In 2007, shares in publisher THQ were going for over $US30 a piece. Today, in 2012, they’re going for around $US0.70. Studios are rumoured to be on the chopping block. Over 200 employees are being let go. And the company’s boss has taken a 50 per cent pay cut.
How’d it all go so wrong?
Easy. THQ has been one of the most poorly managed publishers in recent memory. What was once a troubled second-tier publisher (in 2008 it closed five studios and sold a few more off) got it in its head a few years ago that it wanted/needed to compete with the big boys, the EAs and Activisions of the world, and figured the best way to do that would be to spend money. A lot of money. Blockbuster money, the kind of money it couldn’t back up with blockbuster games.
So, naturally, things went wrong.
Things like this:
Blood Sports. THQ has a lot of money tied up in the licensing and development of games based on professional wrestling and UFC mixed martial arts. So much so that the licenses for both the WWE and UFC cost almost as much (with the UFC deal’s dollar terms unknown, maybe more) than THQ is currently worth.The former games are… OK, the latter pretty damn good. But they’ve over-invested in a market that’s always going to be a niche one, meaning the chances to make a ton of money, ala EA Sports, were always slim.
No Kids Allowed. THQ were once masters of the licensed kids games, thanks to their deal with Disney. And THQ used to make a lot of money from kids games. THQ doesn’t make Disney games any more, though, and in fact doesn’t make kids games at all, having closed down its last remaining family developers last year. It’s a black hole in the company’s finances it’s been unable to fill.
Red Faction. A few years ago, THQ brought back the Red Faction franchise with Guerilla, an open world game with a robust physics engine. It had its problems, but it sold well, reviewed well and had a lot of promise for a sequel. That sequel, Armageddon, proceeded to improve nothing, and indeed in many ways removed the best bits of Guerilla. It was so poorly received that it contributed to the premature shelving of the entire franchise, only a couple of years after it had seemed on the cusp of bigger things.
Red Faction, Part Deux. Oh, but it wasn’t just the games world where THQ blew it with Red Faction. It also thought it would be a good idea to make a TV show about it. Not one based on the awesome Guerilla, though. It made one based on the awful Armageddon. The show was equally awful, which is why you probably never saw it, or had even remembered it existed until now. Sorry. Way to blow a franchise’s chances at multimedia cross-over, THQ!
Homefront. A disaster. THQ marketed this game as a serious contender to the military shooters coming out of Activision and EA. The thing is, Activision’s shooters are made by Infinity Ward and Treyarch. EA’s are made by studios like DICE. THQ’s shooter was made by…the guys behind Frontlines, a pretty average… strategy game. Homefront did a few neat things, especially in multiplayer, but it was a short, linear, boring and occasionally stupid/insulting game. The gulf between the amount of marketing behind the game and its eventual quality perhaps best sums up THQ’s problems of late; namely, you can’t just throw money at bad games and hope that’ll make them better.
uDraw. A bizarre, and if accounts are to be believed, devastating business decision. Nobody ever asked for a tablet drawing device on modern consoles. And nobody ever bought one. The fact this thing even made it off the drawing board, let alone got to the stage where it was costing millions of dollars, is baffling.
Warhammer. Another example of THQ not really understanding a licence, or its market potential. Warhammer 40K is a storied franchise, one that’s very popular in Europe, but it’s not so big in the US, limiting its global appeal. To have stuck Relic — one of the world’s premier developers — on the licence for so long is like grinding metal. The Dawn of War games, and even the latest Space Marine title, were always going to hit a glass ceiling because of that licence.
Because of these and other missteps, the recent history of THQ reads like a stab victim slowly bleeding to death. Since recording massive earnings in 2006-07 on the back of licensed kids games, THQ has closed five internal studios (2008), sold another (Big Huge Games, 2009), sacked developers in both the US and UK (2010), cancelled an online WWE game and closed its Korean outpost (2010), sold its mobile business (2011), closed two more studios (Homefront developers Kaos and THQ Warrington), killed the Red Faction franchise (2011), closing two more internal studios (Blue Tongue and THQ Australia, 2011) and killed its MX vs ATV franchise (2011). This year, its sacked 240 employees and been threatened with expulsion from the Nasdaq stock exchange, and also faced accusations it cancelled its entire 2014 lineup, along with the cancellation of the long-in-development Warhammer 40K MMO.
So, what’s the problem? Why all the closures? It keeps coming back to the argument that it’s all management’s fault. Many of the studios above made good games that sold pretty well! Yet there’s a delusion on the part of THQ, and you see it everywhere from its marketing spend to the size of its booths at trade shows to the licenses it spends millions on, that its games are awesome, and that they sell millions. Which they don’t.
In other words, THQ’s management is writing cheques its games can’t cash.
On the bright side, it’s not all doom and gloom for the company. Saints Row the Third was well-received last year. Relic’s games continue to be excellent, even if they’re not selling as well as they could be. The hiring of Prince of Persia and Assassin’s Creed mastermind Patrice Desilets was a coup (though, again, giving him his own giant studio must have cost a mint), as was inking a deal with iconic developer Tomonobu Itagaki to develop his action title Devil’s Third. And getting a developer with a proven track record in first-person games, Crytek, to develop a Homefront sequel was the kind of idea THQ needed to have for the first game.
But is that stuff too little? Or, in the case of Desilets and Devil’s Third, too late? You could argue that we should all hope it isn’t, but then, with the way THQ has been managed (and the way it’s been wasting money) in recent years you could also say it might be better for developers like Relic, Volition and Desilet’s new Canadian team to be working under someone else’s banners.