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Atari/Infogrames Transitioning to Digital Distribution of Games

This announcement comes at the heels of an agreement made with Japanese publisher and developer Namco Bandai, who now owns 34 percent of Infogrames and will have an option to buy the remaining portion within the next five years. While the distribution side of the merger will handle Infogrames, Namco Bandai and other publishers’ products, Gardner is working to make the Atari label as one of the top-five online brands, straying away from physical, retail products.

After the failed relaunch of the Alone in the Dark franchise - along with the company’s previous financial troubles - it’s no surprise that Atari is looking to regroup again. Currently the company has not outlined specific types of products that will appear on Atari.com, however Paulina Bozek (from Sony’s SingStar franchise) has already signed on to helm the new London studio.

Does this mean that the company is going casual? According to an interview with MCV, Atari president Phil Harrison confirmed that the company would indeed have a strong presence with Xbox Live Arcade and Sony’s PlayStation Network. "And iTunes with the App Store and with Facebook, MySpace etc," he added. "The company will be broadly online distribution agnostic."

Earlier today, Europe’s ELSPA (The Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association) applauded Atari for its commitment to abandon boxed products. Apparently, this movement solidifies ELSPA’s belief that Europe should embrace PEGI (Pan European Game Information) as the standard ratings system, rather than the current BBFC (British Board of Film Classification) system.

“Atari’s decision to shift retail emphasis to online further emphasizes why the British video game industry specifically favours the PEGI age ratings system," said Paul Jackson, Director General at ELSPA. Jackson spoke out at the Labour Party conference today, claiming that the PEGI system is the only ratings classification that has the power to prevent game publishers from distributing unsuitable content to children.

Additionally, Peter Moore of EA Sports sees total digital distribution in the near future. "So in the future hard drives are going to be bigger, broadband is going to be faster and we’re going to look back and laugh at the fact that we used to drive to the store to buy a piece of plastic with data on it," he told The Guardian in a recent interview. "That business model isn’t going to exist – I don’t know whether it’s going to be five years from now or ten years, but it’s not going to be around anymore."

With Internet stores such as Direct2Drive, Gamers’ Gate, Valve’s Steam service, and even Ted Turner’s GameTap, the shift to total digital retail is getting closer than one might think. This method of content delivery should also strengthen the ESRB’s ability to legislate mature content, a daunting task for many retail outlets.

Only time will tell if Atari’s move towards digital distribution is a sign of economic hardships, or an intelligent step in the right direction.