Executive VP Danny Bilson on rebuilding THQ from the bottom up
Last week, THQ announced a management reshuffle, placing key execs with full responsibility of specific business divisions. The changes may have only just been made official, but Danny Bilson, executive vice president of THQ's core titles, has spent the last fifteen months with the company stripping away the problems, dropping staff and work that hasn't been on target, and helping rebuild the company from the ground up.
Here, in a frank interview with GamesIndustry.biz, Bilson talks about the new THQ, how it's reinvigorated with what he sees as stellar product, why axing over 500 staff was necessary for the future of the business, and why quite simply, THQ doesn't suck anymore.
Q: You joined THQ at the start of 2008. What have you been doing in that time to get where you are today – new products, new IP?
Danny Bilson: I was responsible for overall product quality at THQ. Good ideas, good concepts and kicking them off right. But I think my number one mission is product quality and everything else is a subset of that. I don't think we compete anywhere with average software. So why I had a good time at E3 this year was because that was the premier of the new THQ. There was no old THQ at our booth and I'm very proud to say that. I've been here for fifteen months and it's what I hoped, it's all good quality.
Q: What were the key areas for you to focus on, and what have you put in place to change the development process?
Danny Bilson: The key thing is what starts at the very beginning. Our first gate is concept. Concept has to be vetted by everybody in product development and in marketing, across the company and through the publishing organisation. We have checks and balance system all the way down. But when we start at gate one looking at a couple of things we consider is it a great idea, is the team capable of building it and are we coming in with a position that's the invitation to the dance? Is this something that everybody's got to do before we build the software? Is the idea important and does it matter? If we don't know how to make it important at gate one it makes it a lot harder two years later.
Q: So it's about being solid with the ideas and the concept straight away, rather than letting it evolve during development?
Danny Bilson: We want to green light stuff where the concepts on their own are exciting and appealing. This is obvious stuff but we have rigour around it, we have process and systems. Most importantly is that I have around a 15-man team of creative managers that are intimately involved in the needs of the teams and the games that they are supporting. This is not a system of top-down creative management from corporate that would drive the members of the studios out the doors and running to another company. It's nothing like that, it's 'what do you need and how can we make you successful?' Our job as a team is to make sure we have done everything we can to make sure our teams can be successful.
Q: You must have joined THQ at a time when there was a lot of product going through various good and bad stages...
Danny Bilson: We have to be playing our games in production and understand where they are at and what they need. The one thing I don't believe in at all is 'it's just bad, it's a disaster'. We need to know what's wrong with it, what pieces are missing and how can we fix it? Because I believe this is not a studio business, it's a people business. Studios are collections of people who are working together. For instance, you can have a studio that has amazing technology but its games are weak. Well, it's just missing a creative piece. Our job is to identify those pieces and offer them up to a studio to help them.
Q: You've delayed titles too, holding back games for a couple of months for that extra polish or adding more solid elements?
Danny Bilson: This is the hard one, not shipping a game until it's ready. That's the mystery of the industry. A couple of companies can do that at the highest, most successful end of the spectrum. I would propose that if you're rebuilding from the bottom we can do some radical stuff, and that's what we're doing. Red Faction: Guerilla one of those, we pushed it four months to get it to quality and it's worth every penny. It's done by an excellent team that's able in four months to change the game.
Q: You talk of a 'new THQ' which is encouraging to hear. Was it difficult convincing the old THQ that this is what they needed to do? To adopt these systems and refocus the company on the quality of the product rather than trying to please investors?
Danny Bilson: No, because they were in a failure state. A team that's in the play-offs every year rarely wins a championship because they're risk averse. They're steady. A team that's in the toilet can rebuild and you're allowed to throw out old assumptions and it's easier to actually instigate change in the system. We're willing to take on risk, so you're seeing giant leaps up in quality as a result of radical change. We didn't have to fight those legacy issues because they clearly weren't working as they wanted them to be. It was a legacy of something. I'll be fair to my own company with Saints Row and some of the wonderful successes they had with the Nickelodeon brands, but the market changed on them. We have to be agile and we have to move fast, so I'm all about driving and moving fast.
Q: So what's the current creative vision for THQ?
Danny Bilson: It's really simple, it's the games. I'm not being glib. How will I build the portfolio? I'll ship three shooters in a year if they're going to be 90-rated and awesome. Good games sell like good movies sell. You don't have to worry about diversifying portfolios and making a pet vet game because everyone else has one. If I had another shooter I could makes us another USD 20 million, so what are we talking about? It's about good.
Q: So THQ doesn't feel like it has to compete in each genre and have a diverse portfolio for multiple systems?
Danny Bilson: How does that even makes sense, I don't understand that? It's funny, but why do I need that? If I had something good for every genre I would do something good for them, but if I have two strong shooters and as long as I'm making the revenue and selling games and people are digging them, I'm good. Maybe I'm completely wrong and mad, but I don't get 'portfolio'. UFC: Undisputed did two million units in two weeks. It's wild in places like Germany and the UK. In Germany the UFC doesn't even play there.
Q: Did THQ's financial situation put a squeeze on your operations or hold back any changes you've wanted to make as part of the new THQ?
Danny Bilson: It's an interesting point and I can make it really clearly. We shut down a lot of studios and laid off a lot of people – 550 – in product development so that others might live. The studios that lived through that didn't get hit at all and they got more money in order to get to quality. The guys who are left didn't feel the pinch at all. We spent millions more on Red Faction: Guerilla at a time when we were closing and contracting all over the place because we have to win in the end.
Q: Brian Farrell said recently that it's now difficult to succeed in the core market. You've got Red Faction, Homefront, Space Marine and Darksiders games coming and there's nothing casual about those. Those must be big financial investments, so what are you doing to make sure they succeed and you get your money back?
Danny Bilson: The key to this whole thing is you've got to have people in your organisation who know what a good game is. I can't overstate that because actually there are a lot of people who don't know. I play a ridiculous amount of games, I've played games since 1977 when my father handed me an Atari 2600 and I was on board games before that. That's all I do, I love and play videogames, so I have a sense of what a good game is. It's all from personal experience and there are lots of people who also have that. You have to be able to know what's wrong with a game and be able to identify that and figure how to fix it and not ship it. You've got to figure out how to fix it in a cost-effective and timely manner.
Q: As well as spending time at EA and THQ, you've also worked in film and comic books – did those help give you ideas and alternative skills than what you usually find in the games industry?
Danny Bilson: In my case I have a film background but I was trained by some of the smartest people in the industry during my time at Electronic Arts. It happened to be a time when most of the people there knew what they were doing, and now most of them are running the rest of the business. Don (Mattrick) is at Microsoft , Frank (Gibeau) is still at EA, Bing (Gordon) has gone on to Kleiner Perkins.
These are the people who taught me this business and I can't be more grateful. And then I have a team here that I'm training and we've brought a lot of new culture into the company and it's filtered through the stuff I've learnt at EA, stuff I've learnt through the film business, stuff I've learnt at THQ. We were driving to E3 to show to the world that we don't suck. That we're not an inferior company. And not only do we not suck, but we exceed and we're going to compete with the biggest and the best because our games in that category are fully resourced with very talented teams. You can see the results. The guys in our studios have made us look really good at corporate.
Danny Bilson is executive vice president of core titles at THQ. Interview by Matt Martin.