Spot On: Atari's master plan--online and off

Game publisher kicks off its 2006 press event with talk of external development, better quality control, and a new presence on the Internet.

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LAS VEGAS--Publisher Atari is holding its annual press event to show off its upcoming lineup of games at a sprawling casino in sweltering Sin City. While the focus of the event is coverage of the actual games at air-conditioned stations away from the 100-degree heat outside, several executives were on hand to kick off the event with comments on the company's future plans.

Sales and marketing vice president Nique Fajors kicked off the address with a frank assessment of Atari's past missteps, explaining that the company will put stronger emphasis on quality control and on hiring teams to manage product approvals and developer relations. They will be new hires who, like Fajors, feel "disgust with losing, and disgust with being mediocre."

Fajors conceded that Atari hasn't had a strong track record on projects developed in-house, and therefore the company will focus more strongly on externally developed games, as well as on taking additional time to get game projects finished right. Fajors compared Atari's 2005 game Driv3r to its upcoming racing game Test Drive Unlimited. The former was, Fajors said, "a half-baked product that was pushed out the door for revenue reasons."

Fajors then outlined Atari's stronger push into the online space, which will take the form of a community-focused Web site called Atari Online. Senior vice president of Atari Online Chris Bergstresser elaborated on the new Web presence, suggesting that it will be a key part of "tying [the game development process] in to a consumer experience."

The executive suggested that Atari would "expand into online past boxed product." Many modern games often "try to create a huge, immersive experience," but they have perhaps forgotten the "fun factor and value" that simpler games can provide, he said.

To that end, Bergstresser announced that Atari would revisit its own stable of classic arcade games and release them on Microsoft's Xbox Live online service. The executive suggested that these games won't have their core gameplay changed, but that "they'll be presented in a more-modern look and feel." The first such game will be released in time for the holiday season this year, he said, likely around October or November.

Bergstresser suggested that the company's new emphasis on online-enabled games would include improved multiplayer options for online games like Test Drive Unlimited, continuous content updates for already-released games "to bring a sense of newness to the products," and the upcoming community site, which might see a soft launch later this year and a beta-test version in 2007.

To cap the presentation, business development vice president Robert Stevenson briefly discussed Atari's expanded focus on partnering with external development houses, as well as on working out a streamlined approval process to get games from differing territories the green light from Atari headquarters.

If the presentation is any indication, the beleaguered publisher is attempting to honestly assess its own strengths and weaknesses. Atari hopes that a shift in strategy--longer game-development times, online games and community outreach, and partnerships with external studios--will pay off in the future and prevent chasing short-term revenue targets by pushing unfinished games out the door.

GameSpot will have full coverage of Atari's lineup in the near future.

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