Opinion: The Revolving Door At Atari Approaches Terminal Velocity

Can the latest round of executive hires turn Atari around as the firm focuses on the fast-moving social gaming and digital space? Gamasutra editor-at-large Chris Morris looks at execs who've come and gone -- and he's skeptical.
With all due respect to the incoming executives at Atari, I really can't understand why anyone in their right mind would take a high-ranking job with that particular publisher. Sure, it's a company that has proven almost Rasputin-like in its will to live, but it has also spent the last four years floundering – desperately searching for a viable business plan and hiring a slew of notable industry executives, only to see them racing for the exit in short order. So many people have come and gone, in fact, that the company's front door is starting to take on the characteristics of a centrifuge. Let's take a look back at the last few years to get some perspective on how fast the company has been chewing people up. (In the interest of space, we'll focus on the executive suite – but there have certainly been many developer casualties as well.) In 2007, Bruno Bonnell walked away from his CEO position at Atari's parent company Infogrames after 24 years. Bruno (yes, to us, he was always simply "Bruno") was a polarizing figure in the gaming world, but I must confess as a member of the media, he always made my job easier. There has never been any exec who could master the verbal grenade better than Bruno. Keep your Bobby Koticks and Jeff Browns -- this was a guy who could light a firestorm in the mainstream media with an offhand comment. My personal favorite was when he declared, during a Piper Jaffray consumer conference in 2004, that the PSP would likely be priced at $500. Ah, good times. A close second would be his 2006 motivational bon mot, "We will be looking to sell our studios, but that doesn't mean that we're immediately putting a 'For Sale' sign on them." Way to motivate the teams there, Bruno. Patrick Leleu took over as Infogrames CEO and Curtis Solsvig came on board at Atari, assuming the title of chief restructuring officer. Neither lasted a year. Leleu found himself on the street shortly after announcing his vision for the company's future. David Gardner, a 25-year veteran of EA, took the reins at Infogrames, and there were signs of hope that the company might be once again on the path to redemption. Gardner was one of EA's first employees and the former head of EA Worldwide Studios. He was also, it turned out, something of a magician – and he pulled one hell of a rabbit out of his hat, by luring Phil Harrison, head of Sony Worldwide Studios, to walk away from the PlayStation powerhouse and become president of Infogrames. It was a move that shocked industry observers at the time (and, in many ways, still does today). Gardner also convinced the board to ditch the clunky Infogrames name, unifying the company under the Atari brand. Solsvig's restructuring role, meanwhile, was admittedly a placeholder position. And while it was certainly possible that Solsvig could have transitioned from a temporary role to a permanent one (kinda like how former Take-Two CEO Ben Feder initially took that role on an interim basis – only to keep it for three years), he chose to step aside in 2008. Also in early 2008, Jim Wilson stepped in as president and CEO of the U.S. subsidiary. Things ran fairly smooth for the next year (well, on the surface, at least). Then, in 2009, Harrison stepped down from his position abruptly. Though he stayed on as a board member for another year, it was a deflating move for investors. A couple months later, Gardner was also gone, with former Take-Two and THQ CEO Jeff Lapin assuming the CEO role. (Incidentally, Gardner and Harrison were eventually reunited at a UK venture capital firm). It was – you guessed it – about a year, before Lapin and Atari went their separate ways. Jim Wilson took over the job last December. Last week, he added a trio of lieutenants. Robert Mattes will take the position of CFO at Atari; Owais Farooqui is the new SVP of digital publishing; and Maria Pacheco is now VP of mobile (all three recently spoke to Gamasutra about their new roles). Maybe I'm just a pessimist but if I were any of them, I wouldn't unpack all of my things too quickly. Still, they're entering the company with a fair bit of optimism. "In the past few years ... people tried new things at Atari with good intentions, and some of it worked and some of it didn't work, just like would happen at any other company," said Farooqui. "I left willingly to come here, and the reason I did is because I believed at the core that Atari has something that's really great. It has a stong brand, strong IP... the market wants Atari to succeed, and that's been proven. They're just waiting for us to give them the right product." "Owais and I had a number of conversations where we both truly committed to taking on this responsibility here at Atari," adds Pacheco. "And it was a fun conversation, because it was kind of like... 'I'm in if you're in.'" To most observers, Atari's glory days are long behind it. However, it somehow manages to survive in an industry that seemingly should have curb stomped it long ago. (And, yes, for the record, I know the Atari that helped launch the video game industry is long-dead. The name has been shuffled around among several companies who have used it to try to tap into a sense of nostalgia among both core gamers and the general public. Here’s the thing: The general public doesn't care. To them, Atari will always be associated with the days of yore, no matter who its current corporate masters are.) Can Atari ever regain equilibrium? It's hard to say definitively. The odds are against it - and I'd be shocked, personally. But I can never forget what Diane Baker, a former chief financial officer for the company, said in 2005 (ironically just eight months before she took flight): "When we can stop shooting ourselves in the foot ... Atari's going to be a spectacular company." (Leigh Alexander contributed to this story.)

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