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.