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Re-Awakened: From Midway To A New World
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Re-Awakened: From Midway To A New World

January 28, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next
 

[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."


Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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Comments


Todd Boyd
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"CS: Midway laid off most of the team at Christmastime..."



Ouch. :(

Nathan Sherrets
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I watched the video for Awakened on joystiq.com, great music choice! Above and beyond that, it looks really interesting.



You can tell what parts of the art have gotten the most focus, and what is being worked on. It is a really interesting glimpse into your development and I appreciate you sharing the video with everyone!



I work for a game developer in Iowa, and I think you guys are on to something. If I had any power and money, I'd love to take part in your project. Alas - we are just an independent company ourselves, successful in one space, and slowly expanding out into others.



Your story is sad, and inspirational. I'm glad you kept so much of the team together! From one indie development company to another, keep up the good work!



Nate

Tim Carter
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Sounds like they could be opening themselves up to a lawsuit already.



This is why game designers need to develop a culture of free agency and project-based development. In a free agent, project-based agreement, the creators could have negotiated a rights reversal in which publisher has x-months or years to deliver on project and if not, the rights revert to the creators. The creators are still on the hook to pay Midway development costs leading up to the point of cancellation, but the point is they (the creators) now have control and can find a different investor who will pay off Midway (or whomever bought Midway) to keep the project going.



As it is, they likely have a contaminated project now. Who's going to publish it knowing that they might get sued by Midway (or its new parent)? But likely, Midway wouldn't sue unless the project turns out really profitable.



Why in god's name would you put your *dream project* into the hands of someone who was your boss and not your partner? Only a fool would do that, and yet we see game developers do this over and over and over again.



This is also why the game industry needs to develop a full-greenlight culture. When something is greenlit, it's *greenlit* - no if's, ands or buts. (See this article: http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/29442/Opinion_Why_ProjectBased
_Game_Budgeting

_Could_Work.php)



And if Midway is concerned about cost overruns with a missed deadline (no milestones in a full-greenlight system), just insure the project with a completion bond.

JB Vorderkunz
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I'm confused about what they might have 'contaminated'... different property, different code, etc. How is anything in the article a breach of contract of copyright/trademark infringement? Blizzard didn't sue over Hellgate London even though it was clearly a 'spiritual' successor to Diablo and created by the same team...



Are you stumping for your bivouac idea again? =)

Tim Carter
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First, the "bivouac idea" isn't really mine. It's an established practice going back several decades (for those who might consider that the game industry could learn something from the outer world). All I did was connect it to game development.



Second, I don't know the details but I know that there is a team that developed a bunch of concepts and so forth at a former job which may be construed by a former employer as its property. Is there a clean sign-off on the IP? Did they actually have rights reversals in their deal with Midway? Is there any possiblity that Midway might think "Hey, we paid them to develop those concepts, so we are owed a slice..." in the event it turns into a hit? Has anyone thought about these things?



I do know that Double Fine (I think) ran into trouble over Brutal Heavy because that game was cancelled by the publisher, and they just took the IP away and continued working on it on their own without a clean separation. So it makes me think this could be the same scenario.



This is just IP Law 101 stuff.



Don't shoot the messenger.

Robert Green
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"Why in god's name would you put your *dream project* into the hands of someone who was your boss and not your partner?"



Because in the real world you're often presented with two options - hand ownership of the project over to someone else, or let the project of your dreams remain firmly lodged inside your head. This is also the reality within game developers - they'll take game concept ideas from their staff, but the moment the company starts working on them in any capacity (sometimes the moment they're presented to the company), the individual relinquishes ownership of that idea. That's simply the price you have to pay when confronted with the obvious truth: your idea is not going to become a reality without a lot of help, and the mere possibility that it might get made is better than clinging to the idea that some day you'll be able to make it without selling out. Game ideas just aren't that valuable by themselves.

Luis Guimaraes
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Plus, you always can have a new idea and that won't change anytime soon. So it's better you make your name pushing one without getting all the cash in, then you will have better bargain power the next time around.

Sting Newman
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"Game ideas just aren't that valuable by themselves."



Finished games and/or a prototype is infinitely more valuable then just ideas, but ideas determine the map of where to go, i.e. picking the wrong theme can lead to financial disaster (see: APB, and planescape torment)

Adam Boyes
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Tim - You are misunderstanding the scenario that Chip, Justin, and the rest of their team at Midway were in on this project.



They were an internal team at a publisher. They didn't give away their dream project - they were building it. The only reason they didn't get to complete it was due to Midway's bankruptcy. And unless you are one of the top designers in the industry, pitching to your boss (as an internal dev team at a publisher) a rights reversal scenario would get you laughed out of their office. As an employee, if you are developing concepts at work with your co-workers, they own it. Your scenario only works with independent organizations.



In regards to your 'greenlight' culture and article about project-based budgeting, as a former Executive Producer at Midway that's exactly how we operated. We were responsible to manage every dollar of every aspect of the project. Each team lead was in charge of their own budget, staffing plan, ramp up and ramp down.



It's easy to sit back and coach from the sidelines, but these guys had a vision, company went bankrupt, and now they are leveraging their experience and passion to execute on their vision. I don't know about you, but I think that's pretty effing cool.

Tim Carter
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"As an employee, if you are developing concepts at work with your co-workers, they own it."



That's my point. There is a systemic problem in the game industry. It actually treats key creators as employees, instead of partners or free agents.



If you were a writer-director in film you would pitch a project, then get a contract, and it would be reasonable to include a rights reversal in the event the party financing didn't want to finish, but you wanted to complete it. Someone tell me why something like this can't be done in games?



There's no particular reason why Midway has to work solely with internal staff instead of contracted developers. If they like the results of one team on one game, then hire them again for the next game.

Dominic Cianciolo
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I think you're misunderstanding what goes on in the film business. Rights reversals are rarely, if ever granted. And usually only to established players. If you're lucky, you might get to buy your project back from the company you sold it to. But only if you pay the company's development costs on the project....

Tim Carter
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I beg to differ. Rights reversals are quite common in film contracts. However, the culture of film is such that if a project is ever greenlit, it will almost never be cancelled. The financing and production practices are so well structured that the rights reversal situation almost never comes up.



Put it another way: if your film gets greenlit, 99.9% of the time it's going to get finished. But that doesn't mean that the clause isn't in the director's contract in case that 0.01% situation comes true.



Furthermore, I can't for the life of me understand why people here disagree with this. Do you really want to be in a situation where if your *dream game* gets cancelled, it disappears into a black hole with no way of you getting to continue advocating it's full development? Are you masochists? It's not like the publisher (e.g. Midway) would lose any money - a rights reveral includes contingencies for the original funder to get their investment recouped. (I did mention that in the original comment, right?)

R G
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Lol. I love it when Tim starts beating people in word play xD

John Ragland
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Hmm... well it's good that the developer's of "Hero" can make this game Awakened, but unfortunately this game really won't be "The" Superhero game everyone has been wanting, it'll just be derivative and once Gears of War and Resident Evil were mentioned, this killed the concept...



Hero was the right formula and the right game, they had everything right. Your right the first time around, the Open World, the Ability to Fly whether it's over enemies or not that is the player's choice, that's called freedom, if a player flying over "some cool situation" would be bad then why would invisibility be in the game also? Superhero's Fly, and Some don't, that's why you build the game to incorporate Flying... If the player fly's over a "cool situation" then trap them somehow, have jet fighters give chase, build in AA guns, make it safer to stay on the ground in some places, or NOT so what if the player can fly circles around the enemy and dance on bullets, that's the players choice. I'm so sick of seeing this concept drowned because the developer's either change the game concept to similar games or re-think the game so it's nothing like it's first inspiration... Awakening will be nothing like what was so enthralling to work on when the game was "Hero". Hey there was a reason why the developers wanted to work on "Hero" for two weeks around the clock, there was a reason "Hero" was so addictive to work on, that magic is what was being captured, and Awakened unfortunately isn't magic... You break the game when you take out Open World, and railway it all up locking down flying and other game freedoms, it might as well be Prototype or Infamous who would really care...



Imagine Grand Theft Auto's New York city with Create-a-player, if i just want to stand in the middle of a park as my Super Character and just do nothing, that's what i would want, if i stand in an alley way and watch the trash blow around hey that's fine too... Sigh... Again and Again the Superhero Curse rises out of the swampy abyss... Champions Hero Software, My Incredible Superhero Team Bullfrog, Agents of Justice Micrprose - Xcom with Superheroes! and it got cancelled, The Indestructables what happened.



We got Freedom Force 1 and 2 which were good games but they were not Open World Superhero Games, they were linear limited Digital Comic Books...



Oh and yeah a scary game will sell, people want to be scared that's an emotion that is entertainment, like a roller coaster at an amusment park, you know you shouldn't get on it, but it's the thrill that draws you... I said that when i did proof of concept game questioning for a secret game, i said gore arouses intrigue in an environment because the player's mind will start playing with them, "what caused this mess" what lurks in the dark? : Dead Space.


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