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In-Depth: Midway CEO Booty Talks State Of Company, Tech

In-Depth: Midway CEO Booty Talks State Of Company, Tech Exclusive

May 27, 2008 | By Christian Nutt




Midway interim CEO and president Matt Booty is uncommon among publisher head honchos in that he actually rose from the ranks organically, having started at Midway in 1991 as an audio programmer.

Now he is temporarily holding the company's reins as it searches for a longer-term CEO - though he would be "happy to put my hat in the ring if asked to do so," he points out.

The company clearly needs a new vision, having seen losses grow by tens of millions in 2007, and with losses continuing to rise despite improved sales in its most recent quarter.

During Midway's recent press summit, Gamasutra sat down with Booty, alongside media relations VP Reilly Brennan, to discuss the company's efforts to centralize its global development efforts, its upcoming lineup, and Booty's ability to communicate with teams on a technical level.

One thing you talked about is setting up the studio lineup to all have shared tools and tech, which are all working off of Unreal - how much time and money has been put into that?

MB: It's several years, and well over a hundred million dollars invested in our common technology. Getting that to work is one of those things that's easy to say, but difficult to really pull off at a deep, cultural level. We're not interested in getting our teams all using the same tech just for the sake of it.

Really what it's driven by is a couple of things. One, when a team starts out to make a game, that they've got a starting point, so we don't have to invest a lot of money in getting caught up in tech every time. And two, so we can use our biggest, most valuable resource, which is our people, smartly and intelligently.

We've had our TNA wrestling team sharing artists and programmers with our Mortal Kombat team. We've had a programming team at Austin helping out on a racing game by Newcastle. We've had guys in Seattle helping out with games across all of our studios.

So the ability to have, for example, a central group in Chicago that does all the user interface work is able to support and serve all of the game teams at the other studios, because they're all on the same system.

Those are the kinds of things we're after - really the nuts and bolts stuff we can get the efficiencies out of, only for the purpose of opening up more time to make better games.

Your studios are all over the world. How do you manage the centralized tech with other studios?

MB: That is a great question, because there's a lot of infrastructure that goes into that. One of the things we've got is a central art database. All of our teams can pull assets from that, so when an asset gets made for a game - a fire hydrant, or a tree, or whatever it might be, even pieces of clothing - it gets put in a standardized format and goes to a central art database.

Having that available at high speed at all of our studios has been a big infrastructure challenge. Even just being able to move builds, which can be hundreds of gigabytes of data, able to move around so that the guys in Newcastle can take a look at the Vegas build, has a lot of server requirements and infrastructure.

That's one of those things, again, that's almost easy to say, but when you really get down to it, there's a lot of time and energy going in to making that work.

You were talking at the This is Vegas presentation about how style was an integral part of the game, and with Ballers, too, there's a very look and feel of a game like that - how does that mesh with centralized tech?

MB: That's certainly a danger, but I get back to the point of the common technology isn't to have everybody make the same kind of game. It's just to get the busywork out of the way, so people can focus on what's unique about their game. We actually expect our games to diverge more, and to be clear, we're not trying to push technology down anybody's throat.

There's a lot of unique stuff that each team has got to do. I think you can see in the difference between visual styles - our Mortal Kombat game and our TNA wrestling game, or even in the difference in style between This Is Vegas and Stranglehold.

We encourage our teams to do what's unique and right for the game they're making, and hopefully what the core technology does is get them out of the gate quicker and on a stronger foundation. But we're not trying to put any kind of pre-fab wrapper around any of our titles.

And Unreal Engine is a critical part of that tech situation.

MB: Yeah. We've been working with Epic. We have a great partnership with them, and we call our engine Midway Core. It's certainly built on the Unreal foundation, but over several years, we've built and expanded a lot of unique stuff for what we needed to do and we also continue to get some of the new technology from Epic.

At this point, there's a good portion of the engine that's our own stuff that we've written, and also of course the foundation of Unreal Tournament 3 [which Midway publishes] there. But we're real happy with our partnership with those guys.

And that began with Stranglehold?

MB: That was the first. That was one of the first games that came out on the Unreal Engine, right.

From a technological standpoint, there were apparently some challenges there.

MB: Yeah, well, it was one of the first games to launch on consoles with the Unreal Engine. We were right there with Epic in terms of being one of the first. It's always going to be the case that the first time you're going to be cross-platform with two pieces of technology like the 360 and the PS3 - both of which are great in their own right, but they're also different in their own ways - it just presented a lot of challenges.

The great thing about our line-up going into 2008 is that we're over those hurdles. So systems that need to work for both of those platforms are in place, and teams are working on content and gameplay, instead of having to struggle with how you deal with the controller message on the PS3.

Having a tech background yourself, do you find that you're well-placed to understand the challenges that are being faced by the company trying to set up this technology?

MB: Yeah, I would say that the advantage I've got is just knowing how to listen, and as you pointed out, knowing what the problems are.

I also think that the guys, because they know that I come from that background and that I understand what they're talking about, maybe they're willing to be a little more open to some of the problems they're having.

But it's not my place to solve their technology problems - we've got some extremely great technology guys that handle that.

In terms of things that I'm responsible for, like resource allocation and budgets and when a game should come out, hopefully, because they're bringing me really accurate data, I can make decisions to support them.

My job is mostly to serve the game teams. I'm here to make sure they've got everything they need to get the games out and to be great games, and again, hopefully my perspective from a development background allows me to do that better.

It doesn't seem like many executives at games companies necessarily come from a development background. Are there other advantages that you're finding with your particular background?

MB: I think that for where Midway's at right now, which is trying to leverage our technology and get ourselves reestablished as a real strong player in the industry, that my development background is kind of the right thing at the right time. The real focus for me is going to be on execution.

Again, it's getting the good games with good launches. We've got a great marketing group, sales group, and PR group, and our product development group is going to really come through with some good games.

I think it's like bringing all that together at the same time, and the biggest asset Midway's got right now is our developers, so hopefully I've got, coming from that place, a good appreciation of how to make the most of what we've got.

How many studios do you have now?

MB: Well, we've got Chicago, Austin, our LA studio, Seattle, Newcastle, and also a group in San Diego that does our third-party stuff.

Are they all running on the same codebase? Is that the goal?

MB: I want to be clear about it. What we're trying to do is get the stuff that makes sense to centralize and be common on that same core platform. For example, there's just some things like physics engines and audio and user interface and all the stuff you've got to do to handle online. There's no reason for every team to have to reinvent that. That's the stuff we want to be core and centralized, and to the extent that it makes sense.

For example, it doesn't make sense for Wheelman to be sharing a lot of the same core tech with Mortal Kombat. Mortal Kombat is a 60 frames per second fighting game, and Wheelman is an open-world driving game. But it does make a lot of sense for TNA and Mortal Kombat to share common things. We're trying to be smart about opportunistic sharing between studios.

Speaking of Wheelman, it's the first totally original Vin Diesel property. People seem to have become bored of the celebrity-themed game, but it also seems that you guys feel that there's a tighter level of integration here.

MB: I think first and foremost, Vin is not just some celebrity who is lending us his name. He's a hardcore gamer. We had a chance to meet with him a couple of times, and he talks the talk and walks the walk. He plays games, he knows games, he's a smart gamer, and he and his people have had a lot of input put into this game. They are 180 degrees away from just slapping his name and face on a game. They're working closely with us.

Has he flown out to Newcastle to talk to the team?

MB: He's got some producers and some guys. He's got a real strong group of people who hang around him and focus on games, and yeah, they've been over to our Newcastle studio multiple times. Just because he's a busy guy and he's working on movies, we're more likely to take stuff to him.

But you feel it's an actual relationship and commitment?

MB: Oh, absolutely. Again, he knows his stuff. When you sit down and say, "This is going to be like Burnout," or any other driving game, he knows those games. When you say, "Well, the online could be like this, or we might handle it the way they do in this game," he knows what we're talking about.

Reilly Brennan: It's something we experienced too with Stranglehold. That wasn't just a typical licensed game. We based it off of Hard Boiled, but it was really more like, "Play a John Woo game." It really worked well. In terms of that, Midway does a lot of stuff that isn't the typical Hollywood "take a movie and redo it."

Is that going to be a theme for Midway moving forward?

MB: I think it's just what makes sense, what's opportunistic, and again, where it makes sense. The John Woo thing came about because obviously he was interested in getting into games, and there was a drive from his side. We had a team that had a respect and a passion and an interest in his work, so it made sense to bring them together.

It's the same thing with Mortal Kombat Vs. DC for us. That is not just slamming two licenses together. We've got teams that have an interest and a passion for each others' licenses, so let's make something cool with it. Same thing with Wheelman. It wasn't just like we woke up one morning looking for a movie star. This is really something that's being driven by Vin's side as well.

One thing you were talking about with TNA iMPACT! [Midway's upcoming wrestling game] was that you were approaching this license very seriously, and it's the only real game in town that isn't owned by WWE on television. How do you see the importance of establishing this as a game brand? WWE games are beyond perennial for THQ. They probably contribute a lot to THQ's security.

MB: Well, in terms of the development side, we already have plans in place to make this successful, and we want to make this a yearly franchise for Midway also. So everything we're doing in how we structure the team and how we got the game together is planned for this to be a year-on-year release.

RB: The SmackDown games obviously have a ton of features. We're never going to pack 25 modes into the game the first time around, so our goal really is to create the best possible playing wrestling game out there. I think it's for sure the best-looking game, in terms of graphics.

I had some experience working on some SmackDown stuff in the past, and the cool thing working with the TNA guys is that they're involved. Those videos we showed you today, those aren't just something we doctored up. Those guys got in the mocap suits. They did Ultimate X in our mocap studio. They actually played this game. If you get a chance, talk to [TNA wrestlers Samoa] Joe and AJ [Styles] about their passion for old-school Dreamcast wrestling product, and stuff like that.

MB: They're the only guys I know who collect old wrestling games.

RB: They know these games. When we first met with them, I'll never forget. We showed up to the first meeting down there, and they showed up with a list of things. "You have to put this in the game."

They knew exactly what they were talking about, and we were all on the same page from day one. Now we've just made sure we've given the game the time and the resources to make sure it's great out of the gate - and then from here, hopefully we can make it an annual product.

Do you foresee a need to develop these products that can be perennial? For instance, it's been a few years since Blitz: The League, where there used to be a Blitz every year.

MB: I think for some games, it makes sense to come out every year, and with a game like Blitz, that's obviously not a game that's out to compete head-to-head with Madden. I don't know if it makes sense for a game like that, but for a game like TNA, absolutely it makes sense to come out every year.

You've got new wrestlers, new storylines, new features, and getting back to that common tech, this team is so excited that they've spent the last two years just building this wrestling engine and getting all the animation engines and the technology in place. I think we're going to see some amazing things, and they get to spend a year working on top of that core content and really adding a lot of cool extra features and modes.

What differentiates your strategies for 2008 from where the company has been before? Very often, you have promising-looking lineups, but some things hit and some things miss.

MB: Well, it's always going to be hit-or-miss. If somebody out there's got the crystal ball on hit games, please call me. I'd love to borrow it for a while. I think last year, we got into a little bit of a situation where we put all of our eggs in one or two baskets, and that required every last thing about that launch to go perfectly.

We ran into some bumps on the road there, and we paid the price for not having a big, wide range of titles. The reason why I'm personally excited about 2008 is that it's not like we've just got Stranglehold coming out. We've got Mortal Kombat, Wheelman, Blitz, Ballers, and with Epic, we've got Unreal Tournament 3 for the Xbox 360.

It's a wide range and lineup we've got, all of which looks solid to me this far in the year. It's just a really different situation. The second thing is that we're really hyper-focused on making sure our games launch at the right time with real serious marketing support behind them. In this competitive industry, you've got to have a good game, or you've got to have a really good launch also.

At least with this presentation, it seems like a very core gamer, Xbox 360 and PS3-focused. Is that your strategy?

MB: It's a major component of our strategy, but as I mentioned, we'll also continue to do things like our TouchMaster series, and Game Party too. Game Party was really successful for us, and we'll continue to be opportunistic about Wii titles where it makes sense.

When you say "opportunistic," you've obviously done Happy Feet and that kind of stuff with licenses.

MB: It can be licenses, it can be things like Game Party, which was done internally, TNA for the Wii - some things make sense. Mortal Kombat for the Wii was successful for us. So when I say "opportunistic,"

I think the Wii is a unique platform. You don't just slam it out along with the PS3 and the 360. We've got to be smart about what games we pick to make for that platform.

Your presentation was interesting, coming at the changes in the company in the context of your own long history at Midway.

Matt Booty: Yeah, I say it kind of funny, but it's true: I grew up at Midway. I came in right out of college, had the super honor to work there when games like Mortal Kombat, NBA Jam, NFL Blitz, Ballers all were coming about.

I worked with really what I consider the dream team of developers to be around - guys like Brian Eddy were making Psi-Ops. My life and my blood are in the company. My goal is to make sure that all of the games we've done and all of the energy that we've put into developing this common tech comes to fruition. It's like, let's make it really pay off, in terms of great games.

When did you originally arrive at Midway?

MB: I came in 1991.

What were you working on?

MB: When I started out for Midway, I was actually writing software for the audio systems. I moved on from that to manage the audio department, then went on to do game programming. I worked on some of Midway's first arcade games that had the disk drive systems.

I also did some of the audio hardware programming for games like Mortal Kombat II, and then went on to lead a game team, worked on a couple of arcade games, and then when I first got into team management was right when we were doing a couple of the first Blitz for consoles, and I was on the first Ballers game, in terms of getting that out the door.

Then I was lucky enough to head up the Chicago studio. That was the dream year for me. We had Mortal Kombat, Ballers, and Psi-Ops all come out of that studio at once. I think we're headed back to a time like that with our lineup right now. We don't just have one all of our eggs in our basket game, but a lot of really great titles as well.

You were the interim CEO. Are you still the interim CEO, or are you taking over the role?

MB: I'm still interim CEO and president, and I've been working closely with our board of directors. There is a CEO search. I'd be happy to put my hat in the ring if asked to do so. I think my focus [right now is] on getting our teams and our games set up for success.

It really... comes down to making sure that we've got good games with good launches at the right time, and the most value I can add right now is to make sure all of that is taken care of.


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