THQ's Danny Bilson
The exec VP of core games on why Montreal is the best location for a new 'super-studio'
The reinvention of THQ continues - following a period of change at the publisher, it announced today it was investing in a brand new 'super-studio' in Montreal that will eventually grow to house 400 staff.
Here we talk to executive VP of core game brands, Danny Bilson, about the thinking behind the decision - why it's not just about the money, which projects will be created there, and who the studio's leadership will be.
Q: You've announced that you're creating a 'super-studio' in Montreal - I'm guessing there's primarily one reason you've chosen that location, but do you want to just spell it out?
Danny Bilson: There's more than one reason! There are actually two main reasons - first of all it's a phenomenal digital development community. There are 2000-3000 game developers there that have been working in studios over the years, and they've been building out a really robust talent community there.
Also their university system offers a lot of training in the digital arts, so the province has a world class community there and they're determined to grow it.
And along with that comes a fantastic subsidy to make it more economically feasible for us - they're giving us thirty-seven and a half cents in every dollar of labour there, which is a huge win in the world of blockbuster games, which is what the core division of THQ is about.
We want to deliver a great experience for our gamers in really huge, immersive worlds - and it's starting to cost upwards of $35 million and more, so to be able to get a [tax] break, it enables us to put more on the screen.
That's kind of what we're all about, giving our users the best experience, and that's the primary reason for going up there - the combination of an established talent pool and a phenomenal break on the labour will enable us to make really huge games, of the kind we want to make for our gamers.
Q: I know a lot of people in other parts of the world look on with some envy, but Montreal - and Canada as a whole - is doing a pretty good job of becoming a magnet for the development of those big core games...
Danny Bilson: It goes province by province by Canada. I know that BC has initiated some new incentives last September. But we were actually talking to another province at one point, and Montreal really stepped in quickly, and made it easy because they have these systems in place - and they've been doing it for a while. Other companies are building out up there as well.
So they're building a great community, but are there other great communities all over the world? Absolutely. There's a great development community in the UK, and there has been for 20 or 30 years. There's great development in the States.
It's the combination of talent, resource and then funding - so it's just working out really well. But to be clear, we're not closing any studios in the rest of the world to move there - we're building out and expanding with Montreal.
We do respect our talent and where they live as much as we can.
Q: Do you know at this point what the headcount of the studio will be in total?
Danny Bilson: I do - the commitment to the province is 400 heads within five years, so that's serious. We're going to be building out two full teams there on major game franchises, as well as some QA, localisation and an art in-sourcing system which is beginning to support the Warhammer 40,000 MMO any minute.
Q: You mentioned this is additional to existing studios; does that imply that the two teams will be working on projects that are in addition to the company's existing franchise line-up?
Danny Bilson: One is going to be the team being built out by Patrice Desilets, working on original IP, and the second may be a game that we already have in existence, so we'd be extending that franchise up there - but that's undetermined. If not it'll be another original title.
Q: It's pretty exciting, considering the industry's tricky couple of years. Is this a statement of intent for THQ?
Danny Bilson: Absolutely. It's a statement about how we believe original IP lands and is valuable to gamers, no matter what. I think what we've seen in the industry is a world in which only the best triple-A games are going to work - but when they work, they work phenomenally well financially - and the extensions of the business are in the casual area. That's where lots of games can be made inexpensively, and reach the social network stuff.
But that's a different audience - our audience is still, and always will be, the core gamers that built the core game business. I'm a firm believer that the games business was built on those people that want the deep, immersive experiences - they've grown up with that, and funded it.
Everything else is more of an extension to that. I keep using the word 'core' - but the fundamental core of the industry is the core gamer, on these core experiences. To give them what they expect on these platforms over the last few years, it'll cost upwards of $30 million to build deep, robust experiences.
The difference is that it used to be, about ten years ago, that videogames sold just because they were videogames. The artform was cool and people just gobbled up all kinds of stuff - but with the economy the way it is, and people just getting smarter or more experienced in games... it's more like the movie business. Only the great ones, the blockbusters, will cut through - so our mission is to launch one of those every quarter and support it fully both with marketing and production, to compete at the highest level with the best games in the world.
That's what this studio in Montreal is all about.
Q: A blockbuster every quarter is certainly a very solid plan financially - but you'll be well aware that sometimes development schedules don't always go to plan. You've stuck to your principles so far on not releasing games until they're ready - is that something you'll continue to do?
Danny Bilson: Yes - we have a pretty good pipeline now since the reorganisation that started a couple of years ago in which we closed about half the studios and, at least in our group, focused on these blockbuster games. That pipeline's laid out pretty nicely.
Could one move? Yes. Could something pull in? Occasionally, not usually. In game development almost always the more time you give a team the better the game gets. You saw us move Red Faction from our Q4 in March to May, and that was absolutely about getting the game to the highest quality.
And also, we didn't need two blockbusters jamming into the end of the fiscal year for the financial sector to be happy. The financial sector will be happy when we make a lot of money, and spreading out those two releases positions us better. It also focuses our talent, our marketing and sales forces against each one, separate by a few months.
So we do have a pretty solid plan - I'm not seeing or feeling a lot of slippage going on next year in the games. What we really do here now is move them early - we have really good systems in the studios now where we can tell a year to a year and a half out how they're tracking.
For instance we recently moved one game that we haven't announced yet officially - it's a major title coming next Fall, that was in August that will now be in November. We'll announce that soon, but we moved it a couple of months ago, so it doesn't shock the sales force, doesn't shock retail - our titles won't be disappearing. We're moving them out, but we're doing that well in advance - and we can have a very good sense of where they are at least a year out.
Q: 400 people is a lot of talent to attract, even over a period of time. Do you expect to get them primarily from that education system you mentioned, or will they come from existing studios?
Danny Bilson: It'll go both. We have to get the experienced veterans in there to mentor new talent. We need the students and the teachers, absolutely - and they can come from anywhere in the world. The one thing about the province is that they're extremely receptive to foreign talent.
Back about ten or twelve years ago when I was in the film business and we were making a bunch of television in Vancouver, you really could only bring - for instance - so many Americans up there. That's not the case here - they want to grow the community from people all over the world, so it'll be a combination of local talent as well.
One of the team is being led by one of the foremost developers in Montreal - Patrice [Desilets] - and on the other team it'll be led by some talent coming up from the States. But the youth coming out of the universities will be trained up and integrated in - this is a multi-cultural, multi-national industry, and that's what you'll see in our Montreal studio.
Q: If you want to attract those industry veterans, you must be confident that the perception of THQ has shifted somewhat to be a more forward-thinking, better place to work.
Danny Bilson: Yes - we've been doing it for about two years. It'll be more well-known as these releases start to come out, starting in calendar Q1 when some of the games that have been green-lit since I got here and the new team start to roll out - beginning with Home Front, then Red Faction, Space Marine and ultimately Saints Row. You're going to see a quality level.
The other thing is a series of announcements that you're hearing from us, where we really realise that great games are made by great game-makers. This is the entertainment business, it's talent-driven. It's not process-driven, it's not spreadsheet-driven, it's talent driven - just like the film business.
When we started with our signing of Itagaki-san and his Team Ninja guys in Japan who are building a game for us, and we move on to Patrice, then we have a major announcement coming from a major piece of talent in the games industry who we're going to be building a series of games with - as well as releasing our first game with Tim Schafer, who's one of the finer talents in the industry.
You're seeing that we respect talent, and we've built a system on the core side in particular that's creatively supportive - it's about finding inspired vision and supporting that vision. It's not marketing-driven, in the sense that our marketers are partnered with our product guys to take the inspiration, find their inspiration in their campaign and push it out.
We're not a company - and I've experienced this in the past - where "marketing tells us what to do." Marketing does not tell us what to make, what the features should be - that comes from artists, sort of like the best parts of the film business when it was at its finest. It was artist-driven, and that's when the greatest films came out.
We're trying to use that system here, and it works two ways - one, I believe we're going to get the greatest, most exciting games, but it also becomes a really inviting place to work for artists. That's a huge initiative here and we're executing on that. You're seeing talent start to choose to work at THQ - it's really exciting and it is an achievement of a goal.
Q: Will there be some frustration from any US states that you've chosen Canada over them? The financial side definitely comes into it, so should some of the US states be doing more to attract games talent?
Danny Bilson: Absolutely they should. They're doing it for the film business on a state-by-state basis, and a little bit for the games business... but it's about competition. It's a hard one - I've dealt with this in the film and television business in my past. As an American it was a little bit hard to pack my bags and go to Canada in a sense, and leave a crew behind that I'd made film and television with to go and start with a new crew.
But the way I dealt with it was, my job and what inspires me is to put the most value on the screen for the consumer, whether that's a film-goer or a gamer. That really is our mission - to make the best games, and I have to put that before some of the other emotional feelings around a homeland, so to speak.
People can judge it any way they choose, but that is why we're going to Canada - to give, ultimately, everyone in America, Europe, Asia-Pac, the best gaming experience. That's our responsibility and that's what our business is about.
I wish that Los Angeles or California would give us 37.5 per cent on the labour; then we'd be building out here. If it was in Manchester we'd be building out there. If it was in Lyon, we'd be building out there. We're a global company with a global audience, so some of that stuff has to take a back seat, unfortunately.
Q: Could you see a big publisher-owned studio coming back to the UK?
Danny Bilson: Well, it's all about money. The talent in the UK is extraordinary - I actually spent a couple of years of my career when I was helping out with the early days of the Harry Potter franchise with EA, I worked closely with the team there on the first three games. I got to know a lot of teams in the UK - it's one of the greatest talent centres in the world.
So there's no issue with talent; it's just economics - and if the government finds subsidies there, absolutely we would build out. We have a studio up in Warrington that's an excellent studio, working on our Xbox Live/PSN digital games, so we do have a studio in the UK... but I'm sorry, it's all about money at the end of the day. And talent - but the UK has always been, and still is, one of the greatest talent pools in the industry... there's phenomenal talent out there.
Danny Bilson is executive VP of core game brands at THQ. Interview by Phil Elliott.