Where it was once a tangential exploration of a new business model, clear digital strategy has quickly become a must-have for core game publishers who want to keep footing in the modern marketplace.
Among traditional games publishers, Atari's been among the most vocal on its online strategy, and today the company makes a further push with the launch of a formal initiative for the online, mobile and social space.
Atari Games Online -- Atari GO -- is the company's cohesive plan to build an infrastructure for development and publishing on digital and casual platforms. It's the purview of Thom Kozik, a veteran of the distribution and partnership space in companies such as Yahoo!, Bigpoint and K2 Networks who joined Atari from Microsoft in March.
Kozik tells Gamasutra that the company aims to "scale up" its presence online in a big way: "As a publisher we've got a great history working with a lot of great third-party developers, but we need to expand," he says.
A major catalyst was the company's acquisition of Champions Online
and City Of Heroes/Villains
developer Cryptic Studios at the end of 2008.
Atari's since learned much about online infrastructure and long-term player services from the team there, from merchant services and account management to customer service, marketing and distribution.
And that expertise isn't something independent studios of any size generally want to make part of their core competency, Kozik explains. Thus he sees significant opportunity for Atari in having a strong focus as an online publisher on all fronts -- and in having much to offer developers.
"The idea of having a suite of both technical capabilities -- everything from hosting right up to API calls -- that the developers can tap into to reach into these services, that's key," he says. "But you've got to have the soft components as well. It's understanding how to scale analytics across different platforms, how to take in payments from multiple providers, for example."
"If you're a game studio, particularly an indie, is that really what you want to be staffing up on? There's this inevitable transformation taking place about what a publisher needs to be in this new online space."
As Atari's been particularly hard-hit by the decline in packaged goods software sales, it was a necessity for the company. "The growth in this industry, as we all know, is not the expansion of retail box sales of games," Kozik says. "Instead of treating those businesses as if they were another strange form of retail, we had to really look at what our core strengths are as a publisher and build from there."
Iconic Brands On New Platforms
Among Atari's core strengths is the enduring brand equity its name and IP enjoy -- although decades of constant game industry evolution haven't always favored the publisher, it's nonetheless arguably the founding company behind home arcade video games as we know them today, and names and gameplay styles like Centipede, Asteroids
and Missile Command
are still immediately recognizable to a great many, gamers or not.
And being part of Atari's online publishing infrastructure can offer third-party developers the unique opportunity to work with these iconic brands and re-style them for new audiences, Kozik says. "It's fun to work with indies who come in here and start salivating that they can work on the reimagining of a classic game -- and make it social, and integrate the latest dynamics," he says.
Atari benefits from getting behind visible, branded official versions of its titles on major channels like Facebook or mobile platforms. So many minor sites host Flash games that are effectively knockoffs of its own brands that the company sees an easy in in offering them the chance to host a real version -- and participate in revenue sharing as a result, says Kozik.
Many of the simple arcade games under which Atari made its name were innovative for their time, but interestingly, in the current climate they'd qualify as casual games, simple, accessible and tailored for short play sessions, Kozik adds. So for Atari, there's no better time for the classics.
"You'll start to see those games launching on the sites we've already reached out to in the next few days, and we've already delivered the code. We won't be watching all those players drifting away to no-name sites, and instead playing with Atari," Kozik says. "We want to bring them back into the fold."
Lessons And Transitions For New Audiences
Kozik says one of Atari founder Nolan Bushnell's favorite stories is about how surprised the early company was when they learned that Pong
, in its days as an arcade machine, had such a large volume of female players. "They just assumed all along that all the games they were building were for men," he said.
"There were lessons learned abut how to start changing some of these games -- like Centipede
was one of the first, and Nolan will say it was designed to have cross-genre and cross-demographics appeal."
Many of its properties are already available to play on Atari's website
, including a new beta of the platform's first third-party title under this umbrella: Fairies vs. Darklings
, a title Kozik describes as "clearly oriented toward a more traditional online casual audience" from the beginning.
But whether core brand or casual-designed, Kozik says "the underpinnings of what it takes to run that game on the large scale, to work with foreign partners... those are all the lessons we've already learned and are able to plug into a game."
"There are lessons every day," Kozik adds of the company's process to gain a foothold in the online space. "The challenge for us is to stay flexible enough to adapt to each of those lessons."
For Atari, this is a more viable approach than prioritizing internal content creation, he continues. "We took this approach: Let's not try to be the ultimate content creator. A lot of other publishers are going out and acquiring random social games studios, but that didn't seem to make sense from where our position already was."
"Going out and trying to build our own distribiution network by leveraging what we were already doing seemed to make the most sense," says Kozik.