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Matt Booty & Martin Spiess - Part One

Midway's interim CEO/president and exec VP for International on proprietary tech, the Newcastle studio and Games Convention

One of the best-known brands in videogames history, Midway, has had its fair share of trials in the past twelve months following a huge investment in proprietary technology and a key title - Stranglehold - which didn't perform commercially as well as hoped.

Following the exit of David Zucker earlier this year, Matt Booty was appointed interim CEO and president, while Martin Spiess was promoted to executive VP for International. Here GamesIndustry.biz catches up with them on their thoughts regarding Games Convention, the strong future for the Newcastle studio, and how they're seeing a return on investment from that propritary development technology.

GamesIndustry.biz Let's start with a word on Games Convention - this could be the last time you're in Leipzig?
Martin Spiess

We've got rooms already in Cologne, so I hope we'll be moving over there - otherwise we'll be sleeping in tents here next year. The set-up is very good here [in Leipzig], very professional, but unfortunately it's at its maximum capacity so it's a nightmare for people to get here - and also to stay here, because there's basically no spare accommodation.

So if they want to expand, they want to grow, they have to move - or it will decline, because people will get fed up of sleeping in villages outside of Leipzig somewhere, then travel in on trains which are packed, and traffic was a nightmare this morning - just getting into the parking lot takes hours.

So despite the high-tech set-up we've got here - this awesome exhibition hall - it just doesn't work any more, so we have to move to a bigger centre.

GamesIndustry.biz The Leipziger Messe team has done a great job of building the event up, though?
Martin Spiess

They've done a great job building it up from nothing, but eventually at some point you have to move on. I don't think they expected the kind of attendance, what is it, 200,000 people? That's three times what E3 had. It's big.

GamesIndustry.biz With E3 struggling somewhat, it's a nice time for the global focus to be on Europe?
Martin Spiess

Well it's slightly different, because the platform in the US is basically for journalists and retail, while here it's mainly for consumers. And from the consumer standpoint the timing for Games Convention it's perfect, because it's close to Christmas, but from a retail perspective it's almost too late - so that's where E3 from a timing standpoint is better, although I'm not convinced about the format this year, it was kind of disappointing - and it just didn't look like a professional industry, because it was all lost in these massive hallways.

It's not good, so they have to make a change to the format if they want to stay in business.

GamesIndustry.biz Is May the best month for retail?
Martin Spiess

From a retail standpoint May is good, because it's before summer and Southern Europe basically goes on vacation in the summer, almost. So May or June is the best time for retail, but for consumers obviously we can show more finished code later in the year - so September, even October would be good.

GamesIndustry.biz We heard recently that there might be possible redundancies in your Newcastle studio - is there any truth in that?
Matt Booty

Newcastle is a very important studio for us, obviously the group that's doing Wheelman - which is a front line important game for us in the first half of 2009. We just brought in a new studio head, Craig Duncan, formerly with Codemasters, so I think those two things are an indication that we've got a very strong commitment to that studio.

We've had quite a lot of good hires in the last year to eighteen months at the director level - art director, technical director, audio director - so we're very happy with the leadership of the studio and we currently have acting as executive producer on Wheelman a guy who came up through the ranks on the Mortal Kombat team in the Chicago studio.

So we're very committed to Newcastle, we've got very strong senior leadership there, and in the course of running a studio, of course there may be changes to some talent - we hire some new people, and let some others go.

But only minor in the course of business, nothing to do with any big changes at the studio - we are there for the long term.

GamesIndustry.biz Perhaps that came about from the Austin news recently?
Matt Booty

Well, again with Austin - we're still in Austin, still in that building, it's unfortunate that we announce these things, and sometimes things are made more dramatic than they are, but we still have three very important groups in Austin.

The first is our central outsourcing group that handles external third part art and technology for all of our teams across all of our studios - a very important group that handles all the contracts, legal, negotiations, project management for outsourcing.

We also have a prototype game there that's working on a new next-gen game for us using our technology engine.

We did cancel a project there - for the health of the company, if we have a project that doesn't seem like it's going to pan out, we need to take action. But the senior team from that, about 15-20 people, are actually starting on a prototype as well. So we have two active game teams and a very critical support team there in Austin.

Again - it's never a good thing when you let people go, it's always a difficult decision to cancel a project in the middle, but in this case I think it's the best thing for the company. But no doubts, no question, we're in Austin, going strong there, and when those projects grow and the time is right, we'll be hiring again to staff those back up.

GamesIndustry.biz There's a cyclical nature to game development, and sometimes it's hard to see what's a normal part of the process, and what isn't.
Matt Booty

Well, the public and the press, and to some extent the industry, will begin to learn about those cycles. It is difficult, because over two years… at the beginning of a project you might have ten people, and at the end you might have 150. So what happens between ten and 150?

In many ways we have the advantage that because all of our studios are on the same technology, we're very close-knit, we can have people working across projects. So we have people in Chicago right now helping out with Wheelman. We have people who just finished TNA helping to finish off Mortal Kombat, and because we have similar art tools and technology that's possible.

But in the movie industry maybe four people get together at the beginning to make a movie. At the end you've got 400 - well they've created a whole industry and a craft, and unions, and groups that can service that. I think the games industry will eventually get there, where you've got support groups and service groups that are used to coming on and off of projects.

People will get used to that - somebody will let 50 people move on, and it doesn't mean anything bad, it's just that part of the game is done now, and they're moving on to the next one.

GamesIndustry.biz You mentioned the technology there - Midway invested a lot of money in proprietary tech for the long term. Is that something you'll see the benefits of more and more in the future?
Matt Booty

Yes - we will, and this Fall we'll start to see it first, because both TNA and Mortal Kombat are sharing quite a bit of technology, which is fantastic for us. They're both long term franchises. But underlying both of those, they share the same code base with Wheelman, so again we're able to move art resources back and forth between those projects.

Something learned on one project, a particle system, an interface system, becomes available to other teams, so again projects that might take two or three years? It takes in the order of six months to a year before we start to see this come together, but this Fall is the beginning of that. And as we move into next year, with Wheelman shipping, This is Vegas coming out, we'll see more and more of that technology being leveraged.

GamesIndustry.biz It's an amazing time for the videogames industry, with the technology, the hardware, the software… but is it the most competitive time ever?
Matt Booty

From the development side, on the hand it is more competitive than ever and the technology's more difficult - but at the same time it's always been that way. When the PlayStation 2 came out everyone was racing to see who could get the best technology on that, and when PlayStation One came out we were all wrestling with 3D, and polygons, and it was also competitive.

So I don't think there's any fundamental change there - I believe that videogames are unique, there will always be a technology component that keeps things competitive and that arms race of technology will always be an aspect that perhaps doesn't exist in music, books or films.

I think the guys in our teams accept that's part and parcel. Now teams are bigger, projects take longer and cost more, and certainly there are more inherent challenges that come with that, but I think especially at Midway a lot of the processes and technology that we have in place are being geared towards bigger projects.

Matt Booty is interim CEO and president and Martin Spiess is executive VP for International at Midway. Interview by Phil Elliott.