Queue up the “game over” music of your choosing (I’m partial to Pac-Man’s plaintive wail), because Atari is now an internet of things company. The creator of Pong and former employer of college dropout/mystic Steve Jobs announced Tuesday that it is developing a line of connected devices in partnership with the French wireless communications company Sigfox. The doodads, yet to be specifically named, will fall under exceedingly vague categories such as pets, home, lifestyle, and safety, according to a press release. Atari’s main pitch is that, thanks to Sigfox’s tech, the different devices will be able to communicate without being connected to the internet.
It’s 2016, and there is no need to inject more digital smarts into everyday household objects that have worked just fine for decades. We don’t yet know what Atari’s smart devices will be, but if it’s planning to hawk smart juicers or Bluetooth-enabled forks, we’ll stick with the original incarnations. Even if the company is aiming to develop more practical wares, like a thermostat or a general digital assistant for the home, it’ll be competing with the richest tech firms in the world (which have already built internet-free home wireless networks and, ironically enough, developed video games).
Seeing another company hop on the IoT bandwagon isn’t particularly surprising, but coming from a gaming icon like Atari, this one hurts. The company, founded in 1972 by Nolan Bushnell, helped popularize video games in the United States, both in the arcade and the living room. Atari 2600 titles like Frogger and Space Invaders are some of the most celebrated in the history of the medium. But Atari was actually the first titan of the industry focused solely on video games to be felled by changing technological winds. The industry crash of 1983 nearly sunk the company (thanks, E.T.), and though it survived through a series of mergers, failed console releases, and corporate rebrandings, it was never the same. The company’s timeline on its website comes to a conspicuous halt at 1984.
The dreaded corporate “pivot” seems to be the inevitable outcome for any company that originally cared first and foremost about video games. Sega was the Atari for a younger generation, offering consoles with cutting-edge graphics and ahead-of-their-time features like online multiplayer. Now the company is building a sprawling billion-dollar casino in South Korea and, occasionally, mocking our childhoods with bad Sonic the Hedgehog games. Even Nintendo, the lovable losers of gaming, have tentative plans to release a consumer-facing “health platform,” elbowing into another wildly overcrowded tech sector. We’re left with Sony and Microsoft, technological giants that have injected gaming with enough high-octane explosions and gunplay to rival Hollywood, for good and for ill.
Let’s be honest: Atari probably isn’t the company that’s going to revolutionize the way cats drink water or inject some much-needed levity into video games. Sometimes, it’s best to just let sleeping brands lie.