THQ on the future of Homefront

Head of core games Danny Bilson talks about differentiating Kaos Studios' shooter series from Call of Duty, why layoffs are necessary, and the changing role of marketing in the game industry.

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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.

THQ EVP of Core Games Danny Bilson.
THQ EVP of Core Games Danny Bilson.

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.

Bilson expects future installments of Homefront to differ more from the competition.
Bilson expects future installments of Homefront to differ more from the competition.

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.

Volition is wrapping up work on May's Red Faction: Armageddon.
Volition is wrapping up work on May's Red Faction: Armageddon.

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.

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JustInTime09

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i wonder if there will be a second homefront, because it was a great game with a really good storyline and alot of shooter games always have a sequel to it, so hopefully homefront will have one

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aero420

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HomeFront is a great game with a good story and back drop. It would be nice if they would open the maps up to death match . larger maps do not promote the lag switching. destructible environment splash effect, bullet penetration would have been nice too. If home front was to remove the drones and vehicle perhaps air strikes for a bare bones mode we might also see less lag time within the online gaming of homefront. aero420

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MAVERICK133

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I really enjoyed this game in single player, and the multiplayer was really good. A nice change of pace to MW2 but I have the fastest internet possible in aus, yet always have the worst ping. They promised us Australian servers and then didn't deliver. I'm not dissing the game It was great, but they really dropped the ball with the servers. dissapointing.

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tisoyboy2

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I think Homefront is a good game. I have had it since launch and play it more then Black Ops and Crysis 2 (both are great games too). There are definitely things that will make it a better game. Like for one, having 6 real game modes and not just passing 2 modes off as 6! What I would like to know is did Hilary Clinton use the campaign to promote herself in 2012? Is she running for President against Obama, Newt Gingrich and Donald Trump? Anyway, I read a lot of good pre-release reviews to only see the same sites bashing the game after release. People shouldn't be afraid to pick up the game. The reviews were swayed by the server issues at release. If anything, Game Stop has a 7 day return policy on used games.

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Sydwynder

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I really think people need to make up their own minds about things. Games are like movies also in that one person may love a movie or game while the next will think it's garbage. It's personal choice. You shoudn't take someone else's word for things like this. Music is no different. For the people who say Homefront is crap, there's a lot of people out there really enjoying it too. Me? I despise Nickelback like there's no tomorrow, but they sell millions and millions of records and sell out concerts. See? Make up your own minds people.......

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Frame_Dragger

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@jubdeimasta: I just think of Wheel of TIme and consider how that kind of magical weaponry, or the tools of Deus Ex could be implemented... it's a damned shame that we get... the shotgun... the pistol... etc....

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jubdeidamasta

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@Frame_Dragger. I agree with what you said about the standard guns in fps's now. It would really be great if devs started getting more creative and sci-fi-ish with their games and guns.

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charlieholmes

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Homefront is a huge breath of fresh air from the COD series. While COD is GREAT, it's nice to split my time between the two when I'm tired of spawn, run, kill or get killed, repeat. At times I like the frenetic pace of COD but I get tired of it fairly fast at times so, Homefront is where I go to get some play time with more depth and meaning. Both games are more of what I want in the future because I want options with differences.

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Frame_Dragger

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@triple_b2K: Heh... You mention SR2, and I am soooo guilty of buying that one too. Some games they make just seem to have so much promise, then you get into it and... ugh. Now I wait a good long time and rent first when it's a THQ title... no other way really.

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triple_b2k

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THQ loves to crap out broken games that they fix later, much later. Saints Row 2 is still broken with some aspects. I do like playing their games until the freeze, boot me out or corrupt. My fault for buying their crap. As a consumer, I'd expect better from a company but I guess I'm wrong.

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Frame_Dragger

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What future?.. It's a mediocre shooter that only seems playable when contrasted to an endless litany of CoD iterations. There are far better shooters extant, and supporting a re-run of this kind of failure just guarantees more of the same. If you want more fun and less CoD, vote with your wallet... only way to do it. Homefront was a 1 day rental for me, and CoD is just off my radar entirely for the most part. Crysis 2 (when the MP works) is better, but in the end I'm tired of point and shoot. Bulletstorm has miserable MP, but it's as if the devs remembered that part of the fun is a variety of weapons and features. We love sci-fi and fantasy as a culture, yet in each game we stick with pistols, shotguns, submachs and AR's. Remember Heretic and Hexen?... WoT?... it can be rewarding to use the FPS mechanic with non-standard weaponry... BF, Crysis, and CoD cover the field for all flavors of standard FPS in my view. Tine to get out of the box, or focus on different genres.

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KanyeTwitty

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@payne6705 The graphics aren't the greatest, and the main story sucks too. But the online play is leagues above COD. That's why I like it.

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payne6705

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I didn't get this game for 2 reasons 1.) it looked like a horrible COD clone (I am not a COD fanboy I personally thought the only good COD game was COD2 maybe maybe MW1 maybe) and 2.) Everyone who played it has said the game was awful or wayy too short. I doubt this franchise will have a good future.

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oflow

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thats because coho was gonna suck and they started working on coh2 with a new essence engine instead.

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diesil

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i didnt own homefront for 24 hours before i went and got my money back hell i beat it 3 hours after the midnight release lol

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bojan_sokol

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I dont trust THQ, they canceled Coho, it's all lies

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eaglesquad

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Yes the noobs will probably vote me down but having played this game it has to be said it is the most bland and generic shooter I have ever played in my life. Hell even Battlefield 1942 was better. The gameplay is the single most boring thing I have ever experienced and the graphics (on the 360-no I'm not a fan boy) were horribly bland. I can name a dozen other shooters made in the 2000-2005 period that are better and more fun than this bland money sink. Just my opinion surprised people actually liked playing this.

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inaka_rob

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@naomha1 i am adding to one of your posts about THQ: there are bigger compains out there that make bigger games. AAA titles like COD and HALO and GTA. but THQ is more like AA company. but the thing is they release consistent AA games. They may not have the 1000 trillion$ budjgets and marketing campaing and they games are not a super duper polished, but they are ALWAYS fun, and that is one thing I think looking back the last couple years THQ has done better than anyone. I played tons of great games the last couple years, and they were all good for various reasons. When I talk about a most THQ games all I have to say is: they are SO much fun!!! Saints Row series and Red Faction.

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inaka_rob

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I just got this game today. What an underrated game!!! I shouldnt be surprised. So lame. The single player is a BLAST. I am about 4 hours in. (yeah I know. I guess I am near the end....) but what ever. I already like it better than black ops singple player. Dont get me wrong some of the complaints are SPOT on. the friendly AI is terrible just like gamespots review said. some glitches that just should not show up in an alpha copy. Their first game, frontlines, was not as polished, but I dont remember any bugs or gltichts. other than that. I think the game is great. Sound design is WAY better than black ops too. but IMO there are PLENTY of fps games better than black ops.

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Insanecyclone

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The game has its flaws but its still enjoyable.

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cordelas1983

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southernzombie Posted Apr 9, 2011 9:05 pm GMT (hide) ''Ok, Homefront was a huge gigantic BOMB. In my opinion, one of the absolute worst shooters I have ever played. The graphics were bad, the physics were bad, the servers for MP ha not even goin there. And one of the things that ticked me off most... bullets couldn't penetrate anything! Dude hiding behind a mattress and I'm shooting the mattress and he's not taking any damage! I mean what kind of beds are these people sleeping on these days?'' hahaha +1, Also, game is rubbish, really...

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Agent3sephiroth

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nice interview!

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Yathoom

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I like the questions, but who else thinks that asking about Saints Row then Homefront then S. Row and then homefront is kinda distracting a bit?!

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Alex_09

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@naomha1 But the truth is the Medal of Honor games didn't have much substance either. All those FPS games just relied on scripted events. That's what makes Bethesda and Rockstar games so cool, plenty of the crazy stuff you witness in them is completely random. I can't respect a game that had a director, because in the end I want to have full control, and want a game that actually feels alive.

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Tuplavee

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The number one question should have been: WHERE IS THE PATCH FOR PS3 AND XBOX OF HOMEFRONT? This guy is so full of himself that he doesn't understand that this is no way to run a business. He should be so so humble and appologising the h*ll out of everyone who bought Homefront. Next dlc should be free and the all the workers of Kaos should be working on the patch. I think the Homefront multiplayer is very good, when it works. It should work better and more often thou... So I wait, I don't know for how long, because there has not been any information about the patch even coming. I think it's a shame.

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naomha1

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Here's something for all of you to think about as well. I like to read what people philosophize about and study history occasionally to keep myself from turning into a doe eyed pc gamer. In Sumerian stories and writings, Lucifer is known as Enki, the God of Humanity. But he is also in a Freudian sense said to be the Self rebelling against the Super Ego. In all of these teachings and writings (don't get it twisted, I'm not a Satanist, I just like to know what I'm talking about before I get monologuing), Lucifer is also known by another name. Know what it is? .......................Ea. ironic, huh?

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naomha1

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Also, CoD has seen no innovation since MW1. None. The same game engine, with the same gameplay, with the same players all shouting from the tops of their lungs that CoD is king and robbing their mom's wallets to make it a fact. Well, at least some of them are. Just remember, in the market for FPS games set during a war theme, MoH was first and CoD didn't come until almost 4 years later. Oh, and just so you know the facts, Danger Close made MoH 1 which was outstanding and created by and directed by Steven Spielberg in 1999. Call of Duty was created by Ben Chichoski who admitted being a huge MoH and UT2 fan in the latter part of 2003. See the correlation? Codename Eagle and MoH were the first. Codename Eagle was the precursor to the Battlefield games, which, again, was first before CoD.

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naomha1

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@bblundell - man, do you talk some smack along with adding oxymorons. First, you say that Homefront stole their ideas from CoD. But when CoD started getting big, they had stole all their ideas from MoH and the Battlefield series, and every matchmaking service in existence owes a huge bow down to Blizzards Battle.net service from whom they ALL stole ideas from for multiplayer. Secondly, you state that they "horribly optimized" it. According to Websters Dictionary, to "optimize" is to make perfect. How the frack do you horribly optimize anything? Oxymoron. Thirdly you state THQ puts out crap products.Seriously, they just released DoW2 Retribution which is outstanding and Metro 2033 which is an amazing game. They have credits under their belt which include the Saints Row series and Red Faction. Man, get the facts or step the f'ck back.

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iamrob7

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@GodGundamNT1 Ha, love it, that needed to be said.

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nutcrackr

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Interesting interview. Marketing seems to be selling games these days more than the product sells itself. With such a large percentage of gamers buying in the first 3 weeks surely publishers would quickly lose incentive to keep supporting the product? The changing work force for games will probably always be there but I still think there are far too many people who contribute very little to the actual game (publisher overhead).

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cjburnfist

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I wiped my butt with my Homefront disc and it didn't get the job done. So I sent it back to Gamestop. Turns out the game hadn't been created as an imitation piece of toilet paper after all. JK, but I honestly thought the campaign was pretty awful, and had a hard time playing through it. I don't play games just for multiplayer. The gameplay in Homefront is a lot like CoD anyways, so I didn't see anything to keep me interested. If you really want a new experience out of a war game Multiplayer then you should check out Battlefield, end of story.

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kwanzudood

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I would rather have bought Battlefield Bad Company 2 twice brand new than buy a pre-owned version of Homefront. If you're trying to play HF to get away from Call of Duty, you're going in the wrong direction.

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kwanzudood

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Funny how he said "I never want to be weak on the content side", and "weak" pretty much describes Homefront.

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CamoBullo

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THQ, still waiting on news for when you announce Darksiders 2.

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Venatorcruiser

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they could have done more with the homefront campaign such as give it a good length

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xxxxTRISTAMxxxx

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Homefront is over hyped. I just love when developers try to justify what makes their games different and then you get into the hype...play it...and than realise....I just bought COD clone....great I just wasted $60

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Savvy30039

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But game production isn't like movie production. You don't finish filming and spend the rest of the time in the editing room. So many companies leave QA and testing till the very end, when they should be playtesting every step of the way. Less bugs in the final product, and less job loss.

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Aravesque

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homefront 2 wil have even worst graphics and you'll camp so much they remove the move ability

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starduke

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In Homefront 2 there will be big changes! The single player will be even shorter, in fact, it will be almost non-existent! We will focus, focus, focus, almost exclusively on multiplayer! Because, really, who wants to play single player any more.

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The guy seems very down-to-earth. It's a refreshing change from listening to other interviews where the person ends up blasting the competition and propping themselves up.

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GodGundamNT1

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homefront devs please make a game where the Tea Party takes over the US, starts WWIII and sets up their Tea Party Federated Empire, that would sit well with homefronts paranoid storyline.

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Humorguy_basic

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I don;t care how big any game is, more than 3 of the same thing and sales start disappearing. We have so many "2's", "3's" and "4's", we now see 80% of all AAA titles not making a profit. It will only get worse. Marketing increases over poorer games will only make gamers disappear or go exclusively retro due to cynicism, but will stop many new gamers going into the hobby. Big changes are need in video gaming and no-one seems to see it.

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jsvalmont

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I love Homefront, its MP is better than CoD - and I'm a CoD fan. Don't listen to the reviews, most of them are mostly based on the campaign.

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battlfrnt2006

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The premise of Homefront was genuinely interesting, but it turned out to be quite mediocre. I mean, what's with the ending??? Abrupt much?? Good thing I borrowed it from a friend, if they can manage to differentiate themselves from CoD on the next installment, then I'd be more than happy to give it a shot.

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thefutureofball

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i dislike COD to begin with and i thought HF was going to be THAT game to break away from the clones that have been coming out, but just a couple of hours of playing HF i was done i didn't even finish playing it it was yet ANOTHER clone of COD, the market is just scared of being different is all, what made doom,007,halo, and damn if i say it cod different? they all brought something to the table for their time.........

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moe3000

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If J.R. or Bobby Kotick want to loan me some, that'd be great. [laughs] i got that DALLAS feelin- get it( j.r + bobby )

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jigglebilly1983

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Too bad homefront is a piss poor game. i usually like most of THQ's games, but HF fell way short for me.

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maxwell97

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"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." Obviously, when you finish a project, sometimes people get laid off, because their work is done. That's the way it works in this industry, as well as manufacturing, construction, engineering, and every other industry, and that's the way it SHOULD work. There's no such thing as guaranteed employment - you work as long as you have something to contribute, then you move on. Those who get laid off are big boys and girls, I'm sure they'll be fine.

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MarioHeavy

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Batllefield is doing to Call of Duty what FIFA did to Pro Evolution Soccer.

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