Midway Games is struggling to stay afloat, and a few employees are blaming the company’s financial woes on its use of Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 3.
To Epic’s defense, it doesn’t sound like things went awry with the actual UE3 technology. What ultimately pulled Midway deep into pools of red was the company’s insistence to modify the engine, thus making development time longer than it should. It’s not uncommon for developers to purchase an engine license and then custom tailor the software to meet specific needs. But when a publisher requires multiple development houses to consistently modify one engine for ALL games in production, there’s bound to be trouble.
"The mistake we made was, instead of just taking the base Unreal 3 engine that ’Gears of War’ was made on and building games off of that, we let our tech and product development guys try to really modify the engine to add all these diff things," a Midway ex-employee told Variety. "It was a ton of new technology which they just weren’t capable of doing. It put all the games way behind schedule."
Game delays presented problems for Midway, as that meant an interruption in cash flow; the money well dried up as several quarters went by without releases. Another ex-employee explained that when money becomes tight, decision-making becomes focused on the all-mighty dollar rather than a great, competitive product. Thus, buggy, half-cooked results not only sell less (due to user feedback and press reviews), but creates a negative impression of the company that hinders further sales down the road. "This is a spiral of doom in videogame publishing because you can’t ship compromised titles against the exceptional quality level of competition that is on the shelves," the ex-employee said.
What also didn’t help Midway was the expense and eventual timing of Stranglehold, an original action title co-created by director John Woo. The game was delayed from late 2006 to fall 2007, and ultimately cost the company more than $40 million to make. Midway released Stranglehold just one week before Halo 3 hit store shelves, thus selling a measly 320,000 units in the USA alone. Strapped for quick cash, Midway thus rushed Blacksite: Area 51 through the oven, and it was in such bad shape with it hit store shelves, Harvey Smith, the game’s director, came out two weeks later and apologized.
Currently Midway’s market value is around $37 million, however with the release of Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, things may not look quite so bleak if the game does well this holiday season. But as it stands, the company may collapse under its current debt despite layoffs, canceling major projects and returning licenses. Was there a lesson learned here? Probably only in understanding that it’s best not to license one engine and throw it into everyone’s lap, expecting miracles. It’s like reading a book: you don’t know what it’s really about unless its read from cover to cover... the process takes time, and in the case of Midway, time and money it apparently couldn’t afford.
But if companies don’t have internal, proprietary engines of their own, what else is there to do other than license third party software and tear it apart? Perhaps the use of Epic’s UE3 software really isn’t the blame here, but the lack of spending time and money researching and developing a unique engine built and customized just for Midway’s use. That’s neither here nor there now, as bankruptcy could be in the company’s immediate future if Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe doesn’t knock out consumers with incredible gameplay over the next month.
Midway says that the UE3-based Wheelman title is expected to ship February 16, 2009.