To read more from Midway Games GC Debbie Fulton, click here.
Update, Feb. 19: Midway Games Inc. was delisted from the New York Stock Exchange on Feb. 19. The troubled company declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy Feb. 12. A company press release said Midway will continue its operations as usual and that its European operations will not be affected by the declaration.
In mid-December Midway also laid off 25 percent of its workforce, including cuts to the legal department.
Ever since the release of the “Mortal Kombat” and “NBA Jam” arcade games in the early 1990s, Chicago-based Midway Games Inc. has been a force in the video game world. Debbie Fulton joined the company in 1994 as senior counsel when Midway was still owned by WMS Gaming, a company that produced not only video games but also pinball and slot machines. The allure of gaming drew Fulton to the company from law firm Gardner, Carton & Douglas, where she practiced intellectual property law.
WMS Gaming spun off Midway Games as a separate public company in 1998 and Fulton became general counsel in 2000. Recently, Midway has endured ongoing financial woes. In December, Viacom billionaire Sumner Redstone sold his majority stake in Midway, and the New York Stock Exchange warned that the company could be delisted if its share price didn’t increase. Additionally, the company faces millions of dollars in debt.
But Fulton, who now leads a legal department of five attorneys, manages to stay positive. A lifelong gamer, she still enjoys working at Midway after 15 years and many changes, including the company’s transition from coin-operated arcade games to games for home consoles such as Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.
Besides, there’s good news, too. In December, the Federal District Court for the Southern District of California dismissed a lawsuit filed in 2007 by a man who claimed Midway stole his screenplay and turned it into a video game that came out in 2004.
Q: Did you always aspire to lead a legal department?
A: No, I didn’t have that specific aspiration at all. For me it was the business. The video game business was really cool and coincided with my interests. The pinball business was also very exciting. I didn’t really play pinball, but boy, it was really neat. And slots–I enjoy slots too–although I didn’t have that much to do with that business.
I didn’t come into WMS in ’94 going, “Boy, I’m going to be general counsel of WMS.” My career aspiration was, “I’m going to work for a video game company!”
Q:What are common legal issues your team deals with?
A: The video game industry is a combination of entertainment law and technology law. You need to have a solid grounding in particular copyright and trademark rules and know your way around a license agreement both as a licensee and a licensor. We’re constantly dealing with intellectual property that goes into our games.
Let me use “Mortal Kombat VS. DC Universe” as an example. It’s taking our crown jewel intellectual property, “Mortal Kombat,” and combining it with Superman and Batman–the pantheon of superheroes and villains that DC Comics has developed over more than 50 years and made into a powerhouse set of franchises for itself. Putting those two things together, there’s obviously a license involved.
Q: What other issues are involved?
A: When you start digging below the surface, there’s all sorts of technology that goes into a game. Some of it is homegrown, some of it is not. There will be little pieces of technology, such as movie players.
We don’t want to have our designers spend the time coming up with something that basic. Let somebody else do it who wants to do it, and have our designers worry about what happens when ["Mortal Kombat" character] Raiden hits Superman with the lightning bolt. That’s what you really want them focusing on.
On the entertainment side, you’re going to have Superman speak in the game. Well, who is going to provide that voice? It’s not going to be necessarily someone in the company standing in front of a microphone, although there’s been plenty of that over time–they actually recorded me twice for a couple of different games.
You’ve got to engage with an actor who you’re going to bring into a studio. And of course that person has to be someone who DC Comics is happy with. There’s got to be an agreement with him.
Q:So does licensing take up most of your time?
A: Not for me. I have to confess what I have reserved for myself is being personally involved when we do something for the first time.
For example, we launched “The Lord of the Rings Online,” which was a massively multiplayer online game (MMOG). We co-published it with Turbine Inc. It’s very much like “World of Warcraft” in that there is a fantasy environment in which individual subscribers to the game create characters, and those characters change and grow over time. I have to confess it is near and dear to me, because I play the game practically every day. Unfortunately, it’s one of those things that I’m addicted to.
I did that contract because it was the first time we’d dealt with an MMOG. We had to anticipate issues would be different, because the game is very different than a regular PC game that you take home.
When we first became very serious about bringing actors into our games, I did that first. Having [actor] Chow Yun-Fat in “Stranglehold” and engaging [film director] John Woo to work on “Stranglehold”–I did those things.
This is not in any way a disparagement of my staff. It’s just that I wanted to take responsibility for the new issues.
Q: The court just dismissed that lawsuit filed by William Crawford, who alleged Midway ripped off his screenplay with the game “Psi-Ops.”
A:It was really nice to finally be vindicated from this fella. You kind of feel bad for him because, according to his attorneys, he thinks we ruined his life by stealing his screenplay or Web site or something that he intended to turn into some TV show or movie. And we didn’t, but he’s convinced of it.
Q: Midway’s been having some tough times recently.
A:We did experience a change of control. Majority shareholder Sumner Redstone sold his shares. But I have to say from my personal standpoint, you just line up the issues and deal with them. There’s something that has happened that maybe you didn’t expect–or maybe you did expect it–that has a whole series of legal ramifications. Now you’ve got to sit down, figure out what are all the issues and then you knock them down. And by knock them down, I mean resolve them, take care of them, do what you need
Q: What do you like most about your job?
A:There is never a dull moment.