How to rebuild a publisher: Atari on Haunted House and their future on PC

Haunted House: Cryptic Graves

As I dial into a conference call with Atari COO Todd Shallbetter, my questions about the new Haunted House reboot fade away like a Graves residence ghoul. They’re replaced by a single, unignorable one: who the hell are you people, anyway?

Like the bright bead in Video Pinball, the Atari name has bounced about so often over the past three decades that it’s been impossible to follow. This is no longer the Atari who seared the image of an upside-down cheese string into the retinas of arcade-goers in the late ‘70s; nor the one that staved off a D&D drought in the noughties with Neverwinter Nights and The Witcher

So who are this iteration of Atari, and what do they want with the PC?

Nearly two years ago, Atari’s US wing filed for bankruptcy. The publisher’s New York office had become quietly profitable – something Atari hadn’t been in a while – and sought to cut itself loose from the debts of its French parent company – who you might better remember as Infogrames.

Now on the other side of that uncomfortably public process, Shallbetter describes the bankruptcy as an “institutional transition”.

“I don’t want to dwell on that too much,” he said. “But it is the truth and the truth will set you free.”

Shallbetter himself has been with Atari for over ten years (“I have seen a lot of things come and go”). He shares much of that history with current CEO Fred Chesnais, who went away to run Microprose and make a “lively business doing fitness games” before returning to Atari last year. Together, they work with a “nimble” team in New York.

Alone in the Dark: Illumination

“Most of our members are people who have worked here for an extended period of time,” said Shallbetter. “It’s not new employees, it’s people who have been here for years and years, a good number of them over ten years like myself.

“We’ve stayed and carried the flag through all of these institutional changes, and we’re pretty happy to be where we are now – we’re re-capitalised and working on the little bit of debt that we have left.”

The new, stripped-back Atari doesn’t develop games by itself. It’s composed of executive producers, working to outsource games from the company’s big drawer of neglected licenses.

More than 220 trademarked IPs survived the bankruptcy, including the “crown jewels”, Asteroids and Missile Command – and the company have selected 15 to relaunch as new games over the next 18 months.

Haunted House: Cryptic Graves

Most are under wraps – but we know they’ve handed Alone in the Dark to new studio Pure FPS, who’ll release a co-op shooter subtitled Illumination next year. And Italian indies Dreampainters, the team behind first-person horror-adventure game Anna, were tasked with rebooting 1982’s Haunted House as something in the same mode. Haunted House: Cryptic Graves came to Steam two weeks ago.

“We loved Dreampainters’ art style,” explained Shallbetter. “We loved the style of Anna, we thought it was a really frightening and immersive experience that would lend itself well to our vision for a new Haunted House, a new iteration of that franchise.”

The COO pointed to some of Haunted House’s more recent iterations, which courted a much younger audience.

“We always thought that there was an opportunity to take this franchise to something more core, to something more serious. We find the paranormal quite fascinating,” said Shallbetter. “We look at a lot of very Lovecraftian stuff, so we’re kind of living and breathing horror right now. We really look forward to doing more titles in the genre.”

Atari’s plan to rebuild involves more of the same. While they can’t offer young developers the hundred-thousand dollar budgets they once did, the publishers do have an awful lot of names to drop into their new foundations.

“It’s a blessing and a challenge at the same time,” said Shallbetter. “We have all of this wealth of IP that we can reimagine and bring back to life, all these great things. But the other side of the coin is, which ones do you decide on? We can’t do them all. That being said we will try and do as many as we can.”

Atari have been selective in picking partners – they’re looking to lay the concrete for a future series or several, rather than a slapdash return on their licenses.

“We’re talking to different studios, looking at concepts,” said Shallbetter. “You can expect to see fully reimagined versions of our most-loved IPs in the very near term.”

Our conversation is peppered with references to Atari fans, and Shallbetter insists that the publishers still have a community to speak of. There’s certainly plenty of goodwill attached to their older games that they have no interest in squandering. But relying on aged licenses makes a kind commercial sense too.

Haunted House: Cryptic Graves

“Frankly, it helps with discoverability,” said Shallbetter. “It’s a very crowded marketplace out there. We like to make games that are engaging, but we also do like to make games that are commercially successful to be sure. The more that we can succeed with these games, the more games we can bring to the market.”

How our fair platform fits into that bank note picture remains to be seen. Atari’s Rollercoaster Tycoon 4 was built for mobiles and then ungracefully stripped of its microtransactions for a PC release. But Shallbetter suggests that PC-first games will feature “very prominently” in Atari’s future catalogue.

“We’re very focused on leveraging PC,” said Shallbetter. “We think there’s an opportunity with the technologies that are in place, be it Unreal or Unity – there’s a number of great things that we can do there. We’re really not of the mindset that it’s a purely post-PC era right now, to the contrary.”

Again, that commercial sense comes to the fore. During a console transition period, it’s been very tough for publishers to identify where the largest install bases are going to land – the “critical mass” of players.

“It doesn’t take a mathematician to say that if you only have 40,000 units as a base install that it probably doesn’t make an awful amount of commercial sense to go and spend ten million dollars on a port to that platform,” said Shallbetter.

Shooting for PC – while continuing to push their advantage on mobile – is a canny way for Atari to opt out of that problem.

“I helped build this digital distribution here at Atari, that was my prime focus here for the last five years,” said Shallbetter. “We have great relationships with our friends at Steam so it’s very important that they can help us get our games out to the marketplace.

“It’s an accessible platform, there are millions and millions and millions of PC users. We do think that it affords us an opportunity to really distribute these games widely and to a meaningful and engaged audience. It really just makes a lot more sense for us.”