Space Based Games at SXSW 2011

Posted on March 15, 2011

We’re here at South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas, one of the largest festival/conferences for Film, Interactive trends and Music. No public Asteroids machines in town, but there are enough tacos and free beer to make up for it.

The big buzz at the Interactive conference this year is online gaming; companies are moving beyond traditional brand marketing to engage their audiences in new ways. Facebook is the largest gaming platform today, and games like Farmville have ratings that rival prime-time television. Just as important, they’re reaching demographics that aren’t what you’d stereotype as a typical gamer.

Atari brought in Thom Kozik as executive vice president of online and mobile, with the goal of creating online versions of their classic games. Asteroids Online, still in its beta stage as a Facebook game, is among the first. As a “causal gaming experience,” it’s tailored to draw you in and keep you coming back. Full write-up here soon.

Along the same lines, another talked-about trend is the rise of social networking applications on mobile devices, driving real-world activity. The founder of FourSquare drew a huge crowd. His app (and many others) allows you to check in to your current location, based on GPS coordinates, and gain points and prizes based on number and type of check-ins. It turns daily life into a game. I actually had my first practical success with FourSquare at Beer Camp at Emo’s the other night, when a friend had checked in a few minutes earlier. I recognized his icon, sent him a text, and good times were had.

All of this expands the concept of video gaming. Even traditional game systems are shifting into the real world, starting with the Nintendo Wii’s gyroscopic controller and just recently, expanded with the XBox Kinect. Actual movement is translated into virtual motion. These controllers have also immediately been hacked and adopted for more conceptual and artistic ends. One of the cooler installations here in Austin was at the Frog Design party — a room-sized grid of weight-sensitive platforms acts to control the music’s step-sequencer. People can see a projection of the matrix, and hear what they’re doing in the beats.

I like to watch where things are going, and think about Asteroids, sitting in the corner of an arcade or bar, with five simple buttons driving a series of white lines on a black screen. It was created 32 years ago, before computers saturated our lives. You have to leave your house to play it. It’s basic. It’s pure. For some of us, it holds up.

LA Times Article: Atari Reboot

Posted on August 07, 2010

Atari was one of the original video game leaders, although the company had all but disappeared during the last few decades.  It was sold to various companies around the world, eventually ending up in France.  However, starting around a year ago, we started seeing rumblings of a corporate rebirth.  Licensing stepped up, with a Universal Studios film deal for Asteroids among the more news-worthy items.

Recently, Atari’s website has been growing, offering both classic games for online play, plus the announcement of new initiatives, including the re-imagining of older titles (again, Asteroids).  Then, with echoes of Steve Jobs’s return to a floundering Apple, there came the news that Atari founder Nolan Bushnell was back on the board of directors.

The LA Times has just published a fairly comprehensive article detailing the past and future plans for the company.  Read it here:,0,3552511.story?track=rss

Asteroids Online Announced

Posted on August 03, 2010

Over at, Asteroids Online (working title) was announced today, with a big COMING SOON button and a few screen shots. As indicated by the name, it’s an online game based loosely on the original premise.

Asteroids Online is set in the distant future, where:

…Space is littered with the debris of a thousand years of human neglect, and coupled with the recent appearance of unexplained asteroid fields, many trading and transportation companies have resorted to hiring pilots to clean their routes of these impurities. This, as you may have guessed, is where you come in.

While the experience will be quite different from the sparse vector display and five buttons of the beloved arcade version, Atari says that this “re-imagining of its 1979 iconic classic… adds an expansive universe, flexible customization and social interaction while faithfully preserving the remarkably balanced mechanics that characterized the original arcade cabinet.”

Gaming has shifted out of the arcade and onto TVs, then computers and phones.  The online version is designed for casual and interactive play through social networks like Facebook and, and looks to be built on the concept of a longer-term game. Players will explore different worlds, complete various missions, and be able to customize their ships “with different hulls, shields, weapons and more.”  The addition of long-form narrative and episodic game play is a smart approach to keeping people coming back.

This is part of the company’s plan to revitalize some if its legacy titles. An article in today’s LA Times writes:

Northern California’s Cryptic Studios, which Atari bought in 2008, operates multiplayer online games such as the recently released Star Trek Online and Champions Online, both of which have very small user bases compared with the market-dominating World of Warcraft.

But to drive much of its growth, the company hired a veteran Microsoft and Yahoo executive to head its online activities. Thom Kozik, executive vice president of online and mobile, has contracted with outside producers to make 15 to 20 updated versions of Atari games for the Web.

Though some of its games will be pay-to-download, Atari is embracing the increasingly popular free-to-play business model used by companies such as Playdom, which was recently acquired by Walt Disney Co. in a deal worth up to $763 million. Most players of so-called F2P games spend nothing, while a small but avid group pay for virtual items that enhance the experience.

“Over the next six months you’re going to see some of our best brands coming out as casual online games and digital downloads across multiple platforms, and you’ll see a handful of retail releases,” Wilson said.

(Read the entire LA Times article here.)

Sample frames from Atari’s site indicate that the visual style is rendered in bright colors with oversized bubbly graphics. The company wants to move into the present and not just ride the rails of retro, and while this is bringing a beloved game into a contemporary venue, we hope that it stand out from the others in ways beyond the brand name (ie. design). We’ll wait to play the game before commenting further, but so long as things don’t become too busy, there’s potential for something fresh from the company that’s looking to live up to its past, while engaging players in the present.

Atari Online’s page can be visited at:

And for those who might simply want to combat white lines until invariably reaching a vectory death, Atari has already made the original program available for online play.