Bilson became known as "one of the chief creative guys -- for an hour a month when he would hand out mandates on high and then disappear," according to one source. Employees even coined a sarcastic term internally for Bilson's brief but reverberating check-ins: Getting Bils0wned.
Part of the problem, an ex-staffer says, is that as a "Hollywood guy", Bilson's creative approach didn't necessarily lend itself to game development. "We can see the stuff he was really good at, which was helping guide the story, create hype... if you look at the marketing for this game, aside from the story, it was one of the best marketing campaigns in games," says one staffer, adding that Bilson "excelled" at directorial elements like motion capture shoots and voice-over recording, where he was often present in person.
"On the other hand he's not qualified to talk about game mechanics," the source continues. For example, if Bilson didn't like a gameplay sequence, he'd ask developers why they couldn't "just shoot it from another angle." That made lists of bulleted feedback frustrating.
Another staffer says Bilson's feedback wasn't necessarily harmful to the game, but his public statements were often upsetting to the team. For example, Bilson announced plans for Homefront 2 long before Kaos was near finishing Homefront -- and without giving them a heads up. And when anonymous complaints about intense crunch on Homefront leaked to the media, Bilson's suggestion that long hours were not only ingrained in the studio's culture but also to be expected upset many.
One source tells us the minimal expectations for all members of the studio were six months of 12-hour shifts, six to seven days per week. But actually, according to the ex-staffer, most of the studio was clocking 14 to 16 hour days, seven days a week, during that six-month window. Some worked that schedule for 14 months, and jobs were at risk if the time quota wasn't met.
The staffer describes "inhuman, combative" leadership and labor under a system of fear. Many employees say their health and family relationships suffered -- and hearing THQ execs tell the media that crunch was reasonable and expected felt like a slap in the face, as the crunch came from poor management and an unhealthy environment, not because the work ethic dictated it.
Yet many ex-staffers seem to generally like Bilson: "I think Danny's being crucified a lot and I think that's unfair," one says. "He wasn't necessarily the problem. He had a way of doing things, and he burned a lot of bridges because he was a ballbuster, but if you look at the core games he's done, that's the only thing keeping THQ in business right now."
Bilson also came up with much of the high-level story ideas for the game. Although Red Dawn scribe John Milius is credited with writing the script, multiple staffers tell Gamasutra he ultimately wrote not a word of it, despite the game containing at least 20,000 lines of dialog. Most former employees credit Kaos writer C.J. Kershner with Homefront's script.
This failure to appropriately credit contributors was something of a final insult to many ex-employees once the game was out, as many staffers who left for more secure work found themselves relegated to a "special thanks" section. One former employee who left the project late even says his child was left out of the credits' list of "production babies," a petty slight.
In the studio's last days, the team felt worked half to death and wrung dry, and there was a prevailing sense that there was no way a publisher THQ could keep a studio like Kaos open after Homefront, even though the publisher -- and Bilson in particular -- vouched for the team's talent till the end.
At the point, GM Dave Votypka "had one foot out the door," says a staffer whose opinion is that the final nail for Kaos came when THQ learned Votypka was seeking a better job -- because "there was nobody internally that was going to step up."
THQ brass informed Kaos that its future would depend on Homefront's sales and critical reception. As of the time the studio closed, the game had sold 2.6 million units and had a 71 Metacritic aggregate. "Call me cynical, but I think the plan was was to close the studio regardless," one source says.
But many say they knew the writing was on the wall when THQ began publicizing its new Montreal studio to the press, about six months before Homefront's ship date. Kaos employees watched the studio tour videos online, gazing enviously at a state-of-the-art facility in which the publisher had clearly invested heavily.
"Montreal, which THQ had been hyping for some time, had the potential to become a multi-project development center with a rockstar creative team and the Quebec government offered great tax incentives; Kaos, by comparison, was a one project studio in the most expensive city on the planet," reflects the source.
And Kaos' own studio was rife with facility problems. Employees describe an "absolute dump" where, by the end, some staffers had desks beneath stairs. One men's room urinal sprung a leak, and someone's idea of repair was to stick a trashcan underneath it with a warning sign. One ex-employee estimates the urinal went un-repaired for some seven months, and that the "Urinal Bucket" became something of a symbol for the hopelessness and irrelevance the team felt when compared to THQ's shiny new Canada studio -- the one THQ would soon announce was taking over Kaos' franchise (before ultimately signing Crytek for the sequel.)
The entire triple-A studio, gutted by layoffs and talent drain, found itself with nothing to do but support the game it already launched. It was clear to everyone then what was going to happen next.
"We cost a lot, and we did not meet [THQ's] expectations for quality," one says.
Though many of the former team members we spoke to are disillusioned and seem like they'd be happy never to work together again, there's still a core group of friends sharing positive energy, who say they hope to form a startup together in the near future. "The fact that Kaos was still chugging along, and the fact that it even still had a chance despite all these stupid things that happened, is a testament to how good that core team is," one says. "That team could have gone on to do some great stuff."