E3 2011 ought to have put some of the rumbling about the "death of the traditional industry" to rest: AAA core games were more than alive and well this year, taking center stage.
However, the space is more competitive than ever, and publishers are needing to get especially creative: they approach a core space in a state of rapid evolution, with social features, motion controls and other innovations becoming essential considerations.
At THQ, the landscape and its new, untested frontiers fall squarely into the lap of Danny Bilson, president of the company's Core Games division.
The publisher's shooting for a robust lineup, including two UFC games, Undisputed and Personal Trainer, a WWE title, Saint's Row: The Third, three entries into the Warhammer 40,000 franchise, the multiplatform (and Wii U launch title) Darksiders 2, and cult sequel Metro: Last Light, which gave an intriguing showing at E3. There are also "a few we haven't announced yet," he tells us.
The publisher also demonstrated Margaritaville Online, an upcoming social game for Facebook and iOS platforms that's based in the lifestyle and music of tropical paradise-loving musician Jimmy Buffett, that allows users to build their own resort on Facebook and take it with them on mobile devices.
The definition of "social game" is rapidly changing: THQ, like Activision with Call of Duty's Elite service and Electronic Arts with its social wrappers for its sports titles, is looking at multiplatform community-building around core properties, versus the older, narrower Facebook-casual-game definition.
So if everyone is playing socially, does that pose focal challenges for THQ, which treats core games and family/casual games as separate divisions? In Bilson's view, terminology has little to do with the universal concept of building community around games and extending properties digitally.
"A core gamer, to me, are the people who built this industry... who look forward to games, who preorder games, who are willing to spend $60 on a deep, epic experience. They compare their scores and the differences in their experiences together, and they tend to explore the big, rich universes that video games allow," Bilson says, adding, "I'm one of those people."
Designing social features for core audiences are "the same as for any audience, in my mind," says Bilson. "Social networks are culturally appropriate to the group that's in it. It's organic... core gamers will use a social network in a way that enhances their experience too, because they tend to be networked with other core gamers."
THQ is going to do "a lot of" the sort of extensions that let players connect games leaderboards to real live social networks. In addition, "we're looking at iOS and Android to extend our experiences, use them for community and connect them to some of our larger games. You're not going to see from us a number of phone-only games, because we really need to focus in certain areas, and we're not so big that we're going to have big units on everything, so we're being very selective on where we focus."
Bilson's particularly proud of hiring Assassin's Creed's Patrice Desilets, with whom he'll just now begin discussing new ideas. "He is unleashed on us," Bilson laughs. The company has also been working with former Team Ninja boss Tomonobu Itagaki on Devil's Third for almost two years, and plans to premiere it at this year's Tokyo Game Show.
Bilson says he's working closely with Guillermo del Toro on InSane, and during E3 the company revealed its partnership with Turtle Rock Studios, which is making what Bilson calls "the coolest design I've ever seen in my life... really innovative."
UFC Personal Trainer for Kinect and Darksiders 2 on Wii U join THQ's UDraw peripheral, launched last year, in demonstrating the company's interest in supporting new input technology. But this year's E3 showed an even stronger Kinect push from Microsoft into genres that are relatively unexplored for the device. Asked about Kinect, Bilson says, "I like it a lot; I like the creative possibilities that the controller allows."
Kinect has seen rapid success among dance and fitness game audiences, and Bilson believes that there are definitely further applications for the device in the core space, and that the tech itself doesn't pose any specific limitations. "It's all up to the creatives to make it interesting," he says. "I think there'll be some great stuff, just because there are so many possibilities."
"It's really about what games does [Kinect] enhance," he says. "What's going on is the hardware guys really support that hardware, and want teams that are going to support that hardware financially. I've seen some fantastic Kinect and Move stuff, and some that makes the experience worse. The hardware's fantastic, but you have to use it in the best ways, not just put it in there."
"You're not going to see us just stuffing it into games no matter how much we would like a lot of that support," he adds. "But you will see us doing some interesting things over the next year or two."
If Kinect is the innovation that Microsoft most wants at the forefront, Sony seems to have placed a corresponding level of investment in 3D. On that front, Bilson says, "3D is not that difficult; it's not a massive investment. You're not redesigning the game, you're doing some rendering changes, some hardware budgeting. If you have 3D and enjoy it, it's relatively easy for us to make a great 3D experience."
"If people adopt it, great -- there's not a lot of risk involved for us," he adds. "It's gotta be right for the game, but I believe most TVs are moving to 3D for an option. I enjoy it for the right things. Is it essential? No, it's just an enhancement."
THQ's core lineup is probably as large as EA's, Bilson reflects. And there's no escaping it: games that can play in that space are high in cost, both financially and in terms of talent and time investments. "It's really a blockbuster business, and we have to focus on continuing to grow in that space, improving our processes, our talent and our investments, and that's what we're doing."
One way publishers often view efficiency improvement is by headcount reductions or studio consolidations and closures. Not long after we spoke to Bilson, the company revealed two studio closures: that of Kaos in New York, which would relocate the Homefront brand to Montreal, and of its Warwick studio. Although Bilson spoke to us about his desire to grow THQ's business, his view on growth strategy doesn't necessarily equate to size.
"I've never believed in acquisitions," he says. "I've always believed in acquiring talent, not studios -- usually when a studio is acquired, some of the top talent jumps. It's just like the film business: It's about building quality relationships with talent and supporting their vision. Our marketers don't tell our guys what to make; none of that nonsense goes on here."
"We all work as a team to follow the inspiration of the creative leader," he adds. "I think that's the best part about us, and that's our hope for the future."