[Gamasutra attended publisher Midway's press event in Las Vegas late last week, and Christian Nutt returns to ask an important question - can this year's Midway break its losing streak and turn into a viable publishing entity?]
Veteran publisher Midway has been struggling of late - even the firm itself would admit - posting losses year after year, with its attempted comeback last year stymied by flops such as BlackSite: Area 51
and only marginal successes such as Stranglehold
Something drastic is required to raise its fortunes. Was that something on display at its recent Editors' Day, held last week -- chiefly for the benefit of the enthusiast press -- in Las Vegas?
While the company showed a strong lineup of core gamer focused titles to a large contingent of the North American and European press, questions remain about whether any of these games will find significant success in the marketplace.
Most crucially, while many will perform, it seems difficult for some to imagine that the success will be significant enough to turn the fortunes of a company that lost nearly $100 million dollars
in 2007. Nonetheless, let's examine how Midway chose to walk tall.
A Big, Loud Event
Taking place at the swanky new Red Rock resort hotel in Las Vegas, the event began with a stage presentation mostly geared towards members of the consumer gaming press -- loud, bold, and unflinchingly young male-targeted, with pro wrestlers on stage and exploding cars on screen.
Two games which fit that segment were announced at the event: Blitz: The League II
, and Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe
. The former is a continuation of the dramatic, NFL-free football lifestyle sim-cum-sports game which debuted in 2005; the latter is an extension of the company's flagship fighting game series, wrapped in a major licensing deal -- to lend key early credibility to the pairing, Batman and Superman were the DC characters announced for this fall title.
Otherwise, the bulk of the presentation -- with one exception we'll get to shortly -- was by way of expanding upon the playable demos awaiting its conclusion -- the usual mix of hyperbole, sizzle, and salient information. The games highlighted include: This Is Vegas, Wheelman, NBA Ballers: Chosen One, TNA Impact!
, and the belated Xbox 360 port of last year's Unreal Tournament III
Matt Booty: Interim CEO, Lifetime Midway Man
The exception to the cavalcade of marketing was Matt Booty, president and interim CEO of the company, who spoke the company's usual message of hope, patience, and optimism for its fall lineup. The difference here is chiefly represented by who Booty is; he's been at Midway since 1991, and worked his way up the ranks -- he began as an audio programmer.
While that doesn't necessarily lend any more credence to his version of the message than we might expect if it were still being delivered by former Midway boss David Zucker, there's more passion behind it.
There is also, potentially, a better understanding of where the company sits (and fits), and the state of its technology, frequently both touted as its biggest advantage (centralized tech = productive studios) while also blamed for Midway's failures (Stranglehold
and particularly BlackSite: Area 51
Centralizing Tech For Success?
Booty was followed by Epic Games vice president Mark Rein. While he spoke about the Xbox 360 port of Unreal Tournament III
, his real purpose and pride seemed to be Midway's fully integrated and expanded Unreal Engine 3 central tech solution.
The engine powers games as disparate as TNA Impact!
(wrestling), This Is Vegas
(open world), and Wheelman
(open world/driving.) Gamasutra's own discussions with developers at the event later revealed that Midway's studios, globally, have fully integrated on the tech-sharing front - to the point that work is split between international teams on functionality for all titles.
Engineers who are ostensibly working on one fall 2008 title have, in fact, made heavy contributions to others. Most importantly, perhaps, the company's next round of games will be planned with an eye very much towards total sharing of resources in his regard.
Still, this comprehensive solution has cost the company a great deal of time and effort to set up -- not counting the stuttering sales of games like Stranglehold
that were affected by the issues in the run-up to supporting this tech fully. Will it have been worth it?
Guns Blazing, Wheels Squealing
If there was one central theme to the games Midway had on display, it was that mass-market testosterone-soaked entertainment is the road to success. This is, if anything, a further broadening for the company; Stranglehold
was a bullet-filled continuation of Hong Kong action classics.
This hasn't always worked optimally for the firm - think back to recent Midway games like L.A. Rush
and Spy Hunter: Nowhere to Run
. Those had the flash of Hollywood B-movies -- and, unfortunately, also the substance.
So Midway is faced with at least one obvious problem, then -- this strategy is nothing new for the company, and it's resolutely core-focused so there has to be a major shift to allow that this year's editions will turn its fortunes around.
So, to the titles. We'll skip Mortal Kombat
for now, as we know the series has a built-in fan base that can presumably only be expanded by yanking in comic book die-hards, and that the last MK
(along with kids movie tie-in Happy Feet
) is one of the reasons Midway is still around, according to information provided at a prior event.
Wrestling title TNA Impact!
is a clear attempt to compete with THQ -- or coexist peacefully, perhaps, as TNA does with WWE on cable. TNA Impact!
could become a yearly franchise, just as SmackDown vs. Raw
has for THQ, and that would be a crucial way to help ensure a steady cashflow for the developer. Luckily for Midway, it's looking promising.
is another attempt at the market pioneered (and perhaps lost) by the Driver
series; the chief difference is that this game stars Vin Diesel. Whether or not it's a success could boil entirely down to quality, because conceptually, it's nothing new. NBA Ballers
is about to ship; like MK
, its audience seems built-in. And, frankly, the only reason we could be getting Blitz: The League II
is that the original performed adequately.
The biggest question mark has to hang over This Is Vegas
. It's obviously not a cheap game to produce. Its expansive open world and variety of gameplay styles is majorly diverse -- ranging from driving to fighting to partying, which feels something like The Sims
meets a frat boy's sense of humor.
Certainly, as a destination, Las Vegas has done much to raise its cultural currency; but whether or not the game can capitalize on this is difficult to decipher. It doesn't rely on the strong character-driven counterculture slant of the Grand Theft Auto
series, and Southwest Airlines can cheaply convey Americans, at least, to Vegas whenever they want.
Instead, it celebrates the Las Vegas experience through humor. TIV
is admirably ambitious, but whether its design is clever synthesis or Frankenstein, and whether or not it can be marketed effectively, are big, big questions.
The most confusing thing about Midway may be its fractious relationship with Viacom -- despite being principally owned by the same majority shareholder, Sumner Redstone, the relationship between the companies appears perhaps non-existent. This is a deeply complex situation, because they're separate, public companies -- but there appears to be little, if any, cooperation.
When queried by Gamasutra, Booty was unable to answer to whether or not TNA's placement on Spike TV, a Viacom network, had anything to do with Midway's interest in developing the game product. More worryingly, Viacom's MTV Games, publishers of one of the most successful games of 2007 and 2008 -- Rock Band
-- turned to EA Partners for distribution of the product. That's a tremendous missed opportunity for Midway.
Conversely, we don't see any integration on Midway's part -- at least judging from this event -- with Viacom's extremely strong lineup of film and TV properties going untouched.
THQ still has a stranglehold on the lucrative Nickelodeon kids' licenses like SpongeBob. That's not great, and is a major and obvious stumbling block for the company, as it implies that despite the potential closeness of the two organizations, Midway operates like any other potential licensee.
It's Not Just About the Dudes
Breaking the testosterone-soaked line, Booty briefly discussed the company's incipient casual gaming portal, though details were scant -- versions of TouchMaster
games will be available in addition to the already-announced classics. There was little new here, however, that hasn't been said before
Beyond that, there was very little emphasis on titles for the Nintendo DS or the Wii; troublingly little, if you look at the NPD results for the last several months. There's little doubt that the company will put out Cartoon Network games on the system, and it's already found success with targeted casual titles like Game Party
It's also possibly arguable that the event, aimed at the hardcore press, was better served by concentrating on games that appeal to its audience. Even still, we'd like to see some proof that Midway intends to serve this market effectively before we're satisfied with the company's fall lineup.
Can They Turn It Around?
Even with those reservations, there's little doubt that this fall's Midway lineup is more diverse than last fall's.
We've been assured that the lingering tech problems are finally solved (given the appearance and breadth of the Unreal Engine 3 games on show, and the enthusiasm of the developers in conversation for the solution, that seems very possible.)
There's also not that "putting all of your eggs in one basket" problem that Stranglehold
presented last holiday, as other titles either diminished in relevance (BlackSite
) or lost SKUs (Unreal Tournament III
shuffling off 360.)
So, there are possibilities here. The company's most stalwart series, Mortal Kombat
, is back. TNA
should prove to be a hit. And This Is Vegas
has tremendous potential, but is certainly risky. And overall, there's a long way for this company to go. We'll know more by late Autumn - and the results may portend the future of Midway as an independent company.