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THQ's teams will be given the resources to thrive, says new president
THQ's teams will be given the resources to thrive, says new president Exclusive
June 7, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander

June 7, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Business/Marketing, Exclusive, E3

THQ's new president, Naughty Dog co-founder Jason Rubin, has a big turnaround on his hands. But he believes lessons from his time with Naughty Dog will help him lead his new studios -- and that the most important thing the company needs now is the right conditions to thrive.

Rubin is hitting the ground running: He heads to E3 with THQ after only seven days officially on the job. "It was tough," he admits, sitting down with Gamasutra in a meeting room at THQ's booth, where banners for Darksiders II, Saints Row The Third and Metro: Last Light proclaimed the publisher's strongest owned IP. Last E3, Gamasutra interviewed former core games EVP Danny Bilson as Jimmy Buffett music heralded Margaritaville Online in the background.

Rubin co-founded Naughty Dog in 1984 with partner Andy Gavin when the two were just 15 years old. First step: Learn how to make games. Once the knowledge was there, the structure followed, Rubin says, and a partnership with Sony created an atmosphere most conducive to talent.

In the case of THQ, the talent and the structure is already there, he says. However: "The atmosphere under which they have been making games is not nearly as conducive as Sony, to put it mildly. They've had a hard time."

How THQ's teams can compete

THQ is the subject of some dire news headlines lately, with widening losses even alongside increasing sales. After a significant investment in its uDraw peripheral that didn't bear fruit, plus the contraction of the kids' game market that once was quite strong for the publisher, it lost its UFC license -- another former bright spot -- to Electronic Arts.

"What I plan to do here is give teams the ability to compete," Rubin says. Volition's work on Saints Row demonstrates the breadth of gameplay and variety the teams are able to create, he says.

"And the engine itself is capable of doing something great. [Saints Row] is capable of being a Red Dead Redemption... but not given the proper assets, not given a deadline that was long enough, they've ended up with a game that was extremely popular," Rubin continues. Yet with better resource allocation, he believes the Volition team has the opportunity to fulfill a large field of unexplored potential.

"With Red Dead Redemption, the guys had enough money to do visuals, gameplay and story," he says. "In Saints Row, they had to pick a subset of that, but I think that team has the capability to do everything."

Why, then, were capable teams languishing in a non-conducive environment? "I don't want to linger in the past," asserts Rubin, "but they were not given the appropriate resources. They were not allowed to have a long-term enough approach to making games from a planning and decision-making process standpoint."

"The company is in very good shape financially," Rubin states. "And I'm very disciplined, so I will not be starting a significant number of different things until money comes in, and that will give us a buffer."

Rubin says one takeaway from his time at Naughty Dog is that teams stay on schedule when resources don't feel tight: In other words, given larger budgets, teams are more likely to hit milestones. Precise scheduling will be key to turning THQ's fortunes around. Another way to keep on task and meet goals is to stridently avoid feature creep, even if something seems like a genuinely good idea.

"There are other people who are cleary of the school of thought where you make the game and let it iterate until it becomes good," he says. "Games that take five or more years clearly could have been done in less if they knew their targets from the beginning."

The changing market

For a number of years, it seems THQ modeled itself on EA, dividing its businesses into tiers and aiming for a similarly-balanced product mix. But now that the kids' market has changed and THQ has little footing in the digital and social space, for now the "pillar" strategy is over, says Rubin.

"We're only going to have one pillar, and that's core," he says. The kids' biz changed because the market did, and not because of any bad choices on THQ's part, Rubin points out. "A child that is 5-10 years old doesn't care whether a game is 99 cents or $60... kids easily adapted to smaller, cheaper titles, and parents were more than happy to give them those. It's very different than the core gamer."

"I think there's been much talk of social and mobile killing the core business -- I don't put much merit in that," he adds.

But what will change is the market values that move games, in an environment where currently all core games are laterally compared across the same price point, and it's budget size and marketing spend that determines which title users take off a shelf first.

"I think that's going to change," he continues. "And when it does, I think there's going to be a much larger variety of titles."

Games like World of Tanks, League of Legends or even Portal don't laterally compete with Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty, but they find passionate audiences and earn a lot of money. Those successes are actually heralds of a broadening industry, not the narrowing of the core audience or the doubling-down on familiar genres that many might be forgiven for assuming is E3's main takeaway.

To Rubin, that so many E3 attendees are excited about Obsidian's South Park: Stick of Truth RPG in an environment where Halo, Call of Duty and Assassin's Creed are driving anticipation for the latest sequels speaks to the appetite for new things. The company's games are being favorably received by the consumer press at E3, he says.

"At the end of the day, my experience with developers is... the most important thing is to make great titles. If they know they're going to be able to, they believe, and I believe those titels will find an audience one way or another," Rubin says. Even if financial headlines and question marks about the publisher's future continue, "if I can prove to them I'm going to make their lives easier, they're fine with that. They can shut out all that other crap."

"If you set people up right, they will succeed," says Rubin.

For more reports from E3 2012, be sure to check out Gamasutra's live coverage.

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Harlan Sumgui
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sounds like a fantastic hire for thq. I hope he has enough time and money to see some of his projects come through.

Luke Quinn
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Interesting interview.
I had all but written THQ off, but this guy talks a pretty good game.
I think a shift into new more mature IPs might make enough hits to turn THQs image around.
I love Saints Row AND Red Dead, so that point piqued my interest, and to me the loss of the UFC license means they now have a fighting engine that they can go nuts with and experiment with sans the restraints of it having to resemble real people in the real world.
Good luck and stay away from licensed games from now on. :)

Brian Ewoldt
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I wish him luck, but most stock driven companies have a slash and burn attitude.

Eric Geer
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THQ has some exciting things coming down the pike. After reading this--there is more reason to get excited.

inSANE, Warhammer 40,000: Dark Millennium, Metro: Last Light, Homefront 2, South Park: The Stick of Truth

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Jack Lee
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@ Dave Well, the MMO aspect of it is dead. Didn't they give interviews confirming that it's being retooled into a single-player game? I hope I'm not making that up, because I would like to see that.

Michael DeFazio
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The problem as I see it (if I were put in Jason's shoes) is that, most of all the "core gamer" IP THQ owns seem to directly compete with massively successful mainstream IP.

Warhammer 40K, Company of Heroes (Starcraft)
Homefront (CoD)
Saints Row (GTA)
DarkSiders (God Of War)

...So, realistically they are resigned to "second place" for those Ips, and they have to try to scratch, claw, and market the hell out of their games to garner interest from those who are well satisfied and may rather "rent" or "pass" on their offerings. (They really need a best in breed cash-cow)

I prefer many of THQ's offerings (CoH, Saints Row) to the more "mainstream" equivalents, and I want them to do well, but here's to hoping they can develop something totally new and innovative (SouthPark?) that can sustain them for the long haul.

Luke Skywalker
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If nothing else he should provide a nice sparring partner for Strauss Zelnick.

Jr Hawkins
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I'm curious to see if Rubin can actually turn THQ around. Pretty much THQ is left w/ 4 studios 1 of which hasn't released a single title. Relic and Volition are super talented but you can't really hold up an entire publisher w/ 2 studios.

One of the downsides of THQ has always been marketing which Rubin hasn't touched on at all. They've always relied on outside franchises to do the marketing for them, and it's really hurt them in this modern market. Marketing is the only thing that could turn THQ around. Sony does a great job on marketing which could help or hurt THQ under Rubin's rule. It'll help if Rubin learned from Sony, and understands marketing and how to recruit good marketing talent. If Sony just held Rubin's hand through the marketing processes then THQ is dead in the water.

There's also the Sony acquisition theory which is sorta crazy, but totally makes sense if Sony wanted to buy THQ. It's also likely Rubin is using this as a stepping stone experience to gain other lead positions at another Publisher.

Alternate Procellous
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What? THQ has their own internal marketing team and, contrary to popular belief, they are not all idiots. That doesn't mean there haven't been some mistakes, or that the THQ brand isn't weaker than their competitors' due to those mistakes, but I am not entirely sure you are well informed on the subject.

By the way, the most effective form of marketing in this "modern market" of yours is word of mouth. While a clever ad campaign coupled with some smart PR can help, we often buy games because our friends tell us we should. You build that kind of buzz by creating novel experiences, memorable IP, and a high quality product. These are the kinds of things THQ has always had a problem with. Rubin is, assuming all I've read is true, a smart choice.

Jr Hawkins
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So Alternate Procellous thinks the quality of developers are to blame, and I think that the marketing team is to blame. So let's look at THQ's top titles, and compare quality of the product to it's marketing campaign and sales.

Saints Row is easily THQ's golden goose. It gets good reviews, loyal fans, and is a favorite title of many icons in the gaming media. I'll admit marketing to Saints Row is good, but since it's THQ's top title it's not enough. THQ's marketing for Saint's Row 3 was pretty much the same marketing EA, and Ubisoft does for all their AAA titles.

UFC + WWE have a combined potential buyers akin to a power house like Madden yet they fall short in sales. Obviously it's not a quality issue since Yuke's has got great metecritic reviews from UFC, and WWE's metecritic is about on par w/ madden.

Warhammer 40k: I actually have no clue how financially successful the Dawn of War series actually is. Sure it's profitable, but is it really hitting sales marks where it should. While throwing money and resources into production would probably increase the quality of the title would it really increase the sales if nobody hears about it?

Darksiders: A prime example of THQ's marketing department. Despite being a novel experience, memorable IP, and a high quality product it's sales were dismal. Analyst Todd Greenwald said THQ "spent fairly heavily" on marketing for the title -- without much result." Considering THQ is banking on Darksiders 2 this year to give them some traction they really need to turn the marketing campaign around.

De Blob: Might of been crap shoot from the start, but it's another novel experience, memorable IP, and a high quality product from THQ. I don't know the first thing about marketing towards kids so I can't really say if THQ did this right and it was doomed to fail, or it was just a bad idea trying to be a 3rd party kids title on the Wii.

Red Faction: We always see advertisements show off how ground breaking destruction in their games. Except from the advertisements for the game series that had environmental destruction years beyond the competition. If you really wanna see a comparison of THQ marketing and EA marketing look a Battlefield BC2, and compare them with Red Faction ads.

So from this list we have plenty of examples of novel experiences, memorable IPs, and a high quality products. I can come up w/ several marketing successes for EA, Ubisoft, 2K, and Activision, but not THQ.

Clinton Keith
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"Given larger budgets, teams are more likely to hit milestones. Precise scheduling will be key to turning THQ's fortunes around".

Good luck with that strategy. Hopefully this is being said for the benefit of the shareholders, who might not understand the difference between making games and manufacturing.

John Woznack
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Rubin can always entice employees with generous amounts of stock options... :P