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GC: Rising From the Ashes

Al King discusses Midway's plans to make a comeback.

On the grand scale of third-party publishers, Midway tends to stand, well, somewhere below the middle. Although Electronic Arts has dominated the market for many years now, it wasn't so long ago that Midway was competing on an equal footing with the likes of Take-Two and Activision. But as European marketing director Al King will concede, times have changed.

He's agreed to sit down for a chat with GI.biz at the Leipzig Games Convention inside Midway's enclosure, which sits squarely in the middle of the trade show floor. It's easy to locate, with outside panels that rise above the surrounding portaloo-style booths. Inside, expensive-looking display screens are ranged around a revolving floor, while giant, glossy banners promote movie tie-in Happy Feet, new franchise Stranglehold and the latest instalment in the Mortal Kombat series. They've even got their own waitress; in short, it's all a bit fancy.

The kind of fancy, in fact, you might expect from a top five-ranking publisher. Which, King admits, Midway isn't right now. But if he's got anything to do with it, that's set to change - and quickly.

"It's all about timing," he begins. "We've waited for this next generation of technology to come along, and then basically, you just invest a lot of money in people and technology, and in product development."

Which, King believes, is the secret to securing a bigger market share - a big investment at precisely the right time in the console cycle. "Every time you get a new wave of technology, the market increases by 15 to 20 per cent, so there's always room for another publisher to step in and grab a large chunk of the market share.

"In the last cycle, that happened with Activision and Take-Two. The whole reason Midway is reinventing itself is to do exactly that; we're going to be a top five third-party publisher by the end of this cycle."

At present, King says, Midway has a market share of "just above 1 per cent". He joined the company back in June, following a three year break from the games industry altogether. He'd spent more than a decade working for Electronic Arts, which was "consistently above 20 per cent with market share. Which gets a bit boring", according to King.

"One of the reasons I've joined Midway is to turn that 1 per cent into 7 per cent in about three years' time, and then punch into the low teens by the end of this technology cycle."

So how does King plan to do that? Well, there's this year's product-line up, for starters, which he describes as not just "well-balanced" but even "inspiring". There's kids' title Happy Feet, the second product to result from Midway's two-game deal with Warner Bros., and Mortal Kombat: Armageddon, "representing the old Midway." Then there's Stranglehold, a PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 title that's being developed in collaboration with John Woo and Chow-Yun Fat.

"You couldn't get more poles apart, really," muses King.

"We've got teensy little penguins sliding around on ice. Then we've got characters ripping each others' hearts and spines out. And we've also got high art, cinematic, next-generation stuff with Stranglehold.... I think we've got all the bases covered."

But as King concedes, Midway's also got an image problem, particularly when it comes to hardcore gamers. "If that's the way they think, there's no point whinging about it. The challenge comes with understanding why that is, and then deciding whether you can fix it, and whether you can be arsed. We can fix it, and we can be arsed, so we just have to get on with it.

"Midway's contribution to gaming, historically, is significant - think about the impact that Mortal Kombat had on popular culture. But that was then," he continues.

"With the likes of Stranglehold, we'll regain our credibility with hardcore gamers. As that market share rises, and once we've proved that we can deliver compelling next-generation gaming content, we'll start to move out to the casual gamers, and grow more fans outside of hardcore gaming."

But is that a wise move, when we're constantly hearing that the games industry is chaning, the audience is changing, that casual gaming is on the rise? Aren't there more casual gamers than hardcore players out there now?

"In absolute numbers terms, yes," says King. "But you have to factor in how many units of software they're buying a year, and that's where it equals out."

And it's not just Midway which has realised the importance of attracting the hardcore market, according to King - just look at the PlayStation 3. King says he wouldn't pay the GBP 425 asking price for Sony's new console, but adds, "I'm not a hardcore gamer. I'm in a segment called time restricted. I've got all the consoles at home and a high-spec PC, but trade shows, flying around the world, giving interviews, going to restaurants and gigs - all that gets in the way of gaming."

King's "hardcore gamer friends", however, "have probably already pre-ordered theirs, frankly, and they'll pay that. And they're happy to, because it's their number one hobby, they're dedicated to gaming, and the PS3 is a compelling piece of kit.

"Ultimately you have to think about it and be segment specific. If you're a hardcore gamer who spends all your hardearned on games, the price isn't too high at all. Particularly for the amount of technology inside."

But for casual gamers, King says, the price is "probably too high". They're more likely to pick up a Nintendo Wii - which is set to retail for less than half the price of Sony's console. "You can see the way Nintendo is skewing, and it is more mainstream, casual, female... That kind of stuff."

However, if Sony attracts the hardcore audience, and Nintendo picks up the casual gamers, where does that leave Microsoft? "I don't think they're confused in terms of who they're going after - I just think they've got multiple options of where they could go.

"If Nintendo corners the family marketplace, and Sony corners the hardcore marketplace, that still leaves a large share of - social gamers, let's call them - for Microsoft to carve out," King says, adding that he's impressed by what the company is doing with Xbox Live Marketplace.

In fact, King's so convinced that there's scope for each next-gen console to perform well that he also believes they'll end up with an equal share of the market.

"My prediction is it'll be a third, a third, a third. Because all of them are compelling, and all of them have got a slightly different alliance of publishers and developers that are developing content for each one.

"There's room for all three, and it'll be the most interesting and exciting generation of technology the industry's ever seen," King concludes.

But is there room for another third-party publisher strong enough to compete with the likes of Activision, Take-Two - and perhaps even EA? Well, Al King certainly believes so - and if he's right, it might not just be next-gen technology that's about to make the games industry a bit more interesting.

Al King is European marketing director for Midway Games. Interview by Ellie Gibson.

Ellie Gibson avatar

Ellie Gibson


Ellie spent nearly a decade working at Eurogamer, specialising in hard-hitting executive interviews and nob jokes. These days she does a comedy show and podcast. She pops back now and again to write the odd article and steal our biscuits.