2011 is a big year for THQ. After a harrowing fiscal 2009, the company closed divisions and restructured considerably, and began to prioritise quality over everything else while simultaneously minimising risk. This year's line-up especially Homefront, but also Red Faction: Armageddon and, hopefully, Saints Row 3 needs to start backing up those good intentions with strong sales.
Nobody knows this more than the company's executive vice president of core games, Danny Bilson. Brought in at around the time THQ started down the long path of reinvention, he's also become the public face of that process, evangelising the company's no-nonsense, quality-first approach, and using his Hollywood background (along with his writing partner, Paul DeMeo, Bilson wrote The Rocketeer and has produced and directed for TV) to push THQ brands into other mediums. He has also been outspoken, often making headlines with his flavoursome comments on touchy subjects (like the Wii's third-party software credentials). It's easy to imagine that he could also become the public scapegoat if not all goes to plan something he freely admits.
We got the chance to talk to Bilson at length during last week's THQ Gamer's Week in New York City to find out how various THQ projects are faring, and to see how he feels about his company's and his own performance.
Eurogamer: Has Homefront penetrated the gaming consciousness in the way Call of Duty and Medal of Honor have? Has all the money you've invested in it started to pay off yet?
Danny Bilson: Well, we haven't shipped it yet.
Eurogamer: Is the hype level where you want it to be?
Danny Bilson: No. It's not where I want it to be. I want it to be bigger. Are you kidding? Always want it to be bigger.
I can't really measure, yet, how successful we've been about how much consciousness there is of Homefront in people's minds until we see it sell, and we see people play it and then start posting about it and writing about how they feel about the game.
Do I want it to be considered in the conversation with Call of Duty and Medal of Honor? Absolutely. Do I think it deserves it? Absolutely. It's really how you guys feel about it, how you talk about it, how other people feel about it. The game just has to take care of itself.
I want the whole world to be demanding it and talking about it. But, come on. It's the first game. Call of Duty is the sixth, seventh game. If we do 20 per cent of what they do we'll be a big hit. You know what? We're doing the best we can, and we really love the game and we're trying to get other people to love it too, but you can't do that until you play it.
Eurogamer: The 3DS date announcement is coming next week. Will THQ support that fully?
Danny Bilson: Yeah, absolutely.
Eurogamer: Will you be there with launch titles?
Danny Bilson: Not launch, but later on. We couldn't get it together for launch, but we have some stuff we've greenlit on 3DS. I love that thing. It's really cool.
Eurogamer: Do you have any PSP2 games in production?
Danny Bilson: No comment.
Eurogamer: Do you think if there was a PSP2 it would be able to compete with Android and iOS for people's money.
Danny Bilson: No comment. I really can't comment on hardware that's going to be announced soon.
Eurogamer: I was surprised that UFC Trainer seems to have lagged back a bit. I know Ubisoft did pretty well out of Fighters Uncaged with the launch of Kinect. Now they've done eight million Kinect units, you must want to get on board with that quite quickly.
Danny Bilson: We're only going to put it out when we believe we're competing at the highest level with the best fitness experience in the world. It certainly looks better than the other guys' stuff.
We just needed more time. We are not a company that's going to ship stuff based on a date. We're going to ship it when the software is incredibly competitive. It's going to be insanely competitive when it comes out in the fitness category and hopefully interesting to a different demographic of people who will want to work out.
You guys are Europe. UFC is way bigger in North America than in Europe. But the Trainer is an excellent fitness product. I'm not even supposed to be talking about it because I don't think we've even officially announced it.
Eurogamer: What about Saints Row 3? Are you going to talk about that in detail fairly soon?
Danny Bilson: A secret weapon would not be a secret weapon if I spoil the secret. That's my quote.
Eurogamer: How did Online Pass with the last UFC game work out for you? Will you continue to use it?
Danny Bilson: We experiment every time with what makes the most sense in terms of not offending the used gamer. It's not a penalty. Respecting the new game buyer and making money. We keep trying different things.
You'll see with Homefront, we let everybody play every map up to level five of progression and then we ask the used game buyer only to pay for the service, because we're supporting it live. We've built the game. You know the whole story we don't make any money on a used game.
But still, to us, a used gamer is a gamer and part of our core constituency. Even though we're not making their money, they're spending their money on the game. They don't track who's getting it and who's not. We don't want to offend. But we really want to encourage them to buy the games new, so there is no Online Pass. If you buy the game new, we don't have to talk about this stuff.
Eurogamer: This is a massive year for THQ. You've said this is the point where the fruit starts to fall off the tree and people have to pick it up. What happens if this year doesn't work out quite that well and Homefront and Red Faction don't work out massively? What would that mean for THQ next year and you personally?
Danny Bilson: It doesn't mean that much for this year because after that comes Space Marine and [deliberately muffled voice it sounded a bit like Saints Row 3]. And then we have UFC coming again and a lot of big titles. Our whole world isn't around Homefront.
However, what does it mean for me personally? Probably you won't be interviewing this guy next year and I won't have to deal with these sensitive questions. They'll bring somebody else in who can answer these things.
You gotta succeed to stay alive in this business. All I know is those games are good. Red Faction is quality. Hopefully good games will continue to sell and stand out from the crowd. That's the only strategy we have good games.
Are we dead? No. We've got some unbelievable stuff coming right after those. Every quarter we've got a major game for the next three years. We've been building a solid line-up. It's a long investment.
Eurogamer: In light of what happened with Jason West and Vince Zampella, signing Patrice Dιsilets (formerly of Ubisoft Montreal) as THQ Montreal studio head must have been a really big thing. Did you fly him on a private jet to your home?
Danny Bilson: No. What we did was build a culture and a system that supports creative first. That's all we did. We said, 'We're going to support your vision and we're going to build out from that. We're not going to impose our vision on you.'
Eurogamer: So he came to you?
Danny Bilson: Yeah, through CAA [Creative Artists Agency] who was representing him. And then he went everywhere, like all these guys do.
I believe we have the best place to work for creative people. And if you ask those two guys you just mentioned where they would have preferred to work but for one deal point in the contract, they would have liked to join our team, too. But I couldn't give them a certain thing that EA could in the deal.
Eurogamer: A million lawyers?
Danny Bilson: It has to do with IP ownership and some stuff around that.
Eurogamer: About the SyFy movie that's coming out for Red Faction. We saw Ultramarines: The Movie recently and it was horrible. How will you assure that the movie won't hurt the Red Faction game?
Danny Bilson: We have to have as much involvement in it as we can. On that one, we wrote the story ourselves. It ties with the world. We were all over the script. The thing about film is if you have a good script and a good cast you're about 80 per cent to good. That's the most important thing. We have a good script and a good cast. We've got a couple of our guys flying to the location for the conclusion of prep and the beginning of shooting.
It's an experiment. There's always a gamble. But it's a partnership. SyFy knows if this isn't good we're not doing any more stuff with them. I don't think it's at risk on quality.
Funding has a lot to do with it. I believe the issue with the movie you're talking about was, as I watched as an old film maker, it was built to get two hours of film out of that money. That's why there were so many sequences of just the squad walking around in the dust. It was production. It wasn't creative. Dan Abnett wrote it. He's one of the best 40k writers. It needed more money. It was slow. As a fan I still was thrilled just to see the ship flying around.
It looked much worse than any Dawn of War CGI. The in-game graphics of Dawn of War look better than that. But you didn't have anything to do with it. It was a Games Workshop production.
We had nothing to do with it. But we spend more money per minute than they did on that movie, period. It's that simple. We spend more money per second. That's what it was. Honestly. For them trying to get something up for that price, they got something up and it wasn't disrespectful to the IP. It was just slow. Not enough happened and it didn't have a good enough pace.
I still loved seeing the Ultramarines and their equipment and seeing the stuff I like in the models. I like the models. I paint them myself. I'm a fan. The reason our stuff is better is because it's a much bigger investment per second of money. They didn't fund that, either. They supported or licensed that out. It had really good voice acting.
Eurogamer: You left the game industry to go to the film industry. Why did you then decide to go back into games?
Danny Bilson: I like games better. It's my favourite form of entertainment, so the opportunity to work in games would be my choice. The differences are great and not so great, but one thing we're trying to do at THQ is eliminate, shorten the differences.
One of the differences has been over the last 10 years is companies trying to push process over creative. You can't follow a manual and get a great game. It's still, like the film business this is where it's similar it's still talent-based, based on the inspiration of an artist, that then gets communicated to other artists who share the inspiration and contribute their talent to it.
We're building a system that supports that idea, which brings our industry closer to film in that way. It's about creative first, respecting the creators and allowing them to do their best work.
Eurogamer: Has the fact we always seemed to be in a technological arms race with consoles before now, but now aren't, helped that?
Danny Bilson: Thank god, yes. Stability of technology allows for the fruition and the growth of creative. We're not having to invest all of our focus, and, oh my god, how are we going to deal with that new technology? We understand it. We still have guys trying to squeeze it to do cooler stuff, but it puts the weight of the mission under creative, which ultimately should get us more interesting and more creative stuff.
More on Red Faction: Armageddon
Face-off: Face-Off: Red Faction: Armageddon
Review: Red Faction: Armageddon
Hands On: Red Faction: Armageddon Multiplayer
Unlocked frame-rate and tearing aplenty.
Eurogamer: It must be great being able to say, okay, this game might be already here but we don't need to put it out until then.
Danny Bilson: That's the trick. We're not going to get beat by another hardware upgrade like every five years like it was before. There will be little things. It's up to us to compete in graphics and creativity. Sometimes I hope good creativity and style will be able to be more important. It is more important.
I just started playing Cataclysm. I had been away from WOW for maybe a year. I went back in and my first thing was, oh, the graphics are old, but then it's like, who cares when the creative and the content is great? It's so polished it's fantastic. That's the great thing about Blizzard.
Eurogamer: Hypothetically speaking, if Sony or Microsoft turned around tomorrow and said, Danny, we're launching a new console in three years, that would be a head in hands moment?
Danny Bilson: It would be horrible. But I think they all know our model's broken anyway. It still costs us a fortune to make games on this platform. If they're going to up the scale, up the art, up the content, I don't know how to make that and sell it to anybody for under $100 a game. Who wants to do that? It's bad for everybody.
As long as we're creatively satisfied as gamers by what we're getting, I'm really satisfied. I still see cooler stuff, better stuff. So much is in the software engineering and working with the technology. I look at games and I go, wow, how did they get such great characters?
Danny Bilson is head of core games for THQ.