Shares in Atari Inc. plummeted in value today on the back of the company's announcement that PC, PS2 and Xbox title Driv3R has slipped from its March release to June 1, missing the all-important fiscal fourth quarter.
In what is being seen by analysts as a serious blow to the publisher, Atari's parent company, Inforgrames, issued a statement confirming the delay, with chairmen of entertainment Bruno Bonnell commenting: "The decision to choose a new date was a strategic one we had to make given the enormous potential of Driv3r to be a global success. With 12 million copies already sold worldwide, the Driver series is a major franchise for our Group. Two extra months of promotion will spike sales of this title, which could be the largest return on investment in the Group's history."
Driv3r was the all-important title in the company's current fiscal year, however, with a lot riding on its predicted success, so the delay till June 1 has prompted analysts to drastically revise projections, with Reuters reporting that it could slash as much as 100 million euros from fourth-quarter sales.
In its statement, Atari commented: "The Group expects income from operations for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2004 to break even, compared with an operating profit of 6-7 percent of revenue projected earlier.
However, speaking to Reuters, CIC Securities analyst Laurent Ducoin said: "This shows once again that at best [Atari has] a hazardous games launch policy and at worst that they lack control over production." Indeed, the lack of genuine triple-A product hitting store shelves must be a concern for Atari; Driv3r was without a shadow of a doubt its biggest title of the fiscal year until the delay and the company appears to be relying heavily on the success of its popular Unreal franchise.
While Bonnell branded the move "strategic", it seems clear Atari was clearly hoping the game would make its March release, with ad campaigns beginning in earnest in the US press. Select members of the press who have been treated to hands-on previews of the game have commented that, while undeniably impressive, there is still a lot left to do, and since the first opportunity for the European press at large to play Driv3r is in a week and half's time, with no preview code available, it's clear developer Reflections will need every extra day to tune the title to perfection.
And while Summer is not traditionally a time when potential blockbuster videogames are released, Atari will be well aware that any further significant slip will nudge it closer to the rumoured October release of the next Grand Theft Auto title, likely to appeal to much the same audience as Driv3r.
Shares in Atari, listed on the Nasdaq (ATAR) had plummeted by over 20 percent at the time of writing, to $3.35.
DRIV3R is an action-packed driving adventure game that stays true to its roots, incorporating the cinematic gameplay and gritty street crime of its predecessors with groundbreaking graphics and three mammoth, wide-open city environments.
We'll be on hand at next week's press event to bring you full hands-on impressions and an exclusive interview with Reflections head Martin Edmonson.