Thursday, November 20, 2008

Midway's Problems Are Not Unreal: The Press Creates Another Story Edition


This morning the interwebs lit up with headlines like this: "Unreal Engine 3 Fingered in Midway's Struggles" promoting articles tying Midway's problems to UE3. From the headlines I thought this was a Midway finger pointing article. This would almost seem plausible if Midway had a single profitable year since 1999, a year when UE3 was a but a glimmer in Epic's collective shorts. In reality, Midway was not finger pointing. No one was. Much like Detroit's auto industry, Midway's problems stem not from technology, but pure and simple bad management. In fact, the very article used as a foundation start the kindle the anti UE3 fire says exactly that. The game journalists who picked it up either decided not read the whole thing - maybe a habit they picked up from reviewing games- or they decided flowery prose is more fun than the truth.

The original story appeared in Daily Variety from Ben Fritz. He quite accurately wrote:

To find out, I spoke to several ex-employees. And while there were lots of little things, one issue popped up again and again: Midway's decision to license Unreal Engine and use it for ALL its games.


Our gaming journalist brethren either read that part and moved on, or simply engaged in an extended game of telephone, copying each other's postings, something many of us experienced before. They failed to look at the next paragraph:

"The mistake we made was, instead of just taking the base Unreal 3 engine that 'Gears of War' was made on and building games off of that, we let our tech and product development guys try to really modify the engine to add all these diff things," one ex-employee told me. "It was a ton of new technology which they just weren’t capable of doing. It put all the games way behind schedule."


Ben didn't blame Epic, Midway didn't blame Epic, so why is everyone else is blaming Epic? The employee quoted in the article clearly explained it was Midway's decision to modify the code base, not the engine itself that led to problems. Not a big surprise. UE3 is quite polarizing. Developers either love it or hate it. The folks who try to reengineer it tend to hate it - especially around the time of new code drops. These are the folks who buy a boat and complain about how poorly it handles on the freeway. The folks who build within the code base, or build accessions on top of the existing technology love it - even around the time of new code drops. This concept is nothing new. If you use a technology or anything for that matter, for its intended purpose, it works. If you ask it to do something it can't do, much like my 13 year old son, it will rebel in frustration.

Midway's problems don't stem from the Unreal engine. They stem from management's failure to identify the problems arising from its dictate that every Midway game would be built on Unreal. This is a great strategy if every game you are building is an FPS or over the shoulder shooter, or if the teams tasked with expanding the functionality were experienced with the technology and working in concert. Unfortunately management was either not being told what was going on, or chose not to listen. Unlike the other publishers who also suffered delays moving to this generation, Midway took a very, very long time to respond to technology issues. Couple this with a conscious decision by prior management not to work with external developers and not to exploit a rich library of beloved IP or build on the rays of sunshine in the catalogue like million plus selling Rampage for the Wii, and the company will find itself in trouble.

The good news is the company woke up and acknowledged the shortcomings. Management has been changed from the top down, a decent old school product made it out the door, and they are supporting the release of future products. The articles more correctly should say, "Midway identified what went wrong and hopes they turned the corner: and Epic had nothing to do with it."




2 comments:

Clinton Keith said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Clinton Keith said...

Good post. More to the point, they decided to replace the physics system on an engine in development for the console. Simultaneously trying to keep up-to-date with the fundamental changes being made by Epic, creating an "internal middleware" organization and launching the whole effort with the ambitious goals of Stranglehold was a perfect storm.

Another UE3 failure/lesson is that studios try to bend UE3 to fit their production pipeline. That doesn't work. The reverse has to happen.