Talking Loud, Saying Nothing
Three years of repeating a "focus on the core" mantra, but THQ still has nothing to show for it. Is time up for another publisher?
It's an understatement to say THQ is in a mess. This week it axed staff from its publishing and administration teams, and confirmed that it is no longer working on games aimed at the younger audiences, including the shelving of a recent Disney project. That's not because games for kids aren't doing the business anymore, it's just that THQ hasn't been able to follow the audience as it got hooked on monsters and online penguins.
Concentrating on the core audience is a solid plan if that really is your intention, but THQ is a company without confidence, axing projects and staff before they've taken their first steps. Look at its activities last year and a familiar pattern emerges - because its exactly what it did in 2009 when it first acknowledged that the kids' market was shrinking, when it closed Big Huge Games and let Heavy Iron and Incinerator go, when CEO Brian Farrell said the company would focus on fewer titles, when internal studio Volition lost its QA staff, the International business was shuttered and 600 staff let go. And previously in 2008 when it spoke of a new direction and sacked 250 staff with the closure of five studios.
THQ is a company without confidence, axing projects and staff before they've taken their first steps
But back to 2011, to really ram the point home. Three internal development teams were shut down in September at a cost of 200 jobs, and the MX Vs ATV franchise was canned - a series Brian Farrell hoped would usher in a mid-priced revolution for the company. The recently rebooted Red Faction series was briefly full of hope before being canned in July after a lacklustre launch and tepid reviews for Red Faction: Guerrilla. A month earlier, THQ Warrington (a digital-focused studio) was closed, alongside the Homefront team at Kaos, and Saints Row spin-off Drive By didn't even get shown publicly before being snuffed.
In the same year key studio Volition suffered job losses and the departure of one of its co-founders. Is there any doubt that mobile is a growth area in games? There must have been at THQ, because it sold THQ Wireless in February. Days earlier it canned free-to-play projects Company of Heroes Online and WWE Online. All of that happened in one year.
And yet CEO Brian Farrell insists the company is focused on the digital and core business. It's not. It's done everything it can to reduce games in those markets, with the regular swing of a bloody great axe. Console FPS? Chop. Extreme sports? Chop. Those are classic core genres. Digital spin-offs, mobile games, free-to-play projects - undoubtedly growth areas for the games business and not unobtainable by traditional console publishers, but THQ is willingly shoving them aside. Does it even understand the self-harm it's doing?
The policy of jettisoning underperforming franchises worked well for Electronic Arts, but THQ was never in the same league. EA has stripped down the product, increased quality and expanded into new areas aggressively. THQ never had the regular income from sports, nor took a bold chance with acquisitions in the social space. EA has tried all of its big franchises on Facebook with varying degrees of success, as well as creating new IP. THQ has just released Margaritaville Online - based on a Jimmy Buffet song from the 70s - a move that I can't decide is either a bad joke taken too far or some sort of hallucination I've been experiencing.
Despite the product cull, there are still some very strong brands in THQs cupboard. If the UFC fighting series isn't milked and is treated with respect surely it can echo the same growth as the real-world sport. Saints Row: The Third proved in its unhinged madness that it's finally broken away from GTA's shadow and has confidence among the biggest Q3 hitters. Warhammer is an epic universe that most developers would love to have a crack at, but is THQ still pumping money into an MMO or has it been shelved and put up for sale, as rumours suggest? Does it really have a flexible business model in mind, or does it simply not know how to make money back from such an expensive project?
Metro Last Light is as core-focused as a game can be and could carve a decent niche in the first-person shooter market, but let's not pretend it can (or needs) to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Battlefields and Call of Dutys. Push it too far in that direction and it will come a cropper like Homefront before it. And what of Company of Heroes? That's a real-time strategy series that should not be ignored, the kind fans will obsess over in the long term. I spoke with one journalist last week who is actually angry (aren't they all?) that THQ is in danger of destroying its finest games. Don't whittle down your stick until you're left with just the shavings.
Games exec Danny Bilson has gone worryingly quiet. He's a terrific evangelist with the right combination of swagger and honesty, but why isn't he shouting about core games to the fans?
Core games exec Danny Bilson has gone worryingly quiet. He's a terrific evangelist for the core business as anyone who's interviewed or met him will know, the man has quotes for days with the right combination of swagger and honesty that shows most execs to be the overly media-trained yes-men they are. He's the mouthpiece the company needs right now, pounding the drum of brave, brash and bombastic console and PC games. That stripped down product line up is as hardcore as they come, why isn't he shouting about it to the fans?
There are other projects in the works too, with the THQ Partners team striking gold. I can't think of a better studio to work on a new Homefront than Crytek. There's no doubt it will put the hard work in to give the series some credibility, but that 2013 release seems a long way off. As does Valhalla's Devil's Third and the project from Left 4 Dead studio Turtle Rock. Great teams, great talent, but a great way off.
Yesterday THQ said its internal development studios were not affected by layoffs, but that's because the entire business has been stripped down already. And that doesn't mean there isn't more bad news to come for those at Relic, Volition and Vigil. Canadian studios in Vancouver and Montreal are the safest at this point, but hand outs from the local government there won't help the bigger struggle in the long term.
THQ says it will concentrate on its core business, but all around it are the wasted efforts and broken games of ill-conceived and random projects, or worse, games that were half built, not followed to completion and unceremoniously dumped in the bin. We've heard it all before, is it any wonder the company is expected to fall beyond repair? The games industry has all but given up on the company and its efforts to move into digital, sales are missing targets and there's serious questions about finance for the latter half of 2012. THQ needs to be honest with itself, be realistic with its ambitions, humble in its failures and stand up to the future. No one wants to see another Midway situation, where the company collapses and rivals cherry pick what's left of the IP. But at this point it's hard not to see just that in THQ.