I’d Be Worried If I Was An Atari VCS Backer

Atari’s crowdfunding campaign for the Atari VCS, so far, has gone pretty well. But the company has run into a bit of a PR nightmare of sorts, after attempting to discredit a scathing article.

The article in question was originally posted in March by The Register. Kieren McCarthy attended a briefing at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, interviewing Atari chief operating officer Michael Arzt and spending some time with the hardware.

The main problem, as far as The Register outlined: only the joystick worked, with Atari showcasing a mockup of the Atari VCS rather than a working prototype.

There’s only one problem: it doesn’t work. And by “not work” we don’t mean it crashed or is having teething troubles, we mean it literally does not work.

When Atari’s chief operating officer Michael Arzt suggested we take a look at the ports in the back, we’re surprised to find it actually weighs something: Atari knows how to mock up products.

Wind the clock forward by a couple of months. The Atari VCS crowdfunding campaign has begun, and by all accounts is widely successful. It’s just surpassed $US2.9 million, well beyond the $US100,000 set for the original funding goal. The campaign has just over a week left to go.

On the Atari VCS Facebook page, a user posts the link to The Register’s article. “I beg of you be as brutally honest as possible and explain this article? If I should give you more time and wait for the VCS to be perfected I gladly will,” they wrote.

The AtariVCS account responded in nuclear-like fashion:

Shots fired, then.

When you get called out like that, there’s really only two ways to respond: admit you cocked up, or post the full interview online and let people be the judge.

Have a guess what The Register did.

The Register: Does Atari have the funds to create enough boxes, or do you need funds to build the boxes?

Atari COO Michael Arzt: That is something that I’m not going to talk about because I’m not a finance guy, but yes, the launch is going forward.

Register: OK. You understand that if you launch again with an Indiegogo, people typically are a little hesitant about it, because they need the money in order to make it.

Atari COO Michael Arzt: There are business discussions underway with major partners who would have an impact on how its distributed, where it’s sold. There’s so many moving parts that — again, until things are locked, if we start talking about all of our hopes and dreams, that’s worse. So I’d rather not tell you something that I’m not sure about.

In another clip from the interview, which The Register posted in full, Arzt said Atari wasn’t “so far down the road” that they couldn’t consider taking up an offer from AMD to use a newer chipset.

He also tried to draw an analogy to NASA’s space shuttle when pressed on the delay of the Atari VCS, saying that the problems central to the delay had been resolved.

“So what was the issue, and has it been resolved,” McCarthy asked.

“Yes, so the issue — I’m not going to get into the specifics of what the issue was — there were some things we felt could be better, and we’ve since made them better,” Arzt said. When pressed, he said that the modern controller wasn’t up to scratch “at that point”, and that some of the partnerships with developers “weren’t locked down”.

It sounds reasonable, until you dig through history and compare Artz’s answers against what was on the public record. When the Atari VCS’s launch in December last year was delayed, Atari said it was due to “one key element on our checklist”.

“It is taking more time to create the platform and ecosystem the Atari community deserves,” Atari said in a statement.

Ahead of the Atari VCS’s showing to press at GDC, it was also already known that the box would run on Linux using “an AMD customised processor” with “Radeon Grahpics technology”. Because Atari said as much in a newsletter to users in September 2017. Why, then, couldn’t Arzt just openly say they had partnered with AMD for the project in an interview?

The crux of The Register’s take was that they wanted hard answers about the Atari VCS — why was it delayed the day it was supposed to launch, what developers were partnering with the console, when was it launching, was the hardware locked down — and Atari couldn’t provide them.

“I hope we have some stuff to show and talk about when we get to E3,” Arzt said in the audio. “That’s our hope, when we have our suite at E3, we’re showing people.”

The Register weren’t the only ones to walk away without answers. PC World’s Hayden Dingman recorded a video from GDC, saying that they didn’t know how much it would cost, what games it would play, or anything about the internals at all.

Put simply: if you’re going to call out someone for making stuff up in an interview, you’d better be damn sure they didn’t record the conversation. Because if they did, you end up looking hyperdefensive to criticism. And if I was a backer, and my money was going towards a company that responded so defensively to fair and reasonable concerns, I’d be very worried.

To listen to the 32 minute interview in full, head over to The Register.

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