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AusGamers Danny "THQ" Bilson Interview
Post by Steve Farrelly @ 05:37pm 23/11/10 | Comments
AusGamers talks with THQ's Danny Bilson, executive VP of Core Games, about the company's overall strategy, and what's in store in the future for THQ...

Watch the full interview embedded above, or download it right here.

AusGamers: Ok guys welcome back to TGS, AusGamers are with you once again. We've got a special treat today: Danny Bilson. Who's basically the guy that makes sure that all the good THQ games that you play get out the door, and if they're not good enough then he won't let them out the door -- that's how important he is!

Danny thanks for joining us today. Let's start with that, let's start with quality control and the fact that you guys -- in the last, easily the last five years -- have built this reputation that a) you take risks, but b) when you do take the risks they pay off, because of that quality control and assurance. How does that process work for you guys and how important is that kind of stringent ethos of "we're going to take risks but make sure that they're really well controlled".

Danny Bilson: Well risk isn't always controlled -- it's just risk. I think that the key thing with us is, we've gotta play the games. We're a company now, of gamers -- in the core side, we really are a bunch of guys who play -- and some ladies too. When I came to THQ about two and a half years ago, I inherited a sort of improvement program but I really stepped on the gas, in terms of... the world has changed a lot. Back when I started in the games business in the late 90s, I think people bought video games because they were video games and video games were cool. Now with less disposable income, how many expensive games can a gamer buy at any one time? You can't really go into a shop and walk out with three games any more at the prices they're at. So we have to be really good; and the competition has to be really good; and the competition is really good.

So I play most everything I like; I play lots of games all the time and I know how good the other guys are and I know what kind of bar we have to meet. Now the other thing I've learned in my time in the game business is that anybody who makes games cares about one thing more than anything else. I'm talking about the guys in the studios. They care more about making a great game and having the ability to make a great game, than I really believe they care about their pay-check. I've learned this in my time in the business, it's kind of an amazing thing. So a happy developer is a developer that knows that with what he's working on he has the opportunity to ship something great. A developer who knows their game is going to get rushed out the door, or they don't believe in it, is a very guy or lady -- it's a really difficult thing. Great games work for everyone and I think that for us... because I run both the studio and the marketing, and we put them together, and we're very closely partnered at THQ. And all of us really know where our games are at and where the other guy's games are at and how competitive we have to be.

So hopefully here, like at TGS you're seeing, whether it's Red Faction or Homefront or Space Marine or even the wrestling games, that they're really of a very, very high quality. That's been a big mission at THQ, to raise the bar, raise the perception of a company that started out sort of doing a lot of licensed games and kids stuff in the old days. And now really, the big business is in core games and we have a bunch of core gamers, managing a bunch of core gamers who are making those games. And I think that if we don't ship them -- that's kind of the secret right? -- don't ship them until it's great. All these games you're seeing have had time extensions on them, that's why they look so good.

AG: How do you manage that though, as a business that needs to make money and a business that needs to get out there into the market so that you are competing at the right level at he right time?

Danny: I think the most important time for now is the window and what the competition is when the game comes out. We have the Wall Street considerations of the fiscal year and all of that which is really important, but the window I think is even more important. Because when somebody can only buy one game -- for instance, when Red Dead [Redemption] hit in May it was an awesome game...

AG: There was nothing else around!

Danny: We were around with our new UFC game, but again if you only have so much money and you're only gonna buy one game, you're gonna buy a new experience and an awesome experience; and we want our games in that window to be the awesome experience for that window. So that's really important. The only thing that's tough is the fiscal year. That's where things get really wacky when we have to have so much revenue in a fiscal year, and that's where a game can get jammed in. But even this year, we just announced last week that we're moving Red Faction [Armageddon] out of the fiscal year, two months later to May. And that one had a lot to do with the window, it was getting really crowded in March with everybody trying to shove their games in at the end of the fiscal year. And for us, we also didn't want to split focus for our teams who are selling the games between Homefront and Red Faction -- we want each of them to have a full blown launch, with everybody's energy working on those and then separate them. So what you'll see at THQ is pretty much a blockbuster game every quarter.

But you know, the reality is, all of them can't be mega hits. I mean I wish they could, it'd be fantastic. But it's more like the movie business where one blockbuster that blows out will cover one that made a little money and one that lost money and it'll balance it out and allow for the risk, the creative risk on all three products. That's sort of our strategy now. It might be a little unique and radical, but everything is about artistic risk. Because the gamers don't want to play the same thing they played before and if you're trying to make something that you saw and you know worked before, I as a game go "well I've kind of been there already, it just looks like a re-painted version of that" and if I'm going to spend $60 U.S. it better be a lot of value, that's a lot of money. So that's what we're really concerned about, is giving players the best experience we can and a lot of times it has to be risky. I always tell the marketing guys "Star Wars tested like crap... they were afraid Avatar wasn't going to work because it was new" and I'm a big believer in new and innovative is where to be. And sometimes we won't hit, but sometimes we will and we'll hit really big.

AG: Do you find it frustrating as a gamer but also as a business-person, and looking at the landscape, at all the other companies out there that have equally amazing IPs, but they do sit by that fiscal year problem and fail to really see that they can foster the creativity and the imagination and therefore the quality of their games? Do you ever sit back and go "how are you guys not seeing this?".

Danny: I guess I have to be happy when they don't see it, because we're competing really hard with really smart people. The thing is, that there's something called IP fatigue, that no matter how good it is, if you're giving me the same thing painted sort of different every year, at a certain point I'm gonna go "well I want something new". So what the other guys are doing, I watch their games, but when you look at... here's an example again: a Red Dead, where they invested a tonne of money and gave them a lot of years to get a new and very awesome experience, you can win. Now if you can get a pace of those -- at least as I said, one a quarter as we're trying to do -- I think it can work out. But if you're talking about the competition, I'm happy for the competition to trip, any time. Because again, it'll give us a window for people to look at our games.

AG: There seems to be -- and this goes back to kind of fostering that quality assurance -- there seems to be a lot of looking at what everyone else is doing, and doing the absolute opposite. A really good example is that Homefront -- and this is maybe a small thing -- but dedicated servers for PC and not locked into any specific type of dedicated server system. Everybody's tripped up on that, the entire Internet have kind of thrown their arms up in despair at all the other companies doing it. And you guys come out and go "actually we're going to do this" and immediately that's one gate open for everybody and you guys can do that. Does that trickle all the way up to you? Are you the guy...

Danny: Absolutely. You said it yourself and that's exactly what we do; "what aren't they doing?". How do we differentiate? How are we special? How are we more important? I'll tell you something else about Homefront: The PC game has eight times the budget of a PC port. It's fully funded to be a great PC game. And Frank DeLise who was the original builder of Desert Combat for Battlefield -- and founded Kaos then went into semi-retirement for a minute and couldn't stand it -- he's running that PC game and making an unbelievably game for PC gamers. It has unique features, it has cockpits in all the vehicles. They're doing an unbelievable job on that PC game. So for a PC shooter player, which I was for many years and still would like to be, that's going to be the version of Homefront to play. If you're a console guy who was born and bred on Call of Duty -- like you played yesterday, that's the console version. We've invested a lot of money to make a very robust PC game for PC gamers and that's really exciting. There's a lot of people out there with PCs that grew up with a mouse and keyboard for shooters like me and Frank, who's an expert at that, and he's really focused his talent on that. We showed it at GamesCom in Germany, the PC version and we'll be showing that later on, but that's a big strategy of ours. You said it, it's "what are they doing? Let's do something else".

AG: Because it seems to be this idea that console, or "platform parity" -- making sure that the experience is the same across all platforms across the board -- is the new direction, because everyone doesn't want anybody else to feel like they're missing out. But by and large, you just said and that's that people are bred on different systems. Like I played a lot of everything, because that's my job (and it's a hard job). But by and large, I play console shooters, but I know that a lot of our readers play PC shooters. And I don't have a problem with PC shooters working for those guys, because I think that you've got to foster that. Otherwise you're just going to piss people off.

Danny: Right. Well we're in a world where people consume content in a much more specialised way. The Internet allows for that right? You get what you want, when you want it. So that's a culture in the entertainment business. It's a parody, I don't know, it makes no sense except for the platform guys who don't want one guy to have a leg up on the other -- a perceived leg up. But again, you're gonna see us, and our core team, investing a lot in PC. And making versions of our games for PC. As a matter of fact, next week, Darksiders PC comes out, with a very unique set of controls for the PC gamer. It's not "oh it's a console game and it's just lousy on the PC", it's actually really great. We're getting higher Metacritics on the PC version than we did on the console version so far. The console one was 83-84 and we're seeing 87s, 88s, 89s now on the PC version. So that's really exciting and it doesn't even matter that much if it comes out at the same time, because the studio that built the console game, built the PC after they finished the other one, while they were starting pre-production on the new game.

AG: Is that really important for you guys to... again a lot of the PC guys are missing out because either ports come afterwards or people are testing the waters with new IPs in the console market because it seems like a safe bet. But having that idea right from the outset that "ok well we know that are strengths are right now, building this on the console and then we're going to focus solely on the PC to give that the PC players and make sure that that...". Again I'm dancing around the same bush, you guys are all about quality control and making sure that everything is done properly.

Danny: Yeah, but you know what else? One of our big competitors -- a company I used to work at -- said "we're not going to make PC much any more". I was like "fantastic!" cause we're going to go really hard at it. There's tonnes of PCs out there. They were the same guys that said last year that "we're going to do 50% of our development on Wii" and I was like "okay, go ahead". You know what I mean? In core, we make very few Wii games in core because that's not our audience. That's the kid's/family casual audience and they make lots of stuff on the Wii. I think the only thing we have on Wii is, well de Blob, which is a unique core game, and WWE I think because that's more of a mass game.

But most of our stuff isn't on the Wii. We are going to do some interesting stuff on 3DS because that's pretty cool.

AG: I was going to ask you about that.

Danny: Yeah, I think core gamers are going to dig that because it's cool and Nintendo's really interested in getting core gamers on the platform, not just kids. So we're gonna announce two or three really interesting things on the 3DS.

AG: You guys are a core company and have a bunch of core games: Darksiders would be awesome on 3DS.

Danny: Yeah it would. And when I announce what we're doing on 3DS you'll think that's pretty cool too.

AG: Moving forward, next year you've got Homefront, you've got Red Faction: Armageddon, you've got Space Marine...

Danny: And an obvious sequel that we haven't announced yet for one of our biggest franchises.

AG: I can't wait for that one.

Danny: I can't talk about it, but it's got all brand new tech and it's awesome. I won't say fucking awesome, but it is.

AG: Moving beyond that, obviously as a company you guys have a massively long-term goal. Are we going to see some new IPs or are you guys going to...

Danny: Yeah, as a matter of fact, what our new mission really is, is acquiring the best talent in the industry to make games for us. So it started with Itagaki-san and the Devil's Third game which we've announced. We're going to announce -- in about a month -- a new peice of talent who's make one of the greatest franchise in games in the last five years joining us [since announced as Patrice Désilets of Assassin's Creed fame]. Then we're going to announced a very interesting film-maker who's going to be working on a trilogy of games with us, who's a hardcore gamer [since announced as Guillermo Del Toro].

AG: I think I know who that is.

Danny You might know who it is, there have been rumours all over the Internet. He's spread a few; I've spread a few. We've become really good friends and I'm really excited about that trilogy. We're really interested in working with some of the best talent in the world. We have two games coming out on Xbox Live from Tim Schafer's studio -- another fantastic talent, want to do more work with Tim -- so you're going to see us working with what I think are some of the best game makers in the world, who're becoming more and more interested in working with us as we've changed our strategy to an "artist first" company. That's really what we're doing, because I come from creative myself. I don't come from the business side. So when a creative guy's running the business, we can set up systems and sort of respect vision in a way that we're uniquely set up to do.

AG: Awesome. Well we'll cut it out there Danny because I could just talk to you forever about all of this.

Danny: Yeah, I could talk forever too [laughs].

AG: But thanks so much, you guys are doing an awesome job, such a great stable of games and I want a person email when that "sequel" is actually announced, because I'm really looking forward to it.

Danny: I don't think we're going to announced it officially until like February, March, something like that. But you know what it is.

AG: Yeah, I know what it is [laughs]. Alright thanks Danny, cheers.

Danny: Cool

Latest Comments
Posted 08:41pm 23/11/10
Very good interview Steve, I appreciate the PC related questions :D. I'd read some interviews with him around the web recently and really like what he's had to say and video interview FTW.

Also what is the release date or expected delay on the PC version of Homefront? His comments have me interested to see if it's true that the delay will be justified with unique features or if it's just the usual BS excuse for PC delay.

Unrelated... I'm glad that they have finally put MX Vs. ATV Reflex on PC and for only $20. Win.
Posted 09:12pm 23/11/10
At the moment there's no disparity between the platform's release dates for Homefront. Unlike Darksiders, the PC version is due at the same time as PS3 and X360 (March 11 2010 for Australia).

They have a separate studio (Digital Extremes in Canada) working the PC version specifically, with Frank DeLise overseeing it. Often it might be concerning that an external studio is working on a "port" of the game for a specific platform, but I think in this case it's definitely a good thing. DeLise knows PC gaming (founder of KAOS Studios and creator of Desert Combat BF1942 mod) and Digital Extremes are Unreal Engine vets. If anyone can tame UE3 for better PC support, it's those guys.
Posted 09:34pm 23/11/10
Nice, thx dan.
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