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What really happened to THQ's unfinished games?

The true stories behind Dark Millennium Online, Red Faction: Armageddon, 1666: Amsterdam, South Park and other mysteries from the closing days of THQ, courtesy of former core games boss Danny Bilson.

dark_millenium_online

This interview is a companion piece to THQ: Where are they now? - a round-up of known facts, rumour and speculation regarding major properties held by THQ at or just before the time of its closure.

Games are a weird business, with Hollywood celebrity-level consumer interest dogging projects staffed by hundreds of people. Marketing is a gamble, confidentiality is a nightmare, and PR is hampered by a lack of autonomy and the fickle, unpredictable engagement of a hair-trigger audience.

The result of all this is that there's so much we just don't know. We're spoon fed hundreds of soundbites a week, but the goings on behind the curtains are thoroughly obscured. It can be years or even decades before the stories come out.

Once in a while, though, you find someone in a position to talk who has lots to talk about. One such unicorn is one-time THQ core games head Danny Bilson, a well-connected man who had fingers in so many pies he could have gone into glycemic shock with a few absent-minded licks. This friendly and loquacious gentleman agreed to give us the insider goss on some of THQ's projects, both known and MIA, in the extensive interview below.

Dark Millennium Online

Vigil Games' ill-fated Warhammer 40K MMO was in the works for about 18 months before Bilson joined THQ, he said. The executive was "a big supporter" of the project, which was a passion project led by former NCSoft staffer David Adams, and which Bilson told us was "really, really exciting".

Unfortunately, the project kept going on the backburner, first for Darksiders and later for its sequel. But, Bilson said, by the time Darksiders 2 shipped Dark Millennium Online was "well on its way".

"What happened was, in December of 2011 is sort of when the wheels came off for THQ, and there was a tremendous loss of money in the uDraw situation as well as some tough releases during that year. By the end of the year we had to make cuts," he said.

Two factors contributed to DMO's demise. The first is that MMO's are tremendously expensive to develop. The second is that the MMO business had changed during the years of DMO's incubation.

"I wanted to see what was happening with MMOs, because it was taking years to make and I was kind of anxiously waiting to see what would happen with the Star Wars MMO at EA, to see if the subscription model is over, or whether it would still work," Bilson said.

THQ had been toying with several business models for the project but when Star Wars: The Old Republic "wasn't instantly doing huge numbers and building towards World of Warcraft", the publisher decided to pull out of the MMO space.

"We knew that weren't going to be able to go subscription, and then we lost a ton of cash that year. There was no way we could gamble on the big bet like an MMO," Bilson mourned.

Vigil wasn't ready to give up; THQ announced the project was to be reworked as a multiplayer RPG.

"I think we were calling it Inquisitor; I can't remember for sure. They started to design a game that was going to either be free-to-play or pretty low priced point of entry, that was basically going to be a digital PC title with lots of add-on content," Bilson said.

"We were going to take some of the great stuff they had and redesign it. I remember some things that I really loved, like each player would have their own capital ship and your friends could have quarters on it. You collected all your stuff from your adventures on your ship, and you could customise it.

"Dark Millennium Online became much more like a Borderlands kind of game. It was a four-player co-op jump-in jump out, go on these missions with your friends. I was really excited about that. We felt we could finish that game and ship it within that year."

"Then it was much more like a Borderlands kind of game. It was a four-player co-op jump-in jump out, go on these missions with your friends. I was really excited about that. With the commitment of that year we felt we could finish that game and ship it within that year, which would have been summer of 2013. It would have been last summer."

But in the last month of Bilson's time at THQ, he found himself at loggerheads with some of his colleagues, who wanted the project to be scrapped altogether.

"They felt like, 'Well, we wrote it off; we cancelled the game; we wrote off the investment; we don't wanna invest any more in it.' We had some really heated conversations over it. But ultimately I respectfully did what my boss and some of my partners wanted which was to let it go completely," he said.

"There was a lot of game let go there that was pretty great. The combat system was really fun; it was fast, it was exciting. The art was really great, the world was coming along. I thought it had tremendous potential.

"I was really disappointed when that second iteration that we were calling Inquisitor got cancelled. That was on a Friday, and Monday - I believe the next work day - I left THQ."

Bilson's regret was almost palpable, but he admitted that the project just "didn't make sense" as an expensive MMO.

"I think that business was over, but I thought the refactoring of it did make sense and that was what I was disappointed about. I think that we, as a team, probably held on to that longer than we should have," he said.

"In the state that we were in, if that could really hit, it could change the company. Our models weren't crazy, it had to just work and it could really have helped our company. Brian Farrell and myself and some of the other execs probably held on to that longer than we should in the hopes that it would be a big hit for us.

"But what the team built down in Austin was really exciting and I was very inspired by it. During the whole four and a half years I was there I felt the content they were building was really excellent."

Dark Millennium Online E3 2011 trailer.

InSane - Guillermo del Toro

Bilson said one of the first things his replacement did after he left was to cancel InSane, returning the rights to its creator, filmmaker Guillermo del Toro.

"I haven't heard that he's doing anything with it yet, although I do have an idea how to revive it, and I'm gonna speak to him soon," Bilson said.

"As much as I can tell you about it is that it was an action adventure game with really great environments, story and characters, and it was period and very Lovecraftian. I don't wanna spoil it, in the hope that Guillermo wants to go further with it.

"It was really atmospheric, a great world. There were environments in that game that players have never been through before. It had a really interesting narrative, a really great character that the player inhabited in it.

"It was at Volition for at least a year towards the end there. The people who really worked on it were at Volition. There were probably - I don't remember exactly - about 35 people working on it in preproduction, doing some prototyping and working on some technology, things like that. They were very passionate about it at Volition."

The first teaser trailer for Insane.

Devil's Third

Last time we heard from creator Tomonobu Itagaki, he said Valhalla Game Studios intended to release Devil's Third independently in 2014. What we don't know is who's paying for it. Bilson does know, but wasn't telling.

"I know a whole lot about it. It's funny because that one there's gonna be an announcement about soon. I don't wanna spoil information but I can say I'm very close to Itagaki, and I'm very, very aware of Devil's Third.

"I can't say very much because I believe there's an upcoming announcement beyond what he said in January that's pretty specific and very, very exciting. Even though I'm not working for any of these guys I have to respect all the confidentialities. There's an update coming for sure."

Did uDraw kill THQ?

By February 2012 THQ had been struggling for several years, but it was during its Q3 FY2012 financial report that it revealed just how much pressure it was under, thanks to the failure of peripheral uDraw.

"It wasn't just that. It was a lot of factors. Certainly uDraw was a big hit that we couldn't afford to take that loss at that time," Bilon said.

"But there were other games that didn't perform as well as we wanted during the year that helped us get into that position. But that was a long road from THQ from great success to going out of business.

"It wasn't overnight. It went on for years. When I got there in 2008 it was already getting very difficult and our mission was to turn it around."

Head to the second page for 1666: Amsterdam, South Park and Red Faction: Armageddon.

1666: Amsterdam

“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."

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."

South Park

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."

Evolve

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 didn't sell, but it wasn't due to lack of clever marketing.

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?

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