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Getting Hard Boiled: Midway Chicago's Mike Bilder on Stranglehold

How do you launch a major next-gen game property on multiple SKUs? Gamasutra spoke to Midway Chicago studio head Mike Bilder about the development of Stranglehold, from overcoming PlayStation 3 technical issues to working with John Woo and Midway's attempted next-gen turnaround.

Recently, Gamasutra had a chance to speak with Mike Bilder, studio head of Midway Chicago. The most important project at that studio is Stranglehold, which launched in early September for Xbox 360 and PC and, finally, the release of the game on PlayStation 3 this month.

The discussion, which took place at a recent launch event for the game, takes in the evolution of that title, the difficulties getting it running on the PlayStation 3 hardware, and how movies and films could better influence each other, among other topics:

We were just talking about the PS3 build of Stranglehold. That was delayed a bit, right?

Mike Bilder: Yeah, a little bit.

Why did that come about?

MB: Just, technical difficulties in development, but it has a number of people dedicated to it in Chicago, and they're working hard, and I think we're going to overcome them pretty quickly.

Do you really think that it's going to be the same level as the 360? Or better? What is your take on that?

MB: I think it's going to be the same. And that's part of the reason why we're delaying it, is that we want to ensure that the quality is the same on all platforms.

The 360 was the lead SKU, right?

MB: 360 and PC, actually, were simultaneously the lead SKU.

Do you think that's part of the reason why it's been somewhat difficult? Because I've heard that if you go from PS3 to 360, if you have PS3 as the lead SKU, you have compartmentalized stuff and you're bringing it into a larger playing field. Whereas with 360 or PC as the lead, you're taking something big and breaking it into chunks.

MB: Sure. You know, it's really a tough thing to say. Hindsight's always 20/20, but we've kept all of the builds in a similar development state all along. What we found, though, when we tried to get some of it game-ready and fitting on the disc and fitting in memory, in the end it was an easier endeavor on two of the SKUs and it was a more difficult endeavor on one of them. Just, to be honest, the hardware differences in memory and processor on the PS3 vs. traditional PC and 360, it makes it a challenge, and it's representative. Everybody's having a challenge in the industry right now.

It's pretty ubiquitous, yeah. What do you think you could have done differently from the start, to alleviate that stuff? Because you said, hindsight...

MB: I think a lot of people and a lot of focus as far as games that we have internally that are going to be multi-SKU are trying to put the PS3 out in front now, make that your lead SKU. And in the same way I think a lot of people put the PS2 as their lead SKU in the last hardware generation, and then Xbox came after.

The difficulty you run into there, at least in the last generation, was that the Xbox was considerably more powerful than the PS2, and you found that people didn't always take advantage of the hardware. Whereas with the PS3 and the 360, it's certainly more of a level playing field, so I don't think it's necessarily a negative to put the PS3 first. But it does help mitigate some of that risk in framerate, memory, technology, just the hardware differences.

 


Does it concern you at all in terms of number of consoles sold on the PS3 side? Or, since it's multi-SKU, it doesn't matter?

MB: I don't know that that's necessarily an answer that I can give you. There are a number of other people in the company that are always looking at the economics and the marketplace, and the install base and whatnot. Just from a PD standpoint we obviously want to sell as many units as we can on as many platforms, so we always try to optimize for those variables, right?

Yeah. Midway seems to have recently gone really full-force with the original IP stuff, which not a lot of other publishers are doing. Do you think that's going to... I don't want to say "turn things around for you", but is that going to bring you guys to the fore?

MB: Yeah, I think that's certainly part of our strategy right now. And I don't know that it's necessarily a hidden part of our strategy; it's out in the open, we're betting a lot on a lot of new IP, but traditionally what we've seen are companies that do become dominant during a certain hardware transition, meaning like PS1 to PS2, or even now, PS2 to PS3 and Xbox, Xbox 360 and so on and so forth, and it's people that really establish new key franchises.

So we are betting heavy on new IP, we are trying not to just rest on laurels and become a sequel house. And really, Stranglehold is one of our first endeavors there and we're thrilled with the way it's turned out. So we want that to become a competitive advantage for ourselves, for sure.

In a way, you've almost started a little later, though. I don't mean in terms of the game's development cycle, but in terms of releasing games to the market. What is the logic behind waiting to release your original stuff?

MB: I think we've had a mantra of "fewer, bigger, better", and just taking the time to make our games hit a quality level, instead of trying to crank out ten games that are B-quality, let's crank out five games that are A-quality.

So we don't want to rush things to market, we want to take time and do things right, and invent new technology, invent new gameplay mechanics, and again, I think Stranglehold is a good example of that with the massive destructibility and some of the new elements of gameplay you haven't traditionally seen in action games or first person shooter games, and it's taken time to develop that technology. It's taken time to develop that expertise internally.

So instead of rush something to market, we'd rather noodle on it and get it right, get it to 100 percent. So I think that's why we might be a little bit lagging from launch titles of when the systems initially came out, but at the same time it gives us an opportunity to capitalize on a bigger installed base. Heck of a lot more 360s out there then there were that Christmas they came out, and same thing with the PS3s, this holiday as opposed to last holiday.

Yeah, you're going to sell a lot more of these than some of the launch games.

MB: Because there's just more units out there, yeah. That's certainly our expectation.

What's interesting to me is that, with this hardware generation, right now there's still a strong element of spectacle; people will get excited about a game. It strikes me that if Stranglehold weren't an amazing game, they'd still be amazed at the fact that they could blow everything up. We still have that kind of early-Hollywood-era kind of "Wow, this thing is actually happening and it kind of looks like reality!" How long do you think that's going to last?

MB: That's a very interesting question. I think that's partially ingrained into our fan base and our consumer, that's what turns them on, that's what they like. So every company's always looking for that next big competitive hook in their game, or angle they can add to an existing franchise or an existing genre, and I think as long as those ideas persist and as long as people come up with new ways to innovate within them, that that's always going to be a mainstay in this industry, I do. In the same way that I think there are certain types of hooks in the film industry. I mean, Matrix comes out and suddenly bullet-time becomes the new hook...

Or Stranglehold's Tequila Time.

MB: Or Tequila Time, sure. You see the crossover effect there.

 


Are you still in communication with Woo's Tiger Hill on this stuff?

MB: Yeah, certainly.

What has their reaction been to the near-complete build that you've got?

MB: They've been very pleased with it. We've kept tight communications with them all along, and as we've neared completion, we've sent them builds, submission builds, final builds, final cinematic builds, and so far they've been very ecstatic. And on top of that, all the press we've gotten lately with E3, with having this launch, our Xbox 360 demo... we've gotten a ton of positive press, and they love to see all that flowing as well.

Do you know if Chow Yun-Fat has actually played it himself?

MB: I know that he's seen it, I don't know if he's actually gotten his hands on it.

He seems a bit out of the gaming demographic.

MB: I don't know that I can answer that. (laughs)

That's okay. You don't have to.

MB: People on the team are a little closer to that, they've been involved with him as a resource on the product, voice-over and you know, other facets, but... again I can't speak to his gaming prowess.

So we were talking about the character randomization earlier, how I saw several guys with the same face and model on screen, simultaneously. Do you think that's one of the next hurdles we're going to have to jump over? We're getting closer to a sort of realism, but the closer we get, the more things like multiple instances of the same character become disconcerting. How long do you think before we get to the stage where we're beyond that?

MB: Beyond that meaning, technically beyond it, meaning it's no longer an issue for us as developers? Or just finicky as consumers would be on that...

Well, we'll never be beyond that. Consumers won't ever care. I mean more like reviewers and things. Consumers will never give a crap about that kind of stuff. I mean more as an art form, I guess I should say.

MB: Sure. Again, that's probably a speculation thing. It depends on... it's the tradeoff of what you want to have in your game, and what you want to spend your limited resources on as far as memory and performance, how systems in the game will function. So you could have far fewer people on screen and every one of them could be unique, or you could have far many more and have some of repetitiveness, and it's kind of the tolerance of the consumer and what they would prefer, and what your particular game dictates, design-wise.

In your experience, what is the threshold for that?

MB: I think fun gameplay always trumps. So if... say, every single character in this game is not the same. There is plenty of variety. But if you find crowded spaces and crowded levels, you're right, you're going to run into some repetition. But I think people will largely overlook that, so long as the action is there, the feverish gameplay, the stimulation is there, that's dismissed by the consumer. That's just my opinion, but I think that, again, I think fun gameplay always trumps. So if you have to sacrifice graphical quality or uniqueness in an environment or a character set to have gameplay be more exciting or exhilarating, that's what you always choose.

In a way, Midway has always kind of been about that kind of instant gratification arcade-style stuff, so it makes a lot of sense to take that approach here. I feel like for a while that kind of vision was lost for a bit, I don't know if you feel the same? How long have you been with Midway?

MB: I've been with Midway for seven and a half years.

So I feel like... probably during, around that time, Midway wasn't as much like itself in terms of like, as many of the Blitz games or Rampage type stuff, or just the pure arcade-style action. And it seems like you're getting back to that more now. Is that just totally me being ridiculous, or...

MB: We've always had a healthy mix of our mainstay, kind of action, fast-paced, kinematic, you feel it on the stick kind of games, be they rooted in the arcade classics or in stuff that we've done on current or even prior-gen consoles, but at the same time we've got a lot of diversity within the Chicago studio and within the other studios within Midway, where we've branched out into other areas and taken risks on different genres or different IPs, and some have panned out and some haven't.

And I think any good developer will take risks like that, and will continue to try to diversify themselves. You know, if all we did was twitch-action games that were cool in the '80s arcades, and that's all we did now, I don't know if we'd have that great of a business. But I think there are still some rooted people, people who have been at the company for years, who understand that marketplace and understand how to make games that are compelling for that kind of consumer, and it is reflected in some of our current games.

That's kind of what I mean. I feel like a game like Stranglehold is closer to that old aesthetic than a few of the games in the past. That's what I'm saying. It feels like this game, maybe BlackSite, some of the stuff you're doing for DS... feels like it's the old Midway spirit back again. I was wondering if that was a conscious shift or just a natural progression.

MB: It all depends on the game. I think what we've done well with our historical titles, and even in our arcade heyday, was really captivating the player, getting them to want to put another quarter in or press start another time, and we've certainly tried to reflect that in our current products, and that is a company-wide initiative to try to reflect that in all of our products, but I don't know that there's any kind of deeper-rooted direction or guidance that you might be alluding to. It's all based on what type of game you're making, and what type of genre and who's involved with it.

 


So, there have been a couple of games where you could blow up EVERYTHING, but the physics weren't nearly as detailed as Stranglehold. I don't know if you've played Earth Defense Force? That's a game from D3... you can blow up basically any building with 2 rockets. You can just level the whole universe. It's kind of ridiculous.

MB: Yeah, all this destructibility, it's hugely empowering, I think. It's rewarding to be able to just waste stuff.

It's almost like user-generated content, in a way. Because it allows you as a player to make your unique mark on the universe, right?

MB: There's a number of levels as well where you kind of get a strategic advantage to blowing things up instead of just running and gunning. So it integrates itself pretty well in the gameplay, too, it's not just for the visual.

So I've seen. There are key elements you can shoot down to knock into guys, stuff like that. This whole kind of thing started, I think, with being able to write your name in Doom, in the decals on the wall. This seems like the ultimate power-fantasy extrapolation of that. I can imagine people getting very excited about this sort of thing. We'll see.

MB: Well, there's certainly a lot of buzz.

A lot of people would be interested to know if this is a property that Midway would like to see extend beyond games. Meaning into a movie or into a show, or...

MB: We're always interested in those opportunities, for obvious reasons.

Is that something that you have any inclinations toward at this time?

MB: I unfortunately can't talk about any of those kinds of relationships. What I can tell you is that we've got a really good relationship with Tiger Hill and with John Woo and we're certainly continuing to talk, especially given the promise of this title. So, there are hopefully opportunities on the horizon. How those manifest, I can't really say.

Do you think it depends on the success of the title, or is it independent of that?

MB: It's hard to say. It's like any relationship. You want an element of success in what you've done with them if you want repeat business, so I'm sure that if this goes out and does extremely well, then that will play a role in the discussions, and vice versa.

What's interesting to me is that, there have been games based on movies and movies based on games, but this is a game based on a collaboration. It's not based on an actual movie; it's based on a concept. And that strikes me as something that could be much better translated into a cinematic experience, because there's nothing tied into anything else.

MB: You don't have to follow a movie plot, right.

Right, and you don't have to follow a game plot, because what you've created here is a universe, not a specific product necessarily.

MB: I do think that this is a really good recipe for how the whole transition from games to movies and back and forth should work, and you're not the first person to point that out, and it seems like a lot of people are agreeing as well that this is one of the best realizations of how to make a movie-game that's not necessarily tied to a movie.

Yeah, it's a unique approach in that it's as though someone were to be like "hey, let's make a Quentin Tarantino, Samuel L. Jackson game". Which is a good idea, actually. Someone should pay me a lot of money for that idea right now.

MB: And I'm certain you're not the first person to think of it.

(Laughs) I'm sure I'm not. But, you know. This is the situation where I'm sure you weren't the first to think of this, either, but this actually happened. Because, you know, everyone's copied bullet time. And bullet time is basically based on a John Woo movie, ultimately.

MB: Sure. Slow-mo, cinematography, action sequence, sure. Certainly a mainstay in his movies.

 


It makes a lot of sense. You guys haven't done any Live Arcade stuff yet, have you? Out of Chicago. Is that anything you're looking into there?

MB: Midway has done a number of Live Arcade titles, but out of Chicago? I guess that's not entirely true. The Mortal Kombat Live Arcade SKU was partially produced out of Chicago. But as far as original content? It's certainly an interesting thing to us, and it's something that we've talked about. It's a matter of putting the right resources on it and finding the right economic model. So if those opportunities exist, we have the right people at the right time, and it costs the right amount of money, we'll certainly do it. But just as a gamer, I'm an enormous fan of Live Arcade, and there's a number of people in Chicago that are as well.

When I think of Midway, that's one of the first things that comes to mind. Like, "They should be making Live Arcade games".

MB: Yeah, the whole gamerscore thing, and that replacement of the high score table in the old arcade games, it's great. And we're always looking at opportunities.

I mean a lot of older Midway games were really about score and machismo, and not a lot of other companies are tapped into that; they have respect, instead of points. I think points are still good. Gimme some points!

MB: To me it's a great forum to put a lot of old IP on, so you take some old arcade games, which we've done, we've put a lot of our old arcade games up on Live Arcade, but one of the things that really interested me recently was the whole Pac-Man Championship Edition.


Pac-Man, reinvented

Yeah, that was quite well done, wasn't it?

MB: Yeah, very well-executed, very true to the original game, but a new mechanic on it, a new take on it. It's something that a number of people within Midway are very intrigued by: how do we take some of our existing arcade IP and expand on it, and not just necessarily do a port, but turn it into something new as well. So, hoping that in the next year or so we'll find some opportunities to do that.

I hope so, too. I will definitely anticipate that. Is there anything else you'd like to mention about the Chicago studio right now?

MB: I guess since this has largely been about Stranglehold, just that it was an incredible effort by a large number of people in Chicago to realize this game and to see it through, and you always have to work hard for good things, right? And these guys have definitely put in the hours and put in the effort, and we're definitely excited by the end result. So I guess that would be some final comments on Chicago: we've got a great set of guys, we've got a great team, we've got a number of employees that live and breathe and would give their all for this kind of thing, and hopefully the success of Stranglehold will be a fruit of their labor.

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