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.
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.

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