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Q&A: THQ's Aniello On Diversity, Marketing Wii, Competing In Open Worlds

Q&A: THQ's Aniello On Diversity, Marketing Wii, Competing In Open Worlds

April 30, 2008 | By Christian Nutt

April 30, 2008 | By Christian Nutt
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During a recent media summit, publisher THQ laid out many of its upcoming major titles for 2008. With licensed titles such as its Pixar film adaptations long forming a mainstay of its repertoire, THQ has announced its intention to put more of an emphasis on its own internal properties such as Saints Row and Red Faction.

The company also has several original games in the works for Wii, a platform it supported heavily at launch and which it sees as key to its library - not to mention having been a missed opportunity for many publishers.

Senior vice president Bob Aniello and corporate communications VP Julie MacMedan sat down with Gamasutra at the event to speak on a broad variety of subjects, including THQ's strategy of expansion, its approach to Wii development and marketing, and THQ studios' contributions to the open world genre.

Building Up The Non-License Portfolio

During the presentation there was discussion of how there's been an ongoing strategy at THQ to move forward into different games. Not to abandon licensed games, but move forward with a fuller slate of what looks like mostly core gamer-type games or original properties.

Bob Aniello: We take a very balanced approach to the portfolio, so in addition to the licensed products that you've seen, we've also, four years ago, deliberately set out on a strategy to build original IP. And you've seen Saints Row 1, we have Saints Row 2 coming, Red Faction: Guerrilla is sequelling.

And then, not just for core gamers, however, because we also have games like de Blob, which is built for more casual, pick-up-and-play. It's an action platformer game that appeals to a very broad audience of Wii owners.

So, our strategy is to broaden our portfolio, to be very focused on the brands that we take into the interactive space, to make sure that they are #1 brands. You look at what we've done for Pixar. We brought Pixar into the interactive space - it's been consistently, year after year, the #1 kids' animated film game, or game based on kids' animated film. You look at WWE, consistently the #1 fighting game in its category. And then you look at games that we have coming, like UFC, where we're bringing that brand into the interactive space.

So we're excited about both our licensed properties as well as our original IP. Long answer, but I think I got you there.

There has been some criticism of the strategy - some analysts have said that having such a dependency on licensed games has potentially put you at a disadvantage, if something were to happen with one of your core franchises.

BA: Well, you know, something could happen, it could be said, about any license, at any given time. I think what is unique about THQ, as it relates to the licensed side of our business, is when you look at our licenses, and you look at our relationships, they're very, very long-term. We've had Pixar for a very, very long time; we've had Nickelodeon for a very, very long time; we will have UFC for a long time as well. So the reason why we have, probably, the best success record of longevity of licenses is because of what we've done. We were the company that took those brands, introduced them into the interactive space, and we built them into #1 brands in interactive.

But the decision to diversify the portfolio wasn't so much driven from a strategy of getting away from licenses, as much as it was to expand into new areas. And, quite frankly, with the talent that we have on the development side, coming out of our Volition studio, and our Relic studio -- we have the talent to be able to produce and create original IP that's going to do great in the market.

It seems like a fairly recent move for THQ to focus on 'mature' titles like Frontlines. That hasn't been THQ's strength, historically.

BA: When you look at the performance of Frontlines, we're real pleased that Frontlines shipped into a very competitive first person shooter environment; it brought innovation in terms of the online functionality. In some maps of the game you can play with over fifty players online. And so I think that we've proven that we can innovate in a category that's very, very competitive.

So I feel good about our prospects going forward, and there will be more games coming from that studio. They did a great job on Frontlines.

Was that studio acquired?

BA: It wasn't an acquisition, it was built from the ground up.

They'd had a history as being part of DICE.

Julie McMedan: It was a team that broke off from DICE, and we built around them. We said, "Sure. We like your tech, and we like your design. We're willing to invest in your project." They didn't want to move to Sweden, or wherever it was that EA wanted to move them to.

BA: A lot of the folks on that team have experience in Battlefield, so that was a lot of their pedigree as a team anyway.

Refining And Staying Competitive With Open Worlds

It's interesting to see Red Faction come back, following its long break. Was that just a developer-driven decision, or was that part of looking at the market and saying, "This fits well with the state of the market right now"?

BA: Well the game that you see upstairs was four years in development. We've completely revamped the brand now - it's a third-person shooter. And we enhanced that technology of total destruction - this is real, physics-based destruction.

Everything is destructive in that world, and the way it gets destroyed is very real, and it's all based on a very elaborate and sophisticated physics engine, that took several years to build. So it wasn't about taking, necessarily, taking time off from the franchise, as it was about innovating that franchise, and the time it took to innovate. We're a very patient company.

Is that still in development at Volition?

BA: Yes it is.

OK. So they've got two projects running now.

BA: Yes they do, yeah.

Saints Row 2 is coming on the back of the success of the original title, but by the time it ships GTA4 will be out -- it's a little bit of a different market.

BA: We've got four months between the releases, but just as we saw with Halo, where Halo enlarged the market for first-person shooters, and Frontline shipped into that expanded market. Saint's Row created the market for open world on next-gen, because we were the first, and GTA will expand that, obviously. And we'll come behind GTA, and continue to grow the market.

I think when you look at THQ, and specifically the Volition studio, we have three open world games that we're showing upstairs. We have Destroy All Humans! [Path of the Furon], and then the two out of Volition. I mean, I don't know of another publisher that is able to produce the quality and quantity of open world games that we have. They generally take about 25 percent longer to build, and they cost about 30 percent more. We're really proud of the fact that we can have three major open world games out there.

We're committed to the genre, but we're also innovating the genre. You look at GTA online, from what they've released so far, I think that comes up to parity with where Saints Row 1 was, in terms of their multiplayer online. When you look at where Saint's Row 2 is going with multiplayer online, with full co-op mode - you can play co-op through the entire single player experience - I mean, that's true innovation.

Marketing and Targeting The Wii Audience

It's interesting to see the breadth of titles you've got here, and your strategy with the Wii, with games like de Blob, that it seems like the whole industry is waking up to.

BA: When you look at what we've done, in terms of creating original IP for the Wii, we're obviously dedicated to it. As a company that led on Nintendo, historically, on Nintendo platforms, we think we understand that customer really well, so it's not surprising that THQ is bringing original IP to the Wii, like Deadly Creatures, and like de Blob, and the cheerleading game that we've announced. All very, very different games; all targeted to a very different kind of gamer; but it speaks to how the Wii is broadening the consumer base for gaming. And we have titles that address each one of those broadening segments.

Deadly Creatures is a game that I don't think would get green-lit at a lot of other publishers, you know? But because of our background, and our understanding with Nintendo - our commitment to innovate on the Nintendo platform, and not just bring over ports of console games - I think that's going to do very, very well for us.

It seems like it's been a challenge for a number of publishers to have have talent that's well suited to striking up an original Wii project.

BA: Yeah, I think that's an excellent question, because what we saw in the industry, and in talking to a lot of other publishers, as well as external developers -- there was a lack of confidence, I think, in the Wii in general, at first. And, look, if you're a top notch programmer, or an art director, your first choice, probably, is not to work on a platform that has some limitations - some processing and graphics limitations.

Again, I think this is where at THQ, that worked very well to our advantage, to be a leader on Nintendo platforms. We had dedicated internal studios to develop on the Wii, and I think that was one of the big differences between us and our competitors; where our competitors may have been more focused on the PS3, or the 360 early on in that cycle, and now they're having to play catch-up. And as we know, if you're going to compete on the Wii, you have to bring on your best, and that's internal talent, not necessarily external.

In some ways it's sort-of a more brutal market, because you can somewhat count on the core audience to keep informed about what's coming out, but a number of people on the Wii just buy off the shelf.

BA: Well, I think when you look at what's selling on the Wii, Nintendo's done a great job of bringing their brands to the console, and doing it with traditional Nintendo quality. They've built up and brought in new consumers into their platform, and it's up to us - THQ specifically is understanding this, and then making games for the expanded market.

I think marketing does matter on the Wii, because you are, in general, reaching people who haven't been gamers, historically. So, marketing matters, but also game quality matters, and innovating on the platform matters, in terms of how you use the Wiimote and the new functionality. That's why when you bring over ports, they simply just won't work on that platform.

JM: If I could interject: That said, while there is a broadening of demographic on the Wii, you also have a lot of core gamers who bought the Wii. So the early adopters of the Wii also already have the 360 and the PS3. So something like a Deadly Creatures, they're getting very excited about that kind of game, versus, you know, mom and pop may be more excited about Big Beach Sports. So, still, within the Wii, you're able to strike a chord with the core gamers, if you're able to make a game that's cool, like Deadly Creatures.

How has THQ been approaching that market with the Wii?

BA: When you look at the Xbox 360, primarily in North America, it's a great platform for shooters, and it's also a great platform to launch original IP on, but the way you launch original IP is very, very different, from a marketing perspective, than the way that you would market something on the Wii.

The audience is very, very different; the games are very, very different. What we've found with the Xbox 360 and PS3 - we lean a little bit heavier into the online space, in terms of how we market. We also reach out there to social communities that are on the web. Our games are perfectly aligned to that.

For WWE on the Wii, there is a great community of WWE fans, and we know them, we know how to tap into them. Likewise with Saints Row. There's a great social network that was built up around that game, and we market to them specifically, via online channels. That's something that we would not necessarily do when we are marketing a game on the Wii.

So with a Wii game you'd target, say, a parenting or lifestyle magazine, rather than targeting like a gaming magazine?

BA: Yeah, you know, it depends on the game. But if you take our cheerleading game that we've announced - we have an association with professional cheerleading in colleges, and we're going to be doing some grassroots marketing out to them. That's obviously something that's unique on the Wii. Also, with Deadly Creatures, which is more of a game that appeals to a core gamer, I think we have some really unique online marketing that we're going to be doing for that title as well.

It's no secret that some studios have been struggling to sell games on the Wii, even though the system is a runaway success. It was also the problem with the DS, and the problem with the GameCube. It's hard to stand out.

BA: We were there at the launch of the Wii with six titles, primarily in the kids' space. So this is the broadest and most diversified portfolio of product that we've launched on the Wii. So, again, as you can see, they are games that are very specifically targeted to different audiences. Kind of "one size fits all" is something that may not be appropriate from a developer or a marketing perspective, when it comes to Wii games.

You had Avatar, and at least one SpongeBob...

BA: Right. And we brought out Cars; we brought our Pixar properties to the Wii.

Those were all based on existing properties, with built-in audiences. It seems now that where the rubber is going to meet the road is to find out if the same strategy will work with Deadly Creatures and de Blob.

BA: Original IP brought to the Wii, we think, is a great way to go with that platform right now.

It also seems like the only way the platform is going to remain compelling in the long run, which is a problem for Nintendo as much as it is for third party publishers. Some of the well might dry up. Nintendo can provide games like Mario Kart, Smash Bros., Wii Fit -- all of which are going to be mega-hits -- but the well dried up eventually on GameCube.

BA: Right. And Nintendo recognizes this, and they've been extremely supportive on both the technical side of the business as well as on the consumer marketing side of the business. We have a great partnership with them, and I think that they realize that Deadly Creatures and games like de Blob only seek to further broaden their platform. They've been helping us on the technical front as well, and we have a great relationship with them - and a lot of history with them.

THQ in the very old days was very Nintendo-focused, and your licenses fit very well with the demographics.

BA: And, you know, we haven't talked a lot about the DS, but also there's an example where THQ brought an original IP first to the DS. The DS has become a great platform to experiment on. Things like Drawn to Life - which was a top 15-selling DS game - original IP, based on creativity. We think the Drawn to Life brand has big potential on Nintendo platforms, and you're going to see us doing more with that brand in the future.

But it's a great platform to experiment on, and our internal development teams love the DS platform. Something can be introduced there, and nurtured, and then expanded.

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