The fall of Midway Australia and the Mad Max game that wasn't
At Ratbag Games the staff celebrated with beer or pizza, but never beer and pizza.
Greg Siegele, the company’s co-founder, explains. “Basically it was a wake – when a product was cut we’d commiserate with beer and pizza. After a couple of those people got nervous whenever they saw beer and pizza come out, which is of course a staple in the game industry.”
Senior artist Szymon Mienik says it straightforwardly: “beer-and-pizza became synonymous with layoffs.”
Ratbag Games saw several wakes over the course of its life, with ambitious projects repeatedly cancelled in favor of making safer games necessary for their survival. Several of those cancelled projects were really the same game in different wigs, all based on the idea of recreating the post-apocalyptic Australia of the Mad Max movies. In the world of Mad Max scavenging is necessary for survival, repurposing what’s left and making it work – a lot like game development, where the engines and assorted leftovers of earlier projects find new life again and again. Sadly, Ratbag never got to complete the game they dreamed about, eventually being bought by Midway Games and transformed into Midway Australia four months before being unceremoniously shut down by their new owners.
But let’s go back to the beginning.
Adelaide is not a city known for game development in Australia. So Ratbag seemed to come from nowhere when they released Powerslide on PC in 1998, a post-apocalyptic racing game in a world where fruit rather than fuel was in short supply (players competed in its deadly races for valuable bananas instead of trophies). Its open levels let racers create their own shortcuts to the finish line, sometimes via huge jumps inspired by the rollercoaster leaps of 1989’s Stunt Car Racer.
Like the first Mad Max film, Powerslide was a success everywhere it was released except the USA. However, the game’s American publisher GT Interactive were pleased enough to suggest a follow-up that combined its aggressive driving with gunplay, suggesting an $8 million budget. Ratbag immediately began work on the game, which they codenamed Next. But financial troubles caused GT Interactive to pull out before they’d officially greenlit Next, and it was disastrous for Ratbag. They’d blown much of the profit from Powerslide on pre-production of a game they could no longer afford to continue developing.
So they made a game for Wal-Mart.
The supermarket chain wanted a game about dirt track racing, a sport popular with their customers but lacking representation on their shelves. Ratbag created Dirt Track Racing in a five-month blur. They achieved that through judicious recycling. Released on PC in 2000, it was a success. Its sequels and spin-offs, which migrated to the PlayStation 2, kept Ratbag solvent for the next few years. It also gave them a reputation for being able to nail the physics of car-handling, with the loose-gravel feel of slipping around corners a specialty.
But they wanted to be more than just the guys who were good at cars. Their idea of adding on-foot elements to a game with vehicles was reborn in a prototype of a game called Raid, made as part of a deal with Activision. “It was going to be a reboot of River Raid,” says animator Tim Dawson, “except reinvisaged as an action-adventure game where you hopped between islands and shot missiles at helicopters. It looked like Just Cause before Just Cause.”
A leaked trailer shows this version of Raid, set during the Vietnam War and soundtracked by the Rolling Stones, complete with jeeps and tanks and lots of explosions. Activision were so impressed by Raid’s early prototype they decided to recast it from a River Raid remake to a spin-off of their Soldier Of Fortune series, known at the time for its extreme violence and the ability to shoot off enemies’ limbs.
But along the way Raid’s setting changed from islands off the coast of Vietnam to Arctic tundra, and its protagonist from black to white and from a US Marine to an extreme sports enthusiast who rode a snowboard and fought with a baseball bat. As Dawson explains, “Activision wanted to attach celebrity voice talent to it, so they hired Judge Rheinhold, which kind of felt like a joke at the time. The ultimate joke was they did record it and he gave the most phoned-in celebrity performance I’ve ever heard.”
This entirely retooled Raid no longer impressed Activision and was unceremoniously cancelled. Fortunately, Ratbag had just released another game they’d been developing simultaneously called Dukes Of Hazzard: Return Of The General Lee, which came out on PS2 and Xbox in 2004. Siegele says, “We had a lot of fun with the script on that one, it has a great sense of humor. It’s a title for kids and one that fans of the show would appreciate, but not one for hardcore gamers hence the poor reviews it got.”
But it was another earner for Ratbag, selling roughly 250,000 copies. It was produced for the 25th anniversary of the show, as was a movie remake, although Ratbag were told nothing of the movie’s existence and had to learn of it from the news. “Unfortunately our game was on time and the movie was one year late, so we didn't get any bump from the movie,” Siegele says.
In the meantime, Ratbag had produced another prototype that failed to find a publisher: a Powerslide sequel set in a post-apocalyptic Sydney.
“The Powerslide: Slipstream prototype was very popular in our studio,” says Siegele, “the team really enjoyed playing it which is a great sign for any game. Unfortunately the publishers we approached took the view they weren't going to support an original racing title, they wanted licensed real world vehicles. And it was post-apocalyptic, which they don’t like either, mainly because most attempts at post-apocalyptic games have been crap.”
At this point the team sat down for a brainstorming session to outline their next project. In spite of its lack of commercial appeal, the common element they all agreed on was wanting to make a game about a post-apocalyptic Australia. “Basically Mad Max was the common theme,” says Dawson, “and I’d never seen a company’s identity so strongly before. It was clear that this was what people wanted to do.” The resulting project was named Scavenger.
Ratbag’s chief technology officer Cameron Dunn sums up Scavenger as “a super promising open world driving combat/trading game” and the trading in particular would have been an important part of it. Its wasteland setting was dotted with settlements sharing a simulated economy. The player could then raid their convoys, affecting that economy.
“The convoy would be protected by armored buggies that would drive in formation,” Dawson says. “I sat next to the guy who did all the AI and it was ridiculously adaptive. If there was four of them around, when they see an enemy one would break off and the other three would resume keeping a perimeter. It just felt really dynamic. I remember watching Fury Road and I was like, ‘Oh, man, I’ve played this! I played this back in 2004.’”
“The way the camera followed cars, trucks and aircraft as they battled and drifted over undulating desert felt cinematic,” Mienik adds. “It was very enjoyable to play, the smooth terrain allowed a player to maintain complete control and drive forward while shooting behind the vehicle at pursuers.”
Siegele approached Max Max director George Miller with the idea of making an official game of the movies, but he wasn’t interested. “I think his answer was the game tech at the time was not sufficient quality for his Mad Max brand,” Siegele recalls. They went ahead and completed the prototype, creating a setting similar to but independent of the films. As that prototype came together, the studio grew passionate about the game. “Again, that is a really good sign. If the people working all day making the game stay behind after work to play it with each other you know you are on a winner.”
Publishers didn’t see it that way, and again Ratbag were told post-apocalyptic games didn’t sell. Midway Games were impressed by Scavenger’s technical quality, but rather than buying it hired them to develop a different game. Dawson sums up Midway’s position: “This is fantastic! We want you to make a GTA clone.”
That “GTA clone” was Wheelman for PS2 and Xbox, starring Vin Diesel as a getaway driver in Barcelona. The plan was for Diesel to make a movie simultaneously, but it never went past the script stage. Diesel’s own game company Tigon Studios were involved to insure his character’s depiction was on-brand. Dawson recalls, “Script notes came back and they said, ‘There’s a bit where the guy who hires the driver says go up on that crane and be a sniper. You can’t tell Vin Diesel what to do. Vin Diesel should say, ‘I’m going up on this crane, and I’m going to cover this guy,’’ which cracked me up. It was actually good game design to give the character more agency but I just like the idea that the tutorial can’t tell him what to do, he has to suggest that he wants to do it.”
Ratbag tried to make Wheelman greater than its copycat genesis, adding a focus on vehicle combat that allowed players to spin-slam into other cars and drop into a slow-motion bullet time mode. Dawson says, “Someone used a fighting game metaphor, which I liked. I love fighting games, but then my question was you’ve got your spin-kicks, where’s your punches? What if you could shunt a car? I don’t care if it’s not realistic, you’re spinning the car around in the air and doing slow-mo, what if you can just press a button on the D-pad and smash a car so you can punch and it’s charging a meter you can use for moves?”
Dawson’s idea was incorporated into Wheelman along with a mechanic similar to the ‘action hijack’ later seen in Sleeping Dogs that allowed players to leap from one moving vehicle to another and then take it over. (“I animated Vin Diesel punching guys out of a car!” Dawson says with glee.)
Midway were closely involved during Wheelman’s development, but their requests seemed strange to the team. First they asked to see 20 cars on-screen at all times, making intersections jammed and impossible to drive through. Then they wanted 80 pedestrians on-screen, which Dawson had to animate. “I had to talk to the lead programmer about this because I was doing character skins and we figured out mathematically, he said you’ve got this much processing power, you can have 11 bones per NPC and 200 verts. OK, that’s not enough to give them knees but let’s figure this out. We did this ridiculously clever rigging, and eventually we did it and the punchline was that Midway saw it and said, ‘That’s ridiculous, you can’t even see the pavement.’”
During this time the possibility of Midway negotiating with George Miller on Ratbag’s behalf to acquire the Mad Max licence was floated around. “It was like this carrot dangling over the team at one point,” as Dawson says. Then, several months into production on Wheelman in August of 2005, Midway bought Ratbag outright for $AUS7 million and transformed them into Midway Studios Australia.
“We saw the writing on the wall for the Australian console development scene,” Siegele says of the decision to sell. “The global industry was transitioning from the PS2 and Xbox to the Xbox 360 and PS3. Development budgets were triple on the new consoles and the only next-gen projects going around were for publishers’ internal studios. That is the main reason we sold, ironically, to secure our future.”
Midway requested a milestone prototype of Wheelman, but when Ratbag sent it off there was a feeling among the team that it wasn’t up to scratch. They decided to resubmit it, spending two weeks in crunch mode, and despite the long hours Dawson remembers it as a positive experience. “It felt more like a movie montage where everyone’s just pulling together. Things that had been bugging us through the whole project suddenly got fixed, started coming together, post effects meant the game started to look like its concept art, all this stuff started happening in a short amount of time. We fixed all these glitches, we got the systems working.”
Representatives from Midway were travelling to Australia to meet with the team in December and they optimistically thought this would be the ideal time to show off what they’d done, setting up a bank of televisions in the meeting room each showing a different open-world game. In the middle was Wheelman, sitting comfortably next to Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, “looking incredible even at this early stage” according to Dawson. “We had a team meeting and surprisingly Matt Booty, vice president of Midway at the time, came out and addressed us personally. And he was nervous as hell. He was clutching this paper and stammering, and he said that the studio would be closed immediately.”
Everyone was baffled. Why spend millions acquiring the studio only to close it down four months later? According to Siegele it’s because they were working on a PS2/Xbox title “and that November all their current gen titles flopped. They formed the view that it was over for the PS2 and Xbox and they were right. Midway slowly went bankrupt over the next three years. I am glad we were the first to get the chop. I would not want to slowly bleed to death sacking staff every six months.”
Dawson still thinks it was a bad move, however. “We would have been in the perfect place to release a very late PS2 game that could take advantage of the large install base and PS3 trepidation.”
Standard practice was for the publisher’s representative to fly out, break the news to the team lead, and then let them make the announcement. Siegele refused this honor, telling Booty to do it himself. “It was very sad,” says Siegele. “I cried in my farewell speech and a couple more occasions that day. However, the team was very proud of their work and each other. We finished on top of our game and a lot of Ratbag people moved on to some amazing projects and roles all over the globe.”
Many ex-Ratbaggers were snatched up by other Australian developers: Mienik went to Hardcover Entertainment and both Dunn and Dawson were hired by Team Bondi where they worked on LA Noire. Some went overseas. Siegele left the games industry and now runs a startup building data centers, and also competes in pinball tournaments (last year he entered the World Championship and came 38th).
Wheelman was given to Midway Newcastle and shifted to PS3 and Xbox 360. Parts of the original including its Barcelona setting and Vin Diesel’s protagonist remained. Dawson was pleased his car-shunting mechanic survived too. “I remember reading a review of the PS3 version and it said ‘the game is a mess, but the shunting feature is a really good idea.’” Wheelman was the last game Midway released before their own closure in 2009.
In 2015 Avalanche Studios, creators of Just Cause, released a Mad Max game through Warner Bros. It featured an open world, and combined driving with third-person action, though it lacked the trading that would have been a core part of Scavenger. “I thought they did a really middle-of-the-road interpretation of it,” says Dawson. “It makes sense, but it’s also a bit safe and I felt like it needed something bigger than that.” Siegele hasn’t played it, having fallen out of love with modern games, and admits he hasn’t touched his Xbox One since he bought it.
On the day they closed the doors of Ratbag, Siegele invited all of his staff to the pub next door, put on a bar tab, and ordered food. They had beer and pizza.