Interview part two – THQ’s Bilson on Guillermo del Toro, diversity of talent, the future of UFC Undisputed, tons more

By Nathan Grayson, Saturday, 9 October 2010 09:13 GMT


Part two? Part two?! But what happened in part one?! Were there car chases? Explosions? Was an average Joe like you or me thrust into extraordinary circumstances and forced to shoot/box/interpretive dance his way out?

The suspense is probably killing you. You are probably walking toward the light as we speak, your pulse becoming ever fainter because you need your videogame interview fix right this very moment. But lo and behold! There it is, perched upon yon Internet!

And once you’re all caught up, part two’s waiting for you after the break. Early reviews have declared it even better than part one, and when have early reviews ever been wrong? Click onward to read THQ Core boss Danny Bilson’s thoughts on Guillermo del Toro, the future of game demos, selling cut-scenes, how we should treat talent in the gaming industry, licensed games, and tons more!

So, Guillermo del Toro. The man himself sort of blabbed and spoiled the surprise, but I don’t imagine you can say much since it’s still technically unannounced. Can you describe what it’s like to work with someone like him, though? He’s got quite the resume, after all – just not in videogames.

I think out of respect to my marketing and PR team, we have to save that for a separate interview. Because I’m not even officially allowed to say whether we are or aren’t working with Guillermo. He said a few things about it already, so it’s kind of silly. I don’t want to be silly about it. I have a lot to say to answer the question that’s all really positive. What I can say is we’re good friends, and he’s a big gamer. He knows games. He knows game history and he knows what works and what doesn’t. He has a good sense of it, because he’s a fan. He’s a good friend and I’m enjoying hanging out with him. Later on, when we get more official about it, and if it goes through, and if it happens for sure – because we’re just kicking stuff around – when the PR guys say I can come talk about it, I’ll answer all those questions.

What I can say is that he’s a friend, and he does know games. He’s a gamer. He’s a great guy.

Between Red Faction Battlegrounds and Capcom’s Dead Rising: Case Zero, do you think bite-sized appetizer games have the potential to replace free demos altogether?

Well, Battlegrounds is a completely different game mechanic and different game. Are free demos on the way out? It’s an interesting question, because I think the Dead Rising one was the equivalent of what would have been a demo in the old PC days, right? And it did really well. The question is, will those people buy the big game, or will they say, “Well, that was cool for my five or ten dollars, and I’m good. I’d rather invest my money in something fresh.” It remains to be seen.

We’re gonna keep doing free demos on stuff going forward where we really want to engage players. I mean, there will be a Homefront multiplayer demo. I believe there will. So we’re not really… I know this will sound crazy — but everything isn’t driven [by profit]. We really do things by what we think would be coolest and what would engage the most people. We’re not counting every penny, because I don’t think you can win like that. You have to build a really strong fanbase that’s gonna be fans of our IP and fans of our games and – if we’re really lucky – fans of THQ, where they look at our brand and say, “Wow, there’s a THQ game coming out and I know how they are on quality.” I think that’s what we worry about.

I don’t spend a lot of time sweating over what we’re gonna charge for or not. I just want to get stuff in the most people’s hands, so that they’ll ultimately buy the big game, the $60 bet. That’s how we really are gonna win. If we get a lot of people caring about those games and finding enough value in them, they’ll spend their hard-earned money on them.

During your GDC panel, you were talking about all the ways Red Faction’s leveraging transmedia storytelling, and about how – at the end of the day – it’s all about drawing a player into your world and rewarding them for it. And then you’ve got guys like Activision’s Bobby Kotick, who want to dust off used cut-scenes, repackage them, and put them back on the shelf. Do you think that’s a worst-case scenario for transmedia storytelling in games?

It’s really about the cut-scene. So if he can make a movie that’s really great that people are willing to pay for, that’s great. The public will decide. It’s the same thing I keep saying. You know, money’s tight, and if people find entertainment value in it because it’s awesome content, then they’ll pay for it. If you just put it in the category of charging for cut-scenes, of course it sounds bad. But, to give him credit, if he can put up a great movie experience that’s worth people’s money like going to the movies, then people will pay for it. The content drives. It dictates everything.

You’ve opened your doors to some extremely diverse talent as of late. Tim Schafer, Tomonobu Itagaki, and del Torro stand out the most, of course. At this point in the gaming industry’s maturation, is that the key? Is it sink or swim, with diversity as your Finding Nemo-branded water wings?

Absolutely. Once a technology platform is stable, it’s all about the content. And people aren’t gonna buy a game just because it has great graphics or great activity. It also becomes a great experience. And where does great, inspired content come from? It comes from inspired people. It comes from talent. So I can absolutely say that the strategy at THQ – our core strategy – is talent first.

We’re creating a system where we can attract the best talent in the world, because we’re not driven by what a marketing guy says we need to make. We’re absolutely driven by the inspiration of an artist. We’re gonna announce another piece of talent in two weeks that’s a big game-maker. On October 19, I believe, we’re gonna announce this other big game-maker joining us.

It’s just like the movie business. People are interested in seeing films made by people like Guillermo because of who they are – because they have a consistent record of doing inspired work. Steven Spielberg, for instance, has done that for years. It’s not about technology or all of that anymore, and the platforms not gonna change next year. It’s like, where do you go? You got to content. So you see us building a talent roster of people we’re associated with who are great entertainers. That’s who the people you listed are, and that’s who the next guy is who you’re gonna see come in to THQ.

Are you hoping that might one day become the prevailing mentality in the gaming industry? Because, right now, there’s sort of a separation: in film, we’ve got guys like Tim Burton, who can put his name on a packet of stale crackers or – worse – Alice in Wonderland and pack theaters for weeks. Whereas, with videogames, there are people out there who don’t even know the difference between a Treyarch Call of Duty and an Infinity Ward Call of Duty.

Right, but it was established by Vince and Jason and their team at Infinity Ward. And that is a vision that really started on Medal of Honor: Allied Assault. I actually was around EA at that time. And that immersive “you in the war movie” vision was started before them, but they’re really good at picking out cinematic moments, pacing, and all of that. So the Treyarch stuff is modeling what they did.

So I do think it came from talent. The people don’t identify that. It’s about what Call of Duty means to people. And it means a great experience. But that did come from two really inspired guys – maybe three — and their whole team, who started at 2015 back on Allied Assault. It does come from people. A brand doesn’t just come from a brand. It comes from inspired artists. That game did come from inspired artists.

And whether it’s Treyarch who have to find their own inspiration, they’re following a lead and a model that’s been set, yet they’re smart enough over there that it feels like Black Ops gives us a fresh experience in that world. It’s not just Modern Warfare 3 and more of the same. So it did come from talent; it just got disseminated and spread around to multiple teams who are still building on that unique vision.

But I guess what I was wondering was…

…Can you sell the name above the title? Well, Tim Schafer’s one, right?

Well, sure. Any hardcore gamer who’s DNA is 50 percent Twitter and 50 percent videogame blogosphere could spot Schafer in a crowd. But what about everyone else? Isn’t that sort of why Schafer’s games don’t dominate the charts?

It might become that way if you start putting the names above the title. I mean, there was the old story of American McGee’s Alice, which sort of came before it was earned in a way. And he’s gotten a lot of mileage off that, and he’s making a sequel to it. I don’t know if the new one says American McGee’s Alice or not. Does it? I don’t know. He’s a good guy, but he’s not Spielberg. I think the name goes above the title when it validates itself. When we know it’s a marketing tool and we know people really care, then it goes up there and becomes its own brand in a way. But it can’t go before the content. There has to be some content people love. Then if they associate it with that name and if it makes sense and it gets people to play it and it sells games, then you put it up there. And it could happen. Absolutely. Why not?

On an entirely different note, earlier this year, UFC Undisputed 2010 didn’t exactly take a beating at retail, but it didn’t live up to your lofty sales expectations. Why do you think that is?

Well, because I don’t think we offered enough new features. It’s way better than the first game. It’s tremendously better, and it sold a lot of units. But we had ridiculously high expectations for it.

What we learned on day-one was that we weren’t giving the consumers enough value for everybody to buy it again. The hardcore fans bought it again and could see the differences. Giving it some more time to get more features in there for more people – so that if you bought UFC 1 and 2, you have to buy UFC 3 because it’s loaded up with all kinds of new features. And also, we’ll have more playability for newbie gamers. It won’t just be so hardcore, so we can get to a bigger mass audience. It will have more for all UFC fans.

But again, it takes more time. You can’t just jam it out there. We could probably sell a million-and-a-half units every year, and that’s a lot of games; I never want anyone to think it’s not a big hit, because it is. But we want it to be a monster. And to be a monster, we’ve got to make it essential – for everybody who owned 1 or 2, when 3 comes out, they have to own it. And that takes more time and money.

I’ve got to go in one minute, so give me your biggest question.

Ok, here it goes: Clearly, you’re heavily involved with the 3DS. What about the PSP2?

I can’t comment on that.

I didn’t think so. But I still have, like, 40 seconds! Going back to the UFC thing, do you think we’re past the days when a license alone could sell a game? Do you think the general audience’s videogame IQ has gone up?

Absolutely. They have experience, right? Games are part of our lifestyle. Games aren’t cool just because they’re games. A license can’t sell a game. A great game that’s great without the license can be enhanced with the license. That’s what I think.

We don’t have a lot of licensed stuff in Core. We have Warhammer 40K, which we love. It’s a deep IP. It’s a fantastic world. We don’t love it because there’s billions of people painting those Warhammer models all over the world; it’s just a great universe that we want to be in and play in. We have UFC. We have WWE. And we have one unannounced thing that I inherited that we’re making really, really cool. I can talk about it later. But we’re really into original IP.

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