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Don’t blame Danny: Bilson’s core games kept THQ afloat

Enigmatic core boss Danny Bilson is out at THQ, and he'll probably be remembered as the digger of the publisher's deepest hole. The assumption's incorrect: it was Bilson that managed to keep the dream alive.

It's carnage. But it’s not Bilson’s business. Bilson’s THQ business was core games, and he spent last few years building up solid franchises, trimming the excess with a ruthless hand and shoring up the rest of the company.

Let's get one thing straight: EVP of core games Danny Bilson was not tar-and-feathered out of THQ. It wasn't THQ's core games division that faltered last year. If anybody were to fall on their sword over the publisher's financial embarrassment, it would probably be CEO Brian Farrell, the bearer of very bad news during the publisher's third quarter financial results.

Speaking to investors in a post-release presentation and Q&A session, a resolute-sounding Farrell defended THQ's decision to strongly back a PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 version of its uDraw tablet, which had sold hugely - if only briefly - on Wii.

"Unfortunately we were wrong," he admitted, citing external reports which favoured the move and pointing another accusing finger at flagging licensed kids games.

Losses were significant, and the four months since have not been easy. THQ's stock plummeted. Lay-offs abounded. Executives took pay cuts. Eventually, Dark Millennium Online had its budget cut, and Tomonobu Itagaki's Devil's Third was dropped. It's unlikely we've seen the end of the damage, and if THQ can't coax investors into a reverse stock split, it will find itself delisted. It's carnage.

But it's not Bilson's mess; uDraw was not Bilson's business. Bilson’s THQ business was core games, and he spent last few years building up solid franchises, trimming the excess with a ruthless hand and shoring up the rest of the company.

Dead weight

Before Bilson arrived in early 2008, THQ was all about licensed kids' games, and its investors were happy with it. Investors like licensed games; in the 1990s and 2000s, licensed games were a goldmine. You'd pay an extortionate license fee, whip up something cheap and nasty and then watch the profits roll in (especially during the holidays, when harried parents latched on anything with a familiar brand among the baffling displays of this "gaming" craze).

That tactic doesn't work any more. There are a number of reasons for this, not the least of which is that the typical consumer of games has changed. Most games are bought by or for informed gamers, who know they want triple-A quality with every purchase. The rising cost of buying games over the last two generations has only sped this trend, and, believe it or not, has not kept pace with the cost of producing them. Cheap and dirty cash-ins no longer produce enough moo at milking time.

Metro: Last Light looks incredible.
It's an IP Bilson backed strongly.

Bilson understood this and was part of a group of senior executives which pushed to get THQ out of licensed games, diverting resources into core releases instead. Since investors are notoriously conservative and licensing contracts take time to dissolve, this process continues today, although a major effort last year certainly helped.

To replace the licensed cash flow, Bilson enacted a simple and elegant strategy: he would double down on fewer, better games. Rather than try to churn out cheap money-makers, he'd narrow focus to a handful of major hits.

It's an approach that has worked for Activision Blizzard and EA, and is increasingly looking like the only viable option for other large publishers hoping to snag the western market, notably Take-Two, Square Enix and Ubisoft. If rumours of rising next generation costs are true, it may be the only possible tack for mainstream publishing.

It's true that Bilson didn't find his mega-hit and saw his share of flops - the Red Faction series saw its demise under his guidance, for example - but it was on his watch that we saw THQ produce or invest in what are likely to be its saving graces over the next few years, while sloughing off the dead weight.

Let's take a look at some of the major projects initiated or built upon during Bilson's tenure as head of core games: Metro 2033 and Last Light; Darksiders and Darksiders II; UFC Undisputed 2010 and 3; WWE Smackdown vs Raw 11, WWE 12 and WWE All-Stars; Homefront and Homefront 2; Red Faction: Armageddon; Saints Row: The Third; Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine; South Park: The Stick of Truth; Company of Heroes 2; Warhammer 40,000: Dark Millenium Online; Guillermo del Toro's inSANE.

Darksiders II is the first big release of
the post-E3 season.

These are not bad games. For all its criticisms, Homefront sold comfortably. Red Faction: Armageddon didn't live up to expectations, and deservedly got the chop. The WWE license has turned into something worth more than the name on the box, and the latest UFC game is a winner. Saints Row: The Third was a modest hit. THQ's upcoming slate is no slimmer than any other major publisher facing the hardware transition, and contains a number of very exciting titles.

This is not a catalogue assembled by an incompetent executive hounded out of office. That Bilson and his sidekick Dave Davis are both leaving the company would be a concern if not for the fact that the strategy the pair promoted and supported through their incumbencies has been THQ's most successful tactic over the last few years, and will continue as the publisher's focus indefinitely. THQ no longer needs a core game division headed by two passionate gamers: it has become a core games publisher.

THQ is going through a series of transitions as it shucks the last of its hangover as a kid-friendly company, and there's nothing to suggest that Bilson and Davis aren't just getting out while the going's good. Don't blame the core games group for THQ's woes. Celebrate it for its capacity to carry THQ into the future.

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