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Jack Sorenson: Part One

THQ's worldwide studios head explains what went wrong last year, and how the publisher is striking back

After a challenging start to the year, in which high-profile franchises were canned, SKUs dropped and a studio closed following disappointing financials, Gamers Day 2008 was THQ's opportunity to show that its games strategy is back on track.

Heavy-hitting sequels like Saints Row 2, WWE and Red Faction Guerrilla led the way at the frenetic San Francisco event. But supporting the perennielly successful men in spandex was a solid showing of brand new IP from the publisher's sizeable studio portfolio, from open world racer Baja, to Wii jamming session Battle Of The Bands.

THQ's creative output is the responsibility of worldwide studios head Jack Sorenson. Finding a quiet spot away from the old E3-style mayhem of the main event, he sat down with to explain what went wrong last year, and why he believes the publisher is striking back stronger than ever.

GamesIndustry.bizIn your speech at the presentation this evening you described THQ's current line up as being the best ever. Can you summarise what you think are its key strengths?
Jack Sorenson

The reason I think the slate we have this year is the best ever at THQ is mainly because it's finally fulfilling all the promise that we had of getting into lots of different genres, on next-gen, top quality. And then on the Wii side, to be able to do more that's unique to the Wii, innovative, trying to take advantage of the platform.

GamesIndustry.bizLast year's performance for THQ wasn't as strong as it has been. WWE did shift over 5 million units, but you didn't perform as well in other areas. What would you identify as the problems with last year's portfolio?
Jack Sorenson

I think we've been very public about certain titles underperforming that we'd had higher hopes for. I look at a lot of that as just the entertainment industry. You try and do something, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, it's not necessarily a major crisis. Obviously in a public company those things have an outsized importance.

I certainly think something like Stuntman is a very competitive game for its time, and maybe just got lost in the competition. As we said before, too, we also had a high competitive issue on the Pixar stuff, from Cars being enormous and... Ratatouille's actually still performing quite well, but nothing at that level. Those had an impact on our financials.

But otherwise, as you said, we still had good success on WWE, and just came out with Frontlines, and a lot of the rest of our kids stuff has done fine. We're certainly happy looking forward to a lot of the titles we're showing out here.

GamesIndustry.bizStuntman and Juiced were two big driving-based games you released last year that didn't perform, and you took the decision to scrap the franchises outright. Where does that leave your strategy in the driving genre?
Jack Sorenson

What I would say about driving in general is, we were pretty disappointed on the performance of those games. But when you look at the entire year, racing across the board is way down. Every major franchise is way down.

Our feeling right now is, driving, or any kind of vehicle, is still relevant, but clearly it needs innovation. So when we're looking at future driving-action as a broader genre, unless we can bring innovation to it, we probably shouldn't do that. Which is one of the reasons why we left those brands behind, because it would be better to have a new brand signify where we think something's going.

We have some ideas, some things that are underway, but we obviously can't talk about, but I think industry-wide everyone is looking at how do they bring the driving genre back. Outside of Gran Turismo and Forza, first-party titles, it is a pretty difficult genre right now.

GamesIndustry.bizIs that what [Juiced developer] Juice Games is now working on – new racing IP?
Jack Sorenson

Obviously I can't talk about things in the future, but clearly they have an expertise in vehicles, so that's certainly something we'd be looking at.

GamesIndustry.bizIn terms of your platform strategy, one aspect you seem to have handled well is the transition between generations, supporting older platforms well with strong licences. How much longer will you continue supporting PS2?
Jack Sorenson

That's a good question; I don't know what we've necessarily announced. We still have a couple of things coming and very targeted, something like Wall-E. The PS2 is rapidly declining even on a worldwide basis, but we clearly will support it on some big franchises where we know it works. And obviously you hate to leave that audience behind, just because they don't have the cash to go and buy the next system.

GamesIndustry.bizLooking at how the consoles are starting to mature now, 360's very strong in the US and the UK, but not doing as well elsewhere, and PS3 has already overtaken it those places, while Wii is soaring. Do you have a view on who's in the strongest position right now?
Jack Sorenson

Obviously when we're in the business, it's never a good idea to talk about who's winning and who's losing. I actually think it's totally irrelevant. Even in the history of the business, other than something like the Dreamcast, you can do decent business on lots of platforms. So the issue is not who wins, it's can an independent publisher do a good business on that platform. We're thinking everything from high-end MMO all the way to cell phones.

There's a ubiquity of gaming out there, and the platform is really just a medium and if that makes sense – PS2 next year for something, PS2 two years from now – we certainly probably carried on longer on the GBA than most people and had a very nice business out there because, gee, there's 80, 90 million GBAs out there, maybe a bunch left in closets and drawers, but there's still enough audience to buy them.

I think there's almost too much of an emphasis on the sports aspect of who's winning and losing, when in fact all these platforms kinda win.

GamesIndustry.bizPC gaming is, as ever, a hot topic. There are lots of views being thrown around at the moment, including those of THQ's creative director Michael Fitch, who heavily criticised the PC gaming space . Peter Moore recently said EA was going to release fewer games on PC because of the state of the market. Where do you stand on this?
Jack Sorenson

I have to be careful here because I grew up in the PC business, and probably want it as much as anyone to succeed. I would have to say I've probably been more negative in this past year than I have been in my whole career, because something is going on out there in the PC space. Whether it really is all about piracy, or it just becomes the domination of consoles, or as I go back and use that term, the ubiquity of gaming: there's a way to get gaming so many ways now that thinking about the PC as a disc-based platform may in fact be old.

A lot of what we're looking at is the PC as a delivery mechanism because it's connected to the Internet. Maybe disc-based software is on a permanent decline, maybe to a certain level where it won't go down anymore, but that digitial download, MMO, free-to-play, all of this stuff is coming through the PC. Certainly, casual gaming is all through the PC. All of those business models just don't go through retail, so when you look at retail figures on a comparison, it looks radically worse than in fact it may be. Maybe the PC is just transforming to really being the other end of the Internet.

GamesIndustry.bizAre we going to see a winding down of PC releases from you over the next 12-18 months?
Jack Sorenson

I would just say I think that's already happened. You can look at the numbers and clearly there's a downward trend. We still think there's a market there, it's just where it's at. And then I think you have to augment the boxed product with digital download. A good example of what we're doing is with our Company of Heroes product in China. We've radically redesigned it as a free-to-play game. It's hard as a Westerner to get your head around it, but it's quite a fascinating way to structure a game and a business model. I don't know whether it will work here, but there is no other market in Asia.

If you think about it, if there's 100m people playing online games in China and Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, where there's not a single boxed product being sold, how bad is the PC?

On a global basis it may have seen the biggest growth of all platforms, but we're so western-centric that we just don't think of it that way.

Jack Sorenson is executive VP of worldwide studios at THQ. Interview by Johnny Minkley.

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Johnny Minkley: Johnny Minkley is a veteran games writer and broadcaster, former editor of Eurogamer TV, VP of gaming charity SpecialEffect, and hopeless social media addict.
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