Joshua Tsui, Filmmaker, Insert Coin

Filmmaker Joshua Tsui talks with Toy Tales about Insert Coin, his new documentary chronicling the heydey of arcade game publisher Midway Games, known for Mortal Kombat, NBA Jam, Narc, Rampage, and other seminal titles.

Tell us about Midway Games for those who may be unfamiliar with the company.

Midway Games was an arcade games developer in Chicago, Illinois. They started life in 1958 as a pinball manufacturer and in the 1970s got into arcade games. The arcade game industry crashed in the ’80s and pinball manufacturer, Bally, merged with Midway Games and was later bought by Williams Electronics Games. In the late 1980s, the company asked game designer, Eugene Jarvis, to re-start its arcade game segment. The games were being made by a small group of people in horrible conditions to make franchises like Mortal Kombat. Arcade games came roaring back in the 1990s but would eventually start dying out as home game consoles grew in popularity. Midway Games closed its arcade game division in 2001. The company filed for bankruptcy in 2009.

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Why do you want to tell this story?

I wanted to make Insert Coin for a few different reasons. Midway Games’ Mortal Kombat is now a franchise owned by Warner Bros. and NBA Jam is with Electronic Arts. These are well-known games even to this day, but few people know they were made by a very small group of people and most don’t know the backstory.

I didn’t want to make an encyclopedia-style documentary; to me, it was really important to talk with the people behind the games to learn about why decisions were made, what their lives were like at that time, and how ’90s culture and sensibilities affected game development as things turned from “happy family time” to darker stories.

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The team at Midway Games is described as both a “team of geeks and misfits” and being like “the Ramones or the Sex Pistols”. How did they earn those descriptions?

It’s interesting – they always seemed like they were on the Lord of the Flies island. 

Pinball was very popular in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Video games weren’t as important at that time and the Midway team was left to its own devices. It’s as if the executives at Midway thought, “Let’s restart the video game department…but we don’t have time to manage these people.”

Eugene Jarvis, the leader of the division and creator of the Defender arcade game from ’80s, has a big rogue-type personality that affected everybody around him. As he built up the division, his whole team ended up like that. They were making moderately successful games. They didn’t do any market research and used the crazy ’80s action films they liked as inspiration for what they created. They wanted to make Rambo-style video games and crazy kung-fu games where people get their heads ripped off. But, the executives liked that the games came in on time and under budget. That management style didn’t work later on the down road.

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What surprised you about the process of making this documentary?

In regards to making the film, no matter how much I thought I knew the story, it changed with the more people I talked to. The more people I interviewed, the more paths I was taken down. I thought I knew pretty much what I wanted to know going in, but that wasn’t the case. It was important not to get too attached to my preconceptions.

On the Midway side of things, I wasn’t so much surprised as interested in the business of arcade gaming and how it affected game design. You need a player to put a quarter into an arcade game every 45 seconds – games have to be designed around monetization. You have to think about fun but also about stringing players along to get a return on investment. Every quarter counts; it’s a balance between not getting the players too frustrated and not making it too easy. It’s a delicate balance. Home games don’t have to do that so much.

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Where can people watch Insert Coin?

The documentary premiers Wednesday, November 25. We have partnered with Alamo On Demand to stream the film online and people can also watch it through a virtual cinema screening. Buying a virtual ticket is a great way to support independent theatres – they are really struggling right now because of the pandemic. Virtual cinemas show films that you won’t find on Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu. As a filmmaker, showing through virtual cinema allows us to find our audience very quickly.

Insert Coin was accepted to play at South By Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas this past March. I was disappointed the festival was cancelled but super grateful it was accepted in the first place. The film being accepted at that event felt like I’d been nominated for an Oscar. Because of that acceptance, the documentary has been playing on the film festival circuit since the spring. People have been able to see it and it’s been really well received.

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Learn more about Insert Coin and how you can watch the film.