Bilson's Last Stand: Giant Budgets, F2P and Hands-On at THQ
Boasting about the size of THQ's penny jar, moving Relic to a free-to-play company and more...
Just a week ago Danny Bilson, THQ's executive vice president of core games, was evangelising Darksiders II to a room of journalists just outside Kensal Green. Cut to this week and he's departed THQ with only "pursuing other interests" as his epitaph.
In a final and exclusive interview, seemingly unaware of what was to come, he boasted about the size of his penny jar, explained how THQ intends to capitalise on digital and, in a statement that seems worrying considering the recent news, proved he was very much hands on kind of guy when it came to titles like Homefront 2.
Q: THQ has gone through some drastic restructuring and you seem like a guy whose very involved with the games, so what have been some of the hardest parts of that for you?
"Lay offs and cancellation of products have been very difficult. My make up is to build things, and tearing them down is sad and really hard."
Danny Bilson: That's an easy one to answer. It's the stuff that we're not doing. Lay offs and cancellation of products have been very difficult. My make up is to build things, and tearing them down is sad and really hard. And laying people off is the worst thing imaginable.
Q: I guess it all comes down to numbers, but that doesn't make it any easier.
Danny Bilson: It comes down to numbers, yes. At THQ it comes down to numbers. That's business. But honestly on the other side the right-sizing of the company is healthier for the company. I feel like we're more balanced now, I feel like we're positioned to be more profitable now. Getting there is really hard, because down-sizing was really hard, but I think the future makes a lot more sense now.
Q: There's a lot to be said for focusing...
Danny Bilson: Well if you look around everyone is doing it. This isn't unique to us. We have to find and develop key brands that we can really drive and make them great, that people can gather around when we release them every time. Look, there are some companies that build their business on just a couple of brands. Now I think that may be unique, but again for me, the strategy hasn't changed since I got to THQ - we have to make great product. And evolving the company and transitioning them from the kid license business to quality core games is ongoing.
I think this is a milestone you're seeing today, of I believe three very high quality products and honestly nothing less than high quality is going to sell anyway, anymore. So we're going to drive harder, and our competition and our friends at other companies keep upgrading the bar to do better and better work. And we have to keep up with that and ideally exceed that at times. And so focus is really important, and having all of our resources pointed in the same direction is really good. I think that we were spread out across trying to do lots of things, but we didn't really have the resource to do maybe as many things as we wanted to.
So as a result here we are now with a portfolio , and we have a portfolio that goes for years, and it's really cool and really exciting and it's the thing to gather round if you work at THQ, and that's what it should be in any company really. What are we here for? We're here to make great games and sell them well, that's what we're here for. So I think we have more ability to do that from a right-size position.
Q: And the down-sizing hasn't made you more risk averse? I know you still have the Patrice Désilets and Del Toro projects in the works?
Danny Bilson: Oh no, we have a really exciting portfolio. Unfortunately we've had to trim a few things out of it that were really good and that was just a matter of business. It was really about cash flow and things like that... look, I have a giant budget. That's the thing, people saw "oooh" and I'm like wait a minute, I can't give you the number but it's really a large number. I mean it's not as large as it was before, but it's a large number and we have a lot of people making games and getting paid every week, we're investing a lot in talent and what we do, we're just not doing as much of it. But we're doing plenty. And you don't need that much anymore, you just need to do a few things really well.
Q: And digital is going to be a big part of those future plans too?
Danny Bilson: I refer to it as live, that games have to be live. When we sell that package what comes with it is a store to, if you choose, to continue to buy the game. To buy more of it, customise it how you want and build upon it and I think in the past we've always had "well we've got to get the game out, and we've got to do some DLC." And now I'm trying to move it to what is the live aspect of the game? How long is it going to stay alive? And that first shipment of that first game, the first piece of it, is the... it's the initial package that opens the door to an ongoing live experience for a year or two after that. And that's how philosophically we're looking at things now.
"Look, I have a giant budget. I can't give you the number but it's really a large number."
Everybody is doing it, so this isn't unique, but it's a cultural shift in THQ in how we look at our customers, how we look at our game development, how we look at our services. And we have a lot of work to do across those but we understand it and I think that digital is video games. it's not something separate, it's how they live. And again, I like to call them live games, it's a good way to focus it, and once we launch one it's alive and we've got to keep it alive.
Q: Do you think you could see a time when you get more revenue from DLC than from the original game?
Danny Bilson: Here's the trick. That the original game has all the value of the $60 dollar investment for the consumer, and it's a phenomenal experience whether you buy another piece or not. Now if they love it, and you have enough people who love it, a large install mine, it becomes a really good opportunity for different segments of that audience to buy the pieces they want, and don't want, to continue. Saints Row was originally the '30 day, 60 day and 90 day DLC,' that was sort of the old school plan. And we said 'wait a minute, what if we open up a store? Give us 9 months of content, some free, some small things, some big pieces, let's open up this shop. And it's done really well for us. And that speaks to the game, and the fans, and their dedication to that game. And it's done so well we thought let's try an add-on in between installments of the Saints Row franchise, and that's an experiment and we're going to see how it goes. But I know number one thing was give a lot of value to the consumer that's going to buy Enter The Dominatrix.
Digital is a great opportunity for extended revenue. Absolutely. Is it more than the original? I don't know if it'll be like that but it's really good, and it's really good for the team and it's really good for the game. And most importantly it has to be good for the gamers, because exploitation? They're going to smell it like that and shut it off.
Q: And does that strategy change the way you work with the studios?
Danny Bilson: Absolutely. And we're in the middle of that change right now. We have a group that's formulating strategy around it, it's ongoing. I'm of course in charge of that studio part of it, making sure that the games are designed for community and what we call digital or the game being designed for being alive, and we've got other disciplines working on other aspects of what it takes to run that. So that's where we're headed for sure. And we've got to move fairly quickly. I mean we're doing it, Saints Row is a good example, but I think we can even do better.
Q: So it's that idea of triple-A games not just being stand alone, but having a universe around them?
Danny Bilson: That's not new to us at all, I mean philosophically in that I'm a huge proponent of transmedia, of extending story through other mediums. We will find a game or IP we believe in and we'll follow the IP into the places it takes us rather than dictate to that IP 'you must fill up all these buckets.' So it's what's creatively appropriate, what's an organic flow, for that game? So it'll be selective, and it's kind of selected by the creative entity itself.
So if you take a Darksiders, how and where you extend that that's appropriate, and then maybe you don't do everything. And the other thing about it is you always have to make sure that everything is complimentary and nothing is cannibalising itself. The most grotesque example is 'gee, do I need spend $60 on Darksiders II when I can play it on my iPad for $2?' That's the fine line you've got to walk and there's a lot of learning around that and a lot of experimentation. There's a lot of great platforms, so my belief is follow the content, don't lead the content.
Q: What were the factors that made you turn Dark Millenium into a single player game? Was that purely a numbers decision?
Danny Bilson: Yes, it's purely a business thing. That game has been in development for five years and five years ago it made sense, subscription based MMOs are working, this is a fantastic IP, we'll build a great game, and we built a great game, and a great game system, but I don't think that for THQ and for THQ's resource trying to chase that model and the investment it's going to take to get there... You know what, this is the truth. Brian (Farrell, THQ president) and I held on to that as long as we could. We really chased that dream up until we couldn't anymore.
However what we have left is phenomenal content. And because the content is not traditional MMO content in terms of the turn-based nature of it, it's much more action packed, there's still an incredible game there and we're working and brainstorming around how that package works, but it's a very connected game, it's a very digital game, it's a huge cooperative multiplayer game. So it's still a great game, it's just how are we reworking it from a business standpoint to make the most profitable and to make the most sense for us, that's what's going on.
Q: Was there ever a temptation to go free-to-play?
Danny Bilson: Yes. Yes, we've looked at it.
Q: What was the deciding factor for not doing it?
Danny Bilson: I can't say we're not for sure because we're still looking at business models. So I don't really want to go into that, but we've talked about it and looked at it. We're talking about a lot of other stuff. Relic is working on experimenting and our desire is for them to lead us into the PC free-to-play world. And they're high quality, they've been PC game builders for years and they are tasked with that mission right now, and it's underway.
"Relic is working on experimenting and our desire is for them to lead us into the PC free-to-play world"
Q: Is not an area any publisher can afford to ignore anymore...
Danny Bilson: I love it. We've got a studio up there that is seriously investing in that.
Q: Do you think anyone has the free-to-play core game covered yet?
Danny Bilson: There's League Of Legends which is DoTa, repackaged. They've done really well, has been a phenomenal success. And that's a very hardcore game, almost too hardcore for me. I just get slaughtered! There is room in that world. I believe it, Relic believes it, Brian believes it and in the coming year you'll hear more from us about that.
Q: Are you still investing heavily in next-gen?
Danny Bilson: I wasn't at THQ but there's sort of a thought from the past that we were not fast enough this last generation, and you're not going to see that happen this time.
Q: How is the relationship with Crytek working for Homefront 2? Why choose them?
Danny Bilson: That's an easy one. Homefront had fantastic creative. Arguably, at least in my opinion, one of the best properties for a first person shooter, a fresh world, great environmental storytelling and the execution unfortunately... even though I think it has some phenomenal things in that game, we sold a lot of them and it resonated with people, there were also issues around execution. Not that it wasn't good, but you're being compared to Call Of Duty and Battlefield, two of the best made games in the business. So what do you do if you're us and you've got this IP you believe in, you know you've got the fanbase, you've got a million ideas, how do you solve the problem? You go to a beloved developer that we believe can bring our execution up to the level of Call Of Duty and Battlefield with our incredible IP.
And I'm working very closely with that team in Nottingham, it's so far phenomenal. So far. We've got a long way to go, the pre-production has been spectacular, I think it's 5X the game we delivered before when it's fully realised. And our idea was the consumers who may have been disappointed with some of the aspect of Homefront, with Crytek applied to it, it gives them confidence in the execution with a brand that seems to have a lot of appeal.
Q: Cevat Yerli said you were giving them a lot of creative freedom too?
Danny Bilson: I have to say I have a vid-con once a week, I review everything personally and I am personnally involved with that team in the creative. I treat them the same as an internal team, maybe he's reacting to how they've worked with other publishers, but we give tremendous creative freedom within the boundaries we set up because we don't make games at corporate headquarters. They make games. All we do is support them to do great work. But with that team I love the people, I love what they're doing, and yes I'm glad from their point of view they see alot of creative freedom, because I'm probably give them more direction than any other team. So it's a really really good relationship and I'm really enjoying it.
In August they're going to deliver their first level built in CryEngine, and I've seen parts of it, and it's like [stunned face] The IP is great, we're taking it to a different part of North America in the next game and it's just gorgeous.
Q: I also wanted to ask about this event, you're not doing Gamescom or E3...
Danny Bilson: It's about focussing our capital in the most important places in these times where it's got limitations. I'd rather spend the money on game development.
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