[From the ashes of the cancelled Hero project, Phosphor Games steps into the light in this new interview with Chip Sineni, the studio's head, in which he outlines the struggle to move beyond the fall of Midway and resurrect the concept as Awakened.]
The story's as old as the industry itself: A studio goes bankrupt, and works in progress are canned. But one Midway Chicago team felt they had something special in a game they called Hero, an open-world superhero console game that they believed offered an unprecedented degree of customization.
And when concept art first leaked to the consumer press, intrigued audience reactions suggested that the Midway team had, in fact, been onto something before their project was killed after two years in development.
This trailer, revealed for the first time to Gamasutra, shows how the exciting idea would have worked. Consumer weblog Kotaku also discovered evidence of Hero's existence, and at a glance audiences made comparisons to Sucker Punch's Infamous and Activision's Prototype.
But Hero's conception and development preceded both of those two -- and further, the team was gunning to create a title that truly let players create their own superhero, from appearance to abilities like flight, invisibility and firepower.
Now a new studio founded by the ex-Midway team, Phosphor Games, is hoping to revive the spirit of Hero with a new angle on the concept and, hopefully, with an interested publisher.
The spiritual successor of Hero is called Awakened (seen here). For the first time, Phosphor Games head Chip Sineni talks exclusively to Gamasutra about the project's story: from the last, anxious days at Midway through an undying passion for the game's concept to Awakened and beyond.
Let's go back to the very beginning, to Midway. Where did Hero come from?
Chip Sineni: First of all, the game started out in 2006 -- which was a long way back. Which was before Infamous, before Prototype, even before Crackdown. We were working on it for quite a while.
A lot of the genesis of it was, I think one of the designers was looking at [Cryptic Studios and NCSoft MMO] City of Heroes, and they thought it would be really neat to make... a high-end action adventure game for consoles.
It's even beyond superheroes. It's really letting players create the video game characters of their dreams -- to create something and actually play with it.
So you had a concept that you really loved, and you've said everyone who saw it was attracted to Hero and enthusiastic about it. I've been told it focus-tested higher than almost anything Midway's studios had produced in a decade. But then, the bankruptcy. What then?
CS: I think Midway, before there was a buyer involved, really wanted to see if they could make it out on their own, and literally canceled every game that wasn't Mortal Kombat at that point. It's kind of understandable that Mortal Kombat was more desirable to an investor than new IP that no one had heard of.
But all of us thought... we have to do something with this.
How many were on the project?
CS: We had a pretty small team. Unlike some of the other, bigger games at Midway, they kept us pretty lean. It was a huge open-world game, but we were under 30 people or so. that was like a ramp up... 15 people for most of us. Finally we stepped up to 30 and we were planning to move on.
What was it like then, to have poured so much energy into the project and yet receive the distinct sensation, once the storm hit, that you were running out of time and options to save it?
CS: I think working so long on it, too -- you know, having two years into it, it was a pretty big thing. The first thing we did is there was some writing on the wall that [Midway's collapse] was happening. It was all over the press that Midway would have to get sold, and there was so much tension there.
There was a publisher interested in seeing it... with a lot of ex-Midway people working there. So we did some massive, crazy crunch to get it in a showable state to get to this customer. For two whole weeks, people kind of lived there working on it.
And when we got back... they told us everyone was going to be let go.
After all that work that you guys had chosen to do, right?
CS: Yeah. It's not that Midway told people to crunch for two weeks. I think, actually, they discouraged it, they didn't want us to... I think we were just all so invested in trying to get this thing happening that people just put blinders on.
The whole studio was going in this chaos, and everyone was kind of focusing on what we could do to make it better. I think for the longest time everyone was in denial that Hero wouldn't get made, somehow.
They thought, "It can get picked up and we'll make it again." And after that point came the slow realization: "This is going to take a really long time."
What did it feel like?
CS: Everybody on our team was working as long as they could with all this chaos and looming doom. Other people in the studio probably thought, "You're idiots. This whole thing is going to collapse."