Slicing The Industry’s Atari: Just How Offensive Is The Pong Indie Developer Challenge?

Pong: Living Up To Its Name
Pong: Living Up To Its Name

Atari is named after a term in the game Go, the irony being that it means the player’s stones were in immediate danger of being taken by the opponent (think ‘check’ in Chess). Of course, Atari have been in this dire state of which it takes its namesake for the last 30 years. Their latest efforts have only worsened this situation as they edge ever closer to checkmate.

After many of its top employees left to form their own companies back in the early 80s, Atari struggled to stay on form, arguably even contributing to the near destruction of the entire industry back in 1983. Since then, the company has been flung between owners, tried suing others in court cases it lost and made notoriously awful console remakes of its classic titles. It’s become the kind of old gentlemen that hangs around the park feeding the birds and lamenting of the “good old days”.

Then, in the last year the company struck gold and that was only due its old ‘classics’ suddenly becoming relevant again. Their mobile and tablet titles Breakout: Boost and Atari’s Greatest Hits had brought up a long forgotten word for Atari: success.

“We’re looking at different ways to reinterpret or reinvent our classic franchises in ways that people are playing games today in the business model that people are playing today.”

That is Atari’s most recent CEO, Jim Wilson, speaking to CNN in January of this year. Basically, what it means is that Atari have been making some good cash by reselling their classic titles as mobile games and they see no reason to stop.

A couple weeks before this interview, Atari threatened legal action against an indie developer – Black Powder Media to be precise (amongst others). The reason was simply that Black Powder had a game on the App Store that was similar to Atari’s 1980 arcade title, Battlezone. You can see how this clashed with Atari’s vision of bringing back their classics to the mobile platforms. They couldn’t have something that even vaguely resembled competition; this was to be their big comeback!

Vector Tanks - In Atari's Sights

Now, the tragic thing is that Black Powder say that they “tried for years to get hold of Atari to license their IP but they seemed to have fallen off the planet.” Unfortunately, as Apple allowed Atari to issue these copyright infringement claims without any form of evaluation, no one could do anything about it, especially not these tiny companies. There were no innocents spared as Atari wiped any perceived competition from the App Store.

It was a good move (if a dick one) by Atari as a company and one that they were able to get away with, suspiciously. The old dinosaur had found a new lease of life by stomping all over the helpless developers making a humble living for themselves on the App Store. Okay, so maybe their titles weren’t on the cusp of innovation or originality, but how many successful ones actually are?

Atari had something to say of the criticism of course, attempting to justify their right to go shutting down games by waving legal documents at anything that was potential competition.

“While we have great respect for the indie developer community and greatly appreciate the enthusiasm that they have for our renowned properties, we need to vigorously protect our intellectual property and ensure that it is represented in highly innovative games.”

Another pinch of irony can be had here when you remember that Atari tried to sue Nintendo back in 1989 with monopolizing the console market. Atari claimed that Nintendo had restrictions placed on its IPs “so that Atari and other manufacturers of video game consoles are unable to obtain many popular games for use on their own systems.”

Nintendo Are Family Friendly

Funny isn’t it? A company that so concerns itself with living in the past is happy to ignore the parts that expose its own slimy, contradictive nature. While they claimed Nintendo were holding a monopoly position over the console market, they are more than happy to kick off much tinier foe in order to savour that dying breath on the App Store 20 years later.

So there we were just a few weeks ago, Atari had dug the knife in and we were merely waiting on them to start twisting it in further. Before that could happen though, the App Store became home to another controversial indie-corporate conflict. Zynga released Dream Heights on to the Canadian App Store, which was accused of being a clone of Nimblebit‘s Tiny Towers. Nimblebit reacted to the copycat effort with style, while pointing out that Zynga had tried to buy out Nimblebit previously, but had refused the offer. As a result of the publicised scandal, Dream Heights was down voted in ratings and spat upon, figuratively speaking.

Atari would have without a doubt seen this turn of events. The public had moved to support indie developers against corporations who sought to detract from their efforts. Atari’s throat must have turned dry and a big gulp swallowed. Fortunately for them, they had publicly stated that they were working with the indie development scene, so now was the time to prove it in an attempt to stay in public favour (or get there in the first place).

This comes in the form of Atari’s Pong Indie Developer Challenge – the biggest insult to date and what should be the last straw for the company. You can imagine Atari’s sprightly PR team reassuring the sweaty palmed executives, “It will be fine, we’re supporting indie development so everyone will love us.” Unfortunately it seems to have worked…almost.

Let’s not forget here – indie developers are not a charity. They do not need Atari shipping them food aid or shaking their hands in manufactured scenes for photographs. Their gesture with this Challenge may seem generous as they hand out up to $100,000 with a publishing agreement and full launch support. It’s a little more conniving than that upon inspection though.

Gift Wrapped In Deceit

This Developer Challenge is part of Atari’s stated goal of “building its brand and IP portfolio through licensing and strategic partnerships.” The word “strategic” in that sentence could easily be replaced with “exploitative”, as we’ve seen with them already. No surprise then that Atari hasn’t changed face, they’ve merely put on heavy makeup to hide the despicable wrinkles.

By reading through the contest’s messily typed Official Rules you’ll soon come to notice that this event is nothing more than a well packaged deception. The likely chances of any of the winners actually receiving that $100,000 is very slim. The “Prize”, it states, is actually half of what each winner could win. The rest is called “Prize Maximum” which is a revenue share agreement making up the other half of the prize. Furthermore, this share stops going to the winner after 12 months of the game’s release if they haven’t reached the maximum prize limit before then.

Atari have you sussed if you don’t win either. Just by submitting your game into the contest, you sign your creation over to them entirely so that they may do as they please with it, as is stated in Section 6. You want to put that game of yours on the App Store? You can’t because it’s Atari’s game now and they’ll sue you for everything you have. It gets worse as we take our last snort of irony as well then.

Atari are asking indie developers to re-imagine Pong for this contest; a famous Atari clone of Magnavox Odyssey’s Table Tennis. Atari’s so-called “Father of the Videogame Industry”, Nolan Bushnell, was caught out after his signature was found in a guest book, proving that he had played Odyssey’s Table Tennis before Pong was released. The result of this shameless rip-off back in the early 1970s was the suing of Atari and the forcing of it to pay $700,000 for the licensing fee.

Spot The Difference

As such, the much revered ‘classic’ Pong is no more than a lazy clone and the fact that Atari are now asking other developers to re-imagine it when the company never did itself, is at the very least disrespectful. Making matters worse is that the very man who ignited this disgraceful history of Atari, Nolan Bushnell, is now sitting glumly on the judging panel. Pile on top of this the prior threatening of indie developers on the App Store, which is steeped in the irony of suing Nintendo for monopolizing the console market 20 years before, and we have one hell of a layered insult being thrust into people’s faces.

Atari’s contest is exploitation of people desperate for cash or recognition. It’s a contradictive effort which its hoping no one notices. It’s taking away indie development so it benefits the corporate belly. It’s the last clutch for life from a company driven to desperation.

You’d think, with it being the big 40 for Atari this year, that we would be celebrating its contribution to the industry. In actuality, we’ll have to continue resenting its existence as it claws for another breakthrough, no matter what the cost. What a sorry state for a company to be in.

Atari is shameless, ruthless in its actions and a thorn in the side of the industry – happy to drown the youth (in this case the indie scene) so that it may use their corpses as a float. You’d hope a company that helped to found the industry would have some dignity it its final breath.




There are 5 comments

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  1. CraigStern

    I hesitate to say anything about Atari’s dispute with the developer of the Battlezone clone, since I don’t know much about how similar the games are. However, I will say this: Atari isn’t the first company to hold a “contest” in which they automatically gain ownership of all IP submitted without providing compensation to the entrant. Hypocritical or not, this practice is shameful and it needs to stop.

  2. Blake Callens

    Nolan Bushnell’s Atari did.  It’s been sold back and forth for the last 30 years.  Currently, it’s a subsidiary of Infogrames, who acquired it after they bought Hasbro Interactive.

  3. Marty Rabens

    Actually, Infogrames IS Atari.  Infogrames bought Hasbro Interactive in 2001 (getting license to the Atari name in the process).  In 2003, Infogrames reorganized as Atari Inc. (and Atari Europe, Atari Australia, Atari UK, etc.), in an effort to have a more recognizable name as a gaming brand.

    So the Atari we’re dealing with today (and the company running this challenge, etc.) is actually Infogrames as a whole.


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