Danny Bilson's final farewell: 'I've learned a lot in the last four years'
4th Jun 2012 | 15:00
Just hours after speaking to CVG, THQ revealed that Danny Bilson was leaving the company to pursue other matters.
From his demeanour and optimism you could never tell he was set to leave the company. With THQ engulfed by money issues and threats by NASDAQ, Bilson spoke of his company as though it was embarking on a brave and fruitful future.
There's a lot of doomsday talk surrounding THQ at the moment, but you're clearly still investing in original IP?
BILSON:Yeah. And as I've been saying for months to anybody who asks, it's much better inside THQ than looking at it from the outside because there's so much negative speculation. It's in much better shape than whoever whips up rumours thinks. There are certain issues but when we're scaling down there's a big difference between scaling your budget and right-sizing your company and not having a company.
I mean, we may have cut a tremendous amount of our production budget, but our production budget is still a huge number. All games of quality are expensive to make, so as you said you can see that half our titles this year I think are high quality - and I hope you think they're high quality. They're very well produced.
We're not cutting any corners on production and marketing on what we are making. We've eliminated some products to enable us to fully realise these, but we're not cutting any corners on the stuff were making - we still have to compete with companies across the industry at different levels of economic stature. We still have to compete. So it's about how we're spending our money and absolutely we're fully investing in these titles as we go forward.
Can you clear up for our readers what actually has happened inside THQ in the past year?
BILSON: It's interesting... Since last E3 the biggest change in the company has been we've pulled out of the kids and casual business and fully concentrated and fully invested in core games. That was planned, it was just accelerated in terms of when we got out of that, because that business has moved to other platforms. The one thing we learned in the last few years was we can't do everything as a company - we don't have enough people, enough money or enough resource to do everything.
So what do we have? We've got some great studios, we've built some core brands over the years that have a lot of promise and we're investing and focussing all of our money in the places where we can do our best work. So the biggest change is there is no 'THQ Core' anymore that I used to run - its just 'THQ'. It's all core games and the whole company is focused on moving in that direction.
What you're seeing now isn't stuff that's been planned since January - this is all from an ongoing plan of four or five years. So eliminating that is a little sooner than some people thought, and now we're fully focused on this.
I look back at the history of four or five years ago when I first came in and there were a lot of licensed products and other things, and we had been on a road map to what you're seeing now, and this is another milestone along that road. I'd like to think that these three games - Darksiders 2, Metro: Last Light and Company of Heroes 2 - are of a very high quality, and what you're going to see from us are games that get a lot of focus and attention from our company going forward, and when we release something it has years of development behind it.
It's not about me, it's not about me and my teams, it's about the studios and what they make, and then it's about how gamers feel about them. I always say I work for gamers - that's who I have to work for. It's the only way for my own sanity. We've been tuning our studios toward greatness but I have to say, so is everybody else. There might be less games but they're really great. I'm having so much fun with the games and the quality of them that have been coming out in the last couple of years, and I expect there might be less games from everybody next year and the year after. But the quality bar gets higher and there are less mediocre games coming out, so I think it's a great time for core gamers.
The games we're seeing now must have been the first you were involved with from scratch. What lessons have you learned during that process?
BILSON: I've learned a lot in the last four years. I always knew that game development was one of the hardest things I'd ever dealt with. I learned that time and money are not everything; talent is the other piece. So we've really honed or talent and focused them in to the studios we have - because talent makes the games. I don't make the games, I just try to support them to do a good job.
The other thing that I learnt was that you can't change a culture or change an entire system maybe as fast as I wanted to. But you pointed something out which I think is pretty true, which is these games you're seeing today are all games that were started since I've been at THQ and from my team. There were lots of legacy things we worked on and I think we did a great job with some of it.
I'm not going to take credit for Saints Row which is probably our most important brand. What I'm trying to do is nurture that along and have them evolve it creatively, which I think they're doing, and they're doing a great job. So I don't want it to be perceived that I'm saying, "well my stuff's the good stuff, the legacy stuff that was there before isn't". The strong stuff will survive and that strong stuff is our responsibility to grow. It's also our job to take some risks and experiment with some things along the way, but it's absolutely true that these three games that you're seeing today are games that were started by my team.
We don't think anyone can dispute the quality of those three titles, but how big will your ambitions be going forward?
BILSON: Well I'm an optimist, OK, and I get very excited and passionate about games that I like. I certainly fall in love with certain games and like any creative person I just get excited, right? I don't think there's anything wrong with that.
The stuff going forward... We have a whole line-up this year, next year is an incredible line-up, we've got some very special things for 2014 and 2015 and we've got some more things to think about for 2014 and 2015. We've got a pipeline of products that absolutely keeps me motivated and going no matter what peripheral noises are going on around THQ.
At the centre is this portfolio of games - and you're seeing some of it today - and I believe they're really quite good and absolutely the reason to believe in the company.
Of course there was unfortunate news surrounding the development of
BILSON: That one's really disappointing to me personally. I love and admire the Valhalla team. I'm a huge fan of the game and what they've built. But what's happened at THQ is we only have so much capital to invest and there are various reasons that we have shifted that into other projects, but it was not the product quality of that game that was the reason. They were more business reasons and internal reasons.
Devil's Third is a tremendous game. Three of the single-player levels are practically done and the rest of it is all blocked, and the multiplayer is phenomenal. It's a huge disappointment to me personally to have to refigure that one. We're looking for a partner to come in and co-invest in that game and whether we publish it or not, I have nothing but respect for Itagaki-San and his team - I just wrote them an e-mail 20 minutes ago.
It's a great game and great team and I really want to see that game released and the team succeed, because they're great people and great game makers.
So is the situation still very much in the air as to whether you're going to publish it or not?
BILSON: Yes, there's no decision.
Can you reassure our readers that your other long term projects, Del Toro's InSane and the Patrice Disellets project won't suffer the same fate?
BILSON: Oh yeah. I was just in Montreal with Patrice [Desilets, former Ubisoft development guru now at THQ Montreal] last week. He's deep in to preproduction on a game - all the concepts and layouts are there and there are certain things that are built. We won't be announcing it for a while but it's quite spectacular.
InSane, I was just talking to Guillermo the day before yesterday. He's been off making a big movie and then he's go another one, but he's been saying "why don't we get together, I want to get back to work". There's a lot more to do on InSane and I will be talking more about it in the future.
Those sound like exactly the sort or projects you're passionate about.
BILSON: You know what, this is pretty true in that the portfolio isn't the large - I don't know who's is anymore - but it's not about the quantity of games it's the quality. As a creative manager it's actually more sane to be able to see all of the games on my wall and not have to have four walls of games that I can barely keep track of, and really focus on and invest in them. It's pretty exciting.
There no shortage, really, of games and we hope to be able to continue to grow certain franchises in success. As you said, I don't think there would be anything in the portfolio that I wasn't excited about because there's not much legacy stuff and I also say, doing a job like mine, even if it's a game that you may not play - because there are a million genres - in this job we find inspiration even from the ones that we don't play because it's out job to support those and manage them.
In my portfolio I absolutely like everything and I really like the teams that are making them and the teams that are selling them. Believe me, I look forward to this kind of consistency that you're seeing today over the coming years with THQ, where any there's five or six games a year but they're all really cool and well made. Thats what my job is going forward and yeah, I really like this stuff.
How has 'THQ's Infinity Ward', Volition, evolved during your reign?
BILSON: Volition is a big studio but very much like Infinity Ward we want to see them really work on building and growing Saints Row as they have. There's a lot of focus on that there right now with Enter the Dominatrix coming and the next Saints Row is well underway and very exciting. We're like, 'ok you've hit this plato, what can you do next?' and I that they're doing incredible work.
I think they've just shipped their best game, I think it was a box of fun, and I think the next two are going to be even more fun.
Tell us more about the status of Homefront 2 at Crytek UK.
BILSON: I actually spent a week with Crytek about a month ago, I guess right before it started raining in the UK. I'm having a wonderful time with them. I love those guys and I love what they're doing with the game. I can't wait to share that one with the public. I'm really excited about what they're doing with Homefront - it's incredible.
And that's another huge property for THQ - the original did very well...
BILSON: It was a big success, but there are things we can improve and absolutely they are improving them. We're still in a long pre-production and I'm cautious along the way - I've learnt a lot over the years. But so far, so good. I'm really, really excited about what they're doing with that game.
With new consoles seemingly just around the corner, is now a good time to invest in original IP?
BILSON: I think it's always a good time to be investing in original IP, because original ideas mean fresh ideas and ideally fresh experiences for consumers - not something they've seen somewhere else or played before. I'm a huge believer in original IP. It's definitely what I was brought in to this company to work on. It's exciting to do it. If you're getting at when's the best time to release new IP...
Traditionally the end of a console cycle hasn't been the best time to release new IP...
BILSON: Traditionally. I don't know if the traditions are going to apply to this cycle. But we won't be late to the next one and there's more original IP in our pockets.