THQ Nordic has built a successful business out of the dead and rotting leftovers from downtrodden video game studios. Since entering the publishing biz in 2011, its specialty has been acquiring the intellectual property rights for midtier and AAA games and breathing new life into them. THQ Nordic has resurrected and remastered franchises including Darksiders, Jagged Alliance, Red Faction, Desperados and MX vs. ATV, to name just a few.
The studio's latest purchase has been lifeless for six years, but it's a big one. THQ Nordic announced this month that it acquired the rights to Kingdoms of Amalur, the vast fantasy franchise from Rhode Island developer 38 Studios, which went down in flames and infamy in 2012.
Amalur is just the latest limb sewn onto THQ Nordic's undead monster, but it's a clear representation of the company's unique, and so far lucrative, approach to publishing.
THQ Nordic's necromancy
Even THQ Nordic's name is Frankensteinian. Half of it comes from the company's original moniker, Nordic Games, but the other half is a nod to THQ, a popular-yet-doomed publisher that Nordic absorbed in 2013.
Lars Eric Olof Wingefors founded Nordic Games in 2011, after a few years of attempting to establish physical video-game stores and develop titles in-house. It got a taste for acquisition in its first year as a company, absorbing prolific Austrian publisher JoWooD Entertainment and all of its titles, including the SpellForce series. Nordic Games focused on European publishing and stayed afloat for a few years.
By the time THQ, one of the most popular video-game publishers in North America, filed for bankruptcy in 2013, Nordic was ready to expand its acquisition model. THQ had been around since the early 1990s and it was the powerhouse publisher behind Saints Row, Darksiders, Red Faction, De Blob, Warhammer, official WWE and UFC games, and a litany of other licensed properties.
THQ was publicly falling apart by 2012, bleeding cash and studios, and in December it filed for bankruptcy. This meant THQ was able to liquidate and sell off its assets -- meaning all of its remaining video-game franchises. Speculation flared as to which publishers would pick up the pieces, with Ubisoft, Sega, Take-Two, Crytek and other major names circling their wagons.
There were two rounds of the THQ auction. At the end of the second, one studio had clearly come out with more THQ properties than any other: Nordic Games, a Vienna-based publisher that most North American players had never heard of. Executives went on a mini press tour answering questions like, "Who the fuck is Nordic?"
Nordic spent $4.9 million to acquire Darksiders, Red Faction, MX vs ATV and a handful of other properties. Meanwhile, Sega had spent $26.6 million to pick up Company of Heroes and its studio; Take-Two paid $10.9 million for Evolve; and Koch Media (Deep Silver) paid a combined $28.2 million for Saints Row and Metro. This was a serious investment for Nordic, but in terms of dollars spent, its budget paled in comparison to other established publishers.
"Saints Row went for $22 million and Koch bought that development studio with that burn rate on a daily basis," Wingefors said in 2013. "Even though I do have financial resources, I don't have those kinds of resources."
Nordic Games may not have had that kind of cash, but THQ Nordic certainly does.
The company continued buying up dead franchises from a range of studios, including Atari and DTP Entertainment. It changed its name to THQ Nordic in August 2016, hoping to demonstrate its commitment to THQ's franchises and tap into player nostalgia.
In February of this year, THQ Nordic bought Koch Media, the parent company of Dead Island developer Deep Silver, for €121 million ($140 million). That purchase included the rights to former THQ vehicles Saints Row, Metro and Homefront, the latter of which Koch had previously bought from Crytek.
Today, Nordic Games is the steward of nearly 200 previously-owned properties and it has 10 subsidiary studios, including Koch Media. It also picked up the rights to TimeSplitters and Second Sight this year, but its most recent acquisition, the Kingdoms of Amalur IP from defunct developer 38 Studios, could be its most high-profile resurrection yet.
The death of a kingdom
Pro baseball veteran Curt Schilling founded 38 Studios in 2006 and brought along a handful of high-profile creatives, such as Spawn creator Todd McFarlane and legendary fantasy author RA Salvatore. He dreamed of developing an expansive fantasy MMO that would live online for decades, and the linear role-playing game Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning was the first step toward that goal.
Schilling found funding for his studio in an unprecedented place: the state of Rhode Island. In 2010, the Economic Development Corp. of Rhode Island agreed to lend 38 Studios $75 million in an unsecured loan, even as critics warned lawmakers about the volatility of the game-development industry. Schilling argued the business would bring 450 jobs to the state over the next two years, as developers finished Reckoning and started pre-production on the MMO.
The MMO was codenamed Project Copernicus, but it never saw the light of day.
Just four months after launching Reckoning, its first and only title, 38 Studios filed for bankruptcy. The game sold fairly well and received generally favorable reviews, but the studio's overhead -- supporting a new RPG franchise while attempting to build a massive MMO at the same time -- was too high for sales alone to support. MMOs often cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build and maintain; World of Warcraft cost Blizzard $200 million in its first four years on the market -- that's after work on the core game was finished. 38 Studios gobbled up that $75 million loan quickly and crossed its fingers for impossible sales figures.
By the time 38 Studios filed for bankruptcy in June 2012, Rhode Island taxpayers were on the hook for $112.6 million (that's interest for you) and the Amalur franchise, including Copernicus, flatlined.
Six years later, in September 2018, the Amalur heart monitor started beeping.
A new monster
THQ Nordic isn't sharing any concrete plans for Reckoning or Project Copernicus, and there's plenty of negotiating to do. Electronic Arts still holds the publishing rights to Reckoning, for starters, and diving into MMO development is a risky move, as THQ itself proved years ago.
"We know what the burning questions [remaster, remake, port to current-gen systems etc.] are, but we decided to not answer those specifically as we tend to put our heads together first and then do our homework, and only start to talk about anything once we feel confident and very familiar with the franchise," a spokesperson told Eurogamer after news of the Amalur acquisition broke.
THQ Nordic has a track record of not only buying defunct IPs, but also turning them into something new, whether that's a new entry in the series or a remastered edition for current-gen systems. Reckoning could have been the start of a longstanding fantasy series, had it not been mismanaged financially, and THQ Nordic now has the opportunity to play out this scenario -- just six years and a few million dollars later.