Bilson gets to the heart of the new THQ in IGDA Leadership keynote

Keynoting the IGDA Leadership Forum last week, THQ "core games" boss Danny Bilson not only reflected on the publisher's steady turnaround (despite a recent slump), but also focused on its goals for the future. Previously reported updates from Bilson on Homefront, Darksiders 2 and Guillermo Del Toro's project, however, were just mere nuggets from his near hour-long presentation, which kicked off with a retelling of his personal journey from non-interactive media to games.

Back in the late-90s, Bilson recalled, he was working in television in Vancouver -- specifically, on Viper and The Sentinel. During a business trip, a stranger sitting next to him on the plane asked about the scripts Bilson happened to be reviewing. That stranger was Don Mattrick, who was president of Electronic Arts at the time. Bilson would eventually join EA, launching his career in video games.

During his stint at EA, Bilson worked on a number of key franchises, including The Sims, Harry Potter and Medal of Honor. "My passion was always games," he told the audience. "Even when I was making television shows and movies, I cared much more about games. I think I've always wanted to be in the movie rather than watch the movie, which is probably what has driven my passion for games."

In the middle of the last decade, Bilson would depart EA for a leadership position at THQ. His job was initially to "raise the quality bar on games at that company," a task which he didn't take lightly. "As a fan and hardcore gamer, I knew what that label 'THQ' meant on games -- it wasn't pretty, it really wasn't. There were some exceptions over the years, but by and large they built their business on licensed Game Boy games." Bilson saw this as an opportunity.

"... the most important thing to every single game developer I've ever met is to make a great game." - Danny Bilson, THQ VP

With a lack of leaders pushing to raise that bar, Bilson figured he could step in and really "get something done." Upon being hired, the first thing he did was to visit various THQ development studios and see firsthand how they were working. He discovered that a few of these teams didn't actually have anything to work on, and soon after, he got a call from his boss telling him he would have to shut down around half of the publisher's studios. Strangely enough, this same boss was also let go and, after the dust settled, Bilson emerged as a VP and once again took inventory, before he devised the next step for the comapny: reinvent "the green-light system."

At the time, whatever games were being green-lighted (games that were given clearance past the conceptualization stage and approved for development) were entirely up to the marketing department, instead of creative. These two entities, housed on different floors at THQ, apparently held a severe dislike for one another.

"This was abhorrent to me," Bilson said. "I couldn't understand it. The marketers were telling the game developers what to make. They were saying, 'If you do not have these features, this game will not sell.'" He went on to describe the "forecast system," where projected sales from a proposed game would dictate the budget and, of course, the budget would dictate the scope of the game. By manipulating that forecast, individuals in charge could angle for excessive resources. Bilson said he has since "busted up" the practice at THQ. "Any forecast is a forecast -- it's a best guess, they're making it up. But they treat it as a weapon, as revenue."

Bilson and two other executives were now in charge of the company. The head of publishing would soon leave for another position, and then some "marketing guys" got together and proposed that Bilson head up both product development and marketing. "I never in my life considered running marketing and product development," he said, "but when the opportunity came to get control of marketing, that meant I could build a new system, so I said 'yes.'"

At this point, Bilson's duties included reorganizing the company and handling core games -- properties outside of THQ's licensed Nickelodeon and Pixar games. He put an end to "concept research" -- "if we don't know what people want to play, then what are we doing in these jobs?" Bilson believes you've got to be a gamer to do this job. "Those are the only people I'll allow on my exec team," he added.

Once Bilson was able to get his personnel and workflow pipelines in order, it was time for further assessment: What franchises exist, and what types of games should the company focus on going forward? Warhammer 40K stood out, and so THQ got to work on projects that would grow into a Warhammer MMO and a spin-off action game, Space Marine. Including those two titles, THQ plans to release a major, core game every quarter for the next two and half years.

"I knew what that label 'THQ' meant on games -- it wasn't pretty"

"Innovation can't test, because there is no reference," Bilson said. "You can't backwards-look creative. So how do we move forward? We have to move forward on inspiration and a creative center." He referenced Halo as an example -- two people could give two very different reasons for why it's a successful franchise. For Bilson, you can't quantify what makes a hit game.

So, Bilson had executed his plan to integrate the company. Everyone was attending the same meetings and departments were no longer segregated into specific seating areas -- a marketing guy might be sitting next to a product development guy, and son on. The system was in place, now THQ needed to boost its talent. This was Bilson's next goal.

Cue: THQ Montreal. The brand-new studio is not yet fully operational, but Patrice Désilets, former creative director of Ubisoft's Prince of Persia and Assassin's Creed franchises, will soon head up development of new IP there. Bilson said the company's new business structure is a key bargaining chip in its bid to attract talent like Désilets. Nobody's dictated to, and talent is left to do what it does best: create.

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Bilson concluded with another anecdote, this one about THQ's partnership with Tomonobu Itagaki's new studio, Valhalla Game Studios, to create Devil's Third. He was excited by the game and knew he wanted it, but he didn't want to provide too much creative oversight. Itagaki wanted a "collaboration," and Bilson was very much for that. "I don't want to rewrite them," he said of Valhalla. He offers notes, but that's about it. According Bilson, this is creative management: "enabling talent to get their vision through and not getting corrupted by too many outside forces."

Bilson's speech before the IGDA Leadership Forum audience was a candid and no doubt inspirational look at the inner workings of a company that has remodeled itself to support creative vision and execution. Of course, as he freely admits, THQ's obligation is to its stockholders -- gotta sell games. Lucky for us, the only way Bilson knows how to do that is with inspired content.

[Pictured: Bilson at a THQ Montreal press conference (top); Warhammer 40,0000: Space Marine (middle)]

This article was originally published on Joystiq.