Sunday, May 24, 2009

Midway Through

Right before the weekend hit, Warner Bros., of big fat media conglom fame, and who these days is determined to get in on the videogame chuck wagon (heh :-) ), had made a big fat bid for Midway of about $33 million. Midway's history of financial woes have recently had a smell of Wall Street about it, odious enough even for that industry's regulars; the company's original owner sold Midway for a song to a mystery investor last year, only for its bondholders to discover that is may have all been a conspiracy by both parties to bankrupt Midway for profit. WB, for its part, stands to handily dispense of $7.8 mil Midway owes it for Mortal Kombat Vs. DC Universe, while the guys who actually made the game in the first place will probably not get the bonuses they were promised from Midway.

What is most interesting (and kinda depressing) about Midway's current predicament is that it can be traced to just how much the industry has changed over the years. Mortal Kombat came about when an offer to create a movie-licensed game for Universal Soldier fell through, and yes, that would be the 1992 Jean Claude Van Damme cheesefest (Hollywood opted instead for pasting the IP onto Turrican 2, the result of which is Van Damme fighting giant killer bees, and later on, a house-sized Dolph Lundgren. The movie may have been ridiculous, but at least it can claim it wasn't THAT ridiculous). From these humble roots, this "quick project", as Ed Boon once referred to it, came to be a massive franchise and Capcom's biggest competitor in the heyday of the arcade fighter.

After the arcade market began shrinking in the 00's, Midway, in the same year SNK went bankrupt, closed their arcade unit and moved into consoles. And ever since, like much of the console industry, they've been plagued with the usual Horsemen of the Consopaclypse: Unaccountable Management (former Playboy CEO David F. Zucker posted non-stop losses in the scores of millions during his Midway tenure before finally sauntering away with a golden parachute), Impossible Demands (Harvey Smith, creative director of the rushed-to-market-via-bullwhip Blacksite: Area 51, summed up the experience as thus: "so fucked up"), Good Original IPs Getting Lost Amongst The Flood Of Sequels (Ever heard of the criminally-overlooked Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy? Perhaps not.) and Outrageous Costs That Only Get Worse and Worse (Cyrus Lum, a Midway dev, warned in 2006 that costs for a single title were approaching $15 mill to $25 mil, and profits would come in only after the third sequel. The next year, we learned that John Woo's Stranglehold cost more than $30 million smackers to make. Wonder what the guy thinks of Grand Theft Auto 4 costing $100 million a mere two years later).

What will become of Midway now is anyone's guess, as it's not just WB that's interested in the company, let alone the videogame industry itself (if anything, the current slump will probably wind up reinforcing the status quo). But taking in where Midway used to be, to where it is now, all I can say is a paraphrase from Bartleby, the Scrivener: "Ah Midway! Ah progess!"

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