THQ's Danny Bilson
The Core Games EVP on studio growth, defeating the trade-in market and the importance of blockbusters
Danny Bilson is THQ's executive vice president of Core Games. He joined the publisher in 2008 after several years at EA, where he worked on projects including The Sims, Medal of Honor and Harry Potter. Prior to that he worked in Hollywood, as a writer, director, producer and occasional comic book author. The outspoken 53-year-old has been instrumental in THQ's dramatic and promising 2009 restructuring, following a potentially disastrous fiscal year that led to 600 lay-offs.
Following the first demonstration of THQ's upcoming triple-A shooter Homefront to the media, Bilson talked to GamesIndustry.biz about the 'new' THQ's revised attitude to its internal studios and external recruitment, its aggressive move to blockbuster-only games, and its future plans to tackle the ever-controversial question of the trade-in market.
Q: Is Homefront the spearhead of the new THQ?
Danny Bilson: I can't say this is the spearhead, I can say it's more one missile on a cluster bomb. We're dropping a clusterbomb that we let loose in January that will drop bombs for two years straight about every ten weeks. This is only one of them. This is our February bomb. We have March one, called Red Faction Armageddon, it's really awesome. And then the rest of the plan I can't talk about, but some of the things we are going to announce at E3.
We're going to show our MMO, our Warhammer 40,000 MMO. It's fantastic. I'm an MMO geek; there's a bunch of MMO geeks building this thing. It's glorious. Especially if you like the IP, but even if you don't, it's so fresh, it's not a bunch of men in tights and dwarves. It's Space Marines... How about a Titan? The Titan's are so big it's like "a foot! Oh my god!" You'll see a movie at E3, all gameplay capture, not a CG movie.
Q: So how are you going about dropping these clusterbombs? Is it simply a matter of resources - do you make teams bigger, or do you bring in veterans?
Danny Bilson: All that's true. You can't do anything for free. Everything costs something. So the most important thing we had to move to was a talent-first company. Not a numbers-first company, not a forecasts-first company, a creative-first company.
That means the most important thing is the content. And I'm a content guy, so if I'm the leader, that's how it's going to roll. We look at every single properly uniquely, and what does it need, what does it need to grow, what does it need to make people care about it? But one of the most important ingredients in the new THQ in Core was bringing marketing and product development together in a seamless partnership. Marketers don't dictate anything to us. There is no research, because creative dies on research. If there is inspiration, we share it with each other, if we fall in love with it we move forward.
I don't ask 16 teenagers in Encino what they think, because I don't really care - I know what I think, I'm a hardcore gamer too, actually I'm a hardcore gamer for 30 years. All I do is play videogames. I don't watch any television, I occasionally see a movie, every spare hour I have I love videogames. That's why I'm in this business, that's why I took this job.
What we do is we have a bunch of guys who love videogames wanting to make the games that they love the most, and if that's your mission I think we can make great games and succeed. The other thing is that you're not going to see us buying studios, you're going to see us acquiring talent - very different.
You're going to see an announcement next Friday of a new game with a developer, and hopefully the week after that you're going to see an announcement about a team that we have acquired to inhabit a studio of ours. And these are people you'll know.
So in the rebuilding of THQ, it's all about best in class. Everything in best is class because you know what? My friends in those other companies? They are best in class. They know how to do it, they do it and to a consumer who's only got $60 he's only going to go one way or the other, he doesn't care that Red Dead cost however much it cost, how long as it took to get to get made, or that this cost as long as it did, he just wants great, right?
And our responsibility is to give those guys - and ladies - great. There's nothing short of that, the whole world of selling average games is gone. The world of selling anything but spectacular games is gone. So what I think that means is less games, more focus, more care and then more crafting in the marketing to make people care about them more, it's all just about more love really. It's just treating them with more respect.
Q: Will that involve less in the way of specialist titles, or even of PC-centric stuff like Dawn of War?
Danny Bilson: No, not at all. Dawn of War's great stuff, I won't stop making Dawn of War unless people stop buying it. If I thought it was bad or some kind of a lame IP or something we might be having a different discussion. But I personally think that that universe is fantastic, I think the WH40K universe... They've been breeding geeks since 1977. What used to be a few sci-fi nerds is now the mass. If you look at what makes the most money, it's Avatar, Star Wars. So the mass audience is the geek audience, so to speak. So back to 40K - I think that that universe is the next place where everybody needs to go.
Q: It's a property that's all of sci-fi in one place, every great idea that genre's ever had rolled into one IP...
Danny Bilson: Yeah, and it's one more level of sophistication, one more level of darkness. I personally love it, I wasn't really versed in it at all until I came to THQ two and half years ago, and I was like: "Wow - we have to get this to more people." And not only that but those guys in Nottingham, the Games Workshop guys, are fantastic partners, great people, love their stuff, understand we love their stuff... It's a really fun relationship.
Q: But you are moving into an age where pretty much all your games now need to be blockbusters, it's not acceptable otherwise?
Danny Bilson: They do. In my group, they all need to be blockbusters. You're going to see Space Marine from us at E3, more in particular I think we're going to be playing it at gamescom. It's Relic making an action title - it's spectacular, I'm telling you. Everything has to be spectral, so I'm not just boasting - I can't even do business unless it is. The only thing for me is it doesn't scare me at all because I spent 20 years in the film business. This is much more like that is now. You've gotta open and you've gotta kick ass or you're in trouble.
Q: So when you came to look at doing Homefront with Kaos, the immediate reaction was: "We need to build a superstar team rather than we'll let the existing guys do it"?
Danny Bilson: They had a great idea. They'd made a game before, then they came in with this great idea and I thought: "Okay, they've done their practice run. They've built their tech, now we've got great creative this should be a very safe bet." But you know what? There's no safe bet in games, everything's very hard. And the bar is really high. Every time anybody ships, we gotta move up. When Call of Duty ships, you've got to move up because they're moving the bar up. Red Dead ships, we've gotta react to it. Especially in facial in that game. Nothing's good enough, and when we ship we ship, but nothing's good enough because the guy with 60 bucks, he wants the best.
And that's fair. That's totally fair, I totally respect that, and it's our job. I get paid to figure out how to give that to him.
Q: How do you make that call as to what is right and fresh enough compared to what's out there, as opposed to thinking "alright, let's give 'em another six months to get it right."
Danny Bilson: That all comes from experience. The trick to my job or anyone who has my job is knowing what good is. If you know what good is, you're fine. If you don't know what good is, you don't know anything - you do a lot of research, and everything comes out bland and sideways. But if you're passionate gamemaker or knucklehead like me, you know what good is. When you see this [gestures to Homefront art] I can probably tell you what you thought about it.
Q: Give it a go...
Danny Bilson: Okay. You probably thought "cool world", right? You thought the character faces and animations are kinda f*cked, the bodies are not so hot, but the environments are unbelievable, you've never seen anything like that, and you're probably wondering what's the combat going to be like because I've only seen one little fight, what's the mission variety going to be like, what's the mechanics going to be like and the experiences? That's what I'd be thinking if I were you. But me, I'd be totally blown away by the world. You got me already, just polish up the rest of that shit and I'm there. Close?
Q: Close. There was also a bit of an issue about the implausibility and insensitivity of the plot [North Korea, ruled by Kim Jong-il's son, successfully invades a poverty-stricken America in 2027], but yes, the demo created a lot of happy intrigue about how the thing will actually play. In terms of marketing, is that teasing rather than explaining approach something that you're going to increasingly go to?
Danny Bilson: That's pure strategy. What they used to do - show everything. I don't need to buy it, I already saw it, there's no surprise, I feel like I saw that movie. We're much more moving towards movie marketing, which is build the dream... Absolutely show enough of the game to support our claim, but do not over-expose it. Leave the surprise for the moment to moment experience to the player. Don't spoil it with a level by level walkthrough game trailer. I don't need to play it anymore, there's no drama, no surprise, and then I'm just in a shooting gallery seeing how much I can score. I'm not interested in that. I'm interested in building virtual reality, and taking you and me to places we've never been. That's what I want to do.
Q: Do you think there's been a shift in what players want, especially in terms of response to marketing, that it's not features anymore, it's what happens, what are the secrets of the story?
Danny Bilson: Right, and I think we're really good at that in this game. And the other gag with that is we're not even talking about the biggest investment in this game - multi-player. We're going to see that in Germany. I think we've got a bitchin' single-player, but you know the mission for this team is always the multi-player is more important. That's their heritage, I expect them to deliver on it, and I'm also investing in that, because that's where everybody lives. Call of Duty you play for six hours, and then people play the rest of it for months.
Q: You have to buy their affection to keep them until the next game...
Danny Bilson: And you also have to get them to buy the maps, because that's where their friends are playing. So of course our multi-player has that, but I was trained back in the day that you always have to bust one unique feature. Every game needs one unique feature. You didn't see it today, but you'll see it in the multi-player. That you're going to see in August.
Q: Going back to the importance of multi-player, is providing a mode that people will play essentially for free, and at the cost of your servers, about setting up new streams of revenue like DLC, or is it about shoring up customer loyalty until the next game comes along?
Danny Bilson: No, it's because we want to keep them from trading it in and selling it used. That's more valuable to me. I'd rather have a guy playing my game for month than selling it back and selling it to the next guy for $55. That's the war we're in - that's really tough for us.
Q: Are you going to experiment with techniques to counter that, like EA's project $10 and online code?
Danny Bilson: Yeah, yeah, yeah. We did that with UFC, but every game has a different story. With this one we're not going to lock out the multi-player to the used gamer, we're not. We're going to let them experience some of it but not all of it. And then he'll have to pay a nominal fee to get all the maps and all the stuff. That's not official, I'm saying that today, that's just what I'm thinking. We won't lock that down until January.
Q: But you think you have to find a line, in terms of the second-hand market, where people want to pay that extra to get the missing content?
Danny Bilson: We have to show the used gamer that new is premium, because you get everything for free in there. We actually have some other programmes in the works that aren't as punitive as locking out the used guy, that are more positive. I think we're going to be able to announce that on a Fall product. If it works, it's the kind of idea that GameStop likes, we like, new gamers like, used gamers like it...
We may have come up with something, and I haven't announced it yet, that makes everybody happy. And that always makes me happy, because I don't want to be fighting retailers, I don't want to be fighting any of them. I'd rather come up with a system where everybody's making money and everyone's happy, and the guy who needs to buy used can buy and not feel like he's a criminal - like sometimes we want him to feel. Or that the guy who buys new gets the benefit.
We have this idea, and we're working on it now, and if it pans out it maybe a solution that works for everybody, and I would really like that. Because I don't like the constant strategising because there's still a flock of gamers out there who are caught in the middle of this.
Q: Yes, they don't know that they're causing this problem - to them they're still simply spending money in a shop, on a videogame.
Danny Bilson: Yeah, they don't see what I'm dealing with, and they don't see that... I'm not even allowed to say some of the stuff about that. What I will say, and it's really true, is that what I care about more than anything else are the people who play our videogames - and they buy them new and they buy them used. I have to worry about that and deal with it. There's nothing wrong with that, and I think we may have a plan. This is a difficult one for the whole industry, because we don't make money on used games, so that... you can imagine.
Q: I'll be very intrigued to see it, as it has been looking like a war that can't be won, building up to an enormous fall-out between retail and the publishers.
Danny Bilson: Yeah, we got in the middle of it recently, let me tell you...
Danny Bilson is THQ's executive vice president of Core Games. Interview by Alec Meer.