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Has THQ’s Demise Made the Game Industry Healthier?
The final pieces of THQ found new homes this week as 505 Games acquired the Drawn To Life series, Gearbox purchased the Homeworld franchise, and Nordic Games scooped up the rest. While the popular publisher is no more, THQ’s demise may lead to an uptick in the overall health of the game industry.
THQ published their first title, Peter Pan and the Pirates, in 1991. For the next 20 years, the company stayed committed to producing licensed games and it was this over-reliance on other people’s characters that likely doomed them. In 2012, THQ severed their partnership with Nickelodeon after similarly parting ways with Pixar in 2010. But by then it was too late.
Even though THQ had earned a place as one of the “major” American publishers, the company was never on solid financial footing. They were always pinballing from success to failure, hoping that the licenses that most of their games were based on didn’t lose favor with the latest crop of kids. After Midway’s closure in 2009, THQ took their place on the proverbial chopping block, even though they were riding (relatively) high from the positive reviews and excellent sales of Saints Row 2, UFC Undisputed 2009, and Red Faction: Guerrilla.
Brian Farrell, THQ’s President and CEO, saw the writing on the wall and steered his company towards original titles that could compete in the AAA marketplace, coming out with games like Devil’s Third, Homefront, Darksiders, Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine, Saints Row: The Third, and Insane. However, the company’s internal studios and external partners weren’t ready for this rapid expansion, and the end result was a few duds, a few hits, and a few games that are no closer to release now then they were three years ago.
This bloat is best exemplified by Danny Bilson, THQ’s former Executive Vice President of Core Games. Unfortunately for THQ, Bilson treated his position at the game publisher like the former Hollywood insider he was. He would say outrageous and inflammatory things in the media because having headlines was more important than having good headlines. And his rampaging style didn’t connect any better with the developers working under him (famously chronicled in this report on Homefront’s development).
But the biggest contributor to THQ’s final fate had to be their baffling decision to bring the uDraw peripheral to the PS3 and Xbox 360. The drawing tablet sold reasonably well on the Wii in the Fall of 2010, but when its availability was expanded to this generation’s high definition consoles a year later, the gaming public avoided it like the plague. Just how badly did the peripheral hurt THQ? They produced 2.4 million uDraw tablets and only managed to ship one million of them to stores. Most of those tablets went unsold and the remaining 1.4 million continue to rot in warehouses to this day. For those who know their video game history, it was an E.T.-level catastrophe.
So what happens now? Now, we take stock of what happened to THQ’s holdings and what we can expect to see from them in the future.
The good news is that the majority of the employees at THQ’s internal development studios were acquired lock, stock, and barrel by new owners. Very few people lost their jobs and most studios continued working on their projects as if nothing had happened. And for some, a new guy writing the checks was seen as a good thing. Volition Senior Producer Jim Boone spoke at a media meet-and-greet during this year’s PAX East and praised new publisher Deep Silver for the light touch they’ve used during the transition period. Not surprisingly, the company that commissioned a “bloody torso statue” for Dead Island: Riptide‘s limited edition hasn’t made any attempts to censor Volition’s vision for Saints Row IV.
Along with the Saints Row franchise and Volition, Deep Silver came away with two big prizes from the first THQ auction: the publishing rights to Metro: Last Light and a step into the world of AAA publishing. Before the release of 2011′s Dead Island, Deep Silver was strictly a producer of budget games. And even after, Dead Island was seen as a huge departure from the company’s typical titles. Now, they’ve acquired the second-largest open-world franchise in gaming and the sequel to one of the most underrated shooters of this generation.
Crytek has always been big. The acquisition of the Homefront franchise and Vigil Games (now Crytek USA) will never overshadow the question that still haunts PC gamers, “Can it run Crysis?” This reputation for combining powerhouse game development with a veritable empire of satellite development studios can only mean good things for a sequel to Bilson’s folly and the company’s first step into the US development scene. The studio formerly known as Vigil Games created an identity for themselves with the two Darksiders games and this tradition will surely continue under Crytek’s watch. They may even get a chance to finish telling their apocalyptic tale because Nordic Games is keen on farming out their publishing projects to outside teams.
While companies like Sega (their acquisition of Relic makes perfect sense considering their current partnership with Creative Assembly) and Ubisoft (Montreal is Ubisoft’s North American base) chose to limit their purchases to a handful of THQ’s biggest franchises and/or teams, Nordic Games clearly believed in quantity over quality.
The Austrian publisher has yet to reveal exactly how many of THQ’s franchises they now own but it’s a substantial number and I believe there’s still plenty of life in franchises like Darksiders, Red Faction, and Destroy All Humans! Although, a third Darksiders game or a fifth Red Faction game might be less ambitious than anything THQ produced as the CEO of Nordic Games, Lars Wingefors, doesn’t consider his company a AAA publisher yet.
So that’s where we are now. Instead of a struggling publisher that constantly battled Wall Street for its very survival, we have two publishers who are expanding their reach, a world-class developer breaking into the US market for the first time, and the sense that everything is going to be alright. THQ’s demise has actually played out in much the same way as Midway’s bankruptcy lead to the rise of WB Games. And we all know how that turned out. Nordic Games, Deep Silver, Crytek USA, and the rest of the gaming community should be so lucky.