Yesterday, hundreds of game industry marketers converged at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in San Francisco for the sixth annual MI6 Marketing in Games Conference. Among the day's highlights was a presentation from THQ executive vice president of core games Danny Bilson, who explained how a onetime TV writer, director, and producer made the jump to interactive entertainment and how his habit of actually playing games gives him a leg up on most of the competition.
After the session, Bilson sat down with GameSpot to answer questions about Saints Row's multimedia expansion, the future of Homefront, an approaching tune-up for the WWE Smackdown series, and the changing face of the industry itself. He also addressed recent layoffs at THQ's Kaos and Volition studios and why headcount cuts are a fact of life in the industry even when things go according to plan.
GameSpot: So you talked a bit about the Saints Row: The Third transmedia play, and you mentioned the movie but not a release date.
Danny Bilson: It's not locked yet, but it would be sometime after the game. Ideally, if there were another Saints Row [game], the movie would bridge between the two.
GS: John Riccitiello this week said there would be a couple hundred million dollars spent to promote Battlefield 3 and the next Call of Duty game. Would you rather have those games' development budgets or their marketing budgets?
DB: So if you want to ask me if I'd rather have a really robust development budget or a really robust marketing budget, it's development any day of the week. I've seen it in the film business too many times. You could have a $150 million marketing campaign against a turd and you'll get wiped out. It doesn't matter how much reach you have, or visibility, or how much excitement you build. You can spend $150 million and get wiped out by bad content. I'd rather have quality content and let it speak for itself, let the word of mouth marketing make up the difference on the marketing spend. I never want to be weak on the content side. I never do. It's really disappointing.
I would like to have $100 million for Saints Row: The Third to go in there with those guys if you got it. If J.R. or Bobby Kotick want to loan me some, that'd be great. [laughs]
GS: Is it strange to you that with Call of Duty as the dominant force in that genre, that people would still try to go head-to-head with it and spend that much money doing so?
DB: I have to go back to the game. I think there's a great big audience for people who want to "play army" online, and I'm one of them. I'm really looking forward to the Battlefield game. And that's because I love having vehicles and more than just infantry running around, like in Homefront, which I'm playing a lot right now. And I'm not just saying that. Battlefield are the originators of that, and what they're doing there is the bar that I set our shooter stuff for going forward.
To answer your question, I think there's a gigantic audience if [it's possible to sell] 18 million units or 20 million units. I always said about Homefront, "We only need a few." I would love to have 18 or 20 [million sold], but if we get a few at our company, we're good. There's a big audience of people who enjoy that kind of thing. It has its risks, but to clear out and say there's only one king of that? I don't believe in that. Not at all, not at all.
GS: In your presentation, you mentioned that Saints Row is moving further away from the primary open-world crime series Grand Theft Auto. Is that a strategy you plan to take with Homefront? Because Homefront feels much more imitative of Call of Duty than Saints Row does of GTA.
DB: You mean in the mechanics? Certainly not in the environmental storytelling and the world, and the multiplayer is where Homefront soars in execution. So Saints Row is very far from GTA, and Homefront will be farther from the other guys as it goes forward. In the single-player, we will not just be doing "no cutscenes" and immersive stuff. We have a lot more interesting execution plans with technology for the future, but we're still in the planning stages; nothing's locked down.
So the answer is yes. I think we differentiated really well in world and story. You're not a soldier in Homefront. What we need to do and what the plan is to make guerrilla warfare more than just a name, to make it a gameplay mechanic.
GS: You showed a live-action Homefront viral clip in your presentation of a man explaining why he was going to undertake a suicide bombing in San Francisco. That struck me because when I played through the game, I saw parallels in the fictitious situation to what's happening in Afghanistan and Iraq right now, but they weren't hammered home or made overt. It was interesting because it felt like you were getting closer to using the game to say something and have a message, which is something other first-person shooters are very much trying not to do.
DB: Right. You know, I'm in no position to start doing PR on the creative future of Homefront, but I will say you're right in the wheelhouse of how we would differentiate it in the future.
GS: In the last few years, the industry has splintered as it has gotten bigger. There are more people playing, but you've got the Kinect, Move, iPhone, Facebook games, downloadable content, a new generation of handhelds this year, and new consoles potentially not long after that. With a company the size of THQ, can you really afford to support all these platforms?
DB: No. We have to be focused and selective about where we go and what we do. We don't have the scale to touch everything; we have to make our bets where we want and hopefully grow. But [THQ CEO] Brian Farrell's message to me is always, "Focus, focus, focus. Don't get spread too thin." But with the new technologies, if they're really exciting to us and we think we can excel there, we'll be there. We're not a tiny company by any means. We're more midrange, but we know we have the ability to be huge with great creative.
But we really have to choose where to play. We don't just all of a sudden have eight launch titles for 3DS, because we couldn't get there. Do we have stuff in the plans for 3DS? Yeah, of course we do. And remember, there's two groups in THQ. There's the kids, family, and casual group that supports a lot of platforms that my group wouldn't be supporting, and I promise you they're supporting more of the moving interface stuff because it's more natural for their games. We can play anywhere, but we just don't want to be de-focused.
GS: You talked in the presentation about THQ undergoing a transformation in recent years. One of the big holdovers has been the WWE series though, which has gone about a decade now with no significant competition aside from stray TNA and AAA games. You talk about moving games forward, but people have been playing Smackdown for basically 10 years now. Is it time to move that franchise forward?
DB: Yes, and I can't say much more except see us at E3.
GS: Earlier this year, there were layoffs at Kaos and Volition. Homefront came out and despite a stock dip seems to have done well, and Volition…
DB: Volition's fantastic.
GS: Why, when everything is apparently going to plan and developers are making successful products, are layoffs necessary?
DB: Well it's the normal cycle of finishing a game. Do you know how many people? It's a very small number.
GS: I think 16 was the number given for Kaos.
DB: Out of 260? At a certain point as you come out from the lifetime of a product, there are people that aren't needed for another year or year and a half until you're up to the full ramp-up. So these aren't punitive measures; they're normal cycling of game teams. If you said they shipped Red Faction and 120 guys were laid off, then we'd have something to talk about.
As you move through cycles, you go preproduction, production, postproduction. You need everybody in production, very few in preproduction, and very few in postproduction. So it creates a whole roll-off system of having stuff to work on. And in a one-game studio like Kaos, there's not work for 100 people right now. That's kind of how that works. It's pretty normal.
Do I want to lay anybody off? No, never. Are you kidding? No. But out of necessity, sometimes through movement and lack of work, it just happens.
GS: I agree it's normal for the industry, but it seems like if that is normal for the industry, we should probably take a step back and figure out why that is.
DB: Well in the film business, everybody says good-bye at the end of the movie and then they go work on something else. I wish we had enough work to go around and keep everybody employed all the time, but sometimes it's just business.
GS: How do you see the process of marketing games changing?
DB: I think it's more important. When I started in the business, and I was trained by some really great people at EA, it was, "You seed the core, and it spreads out from the core." I don't think that's the case at all. I think you respect the core, but blast it to the masses like a movie. It's very different. It's like the movies; you gotta open that week and retain as long as you can. You see 65 percent of the sales in the first three weeks of a game. It's way more like the movie business, so I think the marketing is moving and has to move more toward that.
Back to your other comment about what J.R. was saying about $100 million for us and $100 million for them, they're doing movie marketing now. Now what do we do? Either we spend $100 million and we movie market, or we do one thing we're doing really well and getting the most mileage out of our dollar. I would argue Homefront was a really great campaign done with a lot less money than some of the other ones in the genre, but got similar reach. I'm not going to say Call of Duty, but some of the other ones, we had similar reach and penetration with less money just by having better creative and more engaging ideas.