Selling the new Atari VCS — The Toughest Job in the Game’s Industry
As a Games Industry professional for over 20 years and a retro enthusiast, I’ve been keeping tabs on the new Atari VCS ever since it got its debut on the crowd funding site IndieGoGo in 2018.
It took a long time, and almost looked like it wouldn’t happen, or it might be a scam, but two and half years later those 11,000+ backers got their machine. Six months later in June 2021 the Atari VCS got its official US launch with retail partners like GameStop and Best Buy. The average games player doesn’t really know about the new Atari VCS especially in Europe where there is zero retail support, so maybe you’re asking what is it?
The new Atari VCS has its design inspired by the classic games console which (renamed later to the Atari 2600) which was released in 1977. With this primitive, old machine Atari gave birth to the whole games industry. Seriously, without the original who knows where industry stalwarts like Sony, Sega and Nintendo would be? It was the first games’ device you could connect to a TV with interchangeable game cartridges, and it sold a whopping 30 million units! Even though it could only play the simplest of games, talented developers, cheap manufacturing, and consistent sales miraculously kept the VCS in production until 1992. For those of you doing the mathematics that’s an amazing 15 years. If there’s Guinness Book record for longest production run of any computer or console than surely this is the winner. The final official Atari game for the machine was Klax, a delightful arcade puzzle game that was still playable and enjoyable with those chunky graphics. Of course, people are still making homebrew games for it today. It was a one-of-a-kind machine and it’s understandable that today’s Atari looked back to its greatest success when they decided to make a new games console. It was their first console, and it was by far their bestselling console.
The new Atari VCS is a very different machine made by a very different company with the same name. Initially it was positioned as a games machine which could be upgraded with the idea that Atari was re-entering the console race. The power of the AMD hardware inside never really supported that dream with even the venerable PS4, now almost 10 years old, having much faster hardware. So over time this console has been repositioned by the VCS Chief Operations Officer, Michael Artz, as a mini-PC connected to your TV that plays games, stream films and can be made to run Windows. The funny thing is that out of the box, it really doesn’t play many games at all.
Personally, as a retro games enthusiast I’ve got to say I love the way the new machine looks and its a lovely looking item for an Atari fan to add to their collection. The VCS has its own games store, but nine months after release it’s looking pretty bare with the majority of titles being Atari 2600 and Atari 7800 ports. There are a few indie games on there, no exclusive games, and just recently Tempest 4000 had made it to their online games store. Sadly, with less than 100 games in total, it’s hard to see this as anything other than the most expensive way to play classic Atari games in a console (sorry mini-PC!) that mixes old school design with a frankly delightful walnut aesthetic. If there is anything that should come of this, is that I want a walnut clad device in my life, but you know maybe at cheaper than $300 price tag.
How’s it been received and how has it sold?
First there were the initial 11,000 backers that have all received their console. More recently in January 2022, Atari as a stock market listed company released their results and said that they’d received 2.3million Euros in revenue from the console (about $2.5 million). Assuming Atari get an average of $300 per console (which is intentionally optimistic), then they’ve sold maybe another 9,000 from the release to September 2021. The launch period of any console is usually a strong indicator for its near future. This shockingly low number of 9,000 units means it’s difficult to believe that more than another 5,000 units have been sold since September. I’m sorry to say that the total sales number including the original Indiegogo backers is most likely less than 25,000.
As for the reviews Atari enthusiasts like it, although even they’ve complained about the price. The rest of the tech and games world has been underwhelmed with middling reviews to poor reviews. That’s if the even reviewed it. The hardware was fairly old and uncompetitive with other consoles on release, and the games roster didn’t impress anyone. A simple technical test is to put it into 4K mode, where stuttering is a common problem. For anyone with a 4K TV, that’s got to hurt.
In a recent interview Michael Artz (COO) let slip that they still had units in the warehouse from their first production run of the hardware. In that interview, in between mentioning as many positives as he could find, he seemed to openly wonder if there would even be a second batch It looks like he’s been given the unenviable task of selling everything that’s left in the warehouse with minimal development resources and a near zero marketing budget. I wonder if there are another 25,000 (or more!?!) of these sitting forlornly in the warehouse, waiting to find a home in what could be a mediocre script for Toy Story 5.
Being the small Atari of today, with dwindling licensing revenues from their T-shirts and memorabilia they absolutely must try to sell the remaining units, and this is where I must commend him and his team. Updates to the Linux based OS keep rolling out with more community building features so those Atari fans can play together. Most recently they’ve introduced functionality that turns this walnut clad design classic into a development machine. Even so it’s difficult to imagine developers wanting to convert games for such a small audience. However, they’ve said that owners can expect support for the rest of 2022, including at least one game a month. To further position it as a go to retro machine, they’ve made as standard support for DosBox (to play old DOS PC games) and the Stella Atari 2600 emulator for complete access to the old Atari VCS/ 2600 games library. Really this COO has his work cut out. Did Atari kidnap his family, call him up with a voice changer and insist he keep working on selling and developing this machine or he’d never see them again?
While doing the research for this article, I also discovered that GameStop reduced the machine’s price to $99 in what looks like a fire sale to get rid of the stock. Living in Europe I couldn’t take advantage of these deal, but at that price I can understand why people would be tempted. It sold out quickly and they look as though they have no intention of restocking. Of course, this machine has never any retail presence in Europe and it’s almost certainly not going to happen now.
Atari over the last year have reorganized themselves into a few separate divisions because their growth stalled, and they’ve needed a fresh infusion of investment as their efforts have faltered. I’ve also not gone into some of the scandals of the VCS (mostly contractors not getting paid) but given how few people have heard about those I can’t imagine the reputation of the console has really been tarnished. I looked around to find out what diehard Atari fans think, and all I can find is YouTube videos of those enthusiasts asking themselves if the new VCS will survive 2022. To me, it looks like they will discover support from Atari themselves will dwindle while they try to sell all the remaining units in their warehouse.
The second coming of the Atari VCS is a bust, and so the only question on Atari’s mind has got to be this, after this what can they do next?