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Interview: Atari's New Execs On How 'The Market Wants Us To Succeed'

Atari has struggled to thrive in the transition to mobile and digital, but its two newest exec hires to that end feel strongly about the company's trajectory -- and market opportunity.
The social, mobile and digital markets for games have exploded, and alongside this growth, things get ever more challenging and competitive for developers and publishers of traditional retail games. Atari is arguably one of the most venerable and best-known long-standing gaming brands, and yet even it has struggled visibly in this generation's rapidly-shifting landscape. To be more blunt, aside from occasional bright spots (Atari's Greatest Hits topped 3 million units in its first three months on the iTunes store, we're told), watching the Fuji try to cope has been like watching a bus turn around, a continual rotation of executives and strategic efforts that have ultimately not left the company's future much more certain than before. Alongside the releases of Dungeons and Dragons: Daggerdale and The Witcher 2, though, the company's planned transition to digital might be showing signs of promise. Two of its newest executive hires, digital publishing SVP Owais Farooqui and mobile VP Maria Pacheco, believe that's the case. Farooqui left casual gaming giant King.com, where he built cross-platform experiences around casual brands, in the hopes of being able to bring that same expertise to Atari's brands. Atari's classic 2600 console was "a casual device that allowed you to play casual games like Pong, Missile Command and Asteroid that are very social by nature," he points out. "We're looking to bring those brands back across mobile, social, Android, iOS, tablets and Google+, and have a cross-platform experience for the user." But on the company's slow, slightly rocky endeavors to ramp up to a new space, "people were making the best decisions they could with the info they had at the time," he adds. "They've had to transition from the box space to this new space;... they've seen new generations of the console appear and tried to adapt to that, and then new devices like Nintendo 3DS... with this space it's new for all the console players." "The advantage that Atari has is we see ourselves as the innovators and the inventors of this space 30 years ago," Farooqui says. "Asteroids is a perfect game to take advantage of a gyroscope. Compared to Nintendo, we have two advantages: We don't have an investment in hardware, and we're fully committed to supporting iOS and Android. And our games target older males and females, which as you know are big consumers in the casual space. It's a big opportunity." The immediate consideration of Nintendo is interesting for a company that plans to prioritize the mobile space. "It's an interesting time for someone with my background," says Maria Pacheco, new VP of mobile at Atari. Pacheco began with Sprint's "little" mobile app group back in 2003, and describes her career, through Jamdat and Vivendi, as something of an uphill fight to get larger companies to take mobile games seriously as a space in its own right versus just vehicles to distribute larger brands. Pacheco says she would have stayed in location-based discovery applications if it hadn't been for Atari, which asked her to return to the mobile gaming frontlines. "These are casual, fun, physics-based games," she notes of of classic Atari brands, highlighting the traits they share with popular smartphone games today. "And there's tons of brand recognition -- a recent study showed that 2 out of 5 Americans have played an Atari game. A lot of companies want to see us succeed. It just makes so much sense to me." The fun part comes in working with a number of developers who have what she describes as honed, eloquent pitches for ways to restore classic Atari titles to leadership luster in this new frontier, says Pacheco. "We have a lot of people who are familiar with our brands and our gameplay, but want to see these titles brought up to speed in terms of design and technology for today's platforms and devices," she says. "We're outsourcing most of our work in terms of production, so we're having really fun, interesting meetings with creative groups around the country to see how different groups envision bringing these classics up to speed." Given this investment in mobile and Facebook, we asked Farooqui and Pacheco about the perspective that designated gaming handhelds, like 3DS and Vita, will struggle to compete. "All these platforms are going to get stronger from a hardware perspective," says Farooqui. "Right now, the DS for sure is a stronger gaming machine, but I think quickly -- and this is my personal opinion -- that the iPad will have the power of the Xbox, and you'll see... more core games targeting the young adult male." Atari's upcoming Dungeons & Dragons Facebook title is developed in full 3D using the Unity engine and targets the core demographic, Farooqui says. Games like this, in Farooqui's opinion, will "take over more market share, and we'll see a decrease in marketshare for portable platforms." "Change takes time, and it takes education and buy-in to a new vision. That's a big reason why we came here, to develop that vision, rally the troops and get them to buy into that vision and see the future," he adds.

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