It wasn’t too long ago that Atari introduced its latest hardware for the video game market, which was originally known as the AtariBox, but then later re-labeled as the Atari VCS -- similar to a system it released way back in the late 1970’s. Since that time, the company has been talking about what its system wants to be, with the potential to play new games, as well as a number of classics from the Atari 2600/5200/7800 eras.
But following its introduction, there have been some doubts as to whether the VCS can be a peak performer. During its showcase at the Game Developers Conference, Atari didn’t have a working model on hand, displaying instead a hard shell for the system. And there have been talks about being up in the air about crowdfunding it or not, as it hasn’t really officially explained which direction it wants to go with that.
Eurogamer recently had a chance to speak with the COO of Atari Connected Devices, Michael Arzt, in the hopes of getting some concrete details in regards to what fans can expect from the system. However, it seems that more questions have arisen as a result, as there’s not really much clarity with Arzt’s answers. The system still has potential galore, but it doesn’t seem like it has enough grounded information for its launch -- at least, not yet.
The first thing that Eurogamer asked is who the Atari VCS is for, and Arzt explained that it’s really something everyone can get into -- sort of. “It's interesting. The target audience is two mindsets and two groups,” he said If you think about the broad Atari audience - we're obviously targeting the Atari audience, right? - but the Atari audience you can really draw a pretty solid line down right around age 35, so everyone over age 35 remembers us one way - they grew up with us, played the old consoles like the 2600 or played in the arcades and all that, and they have a certain nostalgic recollection and feeling for the brand. That's one group, and there's things on this for them.
“But all the modern stuff, which will also appeal to them as well - they watch Netflix, listen to music, all that stuff - but then the other idea is all these things we're doing now, everyone under the age of 35, they think of Atari a different way. They will buy the faded T-shirt - the hipster dude down in Soho or whatever, right? - they think about Atari as this cool, old brand like so many other cool old brands, but they're the ones buying [retro-styled things like] Mini Coopers. So we're going to create something that's got things for them.
“What do they care about from an entertainment standpoint? They care about games, of course, they care about Hulu and Netflix, and Spotify and Pandora, they care about social media, they care about communication and chat, so all that stuff will be there for them as well, so this will be a product that will appeal to that audience. [This will be] giving them a device that will let them do all that stuff they care about on their TV, is hopefully something that will be appealing to them.
“There's other things we're not in a position to talk about yet that this will do, that will I think enhance some of what I'm telling you even greater.”
Next up, Eurogamer brought up what will make the Atari VCS competitive in this market, which is already filled to the brim with PC’s, phones and top-tier consoles. Arzt explained, “t's less expensive than a PC, and it doesn't require you to have your laptop plugged into the TV. It'll control many aspects of the TV, and it'll also let you do things on the TV that - because it'll have voice control, because it'll have a really easy navigation system, things like that - it'll make computing on the television easier.
“You'll be able to hook a wireless or USB mouse and keyboard to it, if you want it to - it'll do all that stuff. It's an open platform like any PC. The controllers are Bluetooth, and will work with any PC. This [VCS] controller is essentially a modern Xbox-style controller. Somebody who doesn't have the box could still buy one of these and use it with their Android or their PC.”
So controller adaptability may work in their favor -- if they work. “Yeah, any Bluetooth or USB controller will work. We just got this thing [the VCS controller] in - but they're using Xbox 360 controllers to test it and play games in the engineering lab. It's very much a PC from that standpoint, and interchangeability with other products and other peripherals will be easy,” Arzt said.
Arzt touched a little bit on the pricing, and the team is looking to go for somewhere around $249 to $299, although it could run more with the inclusion of a controller.
When Eurogamer brought up the notion that “controllers aren’t cheap,” Arzt replied, “Yeah - well, a good one isn't, and we want it to be a good one, that's important for us. So we're working with a peripheral partner that makes good stuff, and we're really excited about that, and we'll announce them when we're a little bit further down the line.
“And that's really what it is - a lot of what we're facing right now is - people want a lot of answers. We feel strongly - and I certainly feel strongly as the guy who has to manage this - I feel it's very important that we speak when we actually have something to say. It's really easy to get sucked into that vortex of responding to things on social media, or responding to tough questions from guys like you, but it's so important to us that we get this right, because we have such a heritage and a responsibility to our fans to get this right.
“To promise something and not be able to deliver is way worse than holding back on sharing, and hopefully we'll be pleasantly surprising people in the end. To me, I always like to operate from a position of integrity. We care about this about this thing as much as you do.
“We know how important it is for this thing to be right. It's important to us, because we work with Atari, but also because we grew up with the brand too - we care that this new Atari is doing things the right way, and avoiding mistakes as often as possible.
“It's still a company run by men and women, right - so there will be mistakes, humans make mistakes - but ultimately it's about delivering something we can all feel good about, and most importantly, something the fans will be excited about. So that's where we're at.”
Next up came a very important topic -- crowdfunding. And here’s where things are a little bit cloudy, as Arzt didn’t nail down what’s going on with it. He noted “the thing to understand about our approach to crowdfunding is that - it's not really so much crowdfunding as it is... there's a lot of ways to use crowdfunding. We're looking at this as an opportunity. It's about fan service, and it's about community. Taking a crowdfunding approach - the very first one, it's this wooden [box], it's going to be special, it's going to be about catering to our biggest, most nostalgic fans, and giving them an opportunity to give us feedback on this as we're building it, before it's too late and are locked and baked. And there's a lot of things we're not sure about that the crowdfunding process will give us an opportunity to do.
“But it will also tell us if we have something - all this chatter, news and excitement, if people are willing to start pre-ordering it, that will tell us a lot, right? It's moving forward - we could cancel the crowdfunding idea and still be moving forward, but right now we think it can benefit us.
“We are not Microsoft or Sony, where we have the same kind of research capabilities and previous products that have been around for years. This is, in a lot of ways, a greenfield project, where we're starting from scratch. Having that engagement with the community and the fans is going to be super valuable to answering the questions that we still have about it.
“We've got a lot of research that we've done, and a lot of calculated hunches that we've put forward in the way we're thinking about it, but the fans will tell us if those things are making sense or not. That's really, for this project - I can't speak to all crowdfunding [campaigns] - but that's what we want this one to do for us, to give us a dialogue with fans. And yeah, it's partly a proof of concept, but ultimately, what are we building? The guts of it - to be candid - it's a good laptop that has no keyboard and no screen. What we're doing with the software, and we're doing with the other stuff, that's the special stuff that Atari brings to it, but it's an attractive piece of consumer electronics that structurally is kinda straightforward.
“It's an AMD, x86 processor, it's a hard-drive, it has an Ethernet support and USB - it's a little computer, and people make computers all the time. The hardware part of it is the easy part. Now it's baking in the software and making it a unique experience. That's the part we're really rolling up our sleeves and working on right now.”
In another part of the interview, Arzt explained what Atari’s trying to do with third party publishers, as well as indie companies. “We're talking with third-party publishers, and giving them the opportunity to.. if some of them already have things that already run on Linux. Great - port them over, we'll give you a really favorable deal if you put them in our store. We're having those conversations. We're also saying, are you interested in taking a stab at one of our classic IPs?” he said.
“Normally, and for the mega big classics like an Asteroids or a Centipede, those kind of [games] we'll typically do a licensing deal where there's an upfront payment - but for the vast majority of our titles? Someone could come to us and say 'I have an idea for Air Sea Battle', which is a seminal game, but Air Sea Battle can be anything - it doesn't have to be a literal remake of the game with modern graphics.”
The full interview can be read here, where Arzt covers a number of other things. But as much as he wants the Atari VCS to be the next big thing, there seems to be a slight bit of doubt -- and it makes us wonder about the future of the system.
Obviously, we hope for the best -- but some more details would certainly do the trick. And maybe a few game confirmations to boot.2comments
We’ll see if Atari brings the VCS to E3 in just a couple of months.
(Hat tip to Eurogamer for the details!)