‘Matrix’ videogame makes big bow

Sales garner $50 mil for first week

Vidgame “Enter the Matrix” started almost as strongly as the movie on which it is based, selling more than 1 million units in its first week, and taking the No. 1 sales slot, said publisher Atari, which bet hugely on the much-anticipated title to revive its sagging fortunes.

The sales represent a retail “box office” of roughly $50 million, and would mark the game as a hit by most normal measures of success. Atari co-founder, Chairman and CEO Bruno Bonnell, was typically ebullient about the figures., which the company claimed were an all-time record for sell-through. The results pushed company share prices up as much as 22% on Friday.

“These initial sales results exemplify the power of the Wachowski brothers’ vision for the franchise,” Bonnell said. “With the exceptional box office results of ‘The Matrix Reloaded’ and the explosive sales of ‘Enter The Matrix,’ we are witnessing the true convergence of Hollywood and gaming.”

But usual parameters of success may not necessarily apply to this game.

It was written and directed by the movie’s writer/directors, Larry and Andy Wachowski, and created simultaneously with shooting of “Reloaded” and the final installment in the Matrix trilogy, “The Matrix Revolutions.”

Atari, which switched from its original French name of Infogrames about three weeks ago, shipped more than 4 million copies of the game, a record, and an expensive one. Game biz observers say typically replication and shipping expenses cost around $10 per copy, meaning the company had to swallow around $40 million. Company insiders have quoted a figure of $35 million.

Atari also spent $47 million to acquire Shiny Entertainment, the developer hand-picked by the Wachowskis to make the game, and the Matrix license rights from Interplay. Shiny prexy David Perry has been quoted saying the game cost $20 million to develop, as much as four times the usual cost of a typical high-end title.

Those three expenses alone would bring the title’s costs at $102 million to $107 million, plus any marketing expenditures, making it one of the most expensive titles ever created. When reviews were somewhat soft coming out of last week’s big Electronic Entertainment Expo convention, shares of Atari stock sagged after a huge runup that tripled prices in just few months.

The stock peaked at $7.02 in early May, then drooped by around $3 a share in recent days. News of the initial sales results sent the stock jumping upward 90 cents, to $5.13 per share on Nasdaq morning trading.

Atari’s French parent, Infogrames Entertainment SA, is one of the world’s biggest game publishers. But it has been struggling with more than $500 million in debt since a late 1990s buying binge. To help generate the cash needed to pay down that debt, Bonnell has focused the company’s slate of offerings increasingly on major licensed properties such as “The Matrix” and “Terminator 3.”

Atari may benefit from the one-two punch of two Matrix film releases this year, given that attention for “Revolutions” in November, along with the DVD release around that time for “Reloaded,” will probably spur another round of game buyers. Most game titles make most of their money in the first month or two of release, then see prices erode fairly quickly from top-dollar $49.99 levels as retailers clear shelves for the next big title.

“This is the beginning of our sales success as we expect continued strong returns for the duration of the year, based on the success of “The Matrix Reloaded” and the upcoming release of The Matrix Revolutions,” Bonnell said.

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