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Analysis: THQ's Long Farewell To Creative Mediocrity

Analysis: THQ's Long Farewell To Creative Mediocrity

April 20, 2011 | By Colin Campbell

[Gamasutra business editor Colin Campbell examines THQ's efforts to go from a house of licensed 'toons to a creative powerhouse, with EVP Danny Bilson telling us, "You're only as valuable as the properties you own."]

Back in the '90s, THQ's Danny Bilson wrote a TV show about a guy who struggles to control his own enhanced extra-sensory powers.

This character in The Sentinel could see and hear and smell things other people could not perceive, but suffered from a tendency to over-focus on one subject to the detriment of important events going on around him.

THQ had this exact same problem.

For years, the company developed a remarkable ability to focus its attention wholly on the wads of cash, lolly, dough it was making, while losing all perspective on anything else.

It could smell filthy lucre in every Saturday morning TV toon. It could tune into the delicious rustle of bank-notes as, one after another, license-partner Disney movies dropped in theaters.

But, oh boy, it made some really weak-ass games.

This tendency to make money is liable to win you friends on Wall Street, but it doesn't make for a long-term creative strategy. What it makes for is a lot of forgettable and mediocre games. So when the TV-show license business moved on, so did THQ's pals on the Street.

THQ had to find a new focus; to get some perspective. And while licenses are still a big part of its world, the company is now all about creating new IP, building great games and nurturing a creative environment that can yield artistic greatness.

Bilson comes from a long line of entertainers, a family of four generations in showbiz. He understands archetypal character, narrative arcs and dramatic tension. He knows how to frame a story. And, for him, the story of THQ is not just one of redemption, but of radicalism. It's not enough for THQ to become a new Take-Two or Ubisoft or EA or Activision. In order to catch-up, THQ must go beyond.

Just about every word coming out of THQ these days conforms to this narrative. We've got new prices, new ways to conduct marketing campaigns, a new logo, a huge new studio, new deals with fellow transmedia devotees.

Journalists enjoy giving Bilson plenty of opportunities to talk up "the new THQ," because his words richly imagine a world we'd all like to believe in, one in which creative people get to call the shots and the suits get to shut the hell up. He talks of streamlining the creative process so that creative vision, not management approval, is the primary driver. It was THQ that did the deal to publish Tim Schafer and Double Fine's highly individual games. It's THQ that is hiring 400 developers in Montreal, headed up by former Assassin's Creed creative head Patrice Desilets.

Bilson tells Gamasutra, "THQ is now a completely different place, in my group in particular, in the core games group. We have a different strategy now, we work very differently than we used to, we have different personnel. We're working really hard to be a great company and make great games."

In the end, THQ and Bilson will be judged on their ability to deliver world-class IP and beautiful gaming experiences. And it's this search for IP that is consuming the company's resources during this difficult, expensive year of investment.

We've already seen Homefront which flared briefly as a possible IP giant. Even if the reviews were underwhelming, the sales performance has been satisfactory with one analyst predicting lifetime sales of 3 million. Brands like Saints Row, Darksiders and Red Faction offer promise but they must do more than merely build upon previous incarnations. inSane from Volition, created in collaboration with movie director Guillermo del Toro must be seen as a central pillar of the company's creative future. And, of course, there are plenty of games we just haven't heard about yet, particularly coming from Montreal.

Bilson is still working with licenses -- the wrestling-cage-fighting stuff, and Warhammer, for example. And while he acknowledges that these are important franchises, there is a real drive to make owned IP the core of the business.

"I want to do stuff that's exciting and cool, wherever it comes from," he says. "We're just inspired by great creative, whether it's our own or coming from somewhere else. But, yeah, from a business sense it makes more sense to develop it ourselves. I've been a writer for 30 years and I've always created my own shows. It's just about making great content."

He adds, "You're only as valuable as the properties you own. It doesn't matter how many studios you have or how much production resource or how much marketing resource or even cash in the bank you have. What matters the most is IP. For Take-Two, it's about GTA. It's about Red Dead. It's about the properties. It's not about even the individuals. So that's how we build our business."

This desire for IP is one of the reasons why THQ turned its back on doing a deal with Activision refugees Respawn. For Bilson, there are some traditions that don't get overturned, and one of those is that the guy with the money gets to own the IP.

"There's a hundred year history in the film business where it's accepted practice that the funder -- the studio or the publisher -- that's paying for everything retains ownership," he says. "They're very generous partners in how they share the revenue and all the extensions of that brand."

"We're just better at properly exploiting an IP than a studio," he adds. "[Creators] don't have the reach or the resources. They make the games, right? They don't build transmedia productions. So this just comes from where I grew up -- in the film business -- and it's just standard practice that you sell your IP to the studio, they own it, and if you're good you share the wealth. Many filmmakers are wealthy and successful and happy with their creations are owned by studios. There are very few exceptions, where the studios don't own the IP."

Bilson believes in creative energy. Talking about marketing he doesn't focus on metrics, but on what feels right. (He bought lot of outdoor marketing for Homefront because "I think outdoor is really cool.") Transmedia deals are all about who comes up with the exciting ideas, as opposed to the ones that look good on a balance sheet.

For him, the trick is to locate the creative force behind a project and fight to maintain that, to protect it from the ravages of the accounts department and the dead hand of the bosses. He believes in the consumer's ability to respond to creative excellence -- always a risky strategy -- but one which few who believe in the games industry's creative future can argue with convincingly.

For THQ, there really is no going back to that old reliance on SpongeBob. The company has to create its way out of mediocrity.

[As well as being business editor for Gamasutra, Colin Campbell works for a marketing agency. You can follow him on Twitter @brandnarrative.]

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