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Atari is charging forward with its plans to make a new video game console, the Ataribox, the first such hardware from the iconic American game company in a while. We first confirmed it in June, and the company hopes to launch the box in the spring.

Feargal Mac (Mac Conuladh) is the general manager overseeing the box, and he said the company plans to crowdfund the Ataribox on Indiegogo for the Linux-based machine with an Advanced Micro Devices processor. Mac told us in a recent exclusive interview that the Ataribox will sell for $250 to $300. While that is close to the price of rival consoles from Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo, Mac said the advantage of the Ataribox is that it will be open, allowing owners to run a wide variety of their own games on it. He sees the box as an indie machine, able to run classic Atari games as well as new indie titles such as Minecraft and Terraria.

GamesBeat arranged a fireside chat between Fries and Mac at Indiegogo’s headquarters in San Francisco. Fries got his start programming games on the Atari 800. At Microsoft, he helped create the original Xbox, and he ran Microsoft Game Studios until 2004, when he retired from Microsoft.

In his retirement, Fries has been advising startups and restoring old arcade machines. Fries also created Halo 2600, a 2010 homage to the Atari 2600, the classic Atari console that first debuted in 1977. So Fries was a natural to quiz Mac about Atari’s intentions to launch the Ataribox, the first Atari game console since it discontinued the Jaguar in 1996. Fries also asks why the Ataribox will be different from the Ouya, the Android home console that failed.

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[Update 10/19/17 2:20 pm: Atari actually sold the Atari Flashback and the Atari Flashback 2 and 2+ consoles from 2004 to 2009].

Mac has worked at Apple, Epson, and Lenovo. More recently, he has worked at FMTwo Game on the Gameband smartwatch. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview, as well as a video of the entire interview as well. The video has been edited down, while the transcript has the full conversation.

Above: Feargal Mac (left) of Atari and former Microsoft games executive Ed Fries.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

Ed Fries: I wanted to get into your history a little. What kind of background led you to launch your own game console?

Feargal Mac: Besides being crazy? I’m Irish. You can tell from the accent. I’ve worked at a number of big tech companies. I’ve worked at Apple. I’ve worked at Epson. I’ve worked at Lenovo. American, Japanese, Chinese. I’ve been in a bunch of different roles around engineering and production over the years.

Going back a few years, I wanted to get out of big companies and get involved in startups, because that seemed like a lot of fun. I got involved in some startups. I helped make a product called Gameband. What I learned—I thought I was very clever working at big companies. But when you’re doing it with no safety net, it’s really hard. You have to learn everything all over again.

What led me to startups was this desire to build products and build tools. Sometimes at a big company there are a lot of tradeoffs that aren’t always fun to be a part of. I thought it would be fun to have the freedom of doing it at a startup, not taking into account all the pain of doing it. But that’s what I’ve done, getting involved with Atari. A well-known company, but this is really something new that we’re bringing back with Atari.

Fries: You have a history of doing crowdfunding. In fact you have one project out there, Gameband, and people haven’t gotten their Gamebands yet.

Mac: No, they haven’t, but they will.

Fries: So why are you doing something new?

Mac: We do have another project there at the moment, Gameband. It’s on another crowdfunding platform some of you may have heard of. We have a great bunch of backers. We’re running a few months behind until that gets delivered, but it’s been a great experience. When you talk to your backers, it’s amazing. There’s not been one single complaint. We said, “Look, we’re three or four months behind,” and they were all supportive. They’re involved in the process, which is the great part of crowdfunding.

That’s a different team and a different technology. Trying to fit things into a wearable product is very different from building a box. You whole bunch of haptic and physical problems to deal with. We’re doing that with Qualcomm, who are huge in that space. It’s a very different thing, but it’s still a consumer product. Hardware is hard. We’ve talked about that.

But the opportunity to do the Ataribox has come along and it’s such a great opportunity that I signed up to do both. I wear two hats, on two different teams, bringing these two projects to market. 2018 is going to be really interesting, and probably a challenging year, but fun as well.

Above: Atari’s game console with a red logo option.

Image Credit: Atari

Fries: What made you bring this project to Indiegogo?

Mac: There were two sides of it. As Atari, why crowdfunding? One of the things about Atari that I’ve seen and learned from being involved these last few months is its community. Atari still has this incredible community. No matter who you talk to, they have an Atari story. People are so involved. Even on this trip, going through customs, it was the first time a customs officer asked where I worked and I said, “I work with Atari.” “Oh my God, I had one when I was a kid!”

That community has really kept it alive, and bringing this box to market through crowdfunding lets us make that community part of the process. They can be involved and give feedback. I think it’s the only way to do it. We’ll talk about this use case in a bit, but it’s really a different positioning of the TV device. You have to learn and take feedback from real customers. Doing true crowdfunding lets you do that. That’s one of the main reasons.

As for Indiegogo, I’ve learned a lot about Indiegogo in the last six weeks. To be really blunt, we were taking this in a different direction, and then I met some people from the Indiegogo team. It’s been fascinating what’s gone on here in the last year and beyond. Indiegogo has doubled down on products. They’ve brought a lot of concrete things to help people get to market.

This relationship with Arrow Electronics, which is a Fortune 100 component company—they have 25 people working for Indiegogo, including 15 dedicated engineers. When a project goes on that’s Arrow-certified, you have this huge tech company saying, “This can be built for this price.” Stuff like that we’ve found very helpful as you’re trying to bring a product to market. It’s real resources.

The focus on product, having those resources at the table—the team themselves are genuinely passionate about Atari. They understand what we’re trying to do. They’ve had a lot of success with products delivered. We’re talking about products that have been delivered on the market in the past few months. There are also big brands – people like G.E., Harmon Kardon, Motorola – who are launching products on Indiegogo. There’s a corporate link.

Why bring these products to life with their customers? Because it leads to a better product in the long term. It’s not just raise some money, do this thing or not. It’s about bringing products to life in a more collaborative way so they’re better products. All that led me, in the last few weeks, to change how we’re going to do this and lock in to do it with the Indiegogo team.

Fries: Let’s talk about Atari. People aren’t sure what Atari is today versus Atari when we were kids. What are they doing? How are you getting them involved in a project like this?

Mac: The gut reaction is always, “Oh, I remember Atari when I was a kid,” and then, “Are they still around?” Atari is absolutely around and it’s an incredible brand. It ignites passion, still. I see seasoned, hardcore engineers, pretty straight-laced folks, just melt when you talk Atari, because they remember opening it under the tree or whatever it was.

As a company, I hear people say, “Oh, it’s not Atari anymore.” Well, yeah, it is. It’s changed hands, but so has Apple over the last 25 years. There are people walking around the halls of Atari that have been there 20-plus years, through all of these iterations. More than the ownership or the location or any employees—as a brand, a company stays alive because people love that brand. That hasn’t broken with Atari. When I look at it as a company, it’s still Atari.

What it is today, it’s evolving. It’s had a great three or four years. It’s come from the brink of the abyss—you can pull their numbers. It’s going to be a great business case study in a few years, where you can see they’ve come from debt and a bad situation, growing their revenues year on year, working on the brand merchandising. They have games that have done exceptionally well this year, classic titles like Rollercoaster Tycoon. Tempest is coming back soon for console. It’s still a company. It’s always been a company. It’s made a great comeback. I’m super excited to be working with a brand like that, that elicits so much passion.

Above: The front and back of the modern black/red Ataribox.

Image Credit: Atari

Fries: Let’s talk about the project. I ran the games business for Microsoft during the launch of Xbox. It was not a small project. The marketing budget alone was more than $500 million. We had a massive team, about 1,200 people. But you’re going to do this with just a few guys. How is that even possible?

Mac: For starters, it’s a couple of things. Sony and Microsoft are great companies, the console kings. It’s like Pepsi and Coke. If someone gives you a billion dollars and says, “Go make the new Coke,” you can’t do it. Richard Branson tried it and failed. We’re not trying to be those guys.

The best answer to the question is to talk about the genesis of the use case. This is a very specific use case that drew us into it. I worked on a project that went on to become Minecraft. People remember that, maybe. I got to work with a lot of younger players and watch how they play. One of the things that was interesting was they’d take laptops and plug them into the TV. Why would you do that if you had an Xbox or PlayStation?

It was the way in which they engaged. They would play something like Minecraft or other great indie games, and then they jumped into YouTube. When they’re not playing they’re watching YouTube, or they’d have Discord or Skype or Twitch in the background. It was this PC experience that, on a DIY basis, they were bringing into the living room.

I wondered, “Well, what if we take PC technology, take some existing, tested technologies, and bring it into this product?” Bring that to the TV in a very easy to use way, but also a very open way. With Ataribox we’ve worked with AMD – tried and tested technology, not something that hasn’t done before – and we’re working with Linux. We’re joining dots.

Then we have a great mechanical team. Design-wise, we’ve been very passionate about design around the Ataribox. The Atari 2600 is one of the most iconic consumer products of all time. The first one came out of Silicon Valley even before Apple. We’re trying to take that design, build the hardware around this great use case, and join it together with very stable technologies. That allows us a lot of leverage to get this thing delivered.

The people who are going to build this, which we’ll announce when we go live, these are tried and tested manufacturing companies who’ve built a lot of the products we’ve already talked about. People are going to have to judge that when they see the campaign. They’ll see the caliber of companies and people involved in getting this delivered. But the key thing is taking existing, stable technologies and presenting them to people in a new way.

Above: Feargal Mac Conuladh, creator and general manager of the Ataribox at Atari.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

Fries: Some of these are ideas that were part of Ouya. I was one of the advisors of Ouya, because ultimately I want to help more game developers bring their products to more people. The television is one of the last places we have an opportunity to have an open platform where any developer can bring their content. Ouya raised a bunch of money through crowdfunding, built an Android-based product, but wasn’t ultimately successful. Why will you succeed where they failed?

Mac: There’s a couple of things. Linux is important. As an operating system, from a technology and a collaborative point of view, it’s possibly one of the greatest technological achievements of mankind. It might not be as sexy as walking on the moon, but with 20 million lines of code, a lot of it not written by companies, across borders, across people—that’s insane. Yet the people getting the most value from it today are generally companies. It runs 80-plus percent of servers.

From a consumer point of view it’s misunderstood. It’s free, but it’s highly technical. It’s like the Bernie Sanders of operating systems. Actually it’s a wonderful tool that anyone can use. It’s under Android, inside of it. So that’s a difference.

One of the things we’ve done by adopting Linux, it lets us bring insanely great PC gaming to the TV. With Ouya and some of the Android-based systems—it’s about context. Android, the kernel is Linux, but it’s like ripping the engine from a Lamborghini and putting it in a Ford Focus. There’s a lot of power under the hood you don’t get to. It’s also about developers and the development context. If you take a great game like Terraria, they design in context. Their console version is split-screen. PC isn’t. When it comes to their version on the phone, it has the accelerometer and a small screen. That doesn’t necessarily translate to a big screen.

We didn’t want to go the Android route for that reason. We wanted to open up the way to a really open system where all these great indie developers could bring great content to the TV in a super easy way. Linux lets you do that. Unity lets you go across platforms very easily. We’re seeing people port games over in days. That was one of our choices. It would have been easy to create a super cheap Android-based device, but that’s not what we wanted to do. This is different. This is open. This is about letting developers and users have more freedom.

This needs to be incredibly easy to use. We’re going to have a really beautiful, easy to use UX layered on top of this, but you can also easily get under the hood if you want to and play around. It’s going to be incredibly open, to the extent that if people want to play games they’ve already bought on other platforms, they can do that on this machine. We’ll have a store, but we’re not going to force you to buy from us. Once people buy this box, they may never spend any money with us again, and they’ll still get years of value out of this product. It’s not a locked-in strategy where you’re forced to buy anything. Openness is key to us.

So that, the operating system, and opening up the valve to get great content to your TV—I don’t think that’s being done yet in a way that truly leverages the community that’s out there.

ouya

Above: The Ouya.

Image Credit: Ouya

Fries: In this business you hear a lot about how things are impossible until they become possible. A lot of things fail until they succeed. But I’m going to keep asking—Ouya was Android-based. It was really cell phone hardware. You’re talking about a Linux-based device using more traditional PC hardware. But that raises a different question, which is what about the Steam Box? Valve created a standard for Linux-based gaming that they hoped would connect to TVs, and it didn’t happen. Again, how is this different?

Mac: Steam, Valve, an amazing company, but I think—when you give away too much of the experience, just write a standard and let multiple other companies build boxes, you get into trouble there. We want to be super open, but we also want to deliver an integrated experience for the customers that buy our box. They can plug it in, switch it on, and be playing one harmonious experience. The thing with Steam was you had so many people building the boxes at different prices and structures. It’s cumbersome to do that in a unified way.

We want to own this box. The design is something we spent a lot of time on, making it just right. We’re also trying to get to a price point and an audience—we’re going to be focusing on indie games. We’re not looking for triple-A development like Sony or Microsoft. There are incredible indie games out there. It’s not always just about graphics. A game like Undertale has sold millions of copies, and that’s almost Commodore 64 graphics. Yet it’s beautiful. It’s genius. Taking all that to this platform is what we’re interested in doing.

The Steam thing—it’s just a different positioning. The Atari brand is also a very approachable brand. You have people in their 40s who remember playing it when they were younger. But also, to the younger generation Atari sparks something as well. I’ve brought 12-year-old boys to see that Adam Sandler movie Pixels. I won’t comment on the movie [laughs] but the point is, all of these kids recognized every game, whether it’s Centipede or Donkey Kong. I see kids walking around San Francisco in Atari t-shirts. It’s like Ramones t-shirts, where 95 percent of the people who wear the shirt have never heard the music, but there’s something magical about the brand.

That’s something we’re bringing to this. Younger folks are going to get it. You can stream and do other things on Ataribox as well. We want it to be a device that, in the living room, is entertainment. It’s gaming, but it’s more than gaming. As a brand we’re able to do that. It speaks to a lot of people in different places.

Above: Atari CEO Fred Chesnais at E3 2017.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

Fries: You’ve announced some things about the box so far. In the community I hang out with, which includes a lot of people who love the old Atari, a lot of people were nervous about the industrial design. When you showed the design, I heard a lot of complaints go away. But one thing that caught people off guard was the price. Between $200-300, I could buy a new Xbox for that and play these games right?

Mac: You could. But one of the things for us, back to the Sony-Microsoft discussion—you can get a similar price and impressive specs there, but those guys are also good at hooking you into the monthly subscription service. Expensive exclusive games, an expensive peripheral strategy. You pay a price, but it’s not the only price you pay. You pay a lot more money over time on those other devices.

We’re trying to be incredibly open, even on the peripheral strategy. We’ll be bringing some cool stuff in the controller and input device space, but we want to let people use whatever they want. If there’s a keyboard, a mouse, a controller, even an Xbox controller that you want to use, use it on Ataribox. We want to be as open on that strategy as we are on the gaming part. We’ll have a game store where we sell to you, but you’re not obligated to shop there.

From a pricing point of view, that’s a challenge. A lot of these other companies lose money on the box because they have a much bigger business strategy. They’re taking the long view and hooking people over time. We’re delivering something where, if people so desire, they can get years of value out of this and not have to spend another penny. They may well buy some games or peripherals. But the onus is on us to put out some great content and great input devices that people want to spend more money on. If they don’t want to, they don’t have to.

We’re trying to be, in every facet of this, incredibly open, from the operating system to the business model. Nobody’s done that yet. Exclusive games are another question we get. Am I really going to go to an indie developer and say, “You can put this game on our box and you’re not allowed to sell it anywhere else”? That goes against what we’re saying. That’s why we want to open this thing up, so it can be really easy to put content on there.

The onus is huge. It’s a huge part of the strategy of what we’re trying to do. Also, letting people get under the hood—hopefully enticing people to do more. Atari 2600, a lot of the early Atari products, they inspired people to get into technology. I don’t know how much that happens with other products today. People may enjoy them, but does it inspire them to go out and do stuff? We’re looking to do a lot of things inside Ataribox, with the retro games and the indie games we’re bringing, but also tools. We hope that kids and people playing this are going to get excited to develop for it and bring content to it. They’ll be inspired to get more involved in technology.

All of that together is very different strategy to what you’re seeing from these other players. That impacts price. It’s hard to go up against people who are willing to lose money, or at least make very little money, because they have this other strategy.

Above: A new image of the Ataribox prototype.

Image Credit: Atari

Fries: That brings us to content. You have the classic problem when you’re making hardware, the chicken and egg problem. Nobody wants to buy hardware while there’s no content, but nobody wants to make content while there’s no hardware to sell to. How do you break that cycle?

Mac: Content is one of these things where—a lot of people would love for us to give a list of titles right now, and we’re not going to be doing that today, although we’re doing that soon. When we look at content, though, there are a few different buckets we’re going after.

Obviously, retro games. We’re going to have a massive Atari back catalog on there with an emulator, but we’re working hard to make sure there’s more than just Atari. There will be some surprises. There are a lot of these closed retro boxes where you get 20 games or whatever, but this is in the hundreds. Also, we’ll let people bring more, bring their own ROMs, bring their own games into that section and build up more content.

From an indie game point of view, there are some titles we really want to have there at launch. We want to have games we can build a community around. One of the beauties of this platform is it’s so easy to jump around from the game to YouTube to Discord to Skype in the background, all that stuff we mentioned earlier. We want to create community around this. People who are looking for new games aren’t just trying them out. They can go to their community. We’ll have a section with a number of titles we’re trying to build community around.

We’re also going to have a very open section where people can just load up their content. The thing about Linux and x86 is it’s not very hard for game developers to port over, because it’s such an open standard. We have one good example, a sports game where the developers hadn’t done a Linux version, but they did it in Unity. In 24 hours they gave us a Linux version. They said, “This plays better than the Mac version, and we’ve been working on that for eight months.”

The way we’re structuring the hardware and the software — and also commercially, by taking away barriers for loading software on there – it’s going to be so easy to put content there. It’s not a question of why. It’s a question of why not. That’s how we want it to make it for these guys. And we want to see people who’ve never developed games before get inspired to learn and put content out there for the first time. And not just have people load up games and leave, but also have discussion and community-building around all of that.

Above: Atari’s Feargal Mac and former Microsoft game executive Ed Fries.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

Fries: I remember making the rounds of developers and publishers, trying to get their games on our platform. But now anybody can make a game with these tools.

Mac: That’s exciting, right? To put barriers in front of those people, commercial or otherwise, that doesn’t make sense. To your point earlier, the TV has been with us for so many years, but there’s still this huge opportunity to break through and create this wave of content there. I hope that what we’re doing is going to make it easy for people to do that.

Fries: The big publishers are still there. If I want to play Destiny, Call of Duty, something like that—will you be visiting EA like I used to do?

Mac: It’s back to the sort of Pepsi-Coke analogy. We’re not trying to be another cola. We’re trying to do something very different. We’re not putting any big focus on triple-A. There’s more than enough other content out there to make this great. Hopefully we can set it up in such a way that more and more content will come and be developed over time.

Right now, we’re not looking very strongly at that. We think we have more than enough great value to bring to this based on the strategy that I already outlined. It’s great stuff. Everyone involved in the project is a gamer in one way or another. There are going to be a lot of people who have their $3,000 PC rig in one room of the house, but the TV is different. It’s a more social area. After binge-watching something on Netflix maybe I just want to dip into the retro world for a while.

We’re not going to try to be everything to everyone. All those other companies and devices you mentioned, they’re awesome. For some people that’s all they’re interested in, and that’s great. One of the challenges we have in what we’re focused on—so many people are excited about what we’re doing. Our job is to focus on building the best product we can for that group of people. That’s what we’re going to do. We can’t pretend to be everything. We have to go after that group.

It’s a challenge. There’s a lot of critics out there. If we were to build an FPS game today and put it out there – on Android, say, for argument’s sake – you’d have two or three groups that would critique it. People who are into that kind of game, people who are into Android, maybe.

When it comes to Ataribox, though, we have so many groups of people that have different views of what it should be. There’s the design community. The 2600 was iconic, but—it’s like the Volkswagen Beetle. There are hardcore Atari fans who still play their retro games today and want to be able to do stuff with this. We’re doing some pretty cool stuff that we haven’t announced yet in that area. You have a lot of people who just remember Atari from when they were kids and want to relive that. You have the Linux community. You have indie gamers.

There are multiple communities who have an opinion, some who love it and some who are questioning it. When you’re building a product, it’s easy to get drowned in those voices and listen to everyone. But you need to separate—there are groups where this isn’t for them. That’s okay. We have to focus on the people who do want this and build the best possible product for that group of people. That’s what we’re going to try to do.

Above: Atari shows off the first image of its console.

Image Credit: Atari

Question: When is it going to release?

Mac: We can’t say yet. The campaign is going to go live this fall. We haven’t announced the date. It will be coming very soon. Before Christmas, you’ll see the campaign out there. From a shipping point of view, we’re saying spring.

We’re already pretty deep on the production side as far as how to build it. When we go live with the campaign we’ll give a lot more specifics on delivery and who’s going to build it on and so on. It’s a very short timeline.

One of the other things about Indiegogo that was very important for us, to be serious, is a huge international presence. Indiegogo is in, what, 200 countries? The Atari brand is known everywhere. You’ll see after the campaign that we’re doing a lot online. Retail, we’ll see when and how we do that later. It’ll be step by step. We have a very specific plan. Hardware–physical problems, certifications, build, firmware, BIOS, operating system, content, it’s everything. When you think about retail, returns, point of purchase, you have to be nuts to try to do hardware. It’s one of the hardest things to do, even more so from the ground up. So we have a step by step plan.

Question: A lot of things could happen by spring. What response might you have to things like a price cut for existing consoles, or a more plentiful supply of Super Nintendo Classics? What about competitive pressures?

Mac: There are always going to be things that might happen. We’re not going to pretend to know how we’ll react. But right now, when we look at the landscape of gaming consoles, retro gaming devices out there, streamers, Android-based devices, we feel our positioning is a bit different for all the reasons I’ve laid out. Hopefully that will limit—even if that happens it doesn’t dramatically change our use case. I hope that wouldn’t disrupt our planning. We’re pretty fixed. We’re going into crowdfunding to have our community be a part of this — not to try it out, but for them to be actively involved. We’re confident about sticking to our plan.

Question: Looking more long term, we’ve seen platforms like Xbox add new features as new technologies arrive. With things like AR and VR on the horizon, how do you think this is going to change over the years?

Mac: Because of the architecture and the approach, as this stuff evolves, we hope it will be easy enough for us to adapt and roll in new opportunities over time. AR and VR, it’s happening. The speed at which it’s happening—you have expensive VR for the living room and mobile VR that’s less so. We’re looking at some stuff in that space already. We’re already thinking about it, even if we can’t say much. We’ve built in a lot of room for input devices, whether it’s Bluetooth or USB. This device is going to have a long life with a lot of potential to integrate things that come along.

AR and VR, that’s all going to happen. You’re going to see more from us in time. We have an architecture that will allow us to adapt and do more interesting things over time in those spaces. That’s one of the more vague answers I’ve given today, but it’s happening and we’re a part of it.

The thing about what we’re doing here—Atari is a classic, well-known brand. But this product is about the future. We didn’t set out to re-create the past. We’ll have some great historic stuff on there, great retro titles on there. We’re looking at devices that will do some cool stuff around that. But we’re also building a product and an architecture for the future. There are a lot of other paths we’ve taken, and we have other products like Flashback that offer some of that. This is about the future. You’ll see it integrating new things and evolving over time. We hope this is the start of a long-term road map that we’ll follow step by step.

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