Atari Wade Rosen
Image: Scott Balmer/Atari

Atari is a company that has had a bit of a bumpy ride over the last few decades, thanks to a slew of questionable investments in areas like blockchain, wearable tech, and gambling. This has led to an at times prickly relationship with its core community — many of whom came to view the company as a shadow of its former self.

Over the past few years, however, ever since Wade Rosen took over as CEO of the company in 2021, it has made some encouraging steps in the right direction to win back player's trust, refocusing its energy on retro gaming with a bunch of exciting investments and well-received projects like Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration, the Atari 2600+, and Atari 400Mini.

Last week, Time Extension had the opportunity to sit down with Rosen on a video call for roughly an hour to discuss a variety of Atari-related topics. We used the opportunity to learn more about the company's strategy moving forward, and the thought process behind some of its recent acquisitions in the video game space. You can read a transcript of that conversation below (with some minor edits made for both length and clarity).

Time Extension: To begin we'd love to know. What is your gaming background? How did you first discover Atari?

Rosen: I was more of a Nintendo kid growing up just given my generation and age. But there was still a lot of Atari’s around. So I did play a lot of Atari as a kid. My personal experience with it kind of got started when I got a PC, because, for whatever reason, the PC we got came built-in with all of these classic Atari games.

I had played Asteroids in the arcades and encountered it in a few places, but that’s where I got to play Centipede, Missile Command, Tempest, Breakout — and I loved it. I played those games for hours and I just really became enamoured with those titles and how timeless they were. They were very simple and you could pick them up and play. I also thought Tempest was gorgeous. It was only years later I realized it was probably well over a decade old by the time that I played it. I couldn’t believe it. I think just vector graphics in general have a very timeless look to them. So that was my personal experience with Atari.

As far as games themselves, I think some of my earliest core formative memories were seeing, playing, and witnessing video games. I think it’s one of those things where it kind of got written on my soul a little bit early. And so, video games have just been a constant in my life. They’re something that I’m really passionate about and I had the opportunity to step into video games later in my career than most people do. But I decided that I wanted to be focused on something that I care deeply about and that’s what brought me to it.

Time Extension: It would be interesting to hear how you became Atari CEO. What led you to that role?

Rosen: What led me to it was - first off - a fascination with retro gaming. I think the term "retro gaming" is not a great term to begin with. Because most people I know (including myself) — who play retro games — we also play a lot of contemporary and modern games. People who usually like retro gaming oftentimes like Elden Ring and Baldur’s Gate 3, so there’s a crossover. So I’ve started calling it "classic gaming" a little bit more. But, anyway, I was fascinated with it and specifically, I started to ask myself, ‘What happened to all of these games I loved as a kid?’

And I started to research them and look into them. And that was coincidentally when I first discovered Nightdive. This is a long time ago — long before we acquired them. I was like, ‘What happened to System Shock? Oh. What happened to Wizardry 8? Oh. I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream? Wait, Nightdive [rereleased all these]?’ So, that’s how I discovered Nightdive. But I also found that there were a lot of other titles that I loved that nothing seemed to be happening with.

So I started a game company focused on working with retro IP called Ziggurat Interactive and through that process I eventually met the (then) CEO of Atari and had the opportunity to acquire most of his stake in the company and step in as CEO myself.

So that was sort of the pathway to becoming CEO of Atari and that happened over a year or so. Ziggurat is still operating. I’m no longer actively managing it or running it. In fact, they just released a cool new game this week called Slave Zero X.

Time Extension: Before you came into the role, there was a lot of disappointment surrounding the Atari brand. I’m wondering, were there any specific goals that you had in mind when you got the position? Like this is the direction we want to take things. And what is the process of change like in a company like Atari?

Rosen: I did make a reference once saying it was like turning the Titanic, and someone went, ‘Maybe, don’t call it the Titanic.’ But I think it’s really important that we don’t do things to chase after fads, but actually find things where we’re the best in class or the best in the world. So when I came to Atari, I asked the team, ‘Hey, what can we do better than anyone else in the world?’ And the unanimous answer that came back was ‘Retro games.’

So Atari is kind of an evolution of what Ziggurat started, but just a bigger platform and a bigger opportunity to do that. Just really working with the absolute best companies in the world – Nightdive and Digital Eclipse being two examples – and finding a way to push forward the medium of classic gaming from beyond just rereleases (although that’s appropriate in some cases) to do remasters with additional context and in some cases even remakes of games.

So, looking at everything really that we’ve done, it’s been done under trying to be the best in the world at classic gaming. We’ll aspire to do more than that someday and I think the brand can certainly support more than that. But you have to be the best at something before you can hope to do more than that. So that’s really what we’re focused on right now.

As far as the second thing that we wanted to focus on, it was rebuilding our reputation in the game industry. Atari as a brand is quite interesting because there are two different Ataris. There was Atari in pop culture, which is where you’ll get questions like, ‘Oh Atari, what are you guys up to?’ or ‘Atari? Is that still around?’ Stuff like that. But there was never really any animosity toward Atari in the larger cultural context. It was in the game industry specifically where Atari had to rebuild our reputation. And that started with a really simple principle of ‘Underpromising and overdelivering.’ Sometimes we don’t always hit that mark, but we try really hard [to do that].

That’s why for about a year after I came in, there wasn’t really much PR coming from Atari. We weren’t even moving the ship in another direction, we were just turning the ship. It required about 18 months just to turn it. And now what you’re seeing is a lot of things that we put in place years ago, but that are finally coming out and coming to the market. That is that slow, steady, accumulation of momentum and inertia. And so, I think, hopefully, that will just continue to increase. But it really is all about underpromising and overdelivering and exceeding expectations. I think that’s where we’ve slowly been building back the reputation of Atari in the games industry.

Time Extension: Something else we wanted to ask you about was Atari Club. Because that was something that only really crossed our radar at the end of last year with the fashion stuff that you’re doing. Could you talk a little about the concept behind that?

Rosen: Yeah! So the reason that you don’t see more of it now is because it’s in soft launch and we’re still working out the kinks, so when we do announce it and promote it to a wider degree it will very much be that underpromise and overdeliver-type mentality – exceeding expectations.

But Atari is unique because it’s not just a video game brand, it’s also a pop culture brand and you can find it on clothing, you can find it on drinks, and shoes (I’m wearing Atari shoes today that we did with Cariuma) and Lego sets. The idea with Club is for a natural way to engage with our community more to collect direct feedback and solicit suggestions, but also to find more consumer ways to do just really rapid and quick prototypes. There’s always going to be the classic Atari Fuji and logo with the red and black. So we’ll always have those and those will always be available on the site.

Lego Atari
The Atari 2600 Lego set, which was released back in 2022 — Image: The Lego Group/Atari

But Club is also the idea of ‘Hey, what’s going to work?’ And we spent a lot of time internally being like, ‘Will people like this? Will people want to do this? What about this? Why don’t we just put it out there and see what sticks and what doesn’t?’ So it’s also a way for us to internally test things with probably our most passionate fans and community and if it’s working, most likely it will see a larger release and be brought out to a larger audience. So it’s kind of like a focus group in a way. So it’s a way for us to engage but for people to engage with us.

And one thing I will say is if you’re doing something in Club, we see it and it has a really meaningful effect. So if anyone is wondering, ‘Well, if I engage there, does it matter?’, it absolutely does! And we’re going to build out the amount of tools and the way that people can engage. But our hope is that it is much more interactive and feels much more meaningful than a simple loyalty or rewards program or a way to keep track of your games, which is what you often see in other clubs. So yeah, that’s the idea.

Time Extension: Another thing that would be interesting to talk to you about would be the Atari ReCharged series, which reimagines classic Atari games for newer platforms. I’m wondering — what is the process like with those games in terms of their selection?

Rosen: It’s basically three major inputs. It’s community, our team (and our internal wants and thoughts), and then the developers. And the developer is because you always get a better project if the developer is passionate about that.

So there were some like Caverns of Mars, for example, where the developer said, ‘Hey, we think we have a really cool idea for this.’ Is Caverns of Mars a game that was on the top of Atari’s list to develop? No, it’s a deep cut. But as anyone who has played the full ReCharged series knows, that is one of the best. It’s a surprisingly good ReCharged game because it’s not a well-known IP. And that was very much inspired by the developer [SneakyBox].

And then community-wise, that’s one we pay close attention to. And part of Atari Club is around that. The goal of Atari Club is to provide a more focused and central place for people to provide that level of community and even do some crowdsourcing of content or features that people want to see.

So I wouldn’t be surprised if, on Atari Club, there’s the option to vote for the next ReCharged game or another game in a series before too long. That is the kind of stuff that we really hope we can put out there. And you know, we can help by saying, ‘These are the ones that we think are best. These are the ones that the developers also find interesting.’ We can bring a cross-section and say, ‘Hey community, what do you want to see?’ and then bring that to the forefront.

That is also something that we’re just not seeing a lot of in video games. A lot of people do things in black boxes and then it kind of comes out. Our thought is, ‘Well, we have this really passionate group of fans, why not find a way to engage them?’

Time Extension: Let's switch the topic now to "Atari Presents", which was recently launched on Steam & GOG and encountered quite a few problems. We're wondering — what does the future of that label look like? And should we expect to see some of those 100+ IPs that Atari acquired last year released through that?

Rosen: There are really two points there. First, you touched on the release, which we are owning didn’t go the way that we hoped that would. There are a number of factors for that, but where I’m really happy with my team is that we’re actively engaging with the community, making fixes, pushing patches, and we’ll continue to iterate on that and get it right. So I want to personally apologize. That’s not necessarily what people were hoping from us and that initial slew of games, but it is a learning curve and we will get better with that. So each one will improve and get better.

So we apologize for that. That was a bit of a rocky launch. Many of those games have already dramatically improved and are now in a much better place. It’s been a good learning experience for us and something that we’ll take into whatever the next launch is. And that’s just kind of our mentality in general.

We really do try to exceed expectations. In those moments where we don’t though, we don’t bury it under the rug or shy away from it. You learn more in those moments than when you’re exceeding expectations. If everything goes according to plan, you’re like ‘Ah, alright.’ But when it doesn’t go right, you’re like, ‘Okay, how are we going to do better next time? What are we going to do to improve?’

And, in terms of what the intent is, those games that we bought were actually games that Atari had once owned. Now, not the Atari that we would think of from the 70s and 80s, but the Atari that had been a part of Infogrames.

Time Extension: That was actually a question that we got when we were initially reporting on it. We did ask for a complete list too, but yeah, someone commented on our report and was like, ‘Wouldn’t they already own that because it’s Infogrames?’

Rosen: So that’s a great question. When some of the US subsidiaries moved through Chapter 11 bankruptcy, I think, around 2014, those were lost in that.

So those rights were lost and that was us reacquiring them. And we try to look to the future and we try to look at what cool and interesting things we can do, but there were definitely some things like Bubsy, for example, where it’s like, ‘You know what, even though that wasn’t a part of the classic Atari — even though Bubsy certainly came after that – yeah, that should be part of Atari.’ And we’re going to turn it around. We’re going to do something great with Bubsy, right? That’s something that we really aspire to do. Do we want to be the group that made a great Bubsy game? Yeah, we want to be that group. Because that would be really cool.

So the short answer is, I think all games deserve to be accessible. Accessibility is something that we’d really like to bring to gaming and to what degree that is — whether that’s just being accessible, or remastered, or remade, or provided documentary context like Karateka, Jeff Minter, and Atari 50 — it’s to be decided with any of those IPs. But yeah, we did acquire a lot of those and we would love to find a way to bring them out.

I think the Atari Presents line is a good way to at least make them accessible and to bring a lot of those back to life. So we’ll continue to look to do that with the ones we’ve acquired, but also with a lot of the IP that we have internally, that deserves to see the light of day.

Time Extension: One of the big stories out of the MinnMax interview you did last year was about you being open to indie devs pitching you Bubsy ideas – and we know that some indie developers did pitch you and didn’t hear anything back. We're wondering, have you looked at anything or had more of a dialogue with anyone off the back of that?

Rosen: So, more to follow on that one, but yes! And apologies, if people didn’t hear back from the team. We were probably still processing at that point. The response was much greater than we had anticipated from that and so there was a lot to digest. But the short answer is one way or another, we’re going to find a way to move forward with a Bubsy project, and that most likely will have been the result of something that came out from that and that general request for proposals.

Time Extension: It would be interesting to ask you about some of the projects that are coming out of Atari now like the Atari 2600+ and Atari 400Mini and those sorts of devices that are celebrating classic Atari machines but in slightly different ways. I’m wondering, how did those kinds of projects spin up? And can we expect to see more classic Atari machines get revisited like the Jaguar or the Lynx?

Rosen: So without going into specifics of what those future projects would look like, we’ve been really happy with the reception from fans and just the reception from the market. So there will certainly be more projects in that vein. We also like it because it just fits who we are in our DNA.

When we talk about retro gaming, I think people get the idea that it’s just about old stuff and we’re releasing old stuff. But it’s really, ‘Hey, what kind of innovative, cool, interesting things can we do?’ There’s a lot of innovation that can be brought to that. So that’s sort of where that term classic gaming comes from. Like what kind of innovation can we do to make that more meaningful in regards to the 400?

Atari 400Mini
The Atari 400Mini — Image: Atari/Plaion

The partner that we’re working with on that had also done the C64 and I got to know them through that and I was impressed with what they did. I think the firmware is the best version of any versions of those that they’ve done. The interest that we had with the carts with the 2600 though, also, is noticed there. So it’s like ‘Hey, maybe there’s a middle ground in the future that could allow for a computer similar to this, but allow for some of the classic cartridges to be used.’ We learn from ourselves in all of these projects. And so, that will be a part of this going forward.

As far as the 2600+ goes, though, that is far from done. That is something we’re viewing as a living ecosystem and we want to continue to build it out and expand it and see what other cool, interesting things we can do. And where the idea came from with that one is — plug-and-plays are an easier sell because they’ve been done before, but the Atari 2600+, to get to your point, was kind of new.

Analogue has done a really good job with that [analogue approach] and Hyperkin but as for first-parties that hadn’t really been done. And the reason we did it is first because there wasn’t a great one in the market and second because there were two questions I got a lot from people when I stepped in. Those were ‘Why can’t I buy an Atari t-shirt on’, which we fixed and we now have a super robust, cool storefront. And the second was ‘Hey, I have all these old Atari carts, how can I play them?’

I’d be like, ‘So you buy an old console, and then you probably don’t have an RF adapter, so you’re going to need to solder on a composite cable and find a CRT television.’ And for the market that’s too much to ask. It’s too much to ask people to go through all of that.

So the idea was, ‘How can we just give people access to something that would make this collection of memories that they had from when they were young immediately available to them?’ That they could show to their kids. That they could play with their families. And that was the big surprise with that one.

Yeah, we get some classic gaming fans buying the 2600+, but we got a lot of people who probably hadn’t bought a video game console in decades buying that. Because they had carts they wanted to play and they wanted to play those with somebody else.

Time Extension: Atari has been in the news for acquiring Nightdive, Digital Eclipse, MobyGames, and AtariAge – a lot of different companies/organisations. And the big headlines at the moment are obviously about companies like Embracer and how their acquisitions are not really panning out for them, unfortunately leading to layoffs. What is different with Atari’s approach?

Rosen: It’s a fair question. I think Embracer is an interesting case study because we look at it now and we can see in the recent past that a lot of its acquisitions didn’t work out in the way they hoped, but what allowed Embracer to even be in that position was early successful acquisitions. So, the acquisition of THQ, which eventually merged with Nordic Games to become THQ Nordic, and the acquisition of Plaion.

I look at Embracer and I think it still is — the last year and a half being the exception – an amazing company in many ways. And it’s the story of acquisitions that have worked tremendously well and it’s the story of acquisitions that have not worked that well. And I think for acquisitions to work, there needs to be a lot of thought put into it and there needs to be a clear strategic reason for acquiring the company. And that’s the way we’ve approached this.

It’s the story of acquisitions that have worked tremendously well and it’s the story of acquisitions that have not worked that well.

When I came on board, there were literally two companies where I was like, ‘They would be a really good fit with Atari’ and those were Nightdive and Digital Eclipse. As operating groups. So that doesn’t include IP or things like that. And so, bringing them in felt like a natural extension of the same team. Same values. Pretty similar culture. [Both] focused on retro. And it was also in many ways immediately created more value because we had access to IP that they can work with and that they wanted to work with. So it’s like, ‘Hey, let’s put this together’ or 'We can work together on larger projects as well'.

So I think where it’s different is that MNA (mergers & acquisitions) can be very successful, but there needs to be a lot of thought and strategic reasons for doing it.

I think it’s a little unfair that Embracer gets as much of the attention as they do because if you look at the amount of layoffs that are happening, they are happening across all industries. Not just gaming. The difference is Embracer is actively having to close these studios that they bought, which draws a lot more attention. But the amount of layoffs that are going on, it’s the same equivalent amounts at many large companies.

I think there was kind of a momentum to the industry in general, which made sense at one time. Then once the fundamentals changed, the industry changed, and demand changed, all those went out of the window. But a lot of those decisions that were being made were probably being made based on those market fundamentals and not on a strategic long-term value that would come from merging those companies. Because with Embracer, there are a lot of acquisitions that have gone amazingly well. And I think those fit in, in a strategic way, better than the ones that haven’t.

Time Extension: Just as a final question, in terms of the Atari VCS (which was announced before your time), what is support for that going to look like moving forward? Is it still kind of the long-term plan to keep bringing new software to that and to keep on supporting it?

Rosen: So the VCS is a great case study of something that is probably a little outside of what we would go towards today. It had been in the works for quite a few years when I stepped in. And it had been released shortly before I came on board.

So while it’s probably not what we would design or put out today, we still wanted to make sure that we continued to support the people who supported us with that. So we’ve continued to invest in firmware updates for the platform, we have new content coming out for it all of the time.

Neo Sprint [on VCS] is a really good example of that. So if you’re playing Neo Sprint and you provide feedback to us, we’re reading it and we’re responding to it and taking it into consideration. We’ve also started using it as a platform to put out some of our games to understand what’s resonating and what’s not, and tap into our dedicated community. And also, it’s started to take on more of a retro focus as well. So that’s how we will continue to support the VCS, with our own content and as a direct means to tap into a passionate community.

We’re also hoping that our partnership with Polymega will continue to unlock functionality with the VCS too. So more to follow on that this year!