Adventurous studio, 13, WLTM: cash-rich publisher/developer for open-world hijinks.
Ever since Warner made a bid for only selected parts of the Midway empire, the clock has been ticking to find a buyer for Midway Newcastle, the studio that recently released Wheelman. To drum up a little publicity, it’s launched a flash new website to promote its new in-progress IP: gritty detective drama Necessary Force.
When we meet up with studio head Craig Duncan, he’s not quite as somber as you might expect given the ticking timebomb: talks are ongoing, he assures, and there are possibilities.
“It’s tough,” he tells us. “The whole industry is struggling, really. A lot of the people we’ve spoken to have said that if we were asking a year ago, they’d have bought us in a heartbeat.” He’s not deterred, though: “My focus is 100 per cent on finding a buyer. Every studio head will say it, but this is team that’s just too good to be wasted.”
We probe further: what, in particular, would make Midway Newcastle a good buy?
“It’s really important that people know that this is a team that wants to stick together – sometimes when you look at buying a studio you can worry that the real talent, the people, will just flee the ship, leaving you with some IP, kit and an empty building; the pieces of the puzzle that aren’t really worth anything,” asserts Duncan. “But everyone here as worked together for at least two years, with the original core team still together after about ten years. We’ve been through the ups and downs and all want to stay working together.”
What’s cemented the team throughout such a difficult time is joint enthusiasm for their own IP. Although they are happy to work on other products depending on who purchases them, they think that what they’re working on now can showcase just how agile they can be.
“Despite all that’s been going on, we’ve only had three people leave this year – it just goes to show that everyone wants to stay together, how galvanised they are as a team. They don’t know if they’re going to have a job in a month’s time, but they’re still putting in a huge amount of effort now; staying until nine in the evening working on this – and that’s because they’re all so motivated by the great project we’re working on.”
A gritty story of a cop striving for justice, Duncan’s enthusiasm for the project shines through. “The idea of a detective who sets his own rules is the sort of story that’s been around in movies for a while, but we don’t think anyone’s managed to capture the essence of those choices and consequences in games,” he says. “That unprecedented level of open world influence and troubled morality is something we’re really keen to explore.”
The IP is there to show more than just creative thinking and teamwork, however – it’s also a perfect chance to show off the technology that the team built on the foundations of Wheelman.
“I think that, because we were an internal studio within Midway, a lot of people don’t really know what we’re about,” says Duncan. “We’re not really a driving studio, although it’s in our heritage; we’ve got this great backbone of technology that enables us to make flexible open-world content relatively quickly.”
Midway’s company-wide adoption of Unreal Engine 3 meant that the Vin Diesel actioner was based on Epic’s tech – although, as we’ve covered in the magazine before, the team had to do a significant amount of work in order to adapt the engine for an open-world adventure.
“UE3 is built for characters walking through levels, not people speeding at more than 100 miles per hour through a seamless world. So that was a challenge, but we’ve overcome that – we’ve now got about 35 man years of tech on top of base Unreal. So now we can say that we’re really proficient with the engine, and that we’ve got this great base of technology for open-world games. Plus, we’re also getting the stock benefits of Unreal – the great toolset that lets our artists and designers get creating and iterating quickly. It’s the best of both worlds.”
To prove just how quickly we’re talking about, Duncan reveals that the new IP is playable now, after just three months, with a section of the city already nearing relative completion. The teaser doesn’t show gameplay footage, but that’s just because the art style and look are, unsurprisingly, not 100 per cent nailed down.
But, really, what’s been shown today is not about teasing the world with a brand new franchise – it’s a last-ditch attempt to show that Midway Newcastle isn’t just another faceless in-house studio, to generate a bit of buzz and prove that the team has the passion to stay together.
“Operationally we’ve really hit our stride now,” says Duncan. “We know what we are capable of and that we would make a strong addition to any company.”
Is there a suitor out there fit to fill that lonely hearts ad? We certainly hope so.