“I think by Ubisoft’s standards it was an outrageously advantageous contract. By our standards, it was the kind of contract that you give to an individual who creates a franchise like Assassin’s Creed, and deserves a certain amount of control of his destiny.”
I don’t know why, but as soon as I mentioned 1666: Amsterdam, Bilson gave a little chuckle, and when I mentioned it’s the focus of something of a legal tussle between Ubisoft and creator Patrice Désilets, he laughed again.
Intrigued, I brought up recent speculation that the project was paused, but not cancelled, so that Ubisoft could avoid the consequences of a supposedly outrageously advantageous contract brokered between THQ and Désilets.
“I think by their standards it was an outrageously advantageous contract,” Bilson said of Ubisoft.
“By our standards, it was the kind of contract that you give to an individual who creates a franchise like Assassin’s Creed, and deserves a certain amount of control of his destiny. A lot of what they probably didn’t like was that Patrice had a certain amount of independence to build that game and to continue with that team as he saw fit.
“I was always a big believer in if we have a good relationship and we support him towards making a great game, and it is a great game, we’ll be working together for years. It doesn’t matter that the contract says he has an option not to continue.
“I understand that by Ubisoft’s standards that contract was way more favourable to the creator than I think Ubisoft was comfortable with.”
Bilson’s voice dropped considerably as he impersonated Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot saying that Bilson must have been desperate to sign Désilets’ contract.
“I was! I was desperate,” he said. “To bring in the best talent in the world to THQ, to try and rebuild the brand and build a name and build great games for the company. It wasn’t a model that we couldn’t make money on; it was nothing like that.
“It was just that he had a lot of freedom on it, and a lot of control – the way other very successful artists made deals, including Respawn, who has Titanfall. They have a lot of control and ownership over that product. When artists in entertainment prove themselves, are very successful and make tremendous money for their company, I think they deserve a certain amount of respect in the deal. And that was okay with me.”
What is 1666?
Creator Patrice Désilets called it “the new Assassin’s Creed”, and he ought to know since he made the old one.
Ubisoft bought it and developer THQ Montreal at auction, but closed the project down a few months later.
Although he’s not sure of the details, Bilson said he believed 1666 was in pre-production for a year when he left THQ. THQ shuttered seven months later, and Ubisoft held 1666 for five months before closing it down, meaning the project may not even have been in production for a full year.
“We had made a deal with Patrice at the time – there was a non-compete clause that Ubisoft had, where he couldn’t work for a year,” Bilson added.
“So he took a year off before he started 1666. I didn’t know what it was until the year was over and he came and told me what it was. But that’s how much we wanted to bring some of the best talent in the games business to THQ. We were willing to make some of those sacrifices.”
Ubisoft delayed South Park by an entire year after purchasing it at auction. Given Obsidian’s unfortunate reputation, I had to ask – was it a buggy mess when THQ handed it over?
“No! It wasn’t at all,” Bilson insisted. “It was a very unusual game, and it was very dependent on the vision and the labours of Trey Parker and Matt Stone. It was their project. It was an incredible amount of writing, and they had to do it.
“There was a lot of rewriting, I’m sure. Those guys have done brilliant work for something like 18 years, and they really wanted this game to be the South Park game, their South Park, their work, not some interpretation. There was a lot of creative development that went on over the course of the project. If you’re making the funniest game that takes a lot of polish and a lot of work, just on narrative elements, character, dialogue – all those are so important in that game. I don’t think that anyone had ever built a game like that before.
“Obsidian had a plan, and the South Park guys had a plan, of what they could do and how they could do it and when. And to make it awesome, as I absolutely believe it is, it took a lot more time than anybody had planned up front.
“I don’t blame anyone other than the nature of the product and what it took to get it where it is, and I’m so excited that it’s being so well-received. They really did what they said they were going to do.”
Bilson was determined to talk about Evolve, although there’s little mystery about its release via 2K this year.
“I went down and visited the guys at Turtle Rock, who are just super nice and sort of grateful that we gave them their start with this game,” he said.
“I played it for an hour and it was a blast. It’s still a blast. It was a blast three years ago and it’s super fun now and I’m really happy for those guys. You didn’t ask me but I had to tell you because I was really excited.”
Red Faction: Armageddon
I asked Bilson what on earth had happened to Red Faction, a well-received series which suddenly went tits up with Armageddon.
“I know. I’ll tell you what happened there. Red Faction: Armageddon was already in pre-production when I first came to THQ, because Red Faction: Guerrilla was going to ship that year, so the other one was well under way,” he said.
“One of the strategies was, they wanted to have better art quality than Guerrilla. So that drove them to closing off the spaces originally. They weren’t drawing huge open worlds, they could really focus on the art quality.”
This decision was made before Bilson came on the project, he said, but thanks to a tight ship date, more and more content was cut as time went on, with the sacrifice of multiple open-world hubs Bilson himself really loved.
“The big mistake was trying to improve on Guerrilla,” he said. “I think we would have been much better off if we had built another open world, Saints Row, Guerrilla type game.
“What it turned into was a corridor shooter, comparable to other single-player shooters. People weren’t thinking about the cool physics, they were thinking about, how does it compare to first-person shooters? We lost all the fun of the open world, and we ended up being seen as a Dead Space competitor, or something like that, which was never the intention.”
Bilson said he believes Volition would agree with his assessment, and noted that while Guerrilla was “well-respected”, it itself hadn’t sold very well, and THQ made a mistake in assuming the audience for Armageddon would be much broader than Guerilla’s sales demonstrated, due to rentals and used game sales.
“Through those guys trying to be good corporate citizens and make a date – that was probably a mistake, in retrospect, trying to hit that ship,” he added.
“But in those days, trying to hit revenue targets for quarters and things like that – it wasn’t just about the game. That game was moved up to hit that target, and they were responsible and professional and hit the target, but the game became not as good as Guerrilla was.”
Although several of these projects are still AWOL, some with no hope of return, a good few have made it to market. For the happy endings, see THQ: where are they now?