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Q&A: Phil Harrison On Why Atari Is Softening Its Hardcore Focus

Q&A: Phil Harrison On Why Atari Is Softening Its Hardcore Focus Exclusive

May 23, 2008 | By Chris Remo

Phil Harrison hardly had time to settle into his highly-publicized new role as president of Infogrames before being shuttled across the Atlantic to head up a press junket for Eden Studios' upcoming Alone in the Dark.

Questions abound regarding Harrison's plans for Infogrames and subsidiary Atari - he has indicated he plans to focus more on online and social gaming, areas he was known to champion (sometimes with resistance) during his long tenure at Sony Computer Entertainment.

Soon he will be launching Alone in the Dark, an update to the classic survival series that has been in the works for some four years at Eden.

The high-budget title that hopes to bridge some of the gaps between games and passive serialized entertainment like television - it is sold all on one disc, but the game is split up into episodes, even allowing users to skip ahead to episodes they have not yet reached. It is set to ship this June for PC and Xbox 360, alongside Wii and PS2 versions from Hydravision Entertainment; a PS3 version is expected this fall.

Gamasutra sat down with Harrison during the recent event - although he was largely unwilling to stray off the topic of the headlining game, as we were reminded numerous times by multiple PR folk.

Still, he did touch on some of his longer-term plans for Atari, and indicated that Alone in the Dark is likely to represent one of the publisher's last forays into high-budget, single-player hardcore gaming.

What Alone In The Dark Means To Atari

I'm curious about what your collaboration with this project is, especially coming in at this stage of development. What is your actual involvement with Eden?

Phil Harrison: I can take no credit whatsoever for the incredible work they have done. The last two months since I've been on board have really been a very end phase. They've been polishing and bug fixing, and they know what they're doing, so they don't require my input. The game was fully featured and very clearly defined when I joined the company, and it was a real thrill to see a triple-A title in such an advanced state when I was able to walk in through the door.

Are you contributing anything on the marketing end or the strategic side? In what way are you positioning this game or trying to position it?

PH: Once again, that was pretty well established from some time ago. Not a great deal that I can take credit for. The rest of the team is very skilled and capable, and well done to them for doing such a good job.

Is there an urgency around this game? It's obviously fairly big budget, and Atari seems like it needs a big hit. How would you comment on that? How much do you think is riding on this title?

PH: It's clearly an important game, although I think it's important to understand the difference between Infogrames, which is the parent company, and Atari, the U.S. company. That in itself is a whole other discussion which we can have one day, but worldwide, for Infogrames, this is obviously a very important title for us. It's a title which is really marking the kind of "new Atari."

I think it's important to have a game of this ambition and quality, but it's not the only game we have coming out. We have plenty of titles in our pipeline, and we think this will be an important part of our year, but it's by no means the only part of our year.

Based on statements you've made, I get the impression this might be the type of title you're going to be angling away from - this large-budget, core title. You've spoken about a desire to do more social kind of gaming. Does Alone in the Dark represent a sort of swan song for that kind of thing at Infogrames/Atari?

PH: "Swan song" is probably not the right word, but I think Atari is part of an industry in some transition from pure packaged media to an online business model and social communication and community model. If we are part of that transition, perhaps we are going to take a slightly aggressive, leading-edge role in that transition.

I don't see that we're going to be making huge-budget, single-player games in the future. Now, that doesn't mean that we won't have ambition to do really incredible games that have high quality, high execution, and high innovation, but they won't be one-player, narrative-driven, start-middle-end games.

Episodic Storytelling

An interesting thing about this game is that it is split up episodically, but you're distributing it as a full game. On the tack of the online socially-driven thing, would you consider the possibility of distributing something like this actually as an episodic series, sort of like Telltale has done with Sam & Max, where you're doing a new one for every week or what have you?

PH: Yeah, and in fact, that was the original vision that Eden had. But for various reasons - some technical, some business, and some timing-wise - it just didn't quite work out. But you can see that the narrative structure would lend itself to be delivered in that kind of mechanism.

I think what Alone in the Dark is doing is setting up a strong direction for the future, not just of our company, but for the industry, which is that games could be - not will be, or must be, but could be - delivered in that kind of way. If you can then integrate and build the social and community aspects within the game structure, then you've got something very interesting.

If Lost, the TV show, had Lost, the community website, embedded in the experience, that would be kind of compelling. But Alone in the Dark, as a game, is brilliantly executed and all on one disc. Nothing wrong with that. It's perfect for 2008.

You came into this particular development fairly late, but do you have any insights into how that episodic structure affected development, if it did? I know that with Valve, they have small teams that are self-contained structures that they put on various -

PH: What I can say is that the team was clearly inspired by what was happening around them in contemporary television. We've all talked about Lost, and 24 to a certain extent, even going back to things like The X-Files - this idea of a larger narrative, and an individual episode which had a cliffhanger at the end of it, and then that as a way of framing the story I think has been very effective.

You have talked a lot about the social, almost water cooler mentality of people wanting to discuss these things among themselves and meet with other people and find out what they've's interesting how that parallels Alone in the Dark, which is attempting it in an entirely single-player way, with structural similarities. I'm wondering that if with your role at Atari or Infogrames, are those things related at all?

PH: I know it was coincidental, because it was four years in the making. Definitely the fact that Eden is a very high quality developer with a strong, proven track record was a positive factor in my career choice, so to speak. But it was also having met the guys and spending time with them that I know that they're dreaming big dreams as well for the future.

Gameplay To Bridge The Gaming/Hollywood Gap

PH: But let's focus on Alone in the Dark for today, because that's obviously where the meat of the discussion is. What did you think, by the way? What was your impression?

I find it really interesting that there's sort of a dichotomy between high action, scripted sequences juxtaposed against more procedural, mechanical, emergent systems, to an extent. It's an interesting combination. In that vein, the more cinematic type of storytelling, as you put it today - is that something that you think Alone in the Dark should point to? It seems to me there are two different angles in the game. You have that strong, scripted cinematic mentality, then you have the kind of thing where, "Oh, you can combine these items how you want." That's more of a video gamey thing. I'm wondering if you have any thoughts on that.

PH: Your observation is correct. It's a strong narrative structure that lends itself to those big, epic set pieces that make it very sexy to look at and very engaging to play, but at its heart, it's still a video game. It's still a game that will challenge a player.

The game definitely doesn't play itself. We're not talking about Dragon's Lair here. We're not talking about something that's just a couple of timed jumps and off you go, or a few point and clicks on a mouse and off you go. This is a game that requires a good level of skill to play. This is not a simple game by any means.

But because it's challenging, that's where the chapter select mechanism comes into its own, because you can pause. Now whether that means pause for half an hour or a week, it doesn't matter. You can still come back to it, and it will remind you of where you were and re-engage you with the story. I think that's why that plays so strongly to this structure. It keeps you going through the game.

Do you think that structure is something that could potentially bridge the gap between a passive form of entertainment - like television or film - and an active one, like games? I know a lot of developers with whom I've spoken have indicated that, as far as they're aware, most players don't actually finish their games, and most people who sit down to watch a TV show or a movie always will finish it.

PH: Exactly, and that was a key motivation for this game, was the fact that they did some research, and I forget the exact numbers, but it was something like only eight percent play to the end of the game. That, to me, is this kind of economic insanity, because on both sides of the equation, you've got the player's money invested in buying the game, and they're not getting the full value from the title. Clearly, some players do, but many people are not.

The ones on the message boards do. But then there's the unspoken majority.

PH: Right. And then there's another dichotomy, which is the economic investment, the passion - the kind of artistic investment that the developer makes. You've got people who are investing late hours and crunch time in finishing a game, which may be the last four or five levels that only ten percent of the people who buy it see. I mean, that seems like a complete imbalance.

I think that was part of the motivation for the team to build that system in, to allow people to experience the full story just like a TV show. That means that both sides of the equation - the developer and the player - get full value out of it. I think it's a positive trend.

Do you worry about maybe on the other side of the coin, you might have the problem of people skipping too much? Or are there systems in place?

PH: There are systems in place for that. There's an Achievement side to measure, and then there's also...and I don't know how exactly this works, but there can't start the game and skip straight to the end. You have to have played a certain amount of it before, which is very easy to engineer.

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