THQ's Danny Bilson Part Two
The executive VP on hardware strategies, supporting motion control, and lessons learned from movie production
In the first part of our exclusive interview with THQ's Danny Bilson, he discussed the turn around at the publishing company, as the business rebooted its product line-up from the bottom up, the costs of laying off a significant number of staff, and why the business is a major player in the market once again.
In part two, Bilson highlights the strategies the publisher is adopting for individual hardware formats, the new motion control technology in development at Sony and Microsoft, and as an ex-movie producer, his take on the film industry setting up dedicated game development houses.
Q: You're confident THQ has got the right quality product this year, but you've also got to make sure you target the right hardware. What's you current take on the current generation of consoles on the market?
Danny Bilson: We're very platform sensitive, because in this generation the platforms really break out into different cultures. If you look at our Wii line-up, I think it's a really smart line-up, it's a limited amount of titles and each one is designed to have its own identity and break through the very large crowd on the Wii. If you look at out core titles, these are all just triple-A games in proven genres but we're adding new spins. So Red Faction: Guerilla has technology that no one else has. No other game plays like that and the game shows what the team at Volition have been dong for five years. And credit to Brian [Farrell, CEO of THQ] for supporting the game in the last six months of its development to get it to the level of quality for release. These guys are making us look good, we started out the year with UFC 09: Undisputed and then we hit with Red Faction and we're going to end the year with Darksiders and in-between you're gong to see the best MX game we've ever had.
Q: The Wii market is very busy, how you you stand out in that crowd?
Danny Bilson: We strategised against that with really clear-cut, differentiating titles like Drawn to Life: The Next Chapter on Wii. We're getting tons of attention. You can draw the hero, the weapons, the world. People adults in particular are very excited about that. World of Zoo, from the guys who did Zoo Tycoon for Microsoft came to us and said they want to do a kids game on the Wii because they loved the control on that system. It's a warm and friendly game. And then we have Marvel Super Hero Squad. You don't see as many licenses at THQ as we used to have, just the smart ones.
Q: So you're being more selective with the licensed properties you release?
Danny Bilson: Very much more selective. Marvel Super Hero Squad is a perfect example of us being selective. Here's a brand that I can play with my son because I grew up with and love those characters like Iron Man and Wolverine, and yet they're in a friendly environment and we can play two player co-op and just drop in and drop out. People respond to that because they love the characters. There you have a license not tied to anything there is a TV series coming but if there wasn't we'd still do it, these are evergreen IPs that people have long-term relationships with.
Q: Are there any console formats that are proving particularly difficult for THQ, to sell or develop on?
Danny Bilson: No. We've already beat the whole issues between the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, like everybody else has.
Q: And what's you first impressions of the motion control systems that the format holders are putting a lot of time and effort into, for 360 and PS3?
Danny Bilson: We'll be there at launch with some very friendly titles for the first audience who will adopt that stuff, which is families. I'm really familiar with both of them. We do have one IP that we're investigating, can we move into those platforms with that technology? We're just playing around with it. The technology is really excellent, for both Xbox 360 and PS3, so now it's all about the creative versus the business model. What's the installed base like and how much can I spend against those?
Of course at first you'll see games that cost less money, but as the installed base grows we'll do more robust stuff. It's really cool hardware and if it brings in and extends the audience on those platforms then that's very cool, that's what we want it to do. We'll be there. We're not going to just port stuff over, each one of those platforms needs a lot of design love. The same way we would treat Drawn to Life on Wii, we would treat similar games on those systems. It's about how can we best use Project Natal and how can we best use the Sony controller. We have this stuff at the studios, we've had it for a while.
Q: You've said you've solved the problems of developing on the three different consoles, but now you've got three different motion controls on the market do you see issues there?
Danny Bilson: We've already moved beyond the porting issues of the past. We don't want to make a game worse when it appears on another platform. We want to make it better with a better controller experience. Porting becomes more difficult, but designing for the specialised hardware is fine, it's just finding ways to monetise that. But I don't want to just splay stuff across because people will only play it once and not bother again. It's got to be a great Natal game, or a great Sony game, or a great Wii game. Consumers are smart, they won't be fooled by that.
Q: Your original background was in film production do you still have those ties, and do you think the film industry understands the games industry now any better than it did in the past?
Danny Bilson: No. Well, they understand it from the point of view of paid-for entertainment and success. The one's that play games can really understand it, but the one's that don't, don't. Until they play games they can't understand the giant gap between making a game and making a film. I have deeper experience in both, and games are ten times harder and way more unstable. You could walk in here with a script and come back in two days and I'll tell you how many days we need to shoot it in, how many days it's going to cost and I can hit that within a couple of percentage points. We've been doing this for 100 years. The clich้ in the game business is it's like making moves except you've got to invent the camera every time. And that's a very accurate description that I'll always carry with me.
Q: So what's your take when you hear that someone like Jerry Bruckheimer is starting his own dedicated game production company?
Danny Bilson: The biggest disconnect that really exists is when movie people try to get in there and try to supervise game production. I understand Jerry Bruckheimer is one of the greatest movie producers of all time. But as a game producer, he may turn out to be one of the greatest game producers of all time, and hopefully he personally plays a lot of games and he's going to supervise his games business. That talent can be ported but a lot of it gets left behind. There's some film knowledge that's very valuable, but some that's completely irrelevant. People who make film tend to love film, they watch a lot of film, they've learned about making films by watching other people's films.
People who make games are very similar, they have to play a lot of games. The hard thing is I can write a movie review in two hours but it takes 50 hours to evaluate a game. There are similarities and there are great differences and when the movie guys learn it and figure out how to apply there linear talent to interactive entertainment they can do some cool stuff. But there is a big learning curve and it doesn't port easily.
Q: There still seems to be a a good portion of the games industry chasing the movie business and trying to marry the two...
Danny Bilson: I don't feel that way at all. I've always been interested in concepts that are portable across media, but I want the big commercial hit. I don't want to chase a movie game. I don't want to make a game in a year, but I would love in the future to green-light a game and tell a movie studio they can meet me three years out there, but if they don't make it we'll carry on doing what we always do.
Danny Bilson is executive vice president of core titles at THQ. Interview by Matt Martin.