Be concerned, Atari fans.
At this point, there’s only one fact about Ataribox that matters, and it didn’t come from either of the vague press releases issued so far. As Eurogamer discovered in a June investor note, the console will be crowdfunded.
“To limit risk taking, this product will initially be launched within the framework of a crowdfunding campaign,” the note — translated from French — reads. It may not have been uttered by a PR mouthpiece, but it’s direct confirmation from the company all the same.
Before we know even a tiny morsel about technical specs, pricing, game lineup, external software support, or anything else, we can glean this: Atari isn’t able or willing to fund this product itself. And, as history has proven, even the most enticing crowdfunded consoles can turn out less than successful at best, and disastrous at worst.
Just look at Ouya.
The promising, little Android-powered micro-console brought big names and big ideas. It soared to almost $8.6 million in crowdfunding, on a $950,000 target. It eventually died a slow, fitful death in 2015 with none of the market disruption it was meant to bring.
Just look at GameStick.
The sharp-looking handheld popped up in early 2013, and it had the vibe of a strong potential competitor to Ouya in the seemingly burgeoning Android micro-console market. On Kickstarter, it took in almost $650,000 — smashing the $100,000 target. But a delayed release and walled garden approach in the app store didn’t go over well, and PlayJam — the company behind GameStick — eventually shut down the app store and shifted its focus in early 2017.
Just look at Chameleon.
Oy, this thing. It was originally conceived as the Retro VGS, an offline-only machine that would play new, cartridge-based games. After a planned 2015 Kickstarter fell apart, the creators launched an IndieGoGo campaign in April 2015 that generated $81,158 in crowdfunding against a $1.95 million target before it was discontinued in September of that year.
There’s more to this story, too. A second attempted crowdfunding campaign — with Coleco branding! — fell apart when observers noted that a publicly demoed prototype appeared to be nothing more than Super NES hardware packed into an Atari Jaguar shell. Less than a month later, Coleco Holdings bailed on the licensing deal and the Chameleon effectively died.
There are examples that found some success. THE64, a snazzy-looking Commodore 64 revival, does seem to be coming out in 2017. But even that one carries a dubious honor: it never managed to reach its IndieGoGo target.
Atari announced its new console during the E3 2017 circus, which could be (and in some cases was) interpreted as a play for the turf owned by Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony. That notion was reinforced by Atari CEO Fred Chasnais, who told GamesBeat: “We’re back in the hardware business.”
This brand is an industry original, and one that helped to establish home gaming consoles as something people would want to buy. But Atari ultimately couldn’t keep up with Nintendo and Sega. Its Jaguar console was powerful, but it was missing one, important thing: A Mario or a Sonic.
An Atari comeback is something that gamers could get behind, potentially. But, in perhaps the clearest sign of all that this isn’t the big play it initially seemed to be, the company led with mystery and nostalgia rather than offering a reason to care about playing games from Atari.
This is a beautiful box, but how much of what’s inside it will be shaped by the crowdfunding? Likely a lot, based on past examples. And that’s not how you compete with the Big Three, let alone put them on notice.
In a best-case scenario, I could see Ataribox becoming a bit player in the home console market. Its gorgeous form factor certainly ticks the same nostalgia boxes as Nintendo’s discontinued (and still highly coveted) NES Classic.
And that may well be the future for Ataribox: An exciting curio that comes pre-loaded with Atari classics and perhaps also — based on the few specs we do know — streams PC games and online video services to your TV. But one month after the reveal and two announcements in, any possibility of something more than that is merely smoke and mirrors.