When small but feisty publisher Nordic Games rebranded as THQ Nordic, many an industry eyebrow was raised.
On the one hand, the firm had grabbed the world's attention by acquiring the rights to franchises such as Darksiders and Red Faction, as well as countless others, and even picked up the THQ trademark. By why would you want to associate an up-and-coming publisher with those properties' former owner, perhaps the most famous story of bankruptcy the games sector has seen in more than a decade?
For some people, just the mention of THQ brings to mind warehouses filled with unsold uDraw tablets and CEO Jason Rubin leaving the office with a Saints Row purple dildo bat slung casually over his shoulder.
But for Reinhard Pollice, business and product development director at THQ Nordic, the tarnished brand represented a much brighter future for the growing games publisher.
"Yes, in the end THQ was known for failure. But it was also known for some great gaming experiences"
"Yes, in the end THQ was known for failure," he tells GamesIndustry.biz. "But it was also known for some great gaming experiences. That's why we thought it was a popular brand that we should leverage. We're already more well-known now than Nordic Games was. Nordic Games was a bit of a generic name.
He continues: "In the US, it put us on the radar for a lot of people. They knew the THQ brand, they knew the IPs, and at first there was still some confusion around it because people were like, 'hey, THQ's dead'. But we're a new company, so that was part of the intention behind calling it THQ Nordic rather than just THQ."
The collapse of THQ showed how dramatically the games industry was changing, with middle-tier publishers struggling to compete with the blockbuster-producing powerhouses of EA, Ubisoft and Activision. The firm strived to rescue itself with a Humble Bundle to raise money but ultimately its efforts were in vain - something that surprised Pollice.
"I knew that some stuff wasn't working out for THQ, but I thought they were just too big to fail"
"I thought they would find a way to carry on," he recalls. "I knew that some stuff wasn't working out for them, but I thought they were just too big to fail. In the end, looking at their structure, this company shouldn't have failed - it was just a lot of bad circumstances."
When it came to forming the new THQ, Pollice disagrees that the brand bears the stigma of bankruptcy, once again pointing to the wealth of promising IP THQ Nordic now possesses. Instead, the biggest challenge is working out how to bring those properties and the THQ name forward.
"It's about finding our identity in terms of the portfolio," he explains. "We have a ton of these IPs, some which we've announced recently and some of which we're still working on. [We need] to find our place, because we haven't built something at that scale before. We've built small projects and games before, all to great success, and we just want to scale this up to bring bigger games to a bigger audience."
Producing something like Darksiders 3 is certainly new territory for the firm formerly known as Nordic Games. Prior to acquiring THQ's brands in the IP auction, the team had launched lesser known titles such as shooter Deadfall Adventures and point-and-click adventure The Book of Unwritten Tales. The company's ambition has certainly scaled up in the past four years, but the obstacles it now faces have ramped up as well.
"We were a publisher and distributor... but now we also own development studios. Content is king, so we need to be closer to what we're building"
"Before acquiring this big pile of IPs from the THQ brand, we were exclusively a publisher and distributor," Pollice says. "But now we also own development studios - we have one in Munich and one in Phoenix, Arizona. And we've built these studios ourselves together with the local teams. This is one part of our strategy: content is king, so we need to be closer to what we're building, we need to have creative people and internal developers.
"The other big challenge here is we have so many IPs and we need to pay respect to all of the good and known ones. You might think that's only three or four [properties], but in reality it's more like 15 to 20. That's a lot to take care of, and our approach to this is not just doing something with them but doing the right thing. That takes time - that's why we're sometimes slow and not announcing, say, the next Destroy All Humans right away. We need to think about the place that IP has in today's gaming world, what the right next step is and what the fans want. Once we feel comfortable with all that, then we go ahead and do it."
THQ Nordic has demonstrated this approach with Darksiders 3. When it acquired the franchise, it held off from instantly announcing intentions for a sequel and Pollice even reveals that several high-profile developers reached out to the publisher and asked to work on a third outing. As easy as it would have been for Nordic to pick the best studio and publish what they produced, the team instead opted to spend time reflecting on the potential of the IP and how they could take it forward in a way that makes sense in 2017. The result? The well-received announcement of Darksiders 3 back in May.
There are, of course, no guarantees that Darksiders 3 will perform well enough to reward THQ Nordic's restraint. After all, as seemingly popular as the IP may be, one could argue it wasn't commercially successful enough to prevent the demise of its previous publisher. In fact, the same can be said for any of the franchises Nordic acquired - but Pollice remains confident that the new THQ is under far less pressure than the old one.
"Darksiders will never be a Call of Duty... And if we tried to build it that way, we would have to change a lot. We'd rather please the fanbase, keep it hardcore"
"THQ had a big problem," he tells us. "Since they were based in California, they had to compete with the likes of Electronic Arts and Activision. I've heard from people who worked there that internally it was always like 'hey, we have to build the next Call of Duty'. So in terms of budgets, there were all pretty much aligned with what Call of Duty was - and that's not the right place for every game. Darksiders, for example, will never be a Call of Duty. It will never be a mass phenomenon that every teenager plays, it's a totally different game. And if we tried to build it that way, we would have to change a lot and the core fanbase wouldn't like that. We'd rather please the fanbase, keep it hardcore."
He goes on to clarify that THQ Nordic is "not spending Call of Duty-style ad budgets" which it would then have to recoup later. He also argues that the market has changed dramatically since the first two Darksiders were released, making it more receptive to a third title.
"These kind of hardcore games have become much more popular over the past few years," Pollice explains. "Look at the Dark Souls series - ten years ago, that kind of series wouldn't have had massive success, but now it's possible because you can access gamers in a different way."
THQ's collapse has become a symbol for the shrinking of the middle tier: the publishers that focus on 'A' titles rather than 'AAA' but are far too big to be compared to the niche and indie labels. Pollice believes the shifts in the industry have settled significantly, and that the market is now far more sustainable for such publishers.
"Nobody would have expected Overwatch to be that big of a success. That makes the market pretty unpredictable"
"There is still the middle tier," he posits. "If you look at folks like Focus Home Interactive or 505 Games, they are now taking that spot. It's taken them a while to move up there, but they're now at that level. We are also in this level now. In the end, a middle-tier publisher is a company that has a couple of projects worth a couple of million.
He continues: "It's a very good time [for the middle tier]. The big guys are going to have some trouble going forward. There's just so much content out there and you never know what's going to stick. It's becoming more and more risky. Even safe bets and massive franchises like Call of Duty are declining a bit. And games like Overwatch... nobody would have expected it to be that big of a success. That was an abandoned project that was somehow rescued just to get something out of the door - now it's their second largest franchise. That makes the market pretty unpredictable.
"We're in this spot where [there's] not a lot of risk to our business because we still keep our budgets and operations in a way where it's not lethal if we don't hit expectations, but we're also trying really, really hard to have all our titles beat expectations. If one's not shaping up like we want, we just give it more time."
Another major difference between THQ Nordic and its forebear is the relationship with Nintendo. The previous THQ was synonymous with the kids, family and casual gaming market - something that was dominated by Wii and DS prior to the rise of smart devices. After the failure of uDraw, the firm opted to focus on adult games and Nordic seems to have taken a similar stance. As it currently stands, there are very few Nintendo-bound titles in its line-up.
This is partly due to the firm's belief that 3DS will soon be replaced by Switch - depsite Nintendo's assertions to the contrary - and the relatively low power available in the platfrom holder's new console. Pollice notes that even Battle Chasers, a 2D turn-based RPG game based on comics by notable artist Joe Madureira, has been "a challenge to get running smoothly on Switch" and open-world sci-fi RPG Elex is "just too demanding right now."
"We've been in touch with [Nintendo] about Switch for more than a year, so we've been looking at it for our current line-up and... we look wherever it's possible. It's a bit sad that they haven't gone out with a more beefy hardware but it is what it is, so we just have to work our way around it."
However, the association with Nintendo is one further example of how THQ stretched itself - something THQ Nordic is keen to avoid.
"THQ tried to do kids games, mobile, Western games, core games in all genres. It's tough to be at all parties at once"
"The lesson we learned is... they tried to be everywhere," says Pollice. "They tried to do kids games, mobile, Western games, core games in all genres. It's tough to be at all parties at once. So we always try to [look] back on our portfolio and see how we can make synergies.
"In the end, video games are all about passion. If people in the company aren't passionate about something, we just shouldn't do it. It's not [a market] where you can just build a product, sell it and it's good. Nowadays, you have to do way more than just releasing a product - you have to pour all of your heart into it to make it good. That's what we try to do."
THQ Nordic has expanded dramatically over the past year, and with so many notable and long-absent IPs in its portfolio - many with their own avid and hungry communities - the potential for growth goes beyond that of many of its competitors. While Pollice has said the firm doesn't intend to transform Darksiders into the next Call of Duty, just how far do its ambitions stretch? Does it aim to become too big to fail?
"We just want to build a bunch of really cool games that are on gamers' all-time favourite lists," Pollice says. "There is no clear aim in terms of size. We obviously always want to be stable, and somewhat flexible so that we're never forced into certain things. We always want to be able to decide which projects we do and which we don't.
"We've just entered the stock market last November, we did an IPO, and obviously there are higher expectations now that we're more in the spotlight. But we still want to continue the same strategy: doing more great video games."