When I sat down to chat with Danny Bilson during THQ's pre-E3 showcase event in North London earlier this month, I had no idea that, just over a week later, he would no longer be with the publisher. Hindsight is a beautiful thing, but I'm convinced there was something about the way he introduced presentations on Company of Heroes 2, Metro: Last Light and Darksiders 2 to European press that morning that was, for want of a better term, off.
I've interviewed Danny a number of times, both on the phone and face to face, and he's always said too much, always sounded way too excited for his own good and always had a glint in his eye. That day, though, there was none of that. He was matter of fact as he spoke on stage about housekeeping, embargoes and what was to come. Almost downbeat. Yes, THQ had suffered perhaps the toughest 12 months in its history, laying off hundreds of staff and ditching and downsizing games, but there was renewed optimism about the company, at least externally. Did Danny know he was on his way out? Perhaps we'll never know.
So now, Eurogamer's interview with Bilson is not just one of his most revealing yet (he expresses bitter disappointment about the collapse of the Devil's Third project, suggests Guillermo del Toro's Insane is now a next-gen game and discusses Saints Row 4 and Dawn of War 3), it's one of his last as a THQ executive.
I get the sense here that THQ is making many fewer games but trying to make them all excellent.
Danny Bilson: Absolutely. I would suppose that's in a good way how our entire business has evolved, so only the strongest survive. And that means the best games. So we all as an industry have to ship the highest quality games because they're the only ones consumers will invest in. There's a lot of competition for entertainment these days and only the best games are going to work. It's not like the old days when video games sold because they were video games.
You recently delayed Darksiders 2. Why?
Danny Bilson: Simply put, the game is huge. The bigger the game the more time it takes to polish it. There are just more parts of the game to polish. We got to a point where it was like, wow, this game is bigger and longer than we ever imagined it was ever going to be, and it needs more time to be excellent. It was really that simple.
Everybody, including my boss Brian Farrell, stepped up and said, we've got to find a way to give these guys more time. And more time means more money of course, but it means a better game. So from my point of view more time is always good news. I can't think of one where it's bad news. The only bad news is disappointment, oh I wanted to play that sooner.
Core gamers are educated to the fact that when something moves, a Darksiders, a BioShock Infinite, you know they're taking care of you, the gamer, and they're taking care of the product. There's no other reason to do it, because the companies are spending more money for you, to give you more value. That's what it is. So I'm really happy the game is getting the time it deserves.
In September you release the standalone Saints Row expansion. Did you decide to make and launch this off the back of what was the very successful Saints Row: The Third, or was it all part of the plan from day one?
Danny Bilson: It was very similar to what happened with Red Dead and then the zombie pack. Once we saw the appetite for the product we thought, could we do something very fresh between this game and what would be ultimately the next game down the road? Could we do something sooner?
"The tools are all in place from Saints Row: The Third... it was amazing how quickly this came together."
From a production point of view what's interesting is that the tools are all in place from Saints Row: The Third. There are a few things they worked on but the tools were all in place, so the guys at Volition got to just build content, explore their imaginations and get it on the screen. There was no technology build involved. So it was amazing how quickly this came together.
We'll be showing and talking and doing right by it in late June when you'll see a lot of assets and what it's really about. But it is unique. It's a big extension of the game. It's a standalone. If you haven't bought Saints Row, you can buy this, but most of the people who will come to this are fans of Saints Row, and that fan base is growing. Saints Row: the Third has been tremendously successful.
You mentioned the inevitable Saints Row 4, which popped up on a CV for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360. What can we expect?
Danny Bilson: Well, of course I'm not allowed talk about Saints Row 4 now, but generally I'm incredibly excited about the content in Saints Row 4. There's a lot of new characters and new points of view in the game. I can't say much or I'll get killed. But I actually think it'll have an even broader appeal than the last one, based on the content. I'm sure we're a year away from really talking about it, probably.
But being involved with it, I love what they're doing with 4. It expands the appeal of the game. It has all the stuff you love, plus more stuff you've never seen in any game. Well, we kind of do that with Saints Row, right?
Every sequel has got to be better than the one before and have more value and more fun. The team is working really hard towards that right now very diligently.
You recently announced the re-jigging of the Warhammer 40k MMO. What, exactly, is different about that game now?
Danny Bilson: Unfortunately I'm not able to talk about that one either, and the honest reason is there's a lot of creative and business discussion around it right now. All of the decisions aren't locked. What I can tell you is, I personally love that content. And I don't just mean 40k, which you know I love, I mean what Vigil has done with 40k is I believe phenomenal.
I'm excited to talk to you about it as soon as they let me, because there's a terrific extendible game there.
Can you tell us exactly what happened with Devil's Third, which you recently dropped?
Danny Bilson: Yeah. I'm personally disappointed. It's a project I've been deeply involved in. It's a high quality project, but for us, we got to a point structurally and financially where we only had so much money to invest. I love Itagaki-san, I love Valhalla, I love that game, and we're hoping to find a partner on the financial side to help us finish it.
It's purely a function of where we are strategically in reorganising the company to move forward. It's not about stopping a game that had problems, or a problem project. It's not. We just have a limited amount of slots we can fund, and for various reasons - business reasons predominantly, and not about sales forecasts or anything like that - it's really about what we can fund and what we can build in this window. It became a very, very difficult and painful decision to look for alternatives with Devil's Third.
Do you intend to publish it with help or are you looking for another publisher?
Danny Bilson: We don't know if we're going to publish it or somebody else is, but we are looking for help to finish the game. They're fabulous developers, absolutely one of my favourites to work with over the last two years, and this has been very difficult and personally painful for me and Itagaki-san to have to go through this period. I hope we come out of the other side of this period with Devil's Third for people to play, even if someone else publishes. I want that game to be played because I think it's fantastic.
"Guillermo called me and said, what are these rumours on the internet that Insane is cancelled? I said, it's not true!"
I saw you mentioned Insane on Twitter, reminding people it hadn't been cancelled.
Danny Bilson: I'll tell you truth, Guillermo called me and said, what are these rumours on the internet that Insane is cancelled? I said, it's not true! You know it's not true. I know it's not true. He said, yes, but why are these rumours there?
Brian mentioned it in his investor call the other week. He reiterated it's in production. It's in pre-production still. So the tweet from me was between Guillermo and I really. I said, I'll tweet it, it'll get picked up. And it did. I tweet very rarely because I had to learn that my tweet is a press release. So this time I said, okay, this is a press release, I'm going to tell people.
Insane is phenomenal. What we're doing with it is phenomenal. Working with Guillermo is a blast, some of the most fun I've ever had in my whole career. You'll start seeing more announcements about that title in the coming months.
So development is going well and it's still on course for release for a 2013 release?
Danny Bilson: It could be later. There are a lot of reasons you can probably guess why it might be later that are good reasons. Let me just tell you it's good reasons.
You couldn't possibly be saying it's been shifted to PlayStation 4 and the next Xbox?
Danny Bilson: I wouldn't know.
Of course you know.
Danny Bilson: I might know but if I knew, I couldn't talk about it.
How are you preparing for PS4 and the next Xbox as a business?
Danny Bilson: I can say this - and I wasn't at THQ during the last platform transition - the general feeling was THQ was late to the 360 and PS3. Certainly Saints Row was very successful in being the first 360 THQ game. This time we're not going to be late. We're not late to the party at all. There is planning and development around certain titles and how it lays out in the future. I can't speak to it really except to say we're not going to be late to the party this time.
I saw another of your tweets, about visiting Patrice Désilets to see his new game, and being very impressed. We haven't heard about that for a while and there was some concern it might have been under threat after THQ's troubles.
Danny Bilson: What happens is there are concerns about everything anybody's heard about, so I wanted to make it clear the reductions are limited to a few titles. It's not an across the board wipeout. We've got a great future based on a lot of great games. A lot of great games.
A journalist sent me an email the day before yesterday about a couple of titles and I said, no, no. One's well in production and the other's in strong pre-production. And then I saw that pop all over the web. It was Patrice's game and the Turtle Rock game.
Those are doing great. We haven't announced what the Turtle Rock game is, but I can tell you this, it's fully playable now. We're just saving the announcement till closer to release. But it's in full production. It's a tremendous experience. And Patrice's game is in full on pre-production. It's something really special. And that's all I can really say about it at this point.
But it's important you ask that question, and it's important I have the ability to answer. We've got a lot of great development going on.
People are worried about your games because of the financial troubles at THQ right now.
Danny Bilson: Yeah. I say this to everybody: it looks a lot worse outside than it does inside. There's just so much speculation, and it tends to be really negative. Look, it's difficult. It's tough. We're transitioning. We've been transitioning for years, honestly. We hit a bump in the road, reorganised and we're recovering.
You can see today we're making high quality games. You're seeing three of them today, and we're going to continue to only make high quality games. We're making fewer games than we used to make, and that allows us to invest more in the games we do make.
Which will benefit gamers.
Danny Bilson: It will totally benefit gamers. Look, I gave a speech to the company. I pointed at my boss, Brian Farrell, and said, he's not my boss, the gamers are my bosses. That's who I really work for. That's who I have to work for. My job at THQ is to make the best games we can for gamers, and make gamers' games. THQ is all about core games now. That's where 100 per cent of the company's focus is, and you can see the first wave of results of that here today with three really high quality titles. They're very high quality. They're unique. They're specific. But the quality is obvious.
With Darksiders 2 you will be on Wii U at launch. What do you expect from the console?
Danny Bilson: There's heavy use of the controller with Darksiders 2. I actually don't know how much we've said about that stuff yet, but rest assured it's got unique use of that controller for the game on the Wii U. It's not just a straight port. There's a separate team working really hard on it.
"Look, we have a lot of money but we don't have as much money as the other guys."
Do you want to release Wii U versions of all your multiplatform games going forward?
Danny Bilson: To be determined. Everything with us has to be very specific choices. Look, we have a lot of money but we don't have as much money as the other guys. So we have to be very specific and careful about our choices going forward. We felt Darksiders is a fantastic Wii U title. It echoes - I'm not going to say it echoes classic Nintendo gameplay because I don't know what that means exactly - but we thought it was a great fit for that platform and we wanted to be there with one of our great titles day one for their platform for their launch, and that one seemed the best fit to do a great Wii U game.
Is that because people compare it to Zelda?
Danny Bilson: Perhaps.
You just didn't want to say that.
Danny Bilson: Yeah.
Metro was announced for Wii U at E3 last year.
Danny Bilson: It would be later. That's all I can say.
I have to ask about Dawn of War 3, which you've spoken to Eurogamer about before. You mentioned an announcement that didn't materialise. What's happening with it?
Danny Bilson: There's a lot of rethinking going on right now with the RTS 40k stuff. We're going to do something different, but we're in a bit of a rethinking mode. What we had to do at Relic was prioritise Company of Heroes 2 now and then move back to 40k. With that we moved that over here for a bit - just a bit - because we needed to load all the resource onto making Company of Heroes 2 awesome.
But look, everybody at Relic loves 40k. I love 40k. I also have tremendous respect for Games Workshop and the people I work with there. They're some of the best people I've ever worked with in my career. So I personally feel really strongly about that brand.
So Dawn of War 3 isn't dead?
Danny Bilson: No. But we're doing some rethinking. What that really has to do with is the RTS business, and what's the best way to present RTS? We're not getting out of RTS. It's just, what's the best way to present it in the future? We'll be talking more about that later. There are aspects of Company of Heroes we haven't talked about that are progressive and forward thinking, that we'll roll out between now and the launch of the game. We're just giving you the first look at Company of Heroes 2. There's actually more to it.
"It's like the movie business. The blockbusters will be very profitable and flourish, and anything that's not probably won't be profitable and probably won't get a sequel."
What's your assessment of the core gaming landscape now?
Danny Bilson: Only the strongest and best will survive, and they will survive and flourish and grow. The core gamer is not going away. I'm one of them. If you give me something that has the value of $60, and I feel that value, I'm going to pay for it. There are brands and there is loyalty to brands that is deserved. Only great games will survive, and they will flourish.
There's not going to be the old PS2 days, and giant shelves of massive amounts of games. There will be very specific titles that will have huge investments financially, both in production and marketing, and they will flourish and do well. It's like the movie business. The blockbusters will be very profitable and flourish, and anything that's not probably won't be profitable and probably won't get a sequel. You'll still see experiments and trying to build new franchises, but not in the quantity we've seen in the past. I believe the quality is getting better all the time.
Second hand game sales seem to be going away with the next round of consoles. Does that impact on the landscape?
Danny Bilson: I don't really know. I have no information that the next consoles have any influence on second hand games. I'm being honest with you.
Second hand games are probably good for the consumer and probably not so good for publishers. That's an old story. But if I tell you I work for the consumer I have to respect that and find ways to make our games more valuable and give you a reason to keep them. We're going to release more of the game post-launch with DLC. We're going to give you free DLC at times. We're going to have paid DLC. But everything we do has to have value, and every game we ship is the beginning.
This is something I'm talking seriously about now with the studios. Extended content shouldn't be an afterthought. It shouldn't in any way feel to the consumer we took stuff out of the game to sell it to them later. We can't do that at all. But if we give them an IP or a game they love, we could give them more of it over time if they choose to buy it, and that will keep them from wanting to sell it back to move on to something else.
Ultimately it goes back to the benefit to gamers and to us, which is quality, quality, quality. If we give you a great experience, you're going to treasure it, keep it and want more over time as long as you feel there's real value and we're not being exploitative, which is our job, right?
It's all about great games I'm starting to call live games. You have your initial one, and then there's more of it available. With Saints Row: The Third we did well with that in terms of different scales of content. You could buy a mission or vehicles or costumes - whatever you're interested in. The game is almost like opening up a shop, and you can choose to shop for more or not, or you can sell it back if you want. It's all about freedom of choice for the game and ultimately it's all about good. It just has to be really good.
So the core gamers are ultimately going to benefit. I don't think the quantity of games is important to us as the quality of games we can love, because when they're really good we can plan for a really long time and get a lot of value out of it. I mean, I'm still playing Skyrim.
Most of what's going on in the business that I understand is really good for the core gamer. There's a whole world of causal and phones and pads and Facebook games and all that stuff, and those are great, but nobody's giving up on the core gamer at all. Not first party. Not us. That's what we're all about. Our whole portfolio now is about the core gamer and it's about doing really great stuff for them - us.