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Scott Steinberg: Desperation Play (part two)

After 30 years, is it finally game over for Atari?

Continued from part one.

Toy Story (1998-2001)

In a strange, but relatively short-lived chapter of the company's history, toy manufacturing giant Hasbro acquires the Atari name and intellectual property assets from JTS in 1998 for a piddling 5 million USD. Determined to carve a niche in the burgeoning video game space, Hasbro forms an interactive division, which publishes 3D updates of classic franchises like Pong, Asteroids and Missile Command on PC, PlayStation and other console platforms. Although minor success comes with further acquisitions of popular game industry firms including MicroProse and Avalon Hill, the company's growth slows considerably by 1999. Later caught in the throes of the dot-com bust, the firm - along with all Atari trademarks and rights - is sold to veteran European software publishing outfit Infogrames in January 2001.

The Expert's Take: Warshaw concedes that, at the time, the Atari brand still inspired nostalgic charm, and that this wasn't necessarily a bad move for the brand conceptually, helping it connect with a new generation of players. Nonetheless, despite seeming like a smart play then, he says a spate of poorly-received sequels (see Centipede for the Dreamcast's scathing critical reception) simply proved another nail in the company's coffin. Worse, the firm's increasing push towards mainstream friendliness had an unwarranted side-effect, eventually leading to Atari's owners torpedoing his plans with a Hollywood production company to produce a film chronicling the company's sordid history. Apparently a conflict with the G-rated persona it wished to maintain, the project was deemed too risque.

The French Connection (2001-Present)

Under the leadership of game industry entrepreneur Bruno Bonnell, Infogrames - known domestically mostly for its work on groundbreaking survival horror series Alone in the Dark - promises to "reinvent" the Atari brand. Unfortunately, initial offerings such as motocross outing MXrider and waterborne racer Splashdown do little to engender the moniker to modern audiences. More strikingly, Infogrames officially changes its name to Atari Inc. on May 7, 2003, and begins publishing all domestic titles including sports sims, racing games and fantasy adventures under this name. The end result simply serves to prompt confusion amongst a generation of gamers weaned on classic arcade outings.

Disastrous launches such as much-maligned action-adventure Driv3r and lackluster revamps of classic series like Test Drive and Deer Hunter further do little to endear the company to fans in subsequent years. Moreover, its scattershot publishing slate - which to this day ranges from children's outings to horse-raising simulators, arcade boxing titles and role-playing imports, sees much of the traditional meaning stripped from the Atari brand. (Which despite its use on contemporary gems like The Witcher and The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena, isn't readily associable with any particular subject or quality standard at this point.) No wonder then that the publicly-traded firm has struggled to perform financially in recent years, leading to freefalling share prices, Bonnell's eventual ousting and multiple warnings concerning potential NASDAQ delisting.

In recent times, the company has been slowly divesting itself of its individual holdings, rejoining with European parent Infogrames and selling off supporting studios like Reflections (Driver) and Shiny Entertainment (The Matrix: Path of Neo). Its extensive retail distribution business (including the lion's share of the company's sales and operations throughout Europe and Asia) was also recently ceded to rival publisher Namco Bandai. More distressingly still, despite a string of high-profile executive hires over the last several years, including Phil Harrison, former president of Sony Computer Entertainment Worldwide Studios, company leadership seems to be irreparably conflicted.

Harrison, hailed as the firm's savior when he was hired last year as Atari president, was just shuffled into a supporting, non-executive role, ostensibly given the corporation's "shift of business operations to the US." What's more, the company recently and unexpectedly pulled out of annual electronic entertainment industry convention E3, with all titles being shown on-site in the Dragon Ball franchise - traditionally a cash cow for Atari - curiously being exhibited at the Namco Bandai booth. It's hardly auspicious timing, as the business attempts to reinvent itself yet again following the acquisition of veteran developer Cryptic Studios (City of Heroes), and make the transition to publishing virtual worlds like Champions Online and the new Star Trek MMO.

The Expert's Take: While Warshaw declines to comment, citing a lack of familiarity with current operations, he's willing to concede that "the Atari most know and recognized is just a fading memory at this point." But backroom chatter holds that recent years saw the firm overextend its reach, only to wind up in poor shape financially, lacking the cash reserves needed for day-to-day operation. As a result, most internal development groups except for Eden Studios have been closed and external projects jettisoned as the company attempts a painful transition from a studio-based to more flexible publishing model. The shift being a necessary one, of course, as in recent years this was a sizable corporation with few grand-scale projects in the pipeline, all difficult to complete. Or, to make a poor analogy, essentially equivalent to a jet engine with little fuel in the tank.

Further indications are that past leadership (i.e. Bonnell) realized that Atari had reached its peak under their oversight, and that it was time for a fresh group of thinkers to come in and setup shop. However, a spate of successive management teams continues to shuttle in and out of top positions as financiers seek a quick change of direction and, naturally, return on investment. According to industry scuttlebutt though, none of these competing power blocs has yet been given enough time to establish a sound footing or put its own signature stamp on operations. Regardless, recent internal moves would appear to signal a new approach and strategic direction for the concern going forward. A push towards internet-ready titles appears a wise choice, as the video game industry continues to expand rapidly into the online realm. But whether or not Atari's present lineup of games, let alone current plan of attack, is the correct one, well... only time will tell.

Either way, consensus is near-universal amongst journalists and industry insiders alike: Here and now, after nearly four decades of good, bad and inexplicable games and business decisions, the company will live and die based on the current choices it makes. Be that as it may, the larger looming question for those of us who grew up with that signature black joystick in hand is simply as follows. Does any of it really matter at this point, or is the Atari we came to know and love simply a tattered dream, destined to live on in budget compilation packs and occasional retro-themed iPhone outings?

For now, the answer remains uncertain. As, sadly, does the verdict on another, perhaps more pressing issue to the legions of faithful players who lined up to purchase childhood-defining titles like Oink!, River Raid and Kaboom! Specifically, even as the gaming market it pioneered continues to grow at a dramatic clip, expanding by millions of fans annually, well... Who, if anyone, will still bother lingering around to hear what could be the fallen titan's final eulogy?

Video game expert and TV/radio host Scott Steinberg is the author of Get Rich Playing Games and the creator of game industry documentary series Players Only. A celebrated gadget guru and technology expert, he frequently appears as a technology and video game analyst on broadcast networks like ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC and CNN, and has contributed to 400+ outlets from The New York Times to Playboy and Rolling Stone. For more of his insights, visit www.scottsteinberg.com.

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