As an outlet that covers the worlds of film and videogames, few things get us more excited than a good documentary about videogames. The recently released film “Insert Coin” dives into the arcade history of the Midway brand that had such a big impact on arcade gaming in the 1990s as they built on their (and Williams’) classic arcade legacy from the 1980s. It’s an era that older games fondly remember and one that helped shape today’s videogame landscape. We’ll share our review of the film soon, but also had a chat with its director Josh Tsui – which we’re sharing with you here.
Midway surged in the 90s just as arcades were starting their decline – what was the key to that success?
Josh: There were a lot of reasons behind Midway’s success in the 90s, but I’d say overall, it had to do with how the games had the personality of the developers. The company’s management really left them alone to make unique games. The developers were close to the age of the players, so they would make games they knew would be entertaining for themselves. Many times it would just be to shock each other. That level of personality was easy to pull off when the stakes weren’t as high as larger games are nowadays.
Midway used to be very successful with their pinball machines. Did that carry over to the successful video games in the 1990s?
Josh: Absolutely, Eugene Jarvis came from designing incredibly successful pinball machines. When videogames blew up in the 80s, he saw the future and made games like Defender. His legacy is what drove Midway’s success over the years despite the ups and downs. His design sense (and crazy personality) mentored the game designers of Midway in the 90s.
What was the biggest eye-opener for you when talking to the people involved with this part of Midway’s history?
Josh: The way the teams were managed was eye-opening. I knew it was a bit of a Lord of The Flies style in the studio, but understanding how much of it was driven by management was something new that I didn’t realize. There was a true sense of capitalism throughout the studio in the best and worst sense. Teams would be actively set up to be pitted against each other, which led to innovations but also heated rivalries that would be harmful —such as not sharing technology.
What did the rise of home brands like PlayStation do to the company’s strategy during the second half of the decade?
Josh: Midway eventually had to figure out a way to create games that were less arcade-like and more longer-form as people were getting used to games like Tomb Raider and Metal Gear Solid. This was a real struggle as there was the old guard and management style that would not be able to scale properly. There were some successes leading into the 2000s but not enough to be sustainable.
What’s your favorite anecdote from those days?
Josh: There was a great story about the launch of NARC at a private party for arcade machine distributors. They had this fancy ballroom, and everyone was dressed formally. The event people decided to have the characters from NARC show up with real machine guns firing blanks run into the ballroom and scared the crap out of everyone. The game designers actually thought it was a real Chicago gangland attack, given the mob’s history with the arcade business.
Mortal Kombat was hugely controversial when it came out. Why do you feel the franchise endures to this day, even without the controversy?
Josh: It’s just a flat out great game to play. The violence was the most noticeable aspect of the game to outsiders, but it was only 10% of the game. It is the game design that makes it so successful to this day. Everything else is just icing on the cake.
What are the biggest ways in which Midway’s games have impacted today’s video game landscape?
Josh: Midway changed what videogames could be. The design of the games was unique in that the creators infused them with their personalities and humor. They pushed the envelope to surprise and shock people and gave others permission to do the same.