely on the old stuff.

That’s true; there’s always nostalgia. Speaking of which, how has it been working with Jeff Minter again on Tempest?

Yes! You know, we had worked together a long time ago so it was very cool to work together. We look at these relationships because at the end of the day it’s still a small industry. We’ve worked with many developers over the years and it’s great.

Recently there’s been a move towards the fashion world for Atari with branded items like Speaker Hats. Do you see Atari being a lifestyle brand?

I think, you know, the brand is expanding. We have two audiences — the audience looking at our old and new games and at the same time we have an audience that is growing older. And we also have a brand that is growing older. The brand being older also means that we have room for fashion. I live in New York City and I see people wearing Atari t-shirts. We have always done t-shirts. I didn’t come back to make t-shirts and it’s not what I know how to do. But at the same time I thought, because the brand means revolution, tech and entertainment, I thought wearables could be cool.

So we found a company that specializes in outerwear and we came up with this idea of adding a hat with speakers embedded in the brim. I think that is the type of product which meshes with our brand of revolution, tech and entertainment – the three angles of the triangle, as we say. We’ll do more with that such as Speaker Bags (bags with speakers). The VCS is interesting as well. The brand means fashion, but fashion and tech. That’s why this type of hat is the perfect fit.

With the VCS, the first thing that jumps out at most people is the sleek design. Was that an important element to you?

When I came back, I had to deal with a lot of things like the bankruptcy and getting rid of the debt to come back to profits. The brand means software as well as hardware. You know, we had the 2600, the Atari ST, the Lynx and the Jaguar. It’s not like it was one console – it was a lot, right? I think it’s also trying to do something which stays true to the brand — to our DNA. This is something that’s really close to our hearts.

It was awesome seeing the big Atari sign show up in Blade Runner 2049. Was that a partnership that they sought out or did you reach out to them?

They came to us and I was just coming back. They said they’d like to have Atari as part of the movie and we said okay, but what would we do? They said we can’t tell you but would you trust us? We said of course, so they made the movie and then one day we got the trailer. Then we saw the big building and we were like holy crap. We were part of the original movie and that’s why they came back to us. I think it shows the brand power.

I’m very considerate not to make mistakes, but I do make them. We’re trying to go with games with the VCS. We’re trying to stay true to the brand and it was a lot of fun seeing the brand in the movie. Also in Pixels with Adam Sandler. We’re also in Ready Player One. We’re a big part of the book. Check out the movie and you’ll see a lot of references to Atari. So we’re also a part of that one. This shows that this is a multimedia brand. We’re also have some options in game shows.

This year Atari seems to have a stronger emphasis on consoles with Tempest 4000, RollerCoaster Tycoon on Switch and of course the VCS. Will you remain with a strong focus on the mobile space or transition more to consoles?

We have experience in mobile. We keep digging, we keep investing. On consoles I totally depended on the expertise of our partners. I prefer mobile personally because it’s easier today to engage. But you know if we have a huge new game on console then I’d be rooting for it!

Speaking of RollerCoaster Tycoon, how do you feel the crowdfunding initiative is going?

With the crowdfunding…look. It’s very simple. The game is coming out. We’re going to have it. The game is happening no matter what. I tried to explain the strategy here. It was to put this out and see if there was a market for financial investors to be part of the game. Right now maybe we suggested the wrong deal. The fact is, we just passed $51,000 which is pointless. Maybe this is the right thing for the investors to not participate. We’ll just do the game in either case. The game is great.

We’ve explained that because I want to make sure that I’m staying true to it. If you go on the website and look at the brands, the potential is huge. People didn’t like the offer. Okay, fine, there’s no harm or bad blood. We thought we had something interesting as well. But we’re running a business, not a charity. The billions of dollars of transactions we’ve made over the last twenty years should show that. It’s a disappointment because we’re trying to create an offer that was respectful. They don’t like it. But the game is here! We’ll see what people think about the game.