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In the early 1990s, Midway was synonymous with arcade gaming, turning out massive blockbusters like Mortal Kombat, NBA Jam, and Cruis'n USA, among many others. And the people responsible for those games? Well, “responsible” might not be the word, according to game developer and filmmaker Josh Tsui. As he tells it, the creators at the Chicago studio were largely unsupervised, left to their own devices—and vices—so long as they met deadlines and kept pumping out smash hits.
He would know: Tsui worked at Midway from 1993 to 1999, during the height of the former studio’s arcade dominance. He even served as the likeness for characters in several of its games, including multiple Mortal Kombat entries. Now he’s looking to share the untold stories with Insert Coin: Inside Midway’s ‘90s Revolution, a feature-length documentary that he hopes will let legendary game creators tell their tales and include unseen archival footage.
With several interviews already completed, Tsui has launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the rest of the film’s production. I caught up with him to find out what makes Midway’s story worth sharing now, and how its employees’ antics wouldn’t fly in today’s big-budget corporate gaming world.
Tsui has gone on to prominent roles since departing Midway. He co-founded Studio Gigante with Mortal Kombat co-creator John Tobias, and then joined up with EA Chicago before ultimately establishing Chicago studio Robomodo in 2008. As its president, he’s overseeing development of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 5—but still, he can’t shake those strong memories of where his career began.
“It’s that 20-year nostalgia that everybody gets,” he says. “There’s so much fondness about the '90s era, and these games affected so much of the industry. Twenty years later, it seems like a good time to revisit it.”
Midway’s story began decades prior to the '90s and ended miserably in bankruptcy in 2009, but Insert Coin charts a relatively narrow focus of 1989 to 1999: the time when arcades offered the hottest games and most advanced tech, and Midway had hit after hit. Early favorites like NARC and Smash TV led to incredible successes like NBA Jam and Mortal Kombat, and the money kept rolling in during the 3D era with Cruis'n USA and NFL Blitz. And there were many more where those came from.
Tsui’s goal is to make sense of the madness of that era by interviewing the people who might know it even better than he does: notable developers like Eugene Jarvis (Defender), Mark Turmell (NBA Jam), and Tobias, among others. And there are extra perspectives, too: like that of Kerri Hoskins Branson, who portrayed Sonya Blade in Mortal Kombat and appeared in several other Midway games. (Relevant trivia: she was also a Playboy Playmate in the '90s!)
We know about the classic games that Midway’s development teams produced, and how many of them have remained relevant. But how did these games influence and affect each other, and what about the ideas that didn’t pan out? And who were the people that created such legendary, enduring games? Between rare and unseen game clips, behind-the-scenes footage from the era—like Midway’s awkward video pitch for Aerosmith’s light gun shooter, Revolution X—and the newly-shot interviews, Tsui says we’ll get a comprehensive look at Midway’s great decade.
And his own insider experience is what will drive the discoveries. “I know the right things to ask about,” he asserts, noting that even he’s learning new details by persuading his former colleagues to open up.
For instance, he remembered times when studio heads were gone for long stretches—and it turns out that they were being courted by Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks Interactive, which hoped to poach an entire Midway creative team by wining and dining them on lavish trips. “I feel like I can make the right links between events and people to get the interesting stories there,” Tsui says.
INSIDE THE ZOO
And the interesting stories apply to much more than digital experiences. Tsui claims that the studio had “very much a frat boy type of mentality,” and that Midway was “just kind of a zoo during that period.”
In the grand scheme of things, the stories aren’t so much shocking as they are totally incompatible with the kind of by-the-book demeanor we’d expect from a corporate game publisher today. Tsui recalls booze flowing in the studio—and around the city, as they entertained WWE wrestlers and other talent—fights in hallways, and even adult dancers brought in when they needed someone to model for game characters. With the bosses away, the boys (mostly) came out to play.
“It was the most well-funded group of indie developers out there,” he jokes, about the lack of structure. “There was very little management. We were basically self-managing, for better or worse. As long as the games were done on time, that’s all that mattered. We were doing things that would give HR departments nightmares now.”
Even Tsui was surprised at how deep his interview subjects got into those topics, but admits that being an old friend and ally—not an outsider chasing a juicy story—made it easier for people to talk. “It’s not like this is a big exposé piece, or that people are going to be so incredibly shocked by it. It’s really a love letter to an era,” he says. “Me and many others look back on that era really fondly, so when I talk to people about it, they open up because they know I’m not doing a hatchet piece.”
The Kickstarter campaign—which aims to raise $75,000—is designed to help him realize the ultimate vision: a feature-length film, released online and via physical media, that fully explores that timeframe. He’s already filmed interviews with eight past colleagues and plans to chat with several more, with follow-up interviews also planned for the first batch. The money will help fund travel and production expenses, as well as pay for collaborators to help him bring it to life. According to the Kickstarter page, the film is targeted for May 2017.
Crowdfunding also helps to gauge the interest in such a project; Tsui wants to make sure it’s worth his time to do it at a grand scale, although he probably won’t abandon Insert Coin if the money doesn’t add up. Most likely, he’ll release shorter films online using the footage, without the same depth the full doc would have. Whatever the result, it sounds like he wants to help cement Midway’s place in gaming history by detailing the magic behind the quarter-crunching arcade classics.
“It felt like we were witnessing history while it was being developed,” he says. “There’s never been a documentary that talks about that entire 10-year era, and how every game from this particular studio was a phenomenon.”
Well, until now—if the people want it, that is.
Andrew Hayward has been writing about games and gadgets for nearly a decade, contributing to more than 55 publications in the process. Follow him on Twitter at @ahaywa.
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