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Xbox creator on why his Atari "dream team" is still relevant

Plus, Blackley explains why it signed with THQ.

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Image credit: Eurogamer

News last week that Seamus Blackley, the man responsible for the original Xbox concept, had gathered together a gang of silver-haired Atari veterans to make small, innovative digital titles, raised two big questions.

Firstly, can the "grizzly old farts" - as Blackley describes the group - who made Asteroids, Missile Command and Centipede possibly have anything new to say 30 years after their original flush of creativity?

Secondly, considering almost all involved went on to have long and lucrative careers in the tech industry, why do they need THQ's help to release a few humble iPhone games? Especially when said publisher appears to be on the brink of financial ruin.

Well, Blackley has kindly provided Eurogamer with a few answers.

Regarding THQ, he explained that the publisher's marketing expertise should prove invaluable, as will the extra resources should the studio decide to release its games on platforms other than iOS or Android.

"We're prototyping everything on iOS and they may well come out on iOS, but there are games that we have that could fit on all sorts of different platforms, and having a partner who can do some marketing and can scale to the other platforms is really useful," explained Blackley.

However, he added that THQ's digital strategy - or lack of one, to be more accurate - also helped seal the deal.

"THQ didn't really have a digital strategy and I thought that was good," he said.

"The one thing that's true about these new platforms is that if you think you know what you're talking about you're just completely wrong. Anybody who says 'this is how it's going to work' is completely wrong, because the target is moving so fast. And the target is defined by whatever is coolest to play.

"However you happen to pay for whatever is currently coolest to play is the darling business model of the moment, but trying to chase that from a business standpoint is really dumb. You chase it from a gameplay standpoint. And Danny [Bilson, THQ games boss] totally got that."

When asked how he feels about THQ's precarious financial health, Blackley replied that he'd bet on the publisher to pull through.

"The instantaneous 24/7 media we have now causes things that would just have been blips in the past to become firestorms," he explained.

"I think that several publishers have been through this before. A couple of years ago EA was going to go out of business, and before that it was Vivendi in the toilet. It's all cyclical. This is particularly bad for THQ for reasons that I don't entirely understand but the idea that the management have of backing games is the right one.

"Focussing on really good games is the only long-term strategy. It's only when you have a really good game that's doing really well that you employ more traditional business techniques to exploit that. Until you have that game, playing it conservatively isn't the way that you win in any hit-driven entertainment medium. Play conservatively and you slowly slide into the grave.

"It's a miserable situation to be in but the guys who come out of these things are the guys who just keep fighting through and that's what THQ are doing, and I love them for it."

Moving on to the issue of whether Innovative Leisure's decidedly senior team still have anything to offer so long after their early '80s purple patch, Blackley painted a picture of a group of "ferociously bright programmers" who were cut off in their prime by the notorious 1983 video game crash.

"So the industry collapses and these guys go off to the four winds," he recounted.

"One of them writes the spacecraft operating system, a bunch of them go to Apple, Bruce ran the iMac program, Rich Adam went to EA and wrote Madden Football with Trip Hawkins and went on to start the PGA Golf franchise...

"They did crazy stuff, all of them, because they were really smart. But what they all wanted to do was work together again."

Blackley was introduced to the group at an industry party by his partner Van Burnham, the author of Supercade: A Visual History of the Videogame Age 1971-1984.

"You expect to go to a party and talk to a bunch of guys about the old days, but instead they're all standing around an iPhone and commenting on the design. They're all still playing games and they're all still really f****** smart. They still have this culture of hanging out and talking about stuff.

"With iOS and mobile games the big thing, and to a lesser extent XBLA and PSN, it became clear that the kind of games that these guys invented were sort of cycling back again.

"It seemed totally obvious to us that there was a chance, if these guys were up for it, to get the band back together and see if they still have that magic, because the marketplace wants those kinds of games again," Blackley continued.

The group, bulked out with some sparky, ambitious youngsters, started out with around 35 ideas and then "beat the crap out of them" until there were 10 left. Those were then presented to THQ.

"They really liked all of them and said 'let's do them all!'. We've ended up doing seven, but by 'doing' I mean rapid prototyping, so some of these games have no relationship to what the initial proposal was.

"You have to follow what's working and throw out what's not, with the goal just being super-fun gameplay.

"None of these games really have any art or anything yet, it's just gameplay. You can always add art. Art is the thing everyone can get right these days. How many really nice-looking games are there that are terrible to play? So we just tweak and tweak and tweak the gameplay."

Blackley added that we should see the studio's first releases in "late summer".

"Being cynical is the right of every net citizen," he added, addressing the response to last week's studio unveiling.

"Anonymity combined with a big audience results in lots of comments like that. It's a valid concern.

"But these were the guys who invented this stuff from zero. They're different. They're extraordinary guys and, everyone who meets them, the first comment that they make is that these guys act like they're 18. You ask them about any modern game and they'll tell you all about it. That's a pretty extraordinary thing.

"This company is a lot less about some grandiose goal. This company is entirely about having a blast and maybe making some awesome games. We're going to try and it's super-fun. It's awesome to watch this happen. And we aim to make a lot of games and have them be great and make people really happy."

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