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Editorial - 'The Shadier Side Of Atari'

by Ben Parfitt on June 26, 2004 @ 7:00 p.m. PDT

As you read this Atari’s Driv3r will have be in the shops and being played in homes across the world after it’s worldwide release. If you’ve played it already you’ll no doubt be aware that the game is a huge disappointment and certainly not the Grand Theft Auto beater that the hype may have had you believe. Folk out there playing the game will be aware of it, and judging by Atari’s actions over the last week they are also very aware of it.

A worldwide release is no small order and to execute one successfully requires a vast amount of organisation. Not only does the code have to be regionalised and converted to the correct format for every territory, but the games themselves must also reach their destination on time. However, from Wednesday 16th of June many players here in the UK were already enjoying the title after a number of ‘under the counter’ sales.

In an effort to ensure that all of the European territories were able to sell the game from June 25th, Atari shipped out several shipments of Driver 3 to some of the larger European distributors to give it time to circulate and reach all the varied destinations. What Atari hadn’t anticipated though was that for many of the larger European distributors their customers are overseas. As a result, no sooner had the game left the UK and reached the shores of several distribution hubs such as Greece and Sweden than it was immediately sold straight back to countries such as the UK.

UK distributors quickly entered a frenzy, manically pre-selling their imminent early stock of the game. However, Atari soon caught on to the developing situation and placed an immediate embargo on larger distributors, preventing them from shipping the game. Nonetheless, distribution is a competitive business and where there are people willing to sell there are also people willing to buy. Smaller distributors immediately started buying up all of the available stock as their larger competitors stood by unable to capitalise. Again, Atari attempted to regain control by placing purchase embargo’s on the larger high street stores such as GAME (the UK arm of Electronics Boutique) and Gamestation, but much as they were unable to get at the smaller distributors, it would have been virtually impossible for them to contact every independent retailer and stop them as well.

GAME has a reputation for being somewhat the bully in this country. Seeing as they account for nearly 90% of high street sales in this country they wield a lot of power. No matter what they may do, no distributor would dare question GAME because if for one reason or another GAME decided to stop stocking products from a certain company that company would see their UK profits plummet. This was clearly demonstrated when GAME decided to sell the Xbox GTA Double Pack in the run up to Christmas Eve 2003, a full two weeks ahead of both the release date and the expiry of Sony’s exclusivity deal that ran until the end of the year. Neither Sony nor Rockstar were able to challenge GAME because doing so would be paramount to retail suicide. I can’t help but allow myself a wry smile this time, however, as indies across the country profited by secretly selling thousands of pre-release copies whilst GAME and Atari looked on helplessly. Indeed, new wholesaler Creative Distribution shifted 700 copies in 10 minutes on one day, followed by the same in 30 minutes the next.

But this leakage had further, and possibly greater, ramifications for Atari. Just as these copies were finding their way into the hands of the public, so they were too into the hands of the reviewers. Atari had deliberately withheld final review code for distribution to magazines and websites until the day of release. Indeed, to date only one UK mag (PSM2) had been granted an ‘exclusive review’. Having now played the game, the lavish review and 90% score awarded are laughable proving that not only are single format publications biased but exclusive reviews utterly unreliable. The credibility of PSM2 is also irrevocably damaged.

So why is it that Atari were so desperate to keep the code hidden until release? Basically, because the game is nowhere near as good as we were expecting. Whilst later levels are quite accomplished the game itself is riddled with glitches and bugs that scream out for more testing. Remember how Angel of Darkness was released before it was properly finished to meet financial requirements? It’s the same situation all over again. Clipping is terrible, missions are poorly thought out, the on foot sections are rough and AI is hopelessly erratic. It’s not a terrible game by any means, but it certainly fails to live up to its prestigious heritage.

Knowing how financially significant this game is for both Reflections and Atari, a review embargo was quickly placed on websites across the world preventing the publishing of reviews before release. It’s a desperate, dirty ploy that definitely dirties Atari’s name, but games are big business and in the world of business profits come first. Atari obviously doesn’t mind looking bad as long as those folk wandering into their local game store on the day of release haven’t been allowed to read any reviews and aren’t aware of the disappointment that lies ahead when they fork out £40 on a piece of software that isn’t fully finished. In other industries such behaviour would be greeted with outcry, but in the games industry this sort of thing goes on all the time. It’s not right, is it? It’s the consumer’s right to know about products they’re about to buy and to deprive them of this should not be allowed. Shame on you, Atari. Perhaps if you’d spent more time focusing on making Driv3r the game it should have been and less on devising retail strategies and blanketing the consumer, this situation wouldn’t have arisen in the first place.

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