Words and Stuff

I Want A Win For Atari

May 24, 2023
 ·   · 
10 min read

And what does a win for Atari look like?

When I first caught wind of the 2020 crowdfunding campaign to launch the latest Atari VCS I got excited. 

It was the most exciting piece of video game news for me in I don’t know how long, but I was not excited enough to buy one. And of course, for Atari, that’s the problem.

The Atari VCS All-In Package
The 2021 Atari VCS console, joystick, and controller. (Image from Atari.com)

Sales of the VCS consoles are somewhere north of 10,000 units. Compare that to over a million of the Steam Deck just released last year or over 122-million total Nintendo Switch units sold and it’s pretty clear what Atari’s current position is within the industry.

Familiarity With The Atari Brand

During the writing of this article I did some research to test some hypotheses. Am I just old enough to know what Atari is? Is the younger generation familiar? 

When I asked survey participants how familiar they were with Atari, 42% said they had either heard the name, but had little or no experience with their products (34.2%) or had not heard of Atari at all (7.9%). 

That is already not encouraging. It gets much worse if we look at the youngest demographic.

Among participants ages 18 - 27, 52.9% had heard the name, but had little to no experience with Atari products. 23.5% had not heard of the name at all.

This is a prime demographic for video games and 76.4% are have barely or not at all heard of Atari.

Familiarity with the games

When asked about which video game titles they were familiar with, survey participants were a little more familiar.

For the question "Which of these title have you heard of before?" I included four classic Atari titles (Asteroids, Centipede, Adventure, and Yars' Revenge) and four newly acquired IP titles (Roller Coaster Tycoon, Alone in the Dark, Berzerk, and Bubsy). Classic Asteroids was the most recognized with 83% of responses having heard of it, while only 14% had heard of the recently acquired Bubsy.

Who is the Atari demographic?

I’ll be 42 this summer. And although video gamers include an older demographic than they used to, I’m still not the primary demographic. Part of Atari’s strategy has been pulling on the heartstrings of nostalgia, but their original users are mostly older than I am. What’s the market look like for 50-60 year olds buying video game consoles for themselves?

A confession before I continue: I am a very casual gamer, if the term can even be applied. And I’m one of those “Elder millennials” who probably shouldn’t even be as familiar with Atari as I am. I was indoctrinated at an early age by a classic wood grain 2600 at my grandmother’s house. Favorites included Pac-Man, Space Invaders, Missile Command, Adventure, and Breakout. On Christmas of 1987, when my friends were all getting their first NES console (with the classic Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt combo), our family welcomed our own 2600 with Donkey Kong Jr. 

That first console remained a fixture in our home until my sister and I saved up enough for a Sega Genesis 2 bundle many years later.

I’ve had a number of other consoles in my adult life. Right now the sole console in my home, a Nintendo Switch, goes largely unplayed. It is not that I find it unenjoyable, there are just so many other tasks I find myself busy with while maintaining a home, a career, and a life. 

So as I consider adding another system to my home, I have to ask what the new VCS would do for me? How many times can I play Adventure “for old time’s sake”? What can it do for me that I can’t do with another console?

Who Is Atari Selling To?

Is Atari going after their original, aging fanbase? The 50+ crowd? Many of their products seem geared to that bracket. For a time Atari has been selling limited edition cartridges that, while fully functional (assuming you have a working 2600 or compatible system), have been sold as collector items (and, good for them, these items have sold out). These limited editions exist more as collectible pieces of art that might deck out the man cave of the Gen-Xer or younger boomer with the disposable income to decorate their space by celebrating the fascinations of their youth.

It’s a move that generates a tiny buzz and a bit of revenue, but it’s not a move that advances the company’s position in the video game market. Most of the people I talked to younger than myself say, “What’s Atari?”

Did you want to buy a limited collector's edition of Adventure for $99.99? Sorry, they are all sold out. (Image from Atari.com)

I have further concerns about other products being offered. Who is buying a $99 hat with Bluetooth speakers built in? Sometimes I wear hats. Sometimes I use Bluetooth speakers. Never have I said, “You know what? I wish my hat had speakers built into it. And put an Atari logo on it.”

What’s the strategy? Where’s the research?

Atari isn’t making anything that is drawing in a younger crowd, but that's what they need to do. And at least some of their actions suggest that's what they want to do. You don't develop a modern age console from scratch if your primary interest is reeling in OG gamers who are more likely to buy a "Pong" t-shirt than an X-Box or Playstation.

It makes me wonder: Is anyone asking questions about what the users want? Or is it a bunch of guys sitting around talking about what they think would be cool? 

And maybe I will find myself splurging for a $30 Atari shirt (these kinds of purchases used to be more common after a few cocktails), but frankly it feels like Atari has been throwing shit at the wall to see what sticks.

When asked statements about Atari, 56.2% replied that they have little to no interest in Atari.

And once again, the news is much more grim when we examine a younger subset: Between the ages of 18 and 27, 82.35% were found to have little to no interest in Atari.

Bar graph of age brackets and how many of them agree with the phrase "I have little or no interest in Atari." 82.35% of those aged 18 to 27 agreed, compared to 56.2% across all ages.


The VCS Console

Sales-wise it is not a success, at least not in comparison to competitors, but so far Atari is not waving the white flag. A December 2022 report had this to say about hardware at Atari:

The first-half of the year was primarily dedicated to the reorganization of the Hardware line of business which includes the suspension of direct hardware manufacturing relationships, notably with regards to the Atari VCS, for which a new commercial strategy has been implemented as of the end of calendar year 2022 and that will continue in calendar year 2023. In parallel, Atari is considering developing new hardware complementary to the Atari VCS with partners under licensing contracts.

In regards to specifications, the Atari VCS features a 2-core AMD Zen 2 processor versus the 4-core Zen 2 in the Steam Deck and 8-core Zen 2 processors found in the X-Box and PS5. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t capable.

One of the interesting aspects about the system to me is that it features users can upgrade the memory. It is customizable. It can run other operating systems. 

Atari has quietly mentioned the customizable nature of the system. “Unlock a customizable multimedia PC for unmatched freedom and versatility. With everything from retro to indie to modern AAA gaming, there's something for every gamer.”

This is a different and unique feature. You don’t see Sony or Microsoft encouraging users to open up their consoles to add RAM, install other operating systems, or use the console as a multimedia PC. Successful companies disrupt the current scene, and that's where Atari will find their opportunities. 

I’d like to see Atari lean into this space. Some possibilities:

  • Donate some consoles to enthusiastic electronics groups and sponsor a contest to see who can do the most interesting thing with it.
  • Produce YouTube content that introduces new users to tinkering with hardware and software.
  • Encourage the curiosity of a younger generation that hasn’t grown up installing peripherals in a PC.
  • Keep the OS current and evolving. What other functions might it serve in the household besides a gaming system?

A Second Iteration?

I’d like to see Atari develop some more compelling software before it rushes to market with another console. When it does, it needs to be either as powerful as its competitors or feature something that will shake up the industry the way the Wii and Switch did. Maybe that’s integration into home automation. Maybe it’s lowering the entry to VR/AR. Maybe something else.

Research around the possibility of purchasing a next-generation console was a little more encouraging. Across all ages, 23.3% said they would consider purchasing a next generation console if the features were innovative or compelling. It's perhaps not too surprising that the age bracket that have the most favorable showing were the 38 - 47 year olds at 31.57%. We have the right combination of being not quite old enough to give up on gaming, having disposable income, and being old enough to hit that nostalgia mark.

Bar graph of the statement: "I would consider the purchase of a next-gen Atari console if the features were innovative or compelling." Across all ages, 23.3% of respondents agree. In age bracket 38 - 47, 31.57% agreed.


It is difficult to determine what Atari’s current strategy is in games, but it appears to be playing the nostalgia card across the board. Many of Atari’s classic games have been rebooted, or rather, “Recharged”. These new versions feature “Retro Futuristic” graphics and updated gameplay with some power boosts.

And they are not bad games, but none of them are leading us anywhere new. Maybe that will change with the “Pixel Ripped 1978” VR title launching later this summer.

And I’m watching with some interest just what exactly Atari plans to do with all the other IP they have been buying up. Are we going to get a “Recharged” version of all these old games, many of which I never played in the first place? Maybe I’d get excited about a full-length version of Berzap! Is it a first-person shooter? Three quarters view stealth mode game? And what could it do that we haven’t seen before?

The Self-Publisher Publisher?

One thing that has changed for certain in the industry is the number of independent studios and self-published games. Indie games from the last few years have included Cuphead, Among Us, and Minecraft. I’m going to say that last one again: Minecraft. Before it was acquired by Microsoft for $2.5 billion, it was the creation of a small studio in Stockholm.

There are certainly rules and guidelines for making a successful video game, but if anyone else could have seen the success of Minecraft beforehand, they would have made such a thing first.

What better way to get on the ground floor of an indie sleeper hit than fostering its development from the beginning? What are the pain points of independent game makers and how can Atari help in ways that others aren’t?

Non-Games Software

We’re realizing too late some of the negative aspects of inviting more technology into our lives, but some companies are finding ways to use technology to change that. Headspace has brought us the practice of meditation through podcasts, videos, and mobile apps. Lumosity has given us exercises to stimulate our minds. These are spaces Atari should be investigating to set themselves apart.

Other IP

Part of Atari’s strategy seems to be buying up other retro IP, but that only works if those titles are still popular with the primary gaming demographic today. 65% of survey participants reported being familiar with Roller Coaster Tycoon, but only 20% reported familiarity with Berzerk, and only 14% were familiar with Bubsy. All are properties now owned by Atari.

Maybe instead of focusing on old, retro IP, Atari could license an existing property for use in a new story-based game. Pick an an established IP with an audience. When you think you have a good enough product, add two more levels and generously add some Easter Eggs. Under promise, over deliver, and create a beautiful product. Get "the Fuji" logo in front of some new eyes.

"Easter Egg" in the game Adventure for the Atari 2600 showing the name of the creator, Warren Robinett.
The first Easter egg in a video game is credited to Warren Robinett, in Adventure for the Atari 2600 (1980). It is challenging to find. Atari briefly considered removing it and reshipping the game.

Next Steps

Opportunities exist for Atari to make a real name for themselves in the industry again, but they aren't going to do it by clinging so tightly to the past. Hopefully they will put time and effort into research to deliver some powerful experiences. I'd like to put on an Atari shirt someday and not have my dad be the only person who recognizes it.

Survey Results and brief Competitive Analysis available at: "I Want A Win For Atari" Atari Research

[…] By John Everett Morton  · May 24, 2023  · 0 Comments  · 6 min […]

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