Atari CEO Wade Rosen talks preservation, Web3, and the future of retro

Atari CEO Wade Rosen talks preservation, Web3, and the future of retro

Have you played Atari today?

Atari is a company that has almost always been mired in problems. Before the Atari VCS (2600) console even launched, founder Nolan Bushnell sold the business to Warner Communications, which fired him shortly thereafter. It’s traded hands throughout the years, eventually landing with Infogrames in 2000, who gradually rebranded to the Atari name before nearly becoming bankrupt in 2013. They restructured, sold off a number of assets, and managed to come out of bankruptcy.

Say what you will about the Atari Lynx and Jaguar platforms, but nothing is as bad as post-bankruptcy protection Atari. They oversaw such tragic releases as Haunted House: Cryptic Graves and Asteroids: Outpost. Atari’s business model also shifted heavily toward micro-monetized mobile games.

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In 2021, when no one was looking, Wade Rosen took the helm of Atari as CEO. While there is much still to be seen as to whether he can gain back the goodwill of video game hobbyists, this is, perhaps, the first time in a long time that one can be optimistic about the direction of the company. Rosen was gracious enough to quench my curiosity by answering a few questions for Destructoid, and he’s joined by Larry Kuperman of Nightdive Studios, a recent acquisition by Atari.

Atari Cartridges
Image via Atari

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The new face of Atari

“When I took on the role of CEO, one of my primary objectives was to establish a clear strategy for the business; one that would provide a solid base for our long-term success and one that would be true to our legacy,” Rosen explained. “Part of the transition we undertook involved exiting businesses that we did not think were core or made sense going forward. One of the areas we decided to exit was the casino business, and we have successfully unwound all of our casino-related partnerships.”

“Our business now has four focus areas: software, hardware, licensing, and web3. Atari is and will remain, a video game company, so our efforts across those four business areas are all to support that core gaming identity. We made a conscious decision to start making premium games again, and we have made continual progress towards that goal. We have published 12 new titles in the last 18 months, we have announced another four, and we have many more under development.”

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Web3 is something of a nebulous concept of a future direction for the internet based around blockchain. It’s, um, not particularly well-loved by the video game community, to say the least. This is something that Rosen acknowledges.

“We can’t predict exactly how our web3 business will evolve,” Rosen explained, “but we have built a very smart team that has prioritized development in the areas of gaming, utility, and, most of all, community. We have strong partnerships in place with platforms such as The Sandbox, where we launched a massive, immersive brand experience. Most recently, the team launched a beta version of the Atari Club, which is designed as a community centered around all things Atari. The goal is to make the community accessible and inclusive to all of our fans. So after its initial rollout with our web3 audience, it will be expanded so that all of our fans can contribute, collect, and collaborate around our brand initiatives.”

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“We know web3 remains controversial, especially within the gaming industry, but we think the underlying technology has long-term potential for companies that focus on the long-term benefits it can provide and do their best to sidestep short-term hype.”

Atari PCB Set
Image via Atari

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Merchandising! Merchandising!

The announcement of Atari-themed hotels in 2020 raised some eyebrows. Since then, news has been quiet about that project. But while Atari may have backed out of the casino business, they’re still moving forward with hotels.

“Our licensing business remains quite strong, and our goal is to enter only high-quality partnerships that can contribute to our brand awareness and satisfy our fans in a meaningful way. The Atari Hotel partnership you mentioned is one of those licensing deals, and we believe it has strong potential. By its nature, it has a very, very long timetable, and it will be many years before we see its impact.”

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“We also have partnerships with LEGO, Cariuma, New Wave Toys, and several other high-quality brands, and we are exploring opportunities in media, including television and film. Like many large, successful pop-culture brands, we expect licensing to remain an integral part of our mix going forward.”

Licensing seems like something the Atari brand has never been far from. I think I owned an Atari t-shirt before ever even touching a 2600. However, their most recent moves seem more like they’re aimed at video game hobbyists rather than just brand nostalgia. The New Wave Toys partnership, for example, involves the creation of Replicade cabinets. These are playable miniaturized versions of classic arcade cabinets, and Missile Command has recently received the treatment.

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Adventure Atari 2600
Image via MobyGames

Back to the past

What fascinates me most about Atari’s recent movements, however, is their focus on game preservation. Last year, they purchased the game database, MobyGames. Meanwhile, their Atari 50 compilation has been acclaimed as one of the best classic game collections ever released.

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“Preservation, and more specifically, innovation in retro gaming, is a priority for Atari,” Rosen said. “This is a topic I’m personally very passionate about. Video game history is a part of our DNA, and leveraging retro IP in interesting and futuristic ways is core to our business. There is so much amazing classic content, and giving fans a way to access not only the original content, but new content that iterates and expands upon the original, is what you can expect from us in the coming years.”

However, Atari isn’t unique in this approach. Game storefront GOG began as an effort to make old PC games available to modern platforms. I wonder about the profitability of this effort. MobyGames, specifically, has traded hands a few times over the years. Its previous owners, Simon Carless and Jeremiah Freyholtz were quite open with the community about the difficulties of managing the database and had to turn to Patreon to supplement income for development. So, I had to wonder what drove the choice for Atari to focus on preservation.

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Rosen told me, “There is a huge community of retro game fans that seems to be growing every day. I believe it absolutely is a viable business and one that has significant growth potential. The beauty of retro is that it’s constantly being created and recreated. The PS3 is starting to be considered retro, and each year that passes, more modern games are being reclassified. In that sense, it is always growing, and the way people consume and access the content is ever-changing.”

Atari 50 Wade Rosen
Image via Atari

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The business of back catalog

Moreover, a number of companies are extremely leery about keeping their back catalogs available. Electronic Arts is one of the companies I point to as an example of one of the worst. They have games like The Sims or Black and White that are considered to be of historical importance, but despite having their own digital storefront, EA refuses to make these games available.

Usually, when larger publishers choose to release older games, they will often do so in a rather token way. Numerous old PC games are just bundled with DOSbox, and some Windows games aren’t updated to support modern hardware.

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“I can’t speak to the decisions that other companies make as I don’t have any insight into their thought process. I can say that, for a while, re-releasing titles ‘as-is’ kind of worked,” Rosen explained. “It was a way for companies to make their back catalog widely available, and it scratched an itch for players. But studios like Nightdive have raised the bar, using their proprietary KEX engine to rebuild and improve the original games and add modern features, significantly improving the graphics, improving and expanding input control, and adding deep platform support, including social integration.”

“Player expectations have changed, and what we are seeing is that companies that do have important game IP are turning to studios like Nightdive to bring them back to market in a way that players value. Based on the dedicated fanbase that Nightdive has built, that’s a significant advantage over more barebones releases.”

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That’s actually a rather sober way to look at the approach. I may want every game to get the source port treatment, but that’s not always feasible. At the end of the day, as long as it runs well with minimal effort for setup on my part, that’s sufficient. Bonus points if it wasn’t originally released in English.

PowerSlave Nightdive Atari Rosen
Screenshot by Destructoid

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Raising the bar

Nightdive wasn’t alone when it comes to raising the bar for modern re-releases, though. It’s important to note that M2 and Digital Eclipse have been at it since the ‘90s, being responsible for many moves from arcade to console or handheld.

Wade Rosen goes on to say, “I think talented studios like M2 and Digital Eclipse are starting to get the recognition they deserve for their incredible work. Digital Eclipse, who we worked with to create Atari 50: the Anniversary Celebration, was recognized and praised by both players and industry professionals for their efforts.”

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Nightdive is something special, however. Most of all, they seem to be better known among gamers themselves, whereas M2 and Digital Eclipse are more known to those more deeply intimate with the hobby.

Rosen explained, “Nightdive starts by working with retro titles that have an incredibly strong fan base and following. They’re games that resonate with players in a visceral way. Nightdive has also developed a style of remastering content that is unique and recognizable. For Nightdive, the goal is always to recapture the experience that people had when the game was new and “state of the art.” The challenge is to create a game that is pleasing to new fans, while recapturing the original experience for older fans, and to remaster a game so that it ‘plays the way you remember it playing.’ That creates a unique experience where fans can look at a game and almost immediately know ‘that came from Nightdive.’”

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Larry Kuperman, Director of Business Development at Nightdive added, “Nightdive has always drawn our talent from the modding and support communities. Samuel Villarreal, also known as ‘Kaiser’ in the Doom community, was a legend even before he joined Nightdive as our Lead Engine Developer. The same was true of a number of our other developers. That is one reason. And our founder at Nightdive, Stephen Kick, continues to maintain an active presence on social media, as I do to a lesser extent.”

“We think it is important to have that direct connection with our fans.”

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Strife Atari Rosen
Screenshot by Destructoid

Curation through source porting

Moreover, I appreciate Nightdive for introducing me to games I had previously missed. I had never heard of Strife until they released Strife: Veteran Edition, and I may have never played PowerSlave without PowerSlave: Exhumed. More than just a developer, I appreciate Nightdive for their curation.

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I’m not alone, as Rosen put it more eloquently, “I personally came to Nightdive through their work on System Shock 2. Once I was done exploring the Von Braun it was a short jump to all of their other titles (Strife: Veteran Edition was also my first time playing Strife). If you like one of their games, you’re probably going to like the others. That kind of discoverability is part of the Nightdive magic: their releases have a broad, multigenerational appeal.”

Larry Kuperman responded, “I can’t tell you how often we hear similar stories. ‘I didn’t even know a certain game had ever existed until you brought it back.’ It really is inspiring to hear those things.”

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“Interestingly enough, Strife: Veteran Edition was really important in the history of Nightdive. It was the first game that we were able to substantially improve, as opposed to our prior ‘just make it work on modern systems’ approach. Remember that this was very early in Nightdive’s growth. In order to improve on the original, we brought on James Haley, another member of the Doom community.”

I feel a bit of kinship here. I often say I got into writing about video games as a way of sharing my passion for the hobby. Though I haven’t made any of the games I talk about, I love sharing them as though they’re a part of me. Kuperman’s explanation of it kind of makes it sound like what Nightdive tries to do. They’re sharing the games they’re passionate about by repackaging them.

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The retro boom

Another direction that Atari has been heading has been back into the realm of physical hardware. In 2021, they released the Atari VCS, which was an attempt at a modern console. The VCS started development in 2018 before Wade Rosen was CEO of the company. We didn’t really talk about this, but according to Axios, the platform has struggled to find its place. However, they’ve also recently started reproducing actual Atari 2600 cartridges as part of their Atari XP line-up.

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I asked if there were plans to further develop such cartridges, specifically asking if there was any chance of new games being released in the format. Rosen told me, “Our Atari XP cartridge business started off small and experimental, and the reception has been quite positive. There is a demand for the simplicity and skill-gating of retro hardware and software. As a result, we’re exploring ways to bring more cartridges to market, and to make it easier to play those cartridges. Stay tuned.”

This was before they announced that they’d be releasing Mr. Run and Jump on a 2600 cartridge. However, the “easier to play those cartridges” comment is still curious. In the previously mentioned Axios interview, he also teased that they might be releasing new hardware. This sounds to me like we may be seeing a new console capable of playing 2600 games, which excites me greatly.

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Atari Bubsy Rosen
Image via Mobygames

Going forward with retro

Atari has also been making moves toward acquiring the back catalogs of other publishers. Mostly, these have been titles that are adjacent to Atari, including ones that the company even previously owned.

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I asked Rosen what games were even worth preserving. He told me, “All games are worth preserving. I think the differentiation comes in the degree of restoration. Will all games have the same level of details, or get as robust a restoration? Will all games be interpreted in new games? No. There isn’t enough time, development capacity, or probably interest to touch every game from the past 50 years and optimize them for modern hardware. But I think there should be legal ways to at least access all of the games from the past. Today we’re seeing companies focus on games and franchises that were popular, or somehow novel, because those have the most commercial potential. But as time goes on I believe there will be more opportunity to explore the deep cuts of the last 50 years, and I welcome that.”

I pushed a bit further, asking what games he’d like to see re-released. “I could answer this question all day, but I’ll limit myself to some of the games in our catalog. No doubt we will do something with Berzerk and Frenzy. Those games are just too seminal not to explore. Bubsy and Mr. Nutz are both franchises that have some creative depth and would be fun to work with. When the right concept comes along, we won’t hesitate to revisit Adventure. And the Yars universe, it has so many branches. We expanded that gameplay with Yars: Recharged, and going forward we’d like to advance that story and world. And then, of course, there’s Centipede, Asteroids, and Missile Command. That’s the best part about this job, there’s so much here to work with.”

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“I think it would be a shame for Bubsy not to have some sort of collection to celebrate his colorful history (both the highs and the very lows).”

Berzerk Atari Rosen
Image via Mobygames

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Hope to dream

If I can make a wish, it’s that Atari gets a hold of the back catalog of Midway and (the separate company) Atari Games. If I’m not mistaken, Warner Bros. currently have those rights, and outside of Mortal Kombat, have been doing nothing with them. Rampage, Ramparts, Smash TV; are all languishing in WB’s assets. It’s disgusting.

I never really expected that there’d be a day when I’d start rooting for Atari. As I said in the opening, the company has been troubled for almost its entire existence, and some pretty heinous things have gone on under the name. However, it doesn’t sound like Wade Rosen is trying to ignore that. Rather than pretend that Atari has always been a monolithic and prestigious brand, he’s instead attempting to regain the goodwill of gamers.

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Moreover, his goals seem to align with what’s important to me. I can understand why Nightdive decided to get on board. There’s absolutely a chance that none of this will pay off and Atari will again trade hands and go searching for money elsewhere, but I’m hoping that doesn’t happen.

That’s not to say that Atari under Wade Rosen is absolutely perfect. There’s still a lot to be proven and a lot of grievances I still have. However, anything is better than Asteroids: Outpost.

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About The Author
Zoey Handley

Staff Writer – Zoey is a gaming gadabout. She got her start blogging with the community in 2018 and hit the front page soon after. Normally found exploring indie experiments and retro libraries, she does her best to remain chronically uncool.

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