You don’t see studios like Midway Games anymore. Still remembered today for hits like NBA Jam, Smash TV, Rampage, and Mortal Kombat, the Chicago-based studio pushed the video game industry forward both technically (with pioneering video graphics) and culturally (yell “Finish Him!” at a hockey game and see what happens).
With a pivotal role in a billion dollar industry’s history, it’s an enigma how and why Midway didn’t survive the 21st century. The company filed for bankruptcy in 2009 and was dissolved by 2011. A new documentary movie, Insert Coin, available now, reveals how a titan of the industry fell — and what everyone else can learn from it today.
“Midway was the best-funded indie developer ever.”
In an interview conducted during March lockdown (mere days after the movie’s South by Southwest premiere was canceled), director and former Midway art director Josh Tsui told Inverse he set out to “tell a 360-degree story of that era.”
“Everyone knows Mortal Kombat and NBA Jam. But they don’t know how the games were made and what circumstances they were made in,” Tsui said. “Me being in the middle of it at Midway, I felt uniquely qualified to tell that story.”
In Insert Coin, key figures from Midway’s history, including arcade legend Eugene Jarvis and Mortal Kombat co-creator John Tobias, trace the company’s rise and fall. The story begins with Midway’s first real hit, the violent, proto-Grand Theft Auto arcade title Narc (“You’re shooting pimps and drug dealers”), and ends with the publisher’s doomed foray in console gaming.
Tsui's career developing (and, at times, lending his likeness to) Midway’s games started with 1993’s WWF WrestleMania. He credits his colleagues’ habit for imbuing games with their own personality and humor (“Toasty!”) as the X-factor for Midway’s reputation. This irreverent, aggressive tone helped Midway compete against the arcade era’s Japanese studios.
Whereas Japanese-made arcade games were technically refined and aesthetically pleasing, Midway “showed what [envelopes] you can push, for better or worse.”
“We went in a completely different direction than the Japanese,” Tsui said. “Midway was unabashedly American. You can get violent so long as there’s humor.” In a marketplace ruled by Pac-Man, Street Fighter, and Double Dragon, Midway stood out with “crazy ideas and photorealism” that “pushed the technology.”
Midway got away with pixelated murder because there was no oversight, not within the company nor from the industry at large. The Electronic Systems Ratings Board, an active MPAA-like censorship group for video games, formed only after Midway stirred national outrage with the gory sensation Mortal Kombat in 1992.
“There was a lot of experimentation,” said Tsui. “I always joke that Midway was the best-funded indie developer ever. We had good budgets, but nobody told the development teams what they should put in their games. That’s an indie way of making games.”
Despite success in the ‘90s in large part due to Mortal Kombat, a franchise that endures today, the cracks at Midway began to slip when the home console market eclipsed arcades. While Midway developed and published many games for consoles — its last title was the crossover fighter Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in 2008 — Insert Coin reveals the struggles it had in finding solid ground with the end of arcades.
There wasn’t one death knell for Midway. Rather, it was a series of dominoes that toppled. By the end, Midway was simply unable to navigate a new landscape. One specific domino that fell particularly hard: The company practically mandated internal competition with its teams. The work environment at Midway encouraged teams of employees to outdo each other.
“Everyone was in this Lord of the Flies-style management, or lack of management,” remembers Tsui. “It was highly competitive. There were rivalries, and that showed through all the games. Everyone had personality.”
When it worked, Midway was a capitalist’s wet dream, but as Insert Coin makes clear, it wasn’t sustainable.
“Arcade development was Midway’s DNA,” Tsui said. “Once Midway got into the home market, that style of management was not the best way. As games got bigger, they needed structure. They had a harder time making games, and making sure they had the right teams to do that.”
Tsui had a front-row seat at Midway during its peak in the ‘90s. But as documentary director, he isn’t found in the story. He tells Inverse he omitted himself on the basis of feeling not on par with industry giants. He also didn’t want the movie to “come off like a vanity project.”
But Tsui has been in many of Midway’s games, mainly “any time they needed an Asian face.” A Chinese-American born in Korea, Tsui lent his likeness for the ninja Sub-Zero in Mortal Kombat II and Liu Kang in Mortal Kombat 4. “I was the only Asian guy in the studio,” he jokes.
In 1999, Tsui left Midway and continued to work in the video game industry for the next 20 years. He established Studio Gigante with Midway colleague John Tobias, spent several years as an art director at Electronic Arts, and later founded Robomodo in 2008. He is currently an executive producer at augmented reality and 3D/4D experience group EDGE Experiential.
When it comes to lessons today’s game studios can learn from Midway, Tsui believes in a few.
“I tell game developers, if you want to make a game, you want to make it worth your time,” he said. “If you have a crazy idea, put it in. If everyone has the same standard, everyone is going to have the same ideas. Not being ashamed of your crazy idea is a great thing to do.”
At the same time, there’s value in doing what Midway didn’t do. “Understanding the scale of games is important,” he said. “Make sure you’re not biting more than you can chew.”