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In-Depth: THQ's Bilson Talks Big AAA Goals For New Montreal Studio

In-Depth: THQ's Bilson Talks Big AAA Goals For New Montreal Studio Exclusive

October 19, 2010 | By Brandon Sheffield




With its new Montreal studio, THQ is aiming high: THQ Montreal plans to hire some 400 developers across all disciplines over the next five years. 30 staffers are already employed there, general manager David Gatchel told audiences at an on-site press conference attended by Gamasutra.

Former Assassin's Creed franchise and Prince of Persia: Sands of Time creative director Patrice Desilets is the highest-profile member announced from the new team, which Gatchel says will add "about 100 people per year over the next several years."

THQ considers its new venture the head of the spear in its attempt to take over the core gamer market - executive vice president of core games Danny Bilson called the move the "next step in the transformation of THQ into a world-class game maker."

"We are a global company, and here we are expanding ourselves north to eastern Canada," he said, noting that the company already has Relic in Vancouver and studios in the UK. "Without the help of the province here, and the government, and the incentives, we wouldn't have been able to do this to this extent."

Those incentives, specifically, include 37.5 cents on the dollar being paid by the government of Quebec, which THQ says will ultimately result in the company bringing $150 million into the area inside of that 5-year scenario.

Incentives are vital to the success of the company, he said, stating that in the current climate, "you can't just make money by making games."

Montreal has quickly become a hub of major game development due to its impressive government incentives, with the region now housing thousands of game developers, with major studios from Ubisoft, Eidos, EA, and others.

An Environment Of Creativity

Beyond the facility, the company's hoping to tap the hub of media talent for which the Montreal area is known. According to Bilson, the aim is to develop IP based on creative vision, not solely on a product-and-market approach. "We merged marketing and product development into one group," he explained. "Within that team, we were able to format a strategy of creative first, which means that our games aren't based on research; they're not based on asking 15,000 teenagers what they want to play, they're based on an artist's inspiration."

"We don't really do a portfolio, per se," he said. "We really greenlight based on originality -- what do we believe is the best gaming experience we can possibly spend our money in. If I have three shooters that are going to be rated 90-plus, I'll take all of them."

THQ's "Core Games" group is separate from its Casual and Online groups, which each act as individual business units -- Bilson is executive VP of the Core group. "There are great strides being made in other parts of the business," he said, citing the burgeoning casual, social, and online spaces. "I won't say that's what this studio is about. It's about AAA experiences," he added.

THQ Montreal will be "an original game studio, the largest in THQ," focusing on new IP with trans-media potential, the likes of Homefront, which has a novel coming out from Random House in January.

"I always feel that when we're asking somebody to spend our hard-earned $60, we have to give them the greatest and deepest experiences," he said, noting that when he started in the entertainment business 20 years ago, "video games sold because they were video games."

Nowadays though, "only the highest-quality blockbuster games will succeed in the marketplace," he says. "With gamers who are not just 12 who play games, we're looking for new innovative experiences and fresh places to go," he added.

The Core Experience

Bilson noted that the only people greenlighting titles from creators like Desilets are the executives at THQ. While this may seem unusual, Bilson explains why he feels it works: "I'm a big believer in 'do what pleases you, and if it doesn't please the public, get out of the game business,'" he said, specifically discussing Homefront. "If we're wrong, we won't be here that long! But I don't think we're wrong."

Regarding Homefront, which is not being made in Montreal, but was adjoined to the announcement nonetheless with the premiere of a trailer for its single-player campaign, Bilson noted that it's "speculative fiction," speaking to the point that some may find the premise implausible. He noted that North Korea has been making more aggressive moves lately, joking that "We really appreciate the regime in North Korea for supporting the game the way they have."

The game is a very core-oriented multiplayer experience, with a more focused single player campaign of about 6-7 hours. "To get to the things we used to have - the 20 hour single player experience, you'd either have to sacrifice depth for the multiplayer, or have 5 years and an unlimited budget," he said, adding that he hopes the game will support "over 100 hours of multiplayer."

Bilson ultimately wants to make the Montreal facility one that supports creation, talking about how many developers he's seen kill themselves with work over games they knew were sub-par. The strategy is to first hire top tier talent like Desilets, and to attract other high-level developers. Then the company will also hire recent graduates.

"They come in at the lowest levels, get trained up, and they're our future," he said. Of the studio as a whole, he posed that "If we give them the ability to make great games, they're going to. And that's our job."


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