R.I.P.THQ (1989 – 2013)

 
 

With THQ filing for bankruptcy, Niall Gosker looks at the ramifications of the demise of one of the gaming industry’s major publishers

 

It came as no surprise when THQ rang in the New Year with the announcement that they were to auction off their intellectual properties (and the associated developers in certain cases) in an effort to save some financial face and appease creditors. This situation is unprecedented; certainly Midway’s demise in 2009 bears many similarities although Warner Brothers bought the vast majority of assets in one single swoop rather than the piecemeal offering here. And while Midway were quite obviously on their way out, THQ managed to remain relevant despite their financial difficulties, owning some of the biggest franchises in gaming.

Last year was a tumultuous one for the former developing and publishing giant, to say the least. The company had been in rough shape for some time already after a series of underperforming releases but it was the commercial disaster of their tablet based gamble ‘uDraw’ that ultimately proved to be the most fatal blow, sending them into a downward spiral which proved too difficult to recover from. By February of 2012, the uDraw GameTablet had been discontinued, just three months after its original release. Come March, THQ reported a net loss of $239.9M. Just a few months later, they made the rather questionable decision to turn over the UFC license to EA. Towards the end of last year bankruptcy was formally announced and so to the highest bidder went THQ’s remaining assets.

Saint’s Row is perhaps the most interesting of all the IPs in question, mainly because of its journey to stardom over the course of the generation and the hopeful position it now remains in following the release of the last game in the series. The initial entry in the franchise back in 2006 however, was met with an unenthusiastic shrug from most. It was viewed as little more than a poor imitator of Grand Theft Auto and as a mere stopgap before the arrival of the true next generational leap in open world urban crime simulators. The sequel seemed almost like a direct response to the deathly serious tone of GTA IV, opting instead for over the top insanity with a personality of its own, in stark contrast to the blandness of the original.

Saint’s Row: The Third was the breakthrough, a wise evolution of the previous game’s genetics, in a way that finally saw the series find its own identity and sit comfortably with it. It was received well both critically and amongst the many new fans it attracted (it nearly beat out Skyrim for Giant Bomb’s Game of the Year 2011). Taking this into account, Volition, Inc. are appealing, making their acquisition by Koch Media for $22.3M a justified move. Koch Media’s games division, Deep Silver, have only really started to make a name for themselves following the release of 2011’s Dead Island. As a company wanting to build upon a foundation of quality they have only recently been able to lay, Volition, Inc. seems like an ideal fit. Saint’s Row should be in safe hands.

Sega managed to bag Relic Entertainment in what turned out to be most pricey acquisition of the auction at $26.6M. While no doubt a talented bunch, one has to wonder whether such a gargantuan upfront sum will actually reap any rewards; their flagship franchise, Company of Heroes is a rather unique proposition for modern publishers. Not only it is a deep strategy game, which haven’t traditionally lit up the charts, but it is also a PC exclusive, something which is becoming an increasing rarity. It is possible that Relic’s involvement with the Warhammer 40,000 licence led to an increased perception of value. Sega may not be on the cutting edge of development like they used to be but they have over the past couple of years managed to create a reputation for themselves as solid publishers. Such good relations will likely continue as Sega and Relic Entertainment look forward to the future.

The promising South Park: The Stick of Truth remains locked in a legal dispute between THQ and South Park Digital Studios. Despite this, the sale of the publishing contract did go ahead at the auction, with Ubisoft emerging as victors with the sole $3.2M bid. Hopefully the game won’t fall into a terrible legal hell and will meet its planned Q1 release. On a more curious note, Ubisoft also walked away with THQ Montreal, a relatively new studio founded in 2010, who had been working on one or more unannounced projects. Whether these projects will continue to be developed or swept aside for something completely new is currently unclear.

The future of the WWE license, at the time of the writing, is still up in the air. It wasn’t part of the auction; initial rumours had suggested that EA may have secured it weeks prior but sources now point towards Take-Two. For a series desperately needing innovative and a new approach, anyone else getting to take a crack at it is a welcome idea.

Vigil Games, the folks behind Darksiders were left out in the cold and failed to attract a buyer. This isn’t particularly surprising given the underwhelming sales performance of Darksiders II. And finally, Crytek purchased Homefront…for some reason. Unsurprisingly, it was the cheapest of the lot, going for only half a million dollars.

Ultimately, is this shake-up and scattering of brands for better or for worse? It’s certainly always unpleasant to see hard working and talented individuals jobless, as many now are as a result of THQ’s dissolution. But there is there is reason for optimism too; such drastic changes in management will afford developers new opportunities and a chance to rethink their strategies, hopefully resulting in a creative flourishing. With the next generation just around the corner, this comes at a very apt time indeed.

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