THQ core games boss talks creative marketing

MI6 2011: Danny Bilson explains how his company separates promotion and development; Red Faction: Armageddon purchasers gain early access to Saints Row 3 character creator.

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Who was there: THQ executive vice president of core games Danny Bilson delivered a talk sharing his "Creative First" approach to marketing games.

What they talked about: Bilson opened his talk by recapping his entrance into games after establishing a career writing and producing '90s TV fare like The Flash and Viper. He was working on a pair of TV shows at the same time, flying back and forth to Vancouver for an episode of The Sentinel. He was on the plane working on his script when the person next to him asked, "Are you a producer?" Bilson acknowledged he was, then the gentleman dropped his card right on the script he was reading.

Homefront initially positioned China as the US's invaders.

When Bilson read the card and discovered it was Electronic Arts executive Don Mattrick (who is now the president of Microsoft's Interactive Entertainment Business), he stopped working to start up a conversation. A self-described huge gamer, Bilson said he hit it off with Mattrick and was treated to a studio tour by his new friend.

"But more importantly, he gave me free games," Bilson said.

The reason Bilson said he's EVP of core games at THQ now is because he played games, apparently a rare quality among gaming executives.

"In the game industry, it makes me a genius," Bilson said.

The first assignment Bilson landed at EA was to chip in on a title that had been in mid-production for a long time with some confusion about how to position it in the market. EA wanted to get "TV guys" to make it more "TV-like," so they went to Bilson for help. However, as a gamer, he just saw ways to make it more Sim City-like. When he first saw the game, it was a swinging singles sim, but Bilson said it should be like Sim City, only with players building a family instead of a metropolis. The game became a breakthrough hit, which Bilson said gave him some credibility, enough to make him a full-time employee at EA.

Bilson was there for four or five years, he said, but when one of his dream projects was rushed, he jumped ship and basically didn't work in games for a few years. He did some more TV and film work and wrote a few comics, but it wasn't enough to pay the bills and he dove back into games with THQ. Within six weeks, he received a call saying the publisher was cutting half its production budget, and a lot of the studios he'd been befriending, he now had to close.

"It's really awful," Bilson said, but explained he needed the job and "wasn't arrogant enough" to quit again.

When he started, marketing and product development were "like Germany and England in World War II," Bilson explained. They were at war, with nothing but hate and distrust between them. Bilson was a product development guy, but he started to spend more time with the marketing people because he cared about how the games were represented. When there was a reorganization in the company, Bilson was offered oversight over product development and marketing, which helped create a unified approach to both tasks.

Bilson explained that his favorite marketing expression in this or any industry was Microsoft's "Where do you want to go today?" And that's how he approaches every product. "It's, 'Do I want to go there?" Bilson explained. "It's not, 'Do I want to be that guy?' The guy is just a vessel."

He discussed the green-light process at THQ, saying each project starts with an early concept that answers what the dream is for the project. When people ask him how testing is on the project, he usually lies and says it tests through the roof.

"We don't test," Bilson said. "What are 16 teenagers in Encino going to tell us that we don't know? If I ever get to the point where I need to ask what a 15 year old wants these days, it's time to go to the rest home...because you're done." Star Wars and Titanic tested like crap, Bilson noted.

Talking about Homefront, Bilson said the game was originally about a Chinese invasion of the US instead of a North Korean invasion. However, THQ's Chinese offices pointed out that such a product could make their lives a lot more complicated, so the decision was made to cast North Korea as the occupying force instead.

While Bilson acknowledged that the Homefront marketing campaign didn't have the funding of its competitors, he said it managed to achieve a comparable reach, thanks to savvy decision. One of the changes in how they treat games deals with asset drops for games. Bilson said the old approach was to pepper people with new screens and videos constantly, but THQ has taken a "bombs, not bullets" approach of late. Instead of keeping the game in people's minds for the entire length of development, Bilson said it's important to announce the game with something big and then load the rest of the marketing budget into the launch period.

That approach is why gamers might not have heard much about Red Faction: Armageddon until very recently. Bilson said with the game coming out in May, the real marketing is kicking up now and everyone will know about it by the time the game is launched. Part of this approach comes from the movie business, Bilson said. He pointed out that most movies go from entirely unknown things to must-see events in the six weeks before launch.

As for those assets, Bilson said they try to market with non-game assets. They sell the world, the concept, and the dream of the game instead of in-game features. That engages the audience's imagination, he explained, and lets the marketers leave the developers alone to actually make the game.

Bilson also touched upon another recurring theme in THQ's marketing: its cross-media efforts to support games. He showed a live-action video clip promoting Homefront in which a man explains why he's chosen to become a suicide bomber to fight against the game's North Korean occupation of San Francisco. Bilson said the goal was to sell the game's world, adding that Homefront had a variety of experiments set for that. As evidence of their effectiveness, he showed a viral clip showing Salt Lake City being bombed and the resulting local news coverage it generated.

"The thing with transmedia is you're never telling the story of the game," Bilson said. "You're telling additional stories and building out the world."

Bilson talked about Red Faction: Armageddon's transmedia efforts, specifically the debut of Red Faction: Origins on SyFy. He did some work on the movie but stressed the publisher spent nothing on the film. In exchange, SyFy gets to put its name on the game's box, but Bilson said it's more than worth it to have a two-hour commercial for the game. However, the tricky part is that every part of a transmedia play needs to be good or it cheapens the game, Bilson said.

Bilson moved on to talk about the Saints Row: The Third transmedia play, mentioning the fall Xbox Live Arcade game and saying elements of that are being put into the Saints Row movie (produced by Lloyd Levin). Bilson stressed THQ is working closely with the filmmakers, and he has read every draft of the script. There's also a Saints Row Facebook game in beta right now, and there will be licensed headsets, energy drinks, and more to accompany the launch. THQ is also going to promote the game by releasing its character creation utility early to let players see the extent of customization options (with Red Faction: Armageddon purchasers getting early access).

Quote: "We in our art form can be a very viable asset to storytelling on a big production. But when we're treated like a consumer product, we can never get there."--Bilson, on the need to approach games from a creative perspective.

Takeaway: Bilson is putting THQ's focus on creativity, both in product development and marketing efforts. In short, everything starts with the creative.

Discussion

28 comments
gwailo2470
gwailo2470

Now can he do something about the marketing people forcing the programmers to release buggy unfinished games in order to meet a marketing deadline? In the old days a company used to pay beta testers to test games, now somehow we have to pay them for the same privilege. You pay 60 bucks, then get to complain for several weeks until MAYBE they put out a patch that makes a game work.

Invisstalker
Invisstalker

@Justme64 @xxLordDavidxx I meant excellent, creative RTS games that actually changed dynamic of the way you play. One example would be 3 different resources. Another would be squad based combat, directional cover, e.t.c... Edit: And one's made by THQ just prove my point.

hush404
hush404

You know... I'm growing some serious respect for how THQ is operating lately. It seemed they were cheaping out and failing for quite a while, but Volition Inc has been doing very well for them and they seem to have spun around and realized how to step things up. Good on em.

HellaFatCat
HellaFatCat

@siiixon @Zerosumgame saints row 1 and 2 were far superior games to the last grand theft auto series... the graphics may not have been quite as nice but the gameplay and what i want out of a GTA game were in the saints row series and completley ingnored by GTA in a sandbox world i want fun things to do outside of the storyline.. GTA had none and they have made many hits including the original evolution of WWE games as parrot_of_adun said THQ is 20 years old they may not have the buy every company that is competition moneys that EA has but they have produced many good products and have shaped the evolution of a lot of games

parrot_of_adun
parrot_of_adun

@siiixon Next big thing? THQ is over 20 years old...

siiixon
siiixon

that THQ did not have anything/much real good so far dont mean a thing , that everyone else releases only junk and all of them market the same recycled boring games for some years now, COULD mean that THQ might me the next big thing

Zerosumgame
Zerosumgame

THQ's products are crappiest beyond reasons.

minivirus2
minivirus2

I like the way this guy thinks, but I don't agree with his methods. Conceal the relevant details of a game in order to promote the story? I'm sorry, but there are simply too many low quality games these days to be overlooking the gameplay when marketing a game. You can't tell me that the CoD franchise has suffered from doing almost the exact opposite of what this guy says. Mention the story in the open address and then strait to the mechanics and features of a game. Hell, everyone does it opposite of this guy really. CoD, Halo, BF, everything! Nobody wants to buy a game, going in almost completely blind in reference to how it plays. At least I don't... FYI, **** CoD and I dislike almost everything THQ has done in the past 10 years. No fanboyism influencing my take. These are games, not movies or television. We need to know what goes into the product, whereas with movies and TV you're only watching the final product without interaction.

ash162
ash162

This is crap. Just promotion for Red faction!!

siiixon
siiixon

so there is still some hope, this guy actually makes sense... maybe THQ will be the next big deal, this days they have it easy with EA being MEGA lame and super anti-creative, and the rest does not do much better

CTR360
CTR360

saints row 3 red faction armageddon thats games i buy for my 360

gamingfrendly
gamingfrendly

the only things from THQ i liked were company of heroes games and S.T.A.L.K.E.R thats it cant remmember if there was any thing ealse but i dont think so

Stonecutters908
Stonecutters908

I support THQ a lot, big fan of the Saints Row series but IMO the studio has lost its way. Homefront was a dud IMO and the WWE franchise hasn't come close the peaks of WWF No Mercy which was over ten years ago. If they would just remake the exact mechanics, customization options and single player depth that No Mercy had and put it on the current gen of consoles it would sell 10 million of copies but now they just put out trimmed down games like WWE All Stars with no customization of any meaning and somehow less refined game mechanics.

xxLordDavidxx
xxLordDavidxx

@Invisstalker I could name many, including THQ's Dawn of War 2. Rome Total War, Supreme Commander, Warcraft 3, Lord of the Rings Battle for Middle Earth etc...

JustMe64
JustMe64

@Invisstalker World in Conflict

tel56101
tel56101

has he played homefront on ps3? online player is a joke!!

TheGreyArea
TheGreyArea

Creative marketing...? Ha! well, if Saints Row 3's first add is anything to go-by, - ie, a 30 second add simply featuring one HELL of a hefty punch int he unmentionables!!!! - then they certainly get my vote for creativity. Saints Row 3 is going to RULE. Probably one of three of my MOST anticipated games this year

Invisstalker
Invisstalker

THQ owns. Name one RTS that comes close to Company of Heroes. I dare ya.

Aurey
Aurey

I just want to know about Devil's Third. A Devil's Third bomb would be appreciated, mr. Bilson. I'd even take some bullets with gratitude.

organbank
organbank

I guess it would be hard to keep coming up with new ways to sell generic shooters that have been gutted of half their content after awhile.

emperiox
emperiox

THQ has NO right to talk about creative marketing in my opinion. These are the guys who are going to sell HALF of a games' storyline, and then supposedly release the rest of it in DLC simply to combat used game sales. Mind you, they're under no obligation to actually release the rest of the storylines, so they could just sell you part and then say "I have your money, what now?". For them to talk about creative marketing and then have THIS going on the background, is a slap in the face.

goodemon
goodemon

How about red faction 1 and 2 in HD w 3d compatibility for PS3???

DrKill09
DrKill09

All I have to say is "Street Lessons with Uncle Gary" AWSOME! :P

Shardz7
Shardz7

And that's what the game industry has sadly been reduced to; sales profiling and marketing. If they conclude that more sales will be made for consoles, then the PC is last in production and gets a completely stripped-down carcass...but those neat XBOX commercials on TV are great! Instead of using $20 million to innovate and create something completely different (remember, Notch didn't need $20 million), they crank out yet another hokey 3D war game that is open to hacking from day one (like all the rest). Microsoft's "Where do you want to go today?" is a moniker for denial. All the PC users know where they want to go, but Microsoft leads everyone behind them in their own personal gold-mining expedition and offers no apologies. Believe me, when something is innovative, different, and cleverly designed (and *completely* with the target platform in mind) ,then WE WILL TELL YOU it is innovative, different, and cleverly designed. Another war game is not the answer, folks.

Barighm
Barighm

Well, whaddya know! It WAS supposed to be China in Homefront. I should have guessed some executive somewhere had something to do with that. I guess I shouldn't be surprised few game executives actually play video games, heck I've said as much around here, but I'm still shocked to actually read it.

kennythomas26
kennythomas26

I hope Red Faction: Armageddon is good and did I read that right the next Saint's Row: The Third is going to be an xbox live arcade title, well I might not get this game after all.

Bubble17
Bubble17

I guess this would explain why I've barely heard anything about Red Faction at this point. Ah well, the game should still be good.