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Q&A: Atari's Stevenson On A Post-Bonnell World

In this exclusive interview, Gamasutra talks with Atari's VP of development Robert Stevenson on the company's new focus "on handhelds... [and] the Wii", its new co-publishing deal with Russian publisher 1C, and what Atari life is like without the recently

April 26, 2007

10 Min Read

Author: by Brandon Sheffield, Staff

U.S.-headquartered veteran publisher recently announced a new distribution and co-publishing deal with Russian publisher 1C to bring a 2007 lineup of some 10 RPG, RTS, and first-person shooter games directly to the U.S. for the first time. To find out more about the birth of the deal, Gamasutra talked to Atari's vice president of development Robert Stevenson, who firstly covered the state of the sometimes troubled company. The chat focused on the divesting of Atari's internal studios and its new focus on republishing deals and more agile development with smaller projects on other platforms, including the DS and the Wii, and how the departure of ex-president Bruno Bonnell is affecting the company. On the internal Atari side – companies like Shiny were divested from the company because Atari isn’t as interested in internal studios any more and is pushing more development externally. How has that been working for Atari? RS: I think it’s going pretty well. You’ve seen a little bit of the result of that here with 1C, but you’re seeing a lot of titles that we’re putting out now are developed externally. It’s just a fact of the matter, and we’ll continue to do that. It makes a lot of sense. How long do you think it will be for Atari to turn around and really become a profitable company? RS: I don’t want to speculate too much, because it’s really hard to say, but I think you’ve seen a turning within the last six months. With the last two quarters, one was kind of flat, one turned a little bit of profit based on selling some stuff off. The cost structures inside of Atari have been greatly reduced, and I think you’re seeing a transition to a little more flexible model, with much lower overhead. You’re seeing a lot of those things actually taking a foothold. It comes down to execution. I think we have a great lineup, we’ve got a lot of exciting titles coming, and I think we’re doing exciting deals with a lot of stuff that’s still unannounced. We’ll see how the future plays out, but I do think that a lot of things like big titles, stuff not working – I think we’re probably beyond a lot of that. Atari’s getting more localization-focused, in a sense with bringing titles over from Japan and Europe? Is it that you’re staffing up in localization while ramping down development? RS: No, I think overall our focus with producers has remained about the same. The producer mindset is still pretty similar in both internal and external development. With localization, certainly we have resources in that area, and the very publishing style of business, taking products from elsewhere – that’s definitely grown, and the expertise inside the company has grown in that area. The only downsizing has really been largely on the direct studios themselves. There’s been some normal internal restructuring, but actual programmers sitting there writing code day-in-day-out – we have a lot less of that now. How is Bruno Bonnell's transition away from the company affecting everyone? RS: My perspective might be a little more limited than others as I’ve only been with the company for about a year, but certainly he brought a lot of vision, a lot of creativity, a lot of drive to the company. He’s a very visionary kind of guy. We’ll definitely miss some of that, but at the same time, there’s also new management in play and they’re bringing strengths, too. The company has been criticized that maybe it’s too visionary, maybe it’s trying to do stuff that’s too out there, so there’s sort of a flipside to it, too. I definitely think Bruno will be missed, but at the same time Atari’s had to reinvent itself to a degree. It can’t continue to go year after year with losses. Looking at it just as business fundamentals and economic fundamentals, if you bought a company and it’s working, it’s likely that the shareholders will want the management to stay in place, and if it’s not, even though it may or may not be the case that it’s the leadership’s fault, the reality is that shareholders will want a change. Like I said, Bruno brought a lot of stuff to the company, a lot of energy, and I think from the perspective where we could say, “let’s go get Bruno’s opinion on something” – we’re going to miss that. Atari’s problems have seemed to be somewhat similar to the problems Majesco had, in terms of going for things that were a bit too high-reaching, and Majesco’s had a lot of success in subsequently scaling themselves down and focusing on smaller projects on handhelds and the Wii. Is that something that Atari is looking at moving forward? RS: I definitely think that’s an active pursuit for us. When you start saying that you’d like to invest 30 million dollars on a certain titles and it’s got to hit a home run for it to be successful in terms of sales, and start making those sorts of bets on brands that weren’t built 10 years ago – you start asking for a lot of risk. Certainly I would say there’s a focus on handhelds, there’s a focus on the Wii, there’s definitely a lot of that going on. If someone asks is Atari building 10 PS3 SKUs? No, we’re not. We’re not making those kinds of bets. All the platforms are in play, we’re actively developing on everything, but the focus is much more on attainable, controllable product. You see a little bit of that here with 1C – these products are manageable, and something that’s palatable to the North American market. Are you looking more at republishing than funding new development? RS: I would say both equally as much, but we’re definitely looking more at republishing than the company has been in the past. The company was doing largely internal development and publishing of large-scale products, and we’re probably going to now be doing more publishing, re-publishing, and less of the heavy-lifting development that was being done in internal studios before. That’s not to say we aren’t doing it – we’re still doing it, just to a lower degree. Is Eden the last internal studio? RS: That’s the main one, yes. There are various contracts still open and we’ll continue development with some of the other studios that we had, but most of those things are winding down. Those studios are mainly working on big titles. There’s some things that are still unannounced. It seems like Eden could still be capable of doing Xbox Live or PlayStation Network titles. RS: I can’t speak for the management or the decisions made at Eden Studios, because it’s not really actually my part of the corporation, but certainly the decision there is really for them to focus on next-gen, high-end type stuff, and we will use external partners for derivatives of some of that stuff. There’s a lot of external partners that are extremely good at building DS and PSP products, and others that are extremely good at building Live Arcade stuff, guys that are rock solid on that. For Eden, there’s no doubt they could do it, but why distract them from their core mission. How did the 1C deal come about? Robert Stevenson: It’s been something that’s been discussed inside of Atari for almost a year, and it really started to come to fruition around 6 months ago. We really started putting the pedal to the metal. I joined Atari just about a year ago, and one of the focuses there was we’d divested a lot of our studios. We had Paradigm, Reflections, so many studios, and in divesting the studios you have to look for content in different places. We started looking at partners that had a lot of stuff that was good quality and fits the North American market. 1C’s a natural partner for that. They’ve done a lot of deals with Ubisoft, THQ, and different companies. We thought, “hey, these guys are able to come to the North American market, but they’re lacking a partner that can really push them and really help get them out there in a broad way." But they’ve got good quality, good content we can provide feedback on and help them modify and help them grow and do those kinds of things. So the 1C deal was a good fit for what I came to Atari to do, and it just came together in those kinds of ways. Traditionally, some Eastern European titles are a bit statistic- or strategy-heavy and could be a bit difficult to penetrate the American market, do you think 1C has a different take? RS: I definitely agree, gamers all over the world definitely have different passions and a different flavor, and you tend to see in Eastern Europe, even in Western Europe, you see that in Germany and Italy a lot. Strategy games tend to be a little bit more popular than they would be in America. That’s fine, and I think you’ll see that some of the 1C titles still bring some of that flavor, but one of the issues, too, was that strategy gamers in North America were a little bit under served. There are a lot of strategy games that come over that aren’t really that great, so we’re looking at better quality content. Part of the 1C deal is also that it’s not a passive deal, it’s an active deal where they’ll get feedback. It’s not like they give us a strategy game and we don’t say "hey, you might not realize, but that might be an issue for a North American consumer,” we can say, “hey, can you do this, can you alter the code in such a way that will make this game a little more North American friendly.” It’s an active loop, on the platforms, on the game quality, on some of the game direction and design. Is 1C going to continue to stay pretty PC-focused through this deal? RS: I think there’ll be some console SKUs coming. Their history is largely PC oriented, and I think in the near term you’re going to see mostly PC titles, but I think over the long term you’ll start to see some console stuff. What’s interesting is that console development in Eastern Europe and Russia is starting to get a little more active. It’s been kind of dormant, it’s largely been companies like EA and various outsourcing companies – they’re building for console games, but they’re not actually doing any directing there. But now it’s starting to change, you’re starting to see a lot more of that. It’s really wide open. Are you looking at digital distribution? RS: That will definitely be happening, and Live Arcade is definitely a possibility. There are some games that are well-suited for that. When you look at the Russian market, there’s a lot of smaller games, there’s a lot of stuff that we would consider casual games, there’s a lot of stuff that could go straight to jewel case. Some of the stuff makes sense in those alternate channels, but definitely digital distribution is pretty much a given. Does this deal include all of 1C’s portfolio, or specifically 1C-developed titles? RS: It’s comprehensive, it includes everything. Obviously there are some other publishers that have been involved with them in the past and have first rights of refusal on certain properties, and they’ll remain with those publishers, but it’s comprehensive beyond that.

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