THQ's vision for core games

GDC 2011: EVP of core games Danny Bilson holds court with studio heads from Kaos, Volition, Relic, and Vigil; Saints Row coming to Facebook.

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Who was there: A host of THQ developers, including Vigil Games general manager Dave Adams, Relic Entertainment GM Jonathan Dowdeswell, Kaos Studios lead designer Chris Cross, and Volition GM Mike Kulas. Overseeing the event was THQ executive vice president Danny Bilson.

It's a whole new THQ.
It's a whole new THQ.

What they talked about: With the Game Developers Conference in full swing, THQ grabbed a handful of the gaming press for a roundtable discussion of its latest core gaming initiatives. The latest of these, the foundation of a new studio in Montreal, saw the Southern California-based publisher recruit Assassin's Creed creative director Patrice Desilets away from Ubisoft.

Desilets wasn't in attendance at today's event, but leading figures from such studios as Kaos (Homefront), Volition (Red Faction, Saints Row), Relic (Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine), and Vigil (Darksiders, Warhammer 40,000 Dark Millennium Online) were. Presiding over the affair was Bilson, who is charge of the publisher's core gaming initiative.

The event, which was a Q&A session format moderated by TechSavvy Global's Scott Steinberg, began with a question about inSane, the collaboration with filmmaker Guillermo del Toro. When asked how the deal came about, Kulas said that del Toro came in with a pitch himself. Bilson then pitched the game to Volition, which was wrestling with another concept--one that was abruptly dropped once the studio's upper management heard what del Toro had to say.

When asked about the progress of inSane, Kulas said that del Toro has flown to Volition HQ in Champaign, Illinois, several times and is very collaborative. He meets with the development staff twice a week via video conference, and Kulas said del Toro is considered just another member of the team.

Responding to a Homefront question, Cross said his team struggled with how to incorporate civilians into the game. He said they tried various crazy things, including putting a baby in a dumpster that players had to use as a bullet shield. Eventually, they settled on a civilian-protection mechanic and mentioned a level involving a house full of noncombatants.

When asked why aren't game trilogies made all at once to save money like film trilogies like Lord of the Rings, Bilson joked "It's hard enough making just one." Then he grew serious, saying the comparison wasn't fair, since Rings was already a proven property. Games need to prove their success first before any trilogies move beyond the concept stage.

Bilson was then asked why didn't THQ work with Respawn, the studio formed from Infinity Ward defectors. He said it was important for THQ to own the new IPs it publishes, since building brands is his main responsibility. He said that while he is big on creative freedom, he draws the line on ownership, since it's THQ's money going into the games. However, he feels that once you give it enough creative control, a studio will feel creative ownership over a brand.

When asked about franchises, Bilson said THQ was very sensitive to "IP fatigue" and tries to make every title feel like a brand-new game. He said that while the company wants to build franchises, he is often very hesitant to take a series beyond trilogies. "If we get beyond a trilogy, that's great, but we don't want to tire people out," he summarized.

Bilson also said THQ's transmedia strategy is based on fan demand. He said that "It isn't a money play; it is a fan attention play." THQ doesn't get a lot of revenue from the deals it has struck, but it does get a lot of creative control. As an example of the level of that creative control, he used the Red Faction TV movie, an early version of which had a character from Red Faction: Guerilla in it. In the game, she was blond. In the TV movie's first draft of the script, she was a "raven-haired beauty." THQ developers complained, and her hair color was changed.

When asked about multiplayer versus single-player, Cross said that the game market has matured and that many people will buy games and skip the multiplayer altogether. He explained that when he was growing up, every game was a single-player experience. But for kids growing up now, it's about sharing the experience with others. So it's now important to address both aspects.

Later on, Bilson teased a Metro 2034 reveal at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, saying it will be playable on the show floor. He promised much more support in terms of marketing versus Metro 2033, which he termed a "cult classic."

In terms of downloadable content, THQ wants to get away from the 30-, 60-, and 90-day model and try new approaches. Bilson said the just-announced Saints Row: The Third has a very ambitious downloadable content plan that will be revealed at a later date.

Responding to a question about social games, Bilson said that THQ's core business has four Facebook titles in the works. One, UFC Undisputed Fight Nation, is already in beta on the social network. A Saints Row Facebook game is also coming later this year, presumably alongside the holiday launch of Saints Row: The Third.

Wrapping up, Bilson discussed Kinect and the PlayStation Move. He said that, personally, as a core gamer, he prefers to just kick back on the couch with a controller. While UFC Personal Trainer will be a "best in class" Move and Kinect game, he feels what is best for the gamer should determine what control scheme a game gets. Cross said that while the technology is appealing to developers, in the core market, it can cause many complications, since it goes from simple button combinations to taking into consideration the physicality of the player.

Takeaway: Once known for its licensed and kids' properties, THQ is jumping into the core market with both feet.

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