I've been meaning to write this blog post for two weeks now.... I guess it wasn't the most instantaenous thing in the world to suddenly convert all my feelings into a convenient block of text. Here I am, two weeks on and sitting in my flat; unemployed and waiting for stuff to happen. Good stuff to happen. I mean, seriously good stuff. I'm quite excited by it all, but I think I'm probably not the only one playing the waiting game after the fallout of our studio's closure. There's people waiting for dole, people waiting for interviews, people waiting for job confirmations, e-mails, phone calls. It reaffirms the notion that this big floaty rock is one big waiting room. Waiting for what? I could go all profound, but meh. It's too early.
Ever since the Chapter 11 bankruptcy announcement for Midway as a company, we've been erring on the side of caution. Anything could happen, right? The company was still operating as normal, but the Chapter 11 thing was like a silent dread-spectre hovering over all of us. The cause of this was through some allegedly shady dealings between Sumner Redstone and a bloke called Mark Thomas. No one knew who he was, and he tried to reassure everyone that it was all fine. Alarm bells rang though; it seemed quite, quite dubious. All of a sudden, the company was sold to him for a paltry $100,000 and then a magical legal process ensued where all deadlines for debts accelerated their deadlines for payment. Midway didn't have the funds at the time to pay them, and thus Chapter 11 became part of our legal vocabulary. It was all fine though - we'd still be operational; at that point, we were working on finishing up with Wheelman. The great thing about that was that I (and others) were putting in a lot of latenighters to get the job done, so we were practically too busy to worry about Chapter 11. We just got on with it.
The Ubisoft deal was pretty flawless in its execution, and a necessity to get the game out and marketed to its fullest potential. Some saw this as a sign of weakness on Midway's part, but it turned out to be quite a sweet deal. It gave the company more breathing space and we were happy to see a shiny Ubisoft trailer up on Gametrailers getting some good feedback. Perversely, some people considered the game to be better once Ubisoft was involved, rather than Midway. The company name was unfortunately synonymous with disappointment, cheap and tacky... was it deserved? I'm not sure... it wasn't as if any of us in the studio were skimping on our workloads. We were passionate about what we did, and we all enjoyed playing videogames. I know, it's a cliche, but it's one which runs throughout the industry; people who work on videogames will more likely or not love playing videogames too.
I don't want to think that the Midway taint somehow carried through to the erratic review scores which Wheelman received. Although we saw many, many nuggets of positivity on gaming forums, the journalistic view was distinctly Marmite - they either totally "got" it and enjoyed it, or hated it. People were perhaps expecting a bit too much from the "GTA4 Meets Burnout!" strapline from a past preview. Maybe they were annoyed they couldn't shoot a cop in the face - and doing it as Vin Diesel, no less! The IGN review was a definite shocker though. The studio suddenly turned from a festival of back-slapping to one of numb shock. Countless e-mails filtered throughout studio inboxes during the next few weeks. Positive. Negative. Positive. Negative. It was quite literally a rollercoaster ride of emotions. The game was selling well in its opening week though - I think a lot of the guys were quite happy in that respect. Sadly, we also learned how Metacritic worked in not only influencing peoples' minds to a possible purchase of our game, but also how they consider some review scores to have more of a weight to them; a weighted average. How fucked up is that? Unsurprisingly, the IGN review score was weighted, and the Metacritic score dropped like a stone.
Straight after completion of Wheelman, the studio didn't sit on its laurels. We got back to work on a new IP called Necessary Force, and it was a very exciting prospect. Set in the future, our game would put you in the shoes of a street-toughened cop who would have morality choices during his investigation. You would piece together evidence, make connections, go looking for new suspects and interrogate them. Work had already begun modifying the Wheelman engine to a much more gritter and impressive-looking result; the concept guys began producing beautiful renderings of the cityscape, characters and vehicles, while the designers were busy with documentation and possible scenarios. I spent the time producing graphics and concepts for the cop's PDA unit, which would be an integral part of the evidence gathering and manipulation. We had a lot of nice ideas for the game - for instance, the morality system affected the weather and time of day too. If you were a bad-ass cop, the days would feel shorter, and it would rain more often. This was also linked to a system where the city would systematically be cleaned up - more desirable pedestrians, graffiti taken off walls and newer, more optimisitc buildings taking the place of the run-down buildings.
Soon we got to a point where the game could be pitched - at the same time, we had a 60 day notice through from the London office. A legality in the UK, we had to be informed 60 days in advance of a possible closure. The timing of E3 couldn't have come any better. I helped produce the Necessary Force booklet, the logo and any other materials which were needed for the presentations. A lot of companies were booked in to see the game, and we had high hopes that some good will come from it. Post E3, we were told there were several interested parties, and the next stage would be meetings and due diligence procedures by those companies to assess the studio. Throughout all this time, I admired the fact we still worked on the game, and we still got on with the task in hand like a well-oiled machine. Not many people left the studio, we all had high hopes for the title. For me, I was at a low point until I saw the game in a darkened meeting room. It looked amazing, but not just that - a press of a controller button and it would start to rain - but not just rain, but turn surfaces wet, create flooded puddles and atmospheric drips and dribbles from building ledges.
We continued working. It was quite a good feeling to see the game evolve to the point where it had a pretty much playable section which involved all the disciplines of the game - bar the evidence collecting. We had a suitable aural soundtrack of cityscape ambience, our antagonist had a voice and the world was teeming with life. We had monorails travelling on huge overhead networks, massive water pumps dotted around the massive sea wall. We had sleazy prostitutes hanging outside equally sleazy strip bars, tramps lying half-dead on dirty mattresses... it was a proper world, and I feel we were all proud of what we had achieved given the time. One thing is for sure - the threat of losing your job is a strong motivator.
Studio representatives from across the country were treated to this secondary demonstration - our cop would get into his Police Interceptor, which was akin to a beefy muscle car with sirens and an engine which sounded like the devil. A call from dispatch would inform him of a perpetrator driving erratically after fleeing the scene of a crime. That would give you the opportunity to give chase, driving through old derelict warehouses, the tight streets and finally skidding to a halt outside an alleyway. The perp gets out the car and flees down the alleyway, you follow in pursuit. We had a neat mechanic of jumping over fences and dodging obstacles where if you hit the action button spot on, you would climb over things without too much trouble; do it successfully and you'd have more chance to capture the criminal. After this, a brawl takes place followed by you throwing the perp through a wooden fence. The chase continues through an abandoned and crumbling building full of obstacles which need to be negotiated in the same way. Eventually you come out onto the roof and are treated to a panoramic view of the city, before jumping down to a lower building's roof and brawling once more with the perp as you are both bathed in the light of the animated neon sign.
This was shown behind closed doors to many people - including the guys from Edge, who gave the demonstration a glowing write-up. The Edge thing also span from another piece of good luck - the Game Horizon conference was in its usual digs at The Sage in Gateshead. It would be a short taxi ride to the studio for anyone wanting to check out the game in action, and Edge wanted to see it. Maybe they were guilty about their 4/10 Wheelman score, maybe they were concerned and wanting to help the studio out. Either way, the write-up was a lovely thing to read and experience in those uncertain times. It's weird how tangible the morale was in the studio - like a symbiotic creature, you could sense and experience the highs and lows; you contributed to them and experienced them. I was one of the more optimistic, glass-half-full types of people who worked there. Sadly, the truth was that the glass was in a constant flux of being half-full and half-empty.
After all this, Necessary Force wasn't picked up, although it actually helped safeguard the studio's future for that period of time. It showed the studio wasn't entirely worthless as just a studio. We had an IP, we had a chance. A hope. As one hope dissipated, another materialised - we had a chance with a studio I can't name. No, I really can't name it. It was a big studio though, and our boss managed to get us a space to pitch to this studio for a project which would secure our future. It was another boost to morale, and even though we lamented Necessary Force not getting picked up immediately (some of us, myself included, still had hope), we got to work on this new chance. This is what I will always remember and admire about working at Midway Newcastle - we just got our heads down and got on with it. I've never worked for a more industrious and proud bunch of people, and for that moment in time, I was proud to be part of that team. Honestly, 100% proud.
We did all we could for the new pitch and we gave it our all. We had to - our futures depended on it. As we did this, I noticed small cracks start to appear. Some studio members moved onto other jobs, significantly a bunch of designers moved up to Dundee to work with Ruffian. It was hard to not ignore their empty seats, their inactive computer terminals. Looking around the studio, it was depressing at times. I worked late on that new pitch, though I saw the late-night enthusiasm start to wane... understandably, people have families, homes, kids. Me? I was the bloke who lived on his own in a flat, so I was quite happy to spend as much time as possible in the studio. Someone came to take out the temperamental vending machine, and I knew it could soon be over for us, so I made the most of it. One night, I chatted to our incredible studio boss regarding the situation and what he thought of it over some fish and chips. It felt strange, but at the same time it felt good to get things from the horse's mouth. He did the best he could possibly do for the studio - he worked insane hours, talked to as many people and contacts as he could. We understood when during studio meetings, he would add the caveat of "no guarantees". We knew nothing was guaranteed, it was actually a guarantee in itself that nothing was guaranteed.
You could tell he had a heavy heart on the day he told the studio that the new pitch fell through - we were up against two other companies, and the truth was that although we had produced the best pitch out of the three, the larger studio didn't want to take the risk. Our boss then proceeded to tell us that now was the time to start work on our CVs, our portfolios... use the time wisely to get the best opportunities out there. He even mentioned that we can do anything that afternoon - stick around, play games, go home to see loved ones. We all thought we had the best chance at this pitch. It felt like the most obvious route. I even imagined the sign of that new company on the considered offices down the road. I saw in my mind's eye what could have been, and maybe we all believed it. The truth was that we tried our hardest - our absolute hardest to survive, and it wasn't enough.
They caught us totally off-guard. We had expected that the closure would be on Friday, and everyone was working to that point. A week after we were told of the failure of the "big pitch", Tuesday 14th July would be a day I will never forget. As lunch neared, our secretary noted on the security cameras that Matt Booty - the bigwig Midway CEO at the time - was outside the studio "with a bunch of people". The news filtered through the studio like wildfire accompanied by assorted reactions - mostly of the "oh fuck" variety. Everyone's Twitter and Facebook entries suddenly took a turn for the worse. We knew it was coming. Michael Caine slid a bit too far to grab that pallet of gold, and the bus was slowly skidding into the scenic Italian ravine. None of us knew it would happen on that specific day, although the timing couldn't have been any more perfect - it was the day before payday.
There was talk behind closed doors, giving us all a chance to get trinkets and documents together. There was frantic backing-up of files which were intended to be backed-up later on in the week. The anticipation was electric but not unsurprising. Maybe that was the thing - we had anticipated this moment for so long, that it didn't seem that new to us as an experience. They all filtered out of the boardroom and we all met up in the middle of the studio like we normally did with studio meetings. Matt Booty loomed over the other members of his posse - some of the Midway HR-types, a group of unfamiliar people alongside them. He went through the speech he probably rehearsed in the taxi on the way to the studio - we did a great job on Wheelman, we were considered the best studio in the Midway family - but this was obviously not enough. He added that he was there to close the studio that day; the people next to him were the insolvency suits from London who would be actually doing the closing.
We remained as respectful as possible, until it was brought up that there would be no pay headed to our bank accounts. No redunancy. No holiday pay. Nothing. Understandably, some people got quite angry about this - some stormed off in anger to continue to backup and safeguard their future careers and portfolios. Some of us asked why we were not getting paid when the London office was reportedly cash-rich. After all the work, the praise, the highs and lows of it all... it came down to this. I felt relatively at ease knowing that we could all finally stop worrying about the studio, although this brought up a whole lot of questions regarding our personal situations. Some people in the studio depended on that payment - mortgages, kids, wives... it means nothing to a suit. The atmosphere was rather tense, made evenmoreso when the insolvency guy piped up in the softest voice I've heard. Obviously this bloke wasn't suited to speaking to large crowds of fuming developers. There's always that cliche that a company is only as good as the people who are part of it - the lifeblood of the company. In that given moment in time, we weren't anything to these people. We were human detritus which needed to be filtered out of a saleable asset.
The insolvency bloke handed out RP1 forms to fill in. Like every single horrible form you've filled in during your life, this was full of stupid questions and pitfalls. Some people left with the forms to fill in later, but I wanted to fill it in there and then. I didn't want to fill it in again, and never wanted to look at it again. As me and a workmate were in the foyer going over the form with the aforementioned softly-spoken gent, out of the corner of my eye I saw a locksmith enter the building and begin examining the locks to the front door. They were changing the locks as we were there. Accompanying this locksmith was a squat, middle-aged, balding prick whose job was to make sure none of the employees would leave with any office property. He made some charmless small-talk to one of our effects artists as he left with all of his stuff in the stereotypical cardboard box.
Back in the office, this arsehole made even more of a horrible noise by shouting "30 minutes!" like a disgruntled landlord of a busy pub. This was his building now, and he wanted everyone to get the fuck out. I packed up my monitor and made sure to let that arsehole know it was actually mine when he questioned me, to the point that he actually backed away. Maybe this guy does have some kind of soul after all. While this was going on, hands were being shaken, documents were being exchanged. Snippets of chatter supplemented by one word - pub. Like refugees, we scattered out to form a dishelved line towards the local; the beer garden was already half-full of deflated ex-employees. Considering what had just happened, there was still laughter and joking. We still chatted about "what had just happened" and our plans for the future. It was heartbreaking seeing everyone slowly filter away from there... wondering what would become of us as individuals now that our team which was such a solid and incredible machine had been disassembled like a piece of flat-pack furniture.
What really annoyed me was we were planning on giving our boss a send-off on the Friday - we had planned a collection, a big card, gratitude in spades. All the work he did... after that day, he was still working for us. Job days were being organised and companies were coming up to the North East to check us out and consider recruitment opportunities. Even though I had a kind-of-shaky plan B, I was told to go to these job days "just in case". I went to the Bizarre Creations one the next day in the same pub we lamented our sorrows, and there was a lot of people there. Again, we felt like refugees surviving on free tuna sandwiches, but I think the guys from Bizarre were charming to chat to and were genuinely pleased to be of help. Thankfully plan B worked out on the day after, and on the orders of my future boss, I stayed at home instead of going to the Sony Recruitment Day. There's been more job days since then, and we've even got an action group up on Facebook.
Personally, I've been saving since I knew that there would be no guarantees - I've spent the past fortnight living frugally on savings and working on bits and pieces for the new start-up company I'll be working with in August. Other people have been pro-active in their search for new employment - Necessary Force definitely did us no harm for reputation, in fact the new start-up company was helped along by the concept work produced in Necessary Force. It's going to be great working with some of the guys from Midway Newcastle - at least we're saving a bit of the North East's development community... for this is the thing. Midway Newcastle is no more, and a third of the games industry of NewcastleGateshead has fallen by the wayside. I remember when Edge did a very optimistic feature on development in the North East of England - I felt happy to be a part of that, I really did. I think that it's been a shock to people that the company died - I know many people are disappointed that Necessary Force won't be coming out any time soon. I quite like the fact it's this mystical thing which hasn't really been seen, and only experienced - and enjoyed - by Edge, the only journalists to see the game in action.
The epilogue to all this is kind of strange. We heard horrible rumblings which I can't go into detail about, but they only strengthens how despicable it was to not pay us when we were expecting it. Those RP1 forms will mean that we get some kind of monetary compensation back for all our hard work, but only after 8 weeks of waiting for those wonderful legal procedures to take effect. There's been other forms of action too - one of which could be a Phoenix-esque rise from the ashes of Midway Newcastle, but it could be doubtful. After all the heartache we've had to endure, I'm thinking some of us just don't want to be played any more.
One thing is for sure - I am proud to have been part of a strong team of incredible people. The studio was genuinely a nice place to work and reside. I felt it had evolved from a shaky start to a powerhouse of development, talent and experience. It's a crying shame that it ended the way it did - and in the worst possible way too. I think the only way to truly get over it is to consider it the end of one chapter leading to the beginning of a new chapter. I just hope everyone I worked with finds a job, security and happiness.
They deserve it.