Danny Bilson: "Nobody's heard my comment. I have to count on the truth"
The former THQ exec breaks the silence on his time at the doomed publisher, and takes a step into the brave new world of entertainment
The crowd at GameHorizon knows Danny Bilson's name, and I suspect that you do, too. Not for his career as a Hollywood screenwriter and producer, or the eight years he spent working on The Sims and Medal of Honor at Electronic Arts. No: if you know Bilson's name at all, it will be from his four-year tenure as executive vice president of core games at THQ; a former giant of the industry that was dismantled and sold piecemeal to mitigate a teetering pile of unpaid debts - a totemic example of the hazards facing any publisher navigating the games industry as it settles into the digital, connected world.
"THQ was brilliant at what it did from 1991 to 2007," Bilson says when we meet after his talk, the closing keynote of this year's GameHorizon conference. "They took licenses, put them on economic development plans and made a fortune; they made a fortune for themselves and a fortune for investors.
"But there were legacy issues. It's hard to let go of how the company had done so well. We were slower because of that. I think Brian [Farrell, CEO] said that himself in the press."
"THQ was brilliant at what it did from 1991 to 2007. They made a fortune for themselves and a fortune for investors"
Bilson's time at THQ came to an abrupt end in May last year, shortly after he hosted an event for the press showcasing the company's impressive portfolio of unreleased games. That event was the culmination of years of deal-making and economic gymnastics - "our finances were difficult the whole time I was there" - during which Bilson led the company's transition from a blinkered reliance on casual and licensed titles to a focus on high-quality AAA games. It was a hard road, fraught with difficulty and necessary sacrifice, and Bilson was right there on the front-line.
"We were shutting studios the whole time," he says ruefully. "And I was the guy going out there and giving the bad news. It's like the worst thing that... it's the worst. I'll stop right there. Awful"
Looking back over the interviews Bilson gave after that final, fateful event, his apparent confidence in what lay ahead for THQ is striking. The company had a release slate of which any publisher would be proud, and several new IP with enormous potential in development. As far as Bilson was concerned, it was the mid-point of a long-term plan that would return THQ to stability and position it for a future of prosperity and growth. Of course, as an executive, it was Bilson's job to present a positive face to the world, but he nevertheless has the bearing of a man for whom everything is right on course.
"Well, I thought so," he admits, waving away my doubts about his sincerity. "Listen, when I left a year ago, we didn't see what eventually happened on the horizon. I'm not kidding, okay: we knew we were in trouble, but we knew we had a good line-up, and I thought we had enough money put away to support that stuff, finish it, and market it properly. We had a plan to live another day.
"And this is honest, honest, honest: I do not know what happened after I left. No idea. I'm not privy to what went on in there and I didn't try to find out. I needed to move forward. I really wasn't engaged at all, and then the news came in December.
"This was happening to my friends." A pause. "I felt terrible. I just felt terrible."
"When I left a year ago, we didn't see what eventually happened on the horizon. I'm not kidding. We knew we were in trouble, but we had a plan to live another day"
That's the uncomfortable truth about games journalists: even with access to the industry's most influential figures, we never truly know what's going on behind the scenes. All we do know is that Bilson was confident that his efforts and those of his team were building a better future for THQ, and within weeks he was fired. Shortly after, Naughty Dog co-founder Jason Rubin joined the company as its new president. Speaking to Joystiq at the time, Rubin declined to comment on the reasons for Bilson's dismissal, but he was far from critical of his creative legacy.
"I just know what I've inherited, and what I've inherited are some pretty darn good titles," he said. "If I look to Danny's past, I don't know what went wrong because I wasn't here, but I can tell you some things went right. Because I can't take any credit for South Park: The Stick of Truth, Darksiders, Company of Heroes 2, or Metro. They're here as I come in."
And yet Bilson's exit was far from flattering. The 'official' explanations offered in these situations are rarely more than fluff, empty platitudes designed to make the recipient feel informed without ever touching upon the complexities below the surface. Certainly, Bilson is unwilling to comment on his personal feelings about the situation, but from an outsider perspective it created a direct link between him and the issues that ultimately brought the company down. It positioned him as a key architect of THQ's subsequent downfall.
As EVP of core games, Bilson's job was principally to manage the company's production budget and studios, both internal and external. According to Bilson, the exact size of his budget was decided by those above him - the tier of the company that Rubin would eventually join - as were the decisions to embark on disastrous projects like the uDraw and the $30 million Warhammer MMO. Indeed, Bilson tells me that the first THQ game to be released for which he was present from greenlight to launch was Saints Row: The Third - one of the company's biggest hits.
Did Bilson deserve his fate? Was he a sacrificial lamb for a company desperately trying to show that it was pro-actively managing its problems? These questions, and more besides, remain open, and Bilson is in no position to provide the answers, even if he does feel the need to finally have a say.
"Well, I never have," he says. "Nobody's heard my comment. I went very quite while other people managed it. That's what an executive does. We move on. I have to count on the fact that the industry people and the journalists who know - the public doesn't matter, because they're not going to influence my next job - but that the people who really know understand what I did and didn't do, and what I'm responsible for and what I'm not. I have to count on the truth.
"Do I take responsibility for being involved in the decline of a company? Absolutely. Will I tell you candidly that it was the hardest job I've every had in my life? Well, it was. But I gave it my best, and I didn't see the end result coming at all. On my watch, we, meaning my team, took [THQ] from one place and got it to another. We made a lot of improvements, but obviously it wasn't enough; it wasn't fast enough and it wasn't good enough. I take responsibility for that.
"I'll tell you exactly what I told my boss when I left: I'm proud of the portfolio my team built under duress; meaning under a company that was constantly re-organising, constantly cutting, cutting, cutting. We made real progress, but we didn't have enough of a cushion to ultimately get through.
"I think that the informed people that were watching the whole thing - press, industry people, engaged fans - had a certain respect for the games that my team was starting to make. That meant a lot to us. My team helped to raise the quality bar at a company that was built on something else entirely."
"I have to count on the fact that the people who really know understand what I did and didn't do, and what I'm responsible for and what I'm not. I have to count on the truth"
This year will see the release of four games that were part of Bilson's strategy to turn the company around: Metro: Last Light, Saints Row 4, Company of Heroes 2 and South Park: The Stick of Truth, now to be published by Deep Silver, Sega and Ubisoft respectively. From a purely critical standpoint, they are among the year's most promising titles, and each has a strong chance of success in either mass and niche markets. By the time we hit 2014, when the fates of the new project from Left 4 Dead creator Turtle Rock - " That game is a killer... I just loved what they were doing" - Valhalla's Devil's Third and Guillermo del Toro's inSane become clearer, we might well wonder what could have been for THQ with a little more time and a lot more money.
When asked about the outcome of the auctions that saw THQ's assets split and sold to a wide variety of different companies, Bilson claims satisfaction at the number of projects and teams that made it through the process intact. The most painful exception is Vigil, which, despite having a number of its core team hired by Crytek, were simply not in an attractive enough position for potential investors. In the grand scheme of things, the demise of Vigil is just one more studio culture lost to the tumult of the rapidly changing times, but in microcosm it exposes an unpleasant truth about the world of AAA development: when faced with a choice between people and product, nine times out of ten the industry will plump for the latter.
"Vigil would have found a new home if they were within range of shipping something, but they had just shipped and THQ had cancelled the project the second team was doing," says Bilson. "I'm glad the core team got picked up by Crytek, because that's a really creative, hard-working group of people, but they were just too far away from somebody getting a return on their investment."
But that episode of Bilson's career is over - for him, at least - and he's at the GameHorizon conference to introduce his next step: a bold new project in collaboration with the prominent Hollywood producer Lloyd Levin (Watchmen, Hellboy, Boogie Nights, and more), which will combine a series of micro-budget films streamed online with an episodic game for PC, mobile and tablet - the two products will intertwine, with neither given more importance in terms of narrative or emphasis in terms of marketing. It is a far cry from the mega-budget world of AAA boxed retail, placing Bilson square in the middle of the brave new world of entertainment media to which THQ ultimately succumbed, and just far enough outside of his comfort zone to make things interesting.
"That's the only way to win, to be honest," he says, smiling. "One of the best pieces of advice I got early in my career was from my writing mentor, John Milius, who wrote Apocalypse Now and a bunch of other things. I took a class with him and he said, 'write the movie you want to see the most.' I took that with me to the games business.
"Ever since 1997 when I first got introduced to the business by meeting Don [Mattrick, then at Electronic Arts], I've been thinking about how we can leverage these two entertainment industries to make them better together than they are individually. Where the world is now, and talking to my partner, Lloyd Levin, and what he was up to with these micro-budget projects, I could see that there was very low risk on the film side, and then on the game side if we're in the mobile, PC, tablet space we can do some really nice stuff for what I would call a large budget - which is a really tiny budget compared to what I was juggling for the last five years of my life.
"I'm not trying to tie a $150 million movie to a $50 million game. It's not that kind of thing. But most important is that, at this level, Lloyd and I can control both elements so we can have real connected media. That never really happens, because you have this big, 800lb gorilla over here on the film side, another gorilla on the game side, and neither wants to give the other everything they need, and it becomes just another consumer product. For real connected storytelling, the same producers need to do both, and have direct control over both.
"I don't expect to win in every situation. I've had wins, I've had losses, but I'm still kicking"
"From the management perspective, this is absolutely a one studio idea... It's just two guys now. I don't have a mountain to move."
Bilson pledges to reveal more details of how his bold new idea will work in the near future, and he's fully aware that will mean more time with the press and, inevitably, an inexorable wave of probing questions about his time at THQ. With the company now consigned to the annals of history, it's only natural for the press to frame the discussion in terms of success and failure, but after almost 30 years navigating the fickle world of mass-market entertainment Bilson has learned to be more philosophical about the bumps on the road.
It's what his old mentor John Milius called 'the Bushido code': "the warrior must contemplate death, so he can face it in battle without fear." In his battle to save THQ Bilson faced death and succumbed, but he is not afraid to return to AAA.
"I don't expect to win in every situation," he says. "I want to win, and I'll do everything I can to make that happen, but I don't expect it. I've had wins, I've had losses, but I'm still kicking.
"Let me be really honest: this [new project] is about making the most of where I am at the moment. If Don Mattrick called me up tomorrow and said, 'I've got a creative SVP role for you,' I'd be gone.
"I would go in two seconds."