Atari VCS July 2020 Q&A with COO
Detailed answers to some of the most frequently asked questions from Atari VCS backers, fans, and press.
In this new Q&A, Atari VCS Chief Operating Officer Michael Arzt once again takes time to respond to a range of recent questions regarding the Atari VCS, discussing the company’s approach as they prepare for the product’s launch in late 2020.
Q: How do you define the Atari VCS? Is it a game console? Is it a PC? Both? What exactly does it do?
Michael Arzt: “The “VCS” in Atari VCS stands for “Video Computer System,” which is both a nod to Atari’s legacy and an incredibly accurate description of what the device is. The VCS is a fully-functional mini-PC that uses the TV, or any video monitor screen, as its primary interface in a way that feels like a traditional console experience. This is why we have taken to calling the Atari VCS a “PC/Console Hybrid.”
The Atari VCS is powered by an AMD Ryzen R1606G processor with Radeon “Vega” Graphics technology, which is a modern X86 PC processor. The underlying Atari operating system (Atari OS) is a customized branch of Debian Linux, on top of which we are running the Atari VCS Dashboard, a console-like experience built in Unity. The Dashboard and accompanying Atari storefront offer a combination of various games, apps, and streaming services that will feel familiar to anyone that has used a game console.
In addition, users are also uniquely able to install and boot from their own choice of OS in Atari’s “PC Mode.” Currently the Atari VCS supports Windows, various flavors of Linux, and other operating systems that users may wish to add such as e Steam OS and Chrome OS. Long-time followers of this project will recall that one of the original inspirations for Atari’s return to hardware was the phenomenon of kids connecting their laptops to bring the PC experience to their TV’s to play games and stream video.
By building the VCS on a solid PC foundation and taking this open “hybrid” approach, we are giving consumers a versatile two-in-one device that is more powerful than Android-based platforms. They can stick with the console-like Atari Dashboard and enjoy all the games and entertainment offerings within, or they can boot the VCS into “PC Mode,” and have an open PC experience for the TV, including streaming, office applications, social platforms, browsing, music, and more. Atari, in partnership with PowerA, has crafted an all-new Wireless Classic Joystick and Modern Controller for games and navigating the Atari VCS. The Atari system is also readily compatible with most PC peripherals like keyboards, mice and the game controllers and various other accessories many users will already have at home, which all adds to the products’ flexibility and open nature.
The latest AMD Ryzen PC hardware and the software flexibility of the Atari VCS is just the beginning. By using standard SODIMM memory units and providing an open M.2 SSD socket, there is a pathway for more skilled users to expand the hardware’s capabilities to allow for more demanding PC games and applications.”
Q: Is the Atari VCS a Retro-Console?
MA: “No, and we know some writers and consumers have compared the VCS to the various low-cost, dedicated “plug and play” retro consoles on the market. Those devices, like our own Atari Flashback products are great fun, typically sell for under $100, and are not connected devices. So, while they have carved out a very successful but specific role in the market, the Atari VCS is a much more powerful PC-based device, with a premium build quality, significantly more power, internet access, and an online store full of games, apps and streaming services, so it really can’t be compared to the “throwback” consoles.
The elements of the Atari VCS that are “retro” flavored are the name of course, the industrial design, the new Classic Joystick, and the Atari Vault collection of 100 classic games which comes free with every purchase. The Vault and the Joystick are an homage to the brand’s origins, and an opportunity for Atari’s original fans, and a new generation of fans to rediscover the joy of playing games on an all-new Atari. But even the new Atari Joystick brings modern tech and capabilities to the experience.
So, while the VCS is definitely not a retro-console, we do like the term “retro reimagined” to help describe the Atari VCS’s appeal to gamers who like retro gaming but also want a more versatile, modern device.”
Q: What unique features would draw consumers to the Atari VCS versus the two major consoles that have their next gen launches this winter?
MA: “We envision the Atari VCS as a gateway into a wide variety of content and services, many of which we are providing free access to. Our goal is to offer the consumer something unique. We feel there is a space in the living room for a device that is extremely versatile and extremely open like a PC, versus the bespoke game systems with more contained and restrictive environments, offering little or no versatility beyond what’s available out of the box.
Our game offerings will also be different. Instead of focusing on a narrow set of expensive AAA titles, our store will promote games made by smaller studios and treat indie developers like “triple A” publishers, allowing users to discover some of the really creative work that is more likely to be lost in the mix on larger platforms. These games will help revive the spirit of independent 3rd party development that is part of Atari’s DNA and also be relatively inexpensive compared to big-budget console games, many of which may land in the $70 price range as the new console generation begins. Titles in Atari’s store are expected to be much more affordable, with prices ranging anywhere from $3 to $25, with no fees imposed by Atari for online access.
We are also working with several studios to introduce reimagined versions of Atari classics optimized for the VCS and its new Wireless Classic Joystick. The Joystick itself is a key differentiator for Atari. There is nothing else exactly like it right now and the possibilities it creates for new and reimagined gameplay is quite significant. The recently-announced Missile Command: Recharged is a good example of this, with other games like it in the pipeline. So, while the Atari VCS is also capable of running AAA titles, and we expect to add some to our store over time, it’s not our focus right now.”
Q: Will consumers find value in the Atari VCS?
MA: “Yes, we think consumers will find value in the Atari VCS. The VCS is powered by a R1606G AMD Ryzen™ Embedded processor with integrated “Vega” graphics. AMD created these processors to power “Mini PC” class devices, which are small-but-highly-capable computers that don’t take up too much space and can easily fit into an existing media or gaming setups. In spite of such a small form factor, the R1606G processor used in the Atari VCS allows for HD gaming and supports a variety of video codecs for 4K HDR videos and streaming.
At our anticipated MSRP we see tremendous value in the Atari VCS All-In bundles when compared to comparable mini-PCs on the market, which typically require you to and an operating system, RAM, storage and peripherals. We will essentially be at parity based solely on the PC hardware, before adding in the additional value of two controllers, the native console experience and the diverse content. And because we are in a special partnership with AMD, we are one of the first mini PCs using the new AMD Ryzen R1606G, while most of the market is still using the older R1505G.
Our partners at AMD, who are actively promoting the economics and versatility of mini-PC’s, are very enthusiastic about the VCS and are showcasing it as a prime example in the class.
On a straight price comparison, we expect the VCS will also cost less than the next-gen offerings of the big two console makers, and will include 100 free classic Atari games. We are also focusing on lower-priced games, streaming apps and entertainment services that will all keep the Atari VCS more affordable in the long run for families.
We also don’t think this has to be a strict “either/or” purchase decision. Most American households have multiple entertainment devices. You often see one or two computers, a couple streaming devices and various handhelds, set top boxes and dedicated consoles. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t competition in our price range, but when you factor the combination of versatility and performance we believe the Atari VCS delivers a lot of value.”
Q: What PC Operating Systems can be installed on the Atari VCS in “PC Mode?” Can you run more than one alternate OS?
MA: “The majority of our team’s PC Mode OS-testing efforts have been focused on Windows 10 and Ubuntu, but Steam OS, Chrome OS and any of a number of other operating systems are expected to work if the user has authorized copies and sets everything up correctly. Certain OS configurations will require more expertise than others.
Atari’s testers regularly swap between bootable instances of Windows or Ubuntu that have been installed on external SSD and HDD drives connected to a VCS, so yes, users can expect to be able to run multiple alternate operating systems on their own systems at home. Each will require an external SSD or hard drive and a little technical know-how, but users should be thrilled with the flexibility.”
Q: Can you tell us more about your customer profile? Who will buy the Atari VCS?
MA: “There are several customer types that the Atari VCS will appeal to.
First and foremost, there are many “classic” Atari fans — both active and lapsed gamers — who will purchase an Atari VCS. This is probably a good description of many of the 12,000 individuals who backed our Indiegogo campaign. This customer is looking for an opportunity to revisit the games they grew up with and share them with new generations of kids and grandkids on all-new Atari hardware. They want to re-experience the joy of the early days of classic arcade and home video gaming, and will also be excited to discover a new generation of fun, creative games in our Atari Storefront. This customer will also be thrilled to have the Atari VCS as a single source for all their streaming services so they no longer have to juggle two or three remotes and devices.
We expect another active audience will include younger adults that are interested in “retro reimagined” products that offer modern capabilities and technology in a retro-flavored wrapper, much like a present-day Jeep or a Mini Cooper. They will enjoy the retro games from Atari and partners like Antstream Arcade, but will also appreciate having easy access to their current indie game favorites, modern game-streaming services and linear content, including movies, TV shows and music. They may also utilize the VCS as a small, easily portable PC for home, school or work, and many will load their PC game libraries on the VCS so they can play them on a TV.
The Atari brand has also cultivated a thriving culture of hobbyists, creators and modders over its nearly 50 years. People are still making amazing new content for decades-old hardware, or putting ROMs and emulators on a Raspberry Pi and other newer systems. We think that is an amazing phenomenon that should be enhanced by the new capabilities and tools represented by the Atari VCS. Every PC-based Atari VCS can be a development unit and we hope that the homebrew community will actively embrace the platform and new Classic Joystick to create and share new games and apps. The VCS also represents a great opportunity in the educational space, where a low-cost computer that is open for development would be very appealing to schools and STEM programs.
And of course, Atari will always be a great choice for families with children. Parents looking for a gaming system with affordable, creative games and learning tools will be drawn to the Atari VCS by the lower price point of content in our Store and the lack of an annual multiplayer subscription, which can add $60 a year to the cost of most consoles.”
Q: What are the specs of the Atari VCS and what is it capable of without any modifications?
MA: “The Atari VCS features an AMD Ryzen Embedded R1606G “Zen” processor with onboard Vega 3 Radeon graphics. The chip was just introduced in April 2019, and the VCS is one of the first commercial products to feature it. It is extremely quiet and energy efficient, which is important in a device designed for the living room.
The VCS 800 models come standard with 8GB of DDR4 RAM and a 32GB EMMC memory unit. There are four super-fast USB 3.1 ports, so you can connect plenty of external storage space, and you can even add an internal M.2 SSD drive for improved read/write performance. You can get plenty done with 8GB, but users who spend a lot of time in PC Mode with more demanding games and applications will appreciate the option to upgrade the RAM. There are two DDR4 slots that have been tested up to 32GB of RAM each, for a total of 64 GB.
For gaming, the Atari VCS delivers performance similar to many mid-range gaming laptops and mini-PC’s. Out of the box the VCS will easily run the vast majority of PC games perfectly well, and for some of the most demanding games you may need to tweak the video settings down, but they will absolutely be playable.
Streaming quality is excellent, with the VCS able to easily output 4k video at 60fps. Users will be able to stream from a number of popular game, movie and TV services at launch.”
Q: Speaking of performance, some critics have compared the performance of the Atari VCS to a Raspberry PI, the Ouya or even a mobile phone. Is there any merit to these comparisons?
MA: “We designed the Atari VCS with an AMD X86 PC processor from the start, with a goal to blend performance and price point in a stylish, TV-centric computer for the family room. We wanted to hit a performance threshold that supports a wide variety of games and apps, 4K streaming, and also support running as a more-traditional PC — all without breaking the bank. Our engineers, in collaboration with AMD, put a lot of time and effort into delivering on that, and even pushed back our launch when presented with an opportunity to make a better product by upgrading to a newer, higher-performing processor.
Atari’s goals never included competing with full-on gaming PCs that have dedicated, high-end graphics cards and powerhouse processing. If you are the kind of gamer that wants to play the dozen or so most-graphically demanding video games that utilize ray-tracing you would need to spend at least $400 on your graphics card to hit 60fps. The entire machine is going to cost well north of $1,000. And that is a great gaming experience; a bunch of us at Atari have just that kind of rig. But we fully expect some of those PC owners will also buy an Atari VCS, connect it to their TV and boot it in PC mode because sometimes they just want to play their Steam games on the couch, and they don’t mind dialing back the settings a little on their more demanding games when they do it. Or they can also choose to locally stream games from their gaming PC directly to the VCS and play on their big TV.
We also did not want to engage in an arms race with any of the console makers. Atari’s goal is to reach the mass consumer that may not want to pay a premium for a layer of hardware performance they rarely tap into, and who may be looking for something a bit different from what the dedicated consoles provide. Nintendo has done an amazing job of breaking from the mold by emphasizing portability over processing power, combined with unique games and proprietary IP, and with other new retro-style consoles coming to market alongside us, clearly we were not the only ones that saw an opportunity to do something different.
Comparing the performance of the VCS to devices designed to run basic operating systems is not appropriate either. Even the Raspberry Pi, which is certainly a great device (we are big fans), has a processor that tops out 1.5 GHz, less than half the base performance of the AMD Ryzen R1606G chip in the Atari VCS.
The mobile phone comparison is also puzzling to us. Mobile phones are designed to do very, very different things from what an Atari VCS will do, and they use immense processing power for very different tasks. While mobile phones have certainly seen significant increases in processing power in recent years, this power has also come with a high price tag. Take Apple’s new A12 processors, for example. The cheapest new iPad with an A12 now retails for $799. The cheapest new iPhone SE starts at $399, and the iPhone 11 models start at $999 and quickly escalate. Many of Samsung’s new phones run from $799 to well-over $1,000. You can pre-order a base Atari VCS 800 right now for $299, or with the wireless joystick and controller for just $100 more.”
Q: What are some known or popular games we can expect on the Atari VCS at launch? Are any Triple-A exclusive games in the pipeline for the VCS?
MA: “As of today, we have so far only announced the Atari VCS Vault of 100 classic arcade and home titles, along with Missile Command: Recharged, but there will be many more coming for launch and beyond that we very much look forward to announcing. We are also incredibly excited about our partnership with Antstream Arcade and our recently-announced partnership Game Jolt, a huge indie game community and incubator that will be curating and delivering a steady stream of creative and innovative games to the VCS from a variety of genres.
Atari is primarily interested in promoting new games from independent developers and creators, modern reinterpretations of classic arcade and home console games, PC, arcade and console games that may have been unavailable to mass audiences for many years, and anything else that expands the platform in the ways the community would like to see. Unfortunately, we’re not ready to unveil anything else specific here today, but there is a lot to look forward to. Interested creators can learn more on our Atari VCS developer page.
Our goal plan is to treat indie games like our AAA content. So, if by “Triple-A” games you are asking if the Atari VCS will feature titles similar to “Halo” or “Last of Us,” then the answer is “not at the moment.” But we know the Atari VCS can run many AAA titles, and we expect some of them to make their way into our Store over time. What the Atari VCS game library looks like on day one, day one-hundred, and day one-thousand are going to be three very different things.
Atari and its partners do have several games in development that will start as “Atari VCS Exclusives” or offer “Atari VCS Optimized” versions with exclusive content and/or features. Not all of these will be in place on day one, but we look forward to announcing them.”
Q: Will Antstream Arcade be the only way to play retro games on the VCS, or will there be a storefront for purchasing retro titles (rather than subscribing), and if so, how much will each title cost?
MA: “Antstream Arcade is just one way to access retro games on the Atari VCS, but it represents the quickest and most comprehensive access point for large amounts of retro-gaming content at system launch. Our long-term vision is to make a full assortment of affordably-priced classic emulators and game ROMs accessible from the Atari VCS store. We are working on this with some great partners and will all have a lot more to say about it as we get closer to implementing this feature.”
Q: Is there anything else you can tell us about the Atari VCS or launch plans?
MA: “Actually, there is: We expect to announce online and/or retail sales availability of the Atari VCS in select countries soon. We encourage our international fans to stay tuned for good news.”
We hope you enjoyed this Q&A with Atari VCS COO Michael Arzt!
— The Atari VCS Team