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The Atari VCS might be the next crowdfunded console, but who is this for?

And why is it being sold on a crowdfunding website?

Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Atari, once a forerunner of the video game revolution and now a primarily French-owned collection of related media companies, has plans for a new game console called the Atari VCS. After a false start last year, the company is ready to offer pre-orders through the crowdfunding website IndieGoGo on May 30.

The VCS isn’t just a box for playing old Atari games. It’s a Linux-based living room PC, a sector of the consumer technology market that has seen more than its fair share of failures.

So who actually needs this device? And why is a multi-million dollar corporation with global brand recognition resorting to a crowdfunding campaign to have it made?

What’s in the box?

The Atari VCS was first announced as the Ataribox. At the time, Atari CEO Fred Chesnais — who is also Atari’s largest shareholder — crowed that his organization was back in the hardware business. But the effort hit an unspecified snag in mid-December and the launch of the IndieGoGo crowdfunding campaign was put on hold.

Since then, the only new hardware that Atari has brought to market is a $149 hat with speakers in it. It’s called a Speakerhat, and it was designed by a different company entirely.

Now, after a six-month delay, the Ataribox is back. The name has been changed to the Atari VCS, but the proposed industrial design is still the same as it was in 2017. The mockups show a classic silhouette and optional wood grain finish that’s reminiscent of the original Atari 2600 (which also was originally known as the Atari Video Computer System, or Atari VCS).

Now, finally, it seems that Atari is ready to talk about what the device can actually do.

What it plays

According to a recent press release, the new Atari VCS will include a custom-built processor made by AMD, the same company that built microprocessors for the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One. Atari said that the chip will include some form of AMD’s Radeon graphics technology, meaning the VCS will be capable of running some modern PC games. It also said that the final device will be able to output 4K resolution and high dynamic range color at 60 frames per second, making it a viable modern streaming device. Rounding out the partial feature list are the basic necessities of modern computing; dual-band Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 5.0, USB 3.0 and onboard data storage with room for expansion. There’s also a classic joystick-style controller as well as a modern gamepad, both colored to match. Final technical specifications will be revealed at a later date.

The people behind the Atari VCS promise “access to a vast array of games, media and streaming content options.” There’s little in the way of specifics about which games; a press release simply says “many popular modern titles” will be available.

Almost as an afterthought, Atari said that each VCS will also include more than 100 games “as an homage to our past.” That collection is called the “Atari Vault” and will include titles such as Asteroids, Breakout, Centipede, Gravitar, Missile Command and Yars’ Revenge.

A similar collection of games sells on Steam for $9.99.

So, considering the feature set, this isn’t really a console anymore. It’s a living room PC. The device is expected to have a retail price of $250 to $300, but pre-orders on IndieGoGo will start as low as $199 with $10 worth of software tossed in for free.

PC is dead ... again

Unfortunately for Atari, the living room PC market has more or less collapsed. The segment’s last best chance was the Steam Machine, an initiative by Valve to create an ecosystem of Linux-based living room PCs without the requirement for an expensive Windows license. Valve has since moved on from the concept, de-listing the Steam Machine entry on its website.

But, as everyone knew in 2014, Steam Machines ended up playing fewer games than a typical Windows gaming PC and had less functionality overall. Hardcore PC gamers didn’t buy them because they already had a gaming PC, and console gamers didn’t buy them because they already had a console. Meanwhile, the PS4 and Xbox One have proven to be more than capable media centers, bringing everything from over the air and linear network TV to Netflix and HBO Go all through a single box in the living room.

See what sticks

So does the average consumer actually need an Atari VCS? Probably not. But Atari can’t be sure until it tries to sell them, so why not toss them up on a crowdfunding website and see what happens?

That’s the strategy that CEO Fred Chesnais employed with his recent adventure on crowdfunding website StartEngine which, like Fig, allows non accredited individuals to invest in video games.

In January, Atari Game Partners — a wholly owned subsidiary of Atari of which Chesnais is also the CEO — launched a StartEngine campaign to port one of the games in the RollerCoaster Tycoon series to the Nintendo Switch. At the time, he told Polygon that the campaign was all about testing the waters and trying to find new sources of cheap capital for Atari.

The RollerCoaster Tycoon campaign wasn’t a traditional all-or-nothing effort. Instead, it was a sale of equity in the game. Chesnais offered up $1.07 million in shares, but the campaign was suspended before it could run its course. In a statement mailed out to potential investors, Atari said that since “there wasn’t sufficient interest under the terms proposed” the campaign was canceled and all contributions were refunded. The failure of the campaign, it said, would not impact the development of the game.

Nevertheless, the campaign page itself was pulled down, a practice which StartEngine CEO Howard Marks told Polygon is usual and customary on his platform.

So, in reality, putting the Atari VCS up for pre-order on IndieGoGo tracks pretty well with Chesnais’ stated goal to find new sources of capital. And it won’t be Atari’s last crowdfunding effort either. It also signed an exclusive agreement with Fig to bring two games to their platform in the near future.

Pre-orders for the Atari VCS begin on May 30. We’ll follow the campaign and update you on its progress.